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

Tag: story structure (Page 1 of 2)

Writing from the heart

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This advice comes under the admonition of “write what you know”. Some of the best and worst advice aspiring writers ever receive.

When you are told to “write what you know” it is always difficult to discern what exactly that means.

Perhaps you need to engage the reader with more emphasis on relating your personal experience with emotional issues. Sadness, joy, anger, revulsion. Any of these emotions are felt in the core and should be transferable to the page.

For Example: anger,

Jolie’s shoulders tensed, apprehension ripping through her. Her clenched hands dropped to her sides, the fists so tight her nails in the palms almost drew blood. Why didn’t people listen to her?

Can you see it in your mind’s eye how angry she is? Have you ever been there? Standing in front of someone you disagree with, and who is not listening to your input, and your anger takes on this physical aspect?

Or how about revulsion, ending in physical pain

Her fingers, twisted and arthritic, removed the cloth from the box. Mesmerized, the memory fleeting beyond her grasp, she pulled the drawer open at the base of the cabinet and memory flooded her like a landslide.

She groaned.

The horrific cold of a thousand dead hands assaulted her, astounding her, stealing her breath. For a moment, she thought she simply forgot to breathe. Then the pain exploded in her chest. A hundred blades of precision surgical steel knifing into her heart and radiating out to her shoulder and jaw. She struggled to take in air. Clutching, reaching for her son, she toppled the tea-table.

I’ll bet you have. I’m going to go out on a limb and bet you know exactly what the author means, when they write she was angry. That’s telling, and when the author shows you the characters physical reaction to something that happens “on stage” in the story, that’s writing what you know.

Translating your emotion into words on the page, sadness, desire, longing, and any other emotions we are all privy to, is the essence of writing what you know.

Where does your story start?

There’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

I know many authors in various stages of their careers, and not a single one willing to say, “I know exactly where my story begins.”

Once in a rare while we know where to start the story, but not often, and certainly, not always.

As writers we have so many things to agonize over, such as “who does the story belong to?”, and “who will be the primary character?”

We need to decide so many things when we start a new story that we often overlook the obvious when we decide who will tell the story. For Romance writers, we know the story must be told by both sides, the “he said, she said” that keeps romance readers coming back. They love (no pun intended) a gripping story and so of course, they want to know why she behaved that way, and what he thought about it, and why he put the time and energy into winning her back. Did she make it worth his time?

If you have an audience that comes back again and again, you know you’re probably telling the story correctly. But how much do you agonize over the very beginning of the story? How do you decide when you’re just starting out who the story belongs to and how it should be told.

A general rule of thumb is when things change, the story begins. Always a good place to start. Change brings conflict. Conflict and its resolution or lack thereof, is often what keeps readers reading. But, unless we can identify and sympathize with the primary character, then you, as the reader are not likely to buy in for the long haul. And believe me, 400 pages is the long haul.

You must create and open with a character we love, or at least can identify with for the duration of the story. This simple direction is indeed a tall order.
How do I make you love my character? Or at the very least, how do I get you to accept him for who he is, like you but not like you, and still make him interesting.

In a word, backstory.

All of the things I, as the writer know, about the character, who he or she is, how they came to be in the moment fraught with conflict and change, and I must make you care about him and want to know why that happened.

You can love him or hate him, but he must arouse your curiosity, make you ask why? and also wonder, what happened next?

If you fail to incite this interest, you haven’t found the the right character, or the true beginning of your story.

How does that sound?

More on naming your characters.

The sound of a name says it all. For the strong, alpha, bad boy, totally masculine character you will probably want a name that sounds sharp, short and strong. Names that garner attention.

Bad boys, particularly villains, who deserve as much attention as heroes, have specific name needs.No villain should be Snidely Whiplash. Too routine, too ordinary, too boring. In fact, you might say “cookie cutter”.

The real bad boys in fiction, whether leading men, alpha heroes, or second fiddles have sharp, snappy, memorable names. Especially the anti-hero. Names that sound sharp, snappy or have sizzle built-in.

Count Dracula, the primary bad boy of fiction has a sharp sounding name. Count–with the k sound for an opener–followed by Dracula–another definitely sharp sound. The D defines and the k is repeated in Drac, brings in another sharp k. Hard edges are defined by the name. You know instinctively this guys going to be a problem.

Sometimes the sound is suspicious. Le Stat, another vampire of literary fame. The s sound is slithery, and sneaking. This character is not at all what he seems. Tah Dah! He is conflicted. Suspicious. This character is unpredictable, no one can say exactly what will happen with him next.

Long after the story ends, writers are remembered for their compelling characters. Often the properly named character is remembered once story specific are long forgotten. So make sure you ask yourself, “what’s in his name?” before you name the character.

This is one place where the use of subtext is not acceptable and encouraged.

 

About Writer’s Block

  “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”

― Shirley Chisholm

Writers write. Ask any writer. If they could stop writing, they probably would stop writing. For the rest of us, we write to still the voices in our heads. We write to get our stories out into the world.We write, publish, and repeat the process. Endlessly.

If you ask me about that thing known as “writers block”, I’ll tell you it doesn’t exist. I can pretty much prove it. No other profession allows its practitioners to claim that no work can be accomplished today, tomorrow, this week, next week, or anytime in the near future, because they are suffering from a “block”.

Plumbers block? No. Dentist Block? No. Nurses Block? No. Accounting Block? No.

Trust me, if you are a writer and you’re not writing it’s because you choose not to write.

But wait, you say. I really do have writers block. What can I do? The answer is simple. It’s a choice you make, either a form of procrastination to avoid criticism, rejection, or some other form of negativity. So, you ask, how can I fix that? Start writing. Yes, that’s right. Make a plan and stick with it. Just start writing.

Writing when you have fear is difficult. Fears need to be faced in order for you to overcome them. So of course, the answer is simple. Start  writing.

Having difficulty with your story? Keep writing. Many writers know, you can not fix a blank page, so fill the page, then worry about fixing it later. Nobody–or let me say rarely–does anyone love a first draft. Usually it takes a lot of work, self editing, story restructuring, critiquing, and professional editing to get a story into decent shape.

Did I mention the upside of continuing to write in the face of adversity (i.e, laziness, fear, procrastination, martyrdom, or anything else that prevents you from writing)is you will find your true voice and your writing will improve if you just keep writing.

Write What You Know

  “Both desire and imagination are stored in the mind of the individual and when stretched, both have the potential to position a person for greatness.”

― Eric Thomas

Storytellers who write what they know…what they have experienced, what they have observed in others, what they have lived through, and what they deal with on an ongoing basis are the people who write what they know.

You can tell as soon as you start reading, you’re engaged in the story. This person is someone who writes from their soul. Their grammar and punctuation need not be perfect, but still,  you get them. More importantly, they get you.

When, as writers we reach down to the core of who we truly are, we find the truth of our existence. What we call our core story. No matter how many ways we find to tell our story, successful writers never search for a theme. They know their core story and they are successful because they tell it over and over again.

So, how do we recognize our core story? We know it, instinctively from our formative years. Think about it. When you first became interested in story. As children, we all had our favorites. Stories, that is. We had one thing we couldn’t get enough of, a book or story or a type of story we would read over and over again and again.

For many mystery writers it was Nancy Drew, or the Hardy Boys. For me, it was Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. For writers who pursue adventure stories it was usually something like, Robin Hood. Our taste in reading is often a hint to our preference in writing–the type of story that we know and love to tell, over and over again.

Truth or Power?

  “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

So all the rules you can’t seem to help breaking today which will land you in plenty of hot water maybe perfectly acceptable tomorrow.  Just go with it. Things change. If you can wait around long enough.

When we begin our trip down the path to published author, we first need to learn the rules. Excellent advice. I cannot stress how important it is the know the rules before you break them. Only then can you justify the unique twist applied to individual voice.

My best advice is to go ahead and write through to the end. The end of the first (rough) draft.

Then, when the first draft is complete your real work begins. What do I mean by real work? Well, for starters, editing. What kind of editing you ask? Good question. Editing in and of itself, can be considered an art form.

There is Developmental editing. This editing looks at the overall story. How did you structure the story you wrote? Is it logical? Does it follow a linear timeline? Does it make sense? Does it have all the components of a good story, in a logical fashion which will most likely cause your readers to pick up your book, and keep reading through to the conclusion.

Developmental editing is very expensive, and it is not the kind of editing you can do for yourself. Often we ask critique partners to assist us with line editing, and Beta reads. Not your best choice. As far as critique partners go, they make great critique partners or we wouldn’t keep them as critique partners. Most writers–especially those who take themselves seriously–have beta readers lined up. Those are folks who 1) like to read, 2) will be honest about the material they read, 3)have some idea of what makes a good story. At least look for Beta readers who have a clue about what makes a story good and what make it fail story-wise.

Line editing is exactly as it reads. An editor, who you pay, or your publisher pays, goes through your manuscript line by line looking for typos, grammar errors, (such as their for they are, or where for wear, etc.)and other inconsistencies. A character who is short  in chapter one who towers over others in chapter three, or might have blue eyes for several chapters which mysteriously change to green eyes in the end of the book.

Copy editing is done by the truly anal retentive. A copy editor’s job is to make sure you adhere to the house style designated by your publisher. Check submission guidelines. Submission guidelines as laid out by the publisher, will commonly indicate “house style”. Often the Chicago Manual of Style is indicated as the standard. The copy editor is the one who will help you to “tighten” your story. They help you to remove the unnecessary words, those which drag your manuscript down, making it harder to read, or slower to read.

Acquisitions editor is the employee of the traditional publisher who sees your project (book) through to completion. They buy your book. Which means, they sold your book to the sales team and the editorial board,but that’s a story for another time, another blog.

That’s about it for now, unless you plan to use and editor for SEO. For those of you scratching your heads, Search Engine Optimization. Because, when someone goes looking for your book, you need to help them find it.

Secondary Characters

How important are secondary characters?

Very Important. Think for just a minute how you might see The Harry Potter series without Neville Longbottom. Or perhaps Pride and Prejudiced with Jane Bennett.

Not so interesting, huh?

Important to remember the names for secondary characters. They should not be similar to the hero or the heroines name. The first names of these character should never start with the same letters. Names that sound similar or start with the same letter can be confusing to your reader. You don’t want the reader to confuse Crissy the servant with Sissy the villain. That would not be good. Remember, sound alike–Katy, Kathy, Cody–can confuse as well.

Where some writers will provide a full interview to get to know their primary characters, it isn’t always necessary for secondary characters. Does that mean they are less important? Less well-developed? No.

While they may not require the same depth of development, secondary charterers require the same amount of attention to the in development. Supporting characters who are well-developed are those who provide the proper support for your hero and heroine. Their development provides depth for the story and layers of interest to your novel.

Secondary characters provide a unique perspective through which the main characters can be viewed. What they see, hear,  and think about your hero or heroine and the behavior gives additional insight to the main character.

Characters, like people, are often judged by the company they keep. If you wish to define a characters moral core, the companions they choose are a good gauge of moral compass.

Sometimes the secondary character allows us as readers to compare and contrast the desirable qualities between heroes and secondary characters.

Secondary characters can contribute to a story by the use of valuable dialogue. They will know–and so will your editor–which questions should be asked and which subjects the hero wishes to avoid, but shouldn’t. They hep to increase the conflict by introducing the taboo subject, and sometimes outrageous behavior.

Secondary characters are not held to the same high standards which we impose on our heroes. They do not benefit when they advance to primary status in follow-up stories. And be assured, romance readers love to see the secondary characters follow-up with their own story.

 

 

How About Characters who are Villains?

We spend a lot of time writing and rewriting the hero.  After all, everyone expects him to be perfect. Especially if you’re writing Romance.

Romance readers are a finicky group. They’ve earned the right to be by their support of the fiction market. Many genres include romance, i.e, romantic suspense, historical romance, paranormal romance, contemporary romance…you get the drift. The largest percentage of the fiction market is some type of romance.

But, regardless of what specific genre you write, you sooner or later have to write a villain to oppose your hero.Remember our discussion about conflict?..how it powers your story?… how it makes every story more interesting? Well, the well written villain is the way to go.

Villains are the heroes of their own stories.Their behavior–same as the hero–defines who they are for your story purposes. Your villain will be ruthless, calculating,merciless, and a natural leader. If he’s not a natural leader, who will follow him? So maybe he’s charismatic, too.

There are different shades of evil,the same way there are different types of heroes. His motives, match his traits, and are reflected in his actions. You must show your reader who he is. In order to depict a villain who is not merely melodramatic, you will be required to explore his nature and therefore the evil of his nature and the evils’ origin. We are, after all not born good or bad, but develop into who we are by our life experience.

Be even more careful with the villains backstory. There is no need to dump it onto the page, or into your story. Save it for the perfect moment, the revelation of who the villains truly is and why he wants what he’s striving 300+ pages to accomplish.

The evil nature of a villain has many components. Greed, corruption, domination, deviancy, these traits represent the shadow side of human nature. In other words, these traits are the things we would like to be–just once, or possibly on occasion, in our everyday lives. Tell the truth, sometimes don’t you desire revenge rather than justice? Especially when the hurt is fresh, or when we are angry with others. The wicked character, our villains, act on the desires we deny.

What’s in a Name?

New parents spend time and energy choosing the perfect name for tier offspring. Some writers spend a few hours choosing a character name, and rightfully so. This is a declension which can mean the difference between success and failure for your character, or maybe even your book.

You can choose a name that molds the characters personality, or reflects it, or based on physical traits. Old fashioned names in the modern age can and often do, reflect core strength, and character.  A name can instantly identify a characters ethnicity.

But every name has a meaning.

Consult the baby name books, online resources and even period reflective naming resources, if you happen to write historical or period set fiction. Using a name by its meaning to build your characters personality is an option, or naming him or her in contradiction to strengths is also an opportunity for additional conflict. Nicknames can also tell us quite a bit about a character, his background and his or her intentions.

I’ll cite the perfect contradiction, courtesy of Joss Whedon, the master of character development–a demon named Angel. ‘Nuf said. Conflict on a stick and arm candy to boot.

If you have the wicked twist of mind shared by some writers, you can even give a character the same name as a high-profile public figure, and let them endlessly try to explain, distance, or differentiate themselves. We all believe we’re individuals, right?

But when you sit down to create character, you can have fun with the name. Always remembers who is in charge. You create them and they are what your story needs. They are who you need them to be, in order to keep your readers engaged, and also dependent on what the plot you create requires.

Not only must you decide who they are, you must show us how they behave in terms of story. If you want us to believe your character is a workaholic, who consistently breaks promises to family and friends by choosing his his career over family commitments, then show us how he blows off those commitments, staying to work late when he should be home with his wife, tucking his baby into bed.

There are numerous volumes which will give you a step up in terms of starting to develop your characters. Remember every good trait has a downside, just like every blessing can also be a curse. Using an established method to define character is easily achieved by looking up Linda Goodman’s  Astrological signs, which will tell you the superficial positive traits and the negative traits, as well. It is a good place to start but you must always build your own unique characters.

Don’t use all the information right up front. Remember the 80-20 rule. You do not need to see the entire iceberg to know there’s trouble ahead. Naming a character can give a hint to potential backstory, and sometimes even make it more interesting.

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.

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