Archive for July, 2006

Jul 22 2006

Style Checklist

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1) Try not to begin sentences with the words there, it, so, and then.

A. There and it create passive sentences. For example, “there are only three cities with many supervillains” can be rewritten as “only three cities have many supervillains.”

B. So usually connects an action awkwardly to a previous statement, like “I hate Italian food, so I’m not a fan of lasagna.” Phrases that begin with so are often obvious and unneeded.

C. Then is problematic when it indicates that a string of actions is continuing. “I went to the door and then I knocked.” Usually, then suggests that the action is individually insignificant. Sentences with then frequently feel like laundry lists of actions that don’t need to be spelled out. “I hit the up button. Then the elevator came. Then I stepped inside and got out on the ninth floor” could be revised to “I took the elevator to the ninth floor.” Unless something interesting happens on the elevator, there’s no reason to draw it out.

2) Passive voice lacks punch and verve. Is passive voice in your piece? Does your piece use passive voice?

3) Have you weeded out unnecessary and unproductive sentences and phrases? Writers don’t stumble upon coherent, compact stories any more than a sculptor accidentally turns a stone into a face. Good writing relies on editing and deletion as much as creation/addition. If a scene, chapter or character adds little to the work as a whole, you’ve got to have the guts to remove or revise it.

A. One common objection is “but I’ve already got 60,000 words! If I cut anything, I won’t have a manuscript long enough to submit.” OK, but if you don’t cut anything, you probably won’t have a manuscript good enough to get accepted anywhere. Wise editing and deletion will increase the publishability of the whole.

B. How does one edit wisely? Well, here are some suggestions. List your chapters and then write a 1-2 sentence synopsis of your book’s plot. Which chapters are tangential to your synopsis? For example, Harry Potter’s Quidditch scenes are useful and enjoyable, but not really related to the main plot. Compared to the rest of the book, how long are your tangential chapters? As a rule, tangents shouldn’t make up more than 10-15% of the book.

C. Deleting scenes and chapters can be emotionally hard. Instead of deleting them, try cutting and pasting them into a separate file. In a few days, if you feel that you really need that scene, then you can retrieve it.

D) Talk to your reviewers. Ask them to nominate scenes that could be reduced. Did they ever use phrases like “this dragged on”?

4) There are many stylistic tics that may cause readers to stumble.  Get out a set of markers and print out a copy of your work. Circle each of the following tics in a different color.

A) Modifiers (a lot, almost, very, extremely, roughly, approximately, quite, nearly, a bit, etc.)

B) Sentences that begin with nouns

C) Words that have 5+ syllables

D) Sentences that have 15+ words

E) Sentences that have 4+ commas and/or semi-colons

F) Sentences that have 3+ clauses

G) Lines of dialogue that are not attributed to a speaker

H) Capitalized words that are not the first word of the sentence. (Why might this be problematic? According to the article “Revision Checklist” by B. Mac and Jacob Mallow, 9 out of 10 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors of America agree that Over-Capitalization Syndrome can be visually disorientating).

I) Fragmented or grammatically incorrect sentences.

J) Paragraphs with 150+ words

K) Italicized words

It’s not a problem that you will have many circles on your page for some of these categories.  There’s nothing wrong with an occasional long sentence, for example.  But when each page has 10-15 long sentences, that might rub readers the wrong way.  Circling each of these items helps you get in the reader’s mindset.

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Jul 22 2006

How to Write Gripping Scenes

This article will focus on how to craft gripping scenes that immerse readers in the story. First, I will start with an absolutely awful scene, offer a revision, and then draw connections about how you can make your scenes more immersive.

 

My mini-scene

 

The elf hit the orc with his shield, giving him enough time to cast Fireball. It shot out of his land like a bullet.

 

This scene completely fails to immerse readers.

 

  1. “like a bullet” feels distinctly inappropriate for a conventional fantasy story (let’s assume that’s what it is).

  2. What’s the fireball like? This wasted a huge opportunity.

  3. The passage used weak and generic verbs (hit, cast and shot).

  4. We can’t really visualize the fight. What happens to the orc that lets the elf cast Fireball?

  5. What’s the elf like? Or the orc? We can’t really visualize either beyond the barest mental cliches.

 

A somewhat better version of my mini-scene

 

The orc swung wildly with its masher. The elf instinctively ducked. A cool breeze fanned the elf’s face as the hammer rushed by. The elf sprang up with his shield, smashing the orc’s face. It fell backwards, chains rattling as it crashed into the ground. The orc’s bloodyshot eyes fluttered, unfocused as though gazing at something miles away.

 

But it was alive.

 

“Spirits of fire…”

 

Mystical energy welled in the elf’s chest and smoke pooled in his lungs. The smoke. He lived for the smoke.

 

“I implore you…” he aimed his hand at the prone orc. Power surged from his heart, as though magma were rushing through him. Clumps of his skin charred and flaked away in the wind.

 

“Incendio!”

 

A geyser of fire hot enough to melt stone gushed out of his fingers. The orc’s top half disintegrated completely. And the bottom half… only he and the gods would know it had ever belonged to something alive.

 

The elf inspected the black gashes that ran up his heavily charred, heat-withered arm. Regrowing skin and bone was simple enough that any apprentice healer could have his arm functional within an hour. But the scars, the scars were permanent. In any case, they made for great bar stories.

 

Then he noticed that his fingernails had burnt away.

 

“Dammit!”

 

It took weeks for fingernails to grow back.

 

This story is better, but it still has many problems… “incendio”? Come on. More substantively, we have no impression of the physical setting, where the story is taking place. (Is this fight happening in… an open field? An Orcish coliseum? An astral plane? What’s the weather like? How does the terrain affect the duel? Who, if anyone, is watching? Is anyone else fighting? What time is it? How humid is it?)

 

In contrast, this scene does develop the cultural setting. We learn a lot about the elf here and his society. He spends as much time thinking about his burnt fingernails as he does about killing the orc.

 

The sensory imagery is occasionally solid– particularly the fire/smoke/imagery– but aside from that it was pretty bland…

 

Making Your Scenes More Immersive

 

  1. Sensory imagery is critical. “He cast a fireball” is too bland to captivate readers.

    1. Show us what the spell does to the victim, the caster, the terrain, etc. Give us the smoke!

    2. Try to engage as many senses as possible. Smell and touch are particularly immersive and visceral. Sight and hearing are obviously important but are usually more generic.

    3. Focus on the elements that separate your story from every other story we’ve read. A fight between elves and orcs on the beach should not focus on the seagulls. Likewise, a story with a dragon character (ie a dragon that actually has lines) had damn well better describe and use the dragon. Give us the dragon!

  2. You have to show readers where the scene is happening.

    1. The best way to develop the setting is to show your characters interacting with the scenery. For example, if the fight is in a tavern, bystanders might jeer or root for one combatant. The elf might use a chair or mug as a weapon. More generically, the elf might choke on the smoke that comes from the fireball or his eyes might water.

    2. Don’t overwhelm your audience with trivial details. For example, if they fight on a beach, describing the sounds of the waves hitting the beach probably won’t add much. But mentioning that the sand offers bad footing will help your readers visualize the scene.

  3. Explain the cultural setting. What are the people in your world like? How are their thought processes and cultures different from ours?

    1. Above, the elf is pretty messed up. He talks about his scars at taverns and cares more about his fingernails than burning an orc to death. If I had only described him as an elf, the audience would have assumed he was elegant, high-minded, nature-attuned, etc. What is this, Dungeons and Dragons?*

    2. Readers prefer unique settings.

  4. What is the focus (or purpose) of your scene?

    1. Originally, my fireball scene was an action scene, describing only the elf-orc fight. The rewrite was far more character-driven. I used the fight as a vehicle to portray the elf.

    2. Mixing up scenes is usually more effective. You can drown your readers in action (or dramatic dialogue). I tried to mix action and character development here and I think it was pretty effective.

21 responses so far

Jul 22 2006

Story Structure

In the opening…

Generally, it’s a good idea to show or at least foreshadow the main characters.

Most writing guides emphasize an audience’s emotional investment in the characters.  That’s certainly important, but I think it’s also important for fiction writers to get readers to emotionally invest in the world.   Both of these investments tie in to what’s at stake.  Why should the audience care

The opening should also establish the tone and mood of the piece.  People that buy/read your novel will probably do so on the basis of the first few chapters (maybe just the first few pages).  It’s important not to jilt your readers– if it starts out tragically, it shouldn’t be a light-hearted comedy.

In the body of the story…

If your story is your gun, scenes are your bullets.  Scenes, rather than blocks of exposition that occur in a vacuum, show the characters.  A character in a well-constructed scene will feel a lot more alive to your audience than, say, a character who is described like “Courtney was a middle-aged man that was kind of both proud and insecure.”

Show all the elements the conclusion needs.  For example, if the climax hinges on whether the hero can save the girl, we should see the girl, the hero, and the villain long before the final fight.

I really like plotting by problems.  Your characters have overarching goals and their attempts to reach their goals should create more problems and obstacles.  These problems should be varied, but it will probably be easier to read if the problems get progressively worse.  Save the perfect solutions for the “Happily Ever After.”

In the conclusion…

By the end, your characters should have made some hard-earned gains and your audience should care about whether your hero succeeds.  In the conclusion, show us that everything hinges on success now.

The conclusion, more so than the other parts, depends on how much your villain resonates with the readers. If the villain seems competent or devious or otherwise impressive, your hero will seem much more heroic as he vanquishes him.

Additionally, the villain should only be vanquished by the hero’s actions. For example, this plot would be utterly dissatisfying: the protagonist is held hostage in her home and is finally saved when the cops burst through the door. She isn’t really the hero here because she didn’t actually stop the villain. On the other hand, if she spent the better part of the book trying to carry out a plan to secretly call 911, then she has taken on an instrumental and dramatic role.

Children’s novels are especially vulnerable to the problem that the “protagonist” doesn’t really save the day. Many authors allow an adult step in and solve the problems. This deus ex parentis is a let-down, especially because the readers are kids to begin with.

Throughout the story…

Avoid randomness. One area of particular randomness is naming characters.  For example, one of my professors described a novel where the first character were Alex, Betty, Carl and Donna. Hopefully, you have a stronger reason for naming your characters than that the first letters of their names come in alphabetical order.

The strongest reason to pick a name is that it suggests something about the character.  At its most basic, you’d screw weaker characters with sissy names like “Percy” and “Neville Longbottom” and give stronger characters hard-sounding names like “Jack Ryan.”  For a more advanced look at the use of sounds in character names, please see this article.

Another area that trips up authors is tense changes.  It’s very easy to slip into a different tense, but your readers will probably notice that. I recommend slowly reading through each page immediately after you finish writing it.  This is more effective than finishing the piece and then looking for tense mistakes because your eyes will glaze over after a few pages.  One of my chapters had a lot of tense problems right at the very beginning, mostly because I didn’t really know when the events I described at the beginning occurred compared to the time the story itself was taking place.  I’m pretty sure my latest version has fixed these problems.

Another problem is maintaining a constant narration.  For example, in “Only Human,” the narrator focuses mostly on what Jacob Mallow sees.  But about halfway through, the narrator describes what’s happening across the city even though Jacob Mallow has no idea anything is wrong.  Another awkward narration shift in Only Human is towards the end, when Jacob leaves the greenhouse.  The perspective stays in the greenhouse with Agent Orange.  I knew that was really awkward at the time I was writing it, but I kind of had to show what Agent Orange was doing with his blood.

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