Feb 28, 2011

Drive your Story Forward

One way to identify your turning points is to watch the story for place where a new question is opened for the characters. They may answer one question, only to find themselves facing a new one. They may resolve one conflict, onto to find that the resolution uncovers a new challenge.

The purpose of the turning point is to drive the story forward, so make sure you let it do its job. The turning point should leave both reader and character wondering what will happen now.

There are some “givens” when we write genre fiction. The readers of a romance novel know the characters will get together in the end before they read the first word of your book. The readers of a mystery know that the murder will be solved and the sleuth will live to sleuth another day. The readers of a western know that justice will prevail. There’s very little question in genre fiction about what is going to happen in the end. That makes how they get there extremely important ...

And “How” translates into turning points.

How are you going to keep the characters apart believably for 300 pages? How are you going to get them past the conflicts that keep them apart at the end of the book? How are you going to keep the reader from guessing who did it—or why they did it—in your mystery novel?

Pacing is also determined by deciding what to include and what to leave out.

Readers are generally interested in the first time anything happens in your book. The first meeting between hero and heroine, their first real conversation, the first time they share their secrets, their first kiss, the first time they make love, the first time they admit their love for one another.

Readers are generally not interested in reading endless repeats of those conversations, kisses, and lovemaking sessions unless they’re also getting new important information with each repetition. When you look at scenes and decide whether or not to include them, consider how much new information you’ll be revealing to the reader. If you’re not giving them enough new information, seriously think about leaving the scene out and summarizing the action at the beginning of the next important scene.

What kind of new information are we talking about? We’re talking about new pieces to the puzzle. A substantial piece of character development. A new secret previously unknown to the reader.

For instance, if you reveal the heroine’s entire past to the reader in chapter one, or let the heroine reveal it to her best friend in chapter two, when she reveals her past to the hero in chapter four, the whole chapter is probably going to feel redundant and slow to the reader. Your pacing will suffer.

If, however, you let the heroine and her best friend discuss her past in general terms in chapter two, build suspense by alluding to her past in chapter four and again in chapter six, by the time the heroine tells the hero everything in chapter eight, the reader will probably be eager to learn all the details.

Sometimes this works best if you decide where you want to reveal the Big Secret, and then work the other details in from there—sort of backward plotting. Whether you calculate it on paper or just think it through in your head, working backward can be a valuable tool for pacing.

Remember also that your characters will have specific goals for each section of your book (the chapters or pages that fall between turning points.) If, for example, your character begins the book with a goal to shut down the horse trainer’s business at the end of his lane, then his specific scene goals will reflect that goal until the first major turning point.

At the first major turning point, the story must dramatically change directions. So perhaps the character learns that the woman who owns the horse training business is a single mother who is struggling to support her children. Now, he feels like a complete jerk. How can he put her and her children on the streets?

His new goal might be to convince her to move back to Cincinnati, near her parents. This would be a win-win situation for him, right? So his specific scene goals for the next section of the book will support his new goal . . . at least until the next turning point when he learns that the heroine has a very good reason for not going back to Cincinnati.

Planning strong turning points which make the story shift direction makes it possible to have strong scene goals. Strong scene goals make for strong disasters. Your scenes begin to have purpose, and your story begins to move at a page-turning rate.

Dancing on Coals Online Workshops

Feb 24, 2011

Keep up the Pace

What is pacing? In the language of storytelling, pacing is the rate at which your story is told. Pacing determines whether your book will be a long, luxurious read or a quick one. Whether it’s a page-turner people say they can’t put down, or whether it’s a book they’ll read slowly and leisurely.

That’s the easy description, but just knowing that isn’t enough for most of us. Just what is the right pacing for our book, and how do we control it?

Of course, we need to be familiar with the type of book we’re writing in order to understand the best pacing for that particular story. Readers of action-adventure books don’t want to be slowed up by paragraphs filled with introspection and description, while readers of most romance novels—even the new breed of romances such as romantic suspense and romantic adventure—expect a certain amount of introspection and description. But those hybrid romances are still better when the pacing is faster than in a traditional romance. Cozy mystery novels fall somewhere in between the two. Mysteries considered hardboiled lean more toward the action/adventure genre.

A writer who doesn’t have a clear feel for the pacing of her genre will not only do herself a disservice, but quite possibly set herself up for failure.

There are many tools we can employ to control the pacing of the fiction we write, whether we’re talking about the pacing of the book as a whole, the pacing of a page, a paragraph, or a sentence. It’s not enough to worry about the pacing of the book. The pacing of the individual scenes, the page, and the paragraph are equally important.

But let’s start with the big picture and then move in for the close-up.

One of the big ways we control the pacing of our books is through the skillful use of turning points. What are turning points? They’re places where the story takes a dramatic and unexpected turn in another direction. When the story literally turns the corner.

From Point A to Point B, your hero may be annoyed by the heroine. At Point B, he is no longer annoyed. He turns the corner. His feelings change, and the story changes with it. From Point A to Point B, our spy hero believes that foreign arms dealers are responsible for the explosion outside the embassy, but at the turning point, he learns something that rules out the arms dealer as a suspect. It’s back to the drawing board for our protagonist, and the story changes as a result.

As a general rule, the more frequently turning points appear, the more rapidly paced your story is.

Notable turning points in a romance novel often include a first kiss. But if your characters are immediately sexually attracted, a first kiss, or even the first time the characters make love, may not be a turning point at all. Remember, turning points are those places where your story changes direction. If the story has been moving one direction because of an instant attraction and the characters move toward a logically anticipated step—such as that first kiss—the story hasn’t changed at all.

Think of turning points as those places that reviewers and readers often refer to as twists and turns. They’re the things that will hopefully keep the reader off-balance and keep her reading to find out what happens. If your story follows a predictable path—characters meet, characters are attracted, characters kiss, characters grow closer, one character discover the other’s hidden secret—and so on, the reader has no real reason to keep reading.

Turning points should bring surprises not just for the characters, but for the readers. Revealing a secret to the Hero that the Heroine has shared with the reader already isn’t really going to be a turning point in your story because even though the hero doesn’t know what’s coming, the reader does and she’s already anticipating the changes.

By skillfully weaving turning points from your main story with those from your secondary plot(s) you can keep even a long book twisting and turning with enough regularity to keep readers interested.


Dancing on Coals Online Workshops

Feb 21, 2011

Punctuating Dialogue

And finally, a word about punctuation within dialogue. In the past few years I've noticed an increase in punctuation done poorly in many of the manuscripts I've critiqued and judged in contests, and the last thing any of us wants to do is appear uneducated when we submit our manuscripts to editors and agents. Many of you may already know these things; some of you may not, but I promise that we'll run through the punctuation rules quickly.

At least in the US, dialogue is always set apart in a manuscript with the use of double quotation marks -- "

A quote within a quote is set apart with single quotation marks -- ' as in this example:

"She's horrible. Always nagging at me. Telling me what to do. Why just yesterday, she screamed at me. 'You're a worthless little thing.' That's exactly what she said."

If you're surrounding dialogue with action or emotion, always use a period at the end of the dialogue:

"She's horrible. Always nagging at me. Telling me what to do." Paulette brushed a lock of hair away from her eyes and sank into the chair. "Why just yesterday she screamed at me. 'You're a worthless little thing.' That's exactly what she said."

unless you're using a dialogue tag and/or a gerund phrase, in which case you'll use a comma:

"She's horrible," Paulette said, brushing a lock of hair away from her eyes and sinking into the chair. "Always nagging at me. Telling me what to do. Why just yesterday she screamed at me. 'You're a worthless little thing.' That's exactly what she said."

Whenever you use a comma to set off dialogue, you're signaling the reader that you're using some kind of tag to modify the dialogue. A cue as to the tone of voice used to say whatever has been said. If you punctuate the dialogue incorrectly, you'll pull readers out of the moment while they try to follow what you're saying. The more often you do that, the more you weaken your story.

And on the subject of tags, if you must use them--and we all do from time to time--keep a few things in mind.

In spite what seems to be an on-going love affair with the tag "hiss," no one can hiss a sentence without at least one S in it. "You're a creep," she hissed is physically impossible, and because it is, it's irritating to many readers.

If you're going to have someone grind out a few words between clenched teeth, keep it to a few words. It's believable that someone might say, "She's horrible!" from between clenched teeth. But it's very difficult to believe that anyone's teeth could remain clenched for two or three sentences at a time.

Writing something like this:

"Oh, Jonathan. You are by far the kindest, gentlest man I've ever met and I adore you," she laughed.

Is very likely to irritate readers. Try saying that much while laughing the entire time. Unless you're made of something I'm not, you just can't do it without sounding ridiculous or your laughter sounding false. Here again, about the most anyone can do is to laugh while saying a word or two. Maybe three. Far better to write it this way:

"Oh Jonathan." She laughed and touched his hand gently. "You are by far the kindest, gentlest man I've ever met and I adore you."

Don't forget to listen to the rhythm of your dialogue. This is another area where reading dialogue aloud can help you. When it's spoken aloud, it's much easier to hear where you need a contraction, where you should remove a word or two, and where you have too many dialogue tags in a row, or you need to add one.

When you're reading the dialogue, you'll probably find yourself making the changes aloud that should be made to the page. Read it with a pen handy so you can mark what needs to be revised. You'll be amazed by the results.

photo credit: The "Library" via photopin (license)

Feb 17, 2011

Dialogue: When to Show and When to Skip

Make sure that the dialogue has purpose and lends strength to the scene. A well-told story is one that's a good blend of strong dialogue and strong narrative. If you’re not sure how strong your dialogue is, strip away everything but the dialogue, then read it and see how it holds up.

If everything of value---all the strength in the scene---is in words the characters don’t say, it's time to rework your dialogue. You know it's strong when removing a line of dialogue or a sentence of narrative has a negative impact on the scene. If you can remove it and the scene doesn't miss it, then you're probably repeating yourself or you're wasting words and space on things that don't matter, so go ahead and leave it out.

If writing dialogue doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t lose heart. It’s a skill and it can be learned if you’re willing to practice and put forth the effort you need to learn it.

Orson Scott Card says:

“You don't "include dialogue" because dialogue is "good" or "not good." You write scenes because those are the most entertaining or important events, and you use dialogue because what matters is what the people say to each other. If you included meaningless dialogue -- for instance, conversation with a store clerk as your character buys gum, when that conversation leads exactly nowhere and the gum is never even chewed -- then it only makes your readers impatient for you to get on with the story (i.e., the things that are causally connected with the dilemmas they care about).”

As Card says, you write dialogue because what matters is what the people say to each other in the scenes your readers want to experience. Are you writing a scene in which your romance hero and heroine are learning key facts about one another? That dialogue is probably going to be important and should be included.

Is your heroine going to have to divulge a huge secret to the hero at some point in the book? Then don't have her revealing all the details of that secret to her mother, sister, or best friend before you reach that point. Save that important dialogue for when it's really important -- the scene when the hero is going to be forced to either love her anyway or turn his back on her. If the dialogue we read there is nothing more than a repeat of information we already know, your scene is going to lose most of the impact it could have had -- and that will cost you readers.

Be careful as you choose which scenes and conversations to show and which to summarize or skip. If you summarize or skip scenes that the readers really want to see, you end up losing them because you aren't satisfying their desire to see these people in action with each other. Resist the urge to let your romance hero and heroine indulge in countless scenes filled with witty banter. You may believe that you're building sexual tension and keeping your readers on the edge of their seats, but if the readers aren't learning new, vital information during each conversation, even the wittiest dialogue is going to fall flat on its face.

With dialogue, it's a common tendency to avoid the scenes our readers want most to read because we feel unequal to the task of writing it well enough. But there are no easy outs if you want to be successful at this. You must tackle the scenes you want to write the least because those are probably the ones you need to write most.

You must write the dialogue you’re most afraid of because it will probably -- if you persevere -- become the most powerful in your book.

Feb 14, 2011

Dialogue: Get the Author Out of There

In modern fiction, the author should remain invisible. This is one reason why dialogue tags should be avoided whenever possible. There are only two tags that are, in essence, invisible: said and asked. But if they're overused, even those flash out at the reader and disrupt the flow of your work.

The only time you really need to modify “said” or “asked” with an adverb is when the dialogue itself doesn’t contain enough information to convey the proper emotion. If you're writing dialogue that's strong enough and clear enough, the dialogue can do its own work.

Take a look at this example:

"Keep your filthy mouth shut," she said.

With that statement, the author certainly doesn’t need to say, "she said angrily" or "she shouted,” or "she said in disgust." None of those are necessary. On the other hand, you might need to give the reader a little help if you write something like this:

"Keep your filthy mouth shut," she whispered as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

Here you need more because you’re actually contradicting the dialogue with the character's actions.

If the character truly hates someone, and you've done a good job of setting up the moment, then "I hate you!" doesn't need a lot of explanation. "I hate you!" she moaned as she wrapped her legs around his waist, is a completely different story.

When you start adding tags and adjectives where you don't need them, you're actually practicing a form of author intrusion. Author intrusion is one of the deadliest things to fiction since each time you use it, you make it difficult for the reader to forget that you’re there. When you become apparent to the reader, she remembers that she's not actually in the scene, in the moment with the characters. When that happens, you weaken your scenes and weaken reader identification with the characters.

Sadly, the overuse of dialogue tags is something many of us learned in school. Teachers without any real writing skills told us we needed to use the cheap and easy method for conveying emotion. It’s something most of us have to un-teach ourselves to become successful fiction writers.

The problem with excessive use of tags -- “I’m afraid the door is locked,” the heiress said alarmingly -- is that they constantly distract the reader from the story.

Consider this weak example:

“Go away,” she shouted angrily. “You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” She added the last sadly.

Is there anything in that example that pulls you into the moment? Chances are, there isn’t. As the author, I am more visible than either of the characters. The character who is speaking is only mildly visible, and we don't even spare the person she's speaking to a thought.

To add depth, surround the dialogue with emotion. Give it the quality of something else going on.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. “Go away! You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will. I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

Surround it with action -- Draw it out. Give your characters props.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression and added, “I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

This paragraph is doing double and even triple duty now. Even better, the author is no longer visible in that paragraph. Now the reader can focus completely on Nancy (who finally has a name) and the man she's talking to.

Can you do anything else with it to make it any stronger? Depending on where it falls in the story....

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! I should have known better than to trust you. You’re no better than my father was. Well, you made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression and added, “I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

Let the dialogue help to set the surroundings.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! I should have known better than to trust you. You’re no better than my father was. Well, you made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression. When he made no move to leave, she gestured toward the window. “The storm’s getting worse by the minute. If you don’t get out of here now, you’ll never get through the pass and I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

If you find yourself using frequent tags and logs of adjectives, then practice writing without them. Practice finding ways to convey emotion without having to tell the reader what the character is feeling. Your dialogue, and your narrative, will be stronger as a result.

Feb 10, 2011

Dialogue: Doing Double Duty

One of the most powerful things dialogue can be used for in our manuscripts is revealing character. The words a person uses and the way she chooses to phrase them says a lot about her as a person. From just a few lines of dialogue we can learn a lot about the person we're talking to.

If you're writing a character who often says things like "by jingo!" then, by jingo, he needs to think that way too. If he speaks in short clipped sentences, his narrative thoughts shouldn't be long and lyrical. And, of course, the reverse is true, too.

Some of us are able to match dialogue to the character's background quite well, but others miss the mark wildly. If you're writing a character who is supposed to be highly educated and polished, make sure you personally have a broad enough vocabulary to create that character believably. There aren't many things more jarring than being told that a character is a doctor, a scientist, a psychotherapist, or some other highly educated person, but when he opens his mouth, he makes glaring grammatical mistakes in his speech.

If a reader is asked to believe two things that are at odds with each other; e.g., this is a highly educated person who speaks poorly, she will almost always believe what you show her, not what you tell she is shown, not what she is told. If the dialogue is what she is shown, then that which you, the author, have told her is going to feel false. And when the reader suspects that you've lied to her, you lose her -- not just for the one book she's reading, but for future books, as well. You lose your credibility, and that's just about the most precious commodity at your disposal.

Even little words can make or break the image you're trying to create. Never, never have your professional character open his briefcase or look down at the desk at the papers there. Do the research so that you know exactly what those papers are. A doctor might look at charts or medical records, an attorney at a complaint, a brief, a deposition, and so on. But letting a character refer to the documents of his trade as "papers" only reveals that you haven't done your research.

Read the following piece of dialogue and then think for a minute about what it tells you about the character.

“She left me. Two little slips, and she walked out the door. Left me on my own, the bitch. Said she’d had enough. Wants somebody who’ll cherish her--whatever the hell that means.”

What do you know about the speaker? He’s probably male. He cheats on his wife or significant other. He’s fairly obnoxious. Has very little respect for women in general, and certainly isn't a romantic. In fact, from this one tiny piece of dialogue, we come away with some very strong idea about his life views, his opinions about women and fidelity, and we'd probably be right if asked to predict whether or not he's a religious person. This is the power of dialogue.

How about this person:

“Because you wouldn’t do that. I know you wouldn’t. We’ve been together too long. Through too much. I don’t care what she says, George. You wouldn’t have betrayed me.”

Who is this speaker? My bet is that it's a female. She’s optimistic -- or at least pathetically hopeful. She’s trusting. Maybe a little too trusting. Whether or not that optimism and trust is justified remains to be learned. As a reader, your opinion of her will be clouded by your own life experiences. If you've ever been taken advantage of by a man and have kicked yourself ever since for trusting so blindly, you may see something different than the woman who has been happily married to the same man for thirty-five years. Remember that the same is true of your readers.

Dialogue is a powerful tool, but it must be combined with narrative to provide the right direction for your readers. It can also be used to create a sense of place, although it can be a pretty clumsy way to create a sense of place if you're not careful. We really don't want to read:

“Ooooh, cobwebs. Icky. And broken glass in the windows.”

“Gosh, yes, Mary. And be careful of that broken board over by the sagging doorway.”

But we might want to read dialogue that does more than provide an inventory:

“The dirt, the cobwebs, the broken glass...” She shook the web from her fingers and grimaced. “I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” Kindness filled his voice. “That you will see again? Believe me, Fran, you don’t want to see this place.”

Dialogue can help to create a sense of time.

“The dirt, the cobwebs, the broken glass...” She shook the web from her fingers and grimaced. “I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” His voice was kind. “That you will see again? Believe me, Fran, you don’t want to see this place. Besides, it’s pitch black in here since the sun went down. We’re on equal footing now.”

Check every sentence you write, every paragraph, every piece of dialogue to see how many different things you can accomplish with one set of words.

After you finish each scene, take a look at the dialogue and figure out for yourself what you’ve accomplished with it. Have you used it to accomplish at least two of the following?:

provide information

establish conflict

establish character

establish setting

establish the story’s or scene’s time-frame

As a general rule, the more things you can accomplish at once with the dialogue, the more powerful it is.

Feb 3, 2011

To Thine Own Self be True

One common problem I notice frequently when I’m critiquing and judging contests is that the character’s speaking voice doesn’t match his “thinking” voice. 

His thought patterns may make him sound very American and educated -- probably because that’s what you are as the author. Then he opens his mouth to speak and I’m shocked to discover that he’s a street thug from England. Even worse is when the author who struggles with grammar usage tries to write a character who must be well-educated to achieve the level of professional success I'm told he has. So when that neurosurgeon from the Mayo Clinic says something like, "I seen them yesterday," you've lost me. 

Remember that unless you're writing in omniscient point of view, the narrative in your book is nothing more than silent dialogue in the character's point of view. His thinking voice must match his speaking voice. If he's a street thug when he speaks aloud, he's not likely to think in long, complex sentences when he's noticing his surroundings.

He's not going to think about the obviously inexpensive sedan in the driveway, he's going to think of it as Daniel's cheap-a## ride. Inside the house he's not going to notice body odor, he's going to think it smells like s##t.

Likewise, his dialogue must ring true for who he is. A member of the military on deployment in the middle-east isn't likely to say, "Gee whiz, Castor, the computer's gone!" 

I'm not saying that you have to use language that you personally find offensive, but it's often better to skip the expletive completely than to substitute something a person in that situation wouldn't actually say. 

As I've said before, keep in mind the roles the two characters play in each others’ lives. (This is one reason secondary characters are so vitally important to the success of your book.) The Lord of the Manor is unlikely to have a heart-felt conversation about his dead child with a servant, but I can't even begin to count the number of scenes I've read where he does just that. 

To avoid tons of internal angst that might put the reader off, he needs to have the conversation with someone, but make it someone he would actually share the information with -- or motivate his decision to share it with an unlikely person so well that even your harshest critic won't be able to find fault with his decision.

The hard-nosed detective probably won’t share his true feelings over his divorce with many people -- but he just might occasionally break down to the bartender at his local pub. 

Many characters will seem naturally reticent when you begin to work with them. Three-quarters of my characters (especially the heroes) begin life wanting to protect their privacy, even from me. But again, if you don’t find someone for them to have conversations with, you may lose readers during your characters' long bouts of angst-ridden introspection.

In short, when you're writing dialogue, the most effective thing you can do is to think through the set-up logically using your internal editor -- that skeptical side of yourself. Once she's satisfied, then turn your creative self loose. Just remember to remove yourself and your goals from the scene as you start writing. Scenes often go wrong when we fail to get ourselves out of the way.

Once the dialogue is written, send your creative side away and read the dialogue aloud. Read it to a spouse or a child. Read it to the dog or the cat. Read it to the wall if that's all you've got. But read it out loud and let your internal editor go to work again. If you've written a sentence without contractions, but those contractions feel natural when you read the work aloud, change the work. If you skip words, cross them out. If you add words, put them in.

Using a different sense to edit your work than you used to create it can be an effective way of smoothing out the rough spots.