Tenents of Storytelling

My dear friend Helen keyed on a phrase I used in my last entry: tenants of storytelling. She asked me to enumerate them, and since then I’ve been trying to come up with a list of commandments for writers. Now, keep in mind that there is almost always a time to break the rules, but you need to understand them before you do that. These are also not rules for just the craft of writing, but for plot and story, so I’m going to leave my crunchy nitpickiness regarding the Oxford comma at home. You can thank me for that later. Winking smile Let’s get to it!

 

Don’t write yourself into corners through poor planning.

Many authors end up using poor storytelling because they didn’t make a plan for their plot before they wrote it and then didn’t know how to get out of the corner they’d written themselves into. They then rely on deus ex or other means to squirm out of it. The way you avoid this is by having a plan for your story before you execute it. That isn’t to say you need to plan every tiny aspect of your plot, but if you don’t have a clear goal to write toward (your ending), you’ll probably end up with problems.

Over-complicating doesn’t make your story “complex” in a good way.

Some writers end up coming up with too many ideas and trying to stuff them all into a single book. This leads to a book turning into a catastrophe with so many threads the reader (and even author) end up lost and confused about just what is happening in the world of the characters. That isn’t to say complicated plots with multiple threads all happening at once are bad, but take care that you aren’t being complicated just because you have story ADD and aren’t focused on readability.

Some writers also develop the mistaken impression that this kind of thing makes your story “complex” in a positive way (like Game of Thrones). While complexity is good in the right circumstances, it needs to be woven well. Complexity doesn’t happen just because you have a high quantity of things happening all at once.

Not keeping your pacing moving.

Some authors run into issues where the plot either goes rushing by so quickly the readers don’t quite follow it or they drag things on so long the reader develops cobwebs. Now, pacing issues can be a function of poor writing rather than just storytelling, but sometimes it can be due to storytelling. A writer might not quite know how to get from Point A to Point C, so they meander around in the swamp trying to find their way out. That’s fine to do when you’re writing a first draft, but too often writers leave that kind of thing in the final draft and try to drag readers with them while they try to figure things out.

Confusing transitional scenes or lack of transitional scenes.

I’ve encountered manuscripts where the writer gives the reader no transition whatsoever between one scene and another. One moment the character is on the subway, the next they are in a hotel. No scene break, no mention of the character getting off the subway and into the hotel, nothing. Again, recognizing that this is fine in the first draft (you should see how many things I leave out when I write a first draft!), folks often overlook them in subsequent drafts and never go back to repair that lack of transition. It’s confusing as heck because it’s like a camera cutting from one scene to another without warning or indication they’re entering a new place.

Inconsistency within the manuscript.

A character whose height, weight, name and personality change through the manuscript is going to raise red flags. That isn’t to say a character can’t develop (they should), but if it’s just because the writer forgot something, it proves an issue. However, if characters are acting inconsistent with how you have created them just because you have plot needs and didn’t put together how to make it work… Well, you can see the issue.

Relying on clichés is a problem.

Most writing will employ some measure of cliché. They aren’t, innately, a bad thing, but many writers rely on these tropes too hard and pidgeonhole their characters, which makes their work predictable. Now, anyone familiar with stories can often see the direction of a plot—that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean clichés like “the butler did it”.

Even the best plots won’t go anywhere with poor pacing.

Pacing is a difficult thing to get on point. You don’t want to crawl through a scene, but you also don’t want to sprint, either. Pacing is also not just the speed of the scene, but it’s also in the technical aspects of the writing (passive voice or passive construction, for example!), so it’s a many-faceted issue. I’m not going to dig too hard into pacing in this post, since I could write a whole blog entry just on pacing. Suffice to say, pacing is somewhat of a nuanced subject, but the thing that’ll trip up an author most is not being aware of it.

 

Now, ultimately, most rules of writing are loose in some ways. These, however, are pretty strict so far as I am concerned. They’re loose in the sense that you can avoid them in a myriad of ways, but these aren’t rules to be broken. The only one that gives you much wiggle room is the clichés one because you can use cliché in satire and some other genres if you’re doing it almost as a parody of the fact that it’s a cliché.

If you would like me to elaborate on any of these points, please just ask in the comments section, and I’ll talk your ear off for you!

Happy Endings

I recently encountered someone asking why so many literary writers poo-poo happy endings. After some evaluating I realized that many literary writers’ books do have rather miserable endings. However, I don’t think it’s a categorical denial of happy endings so much as it is a reflection of the person, and many famous writers weren’t all that happy.

Some people seem to think that being miserable is a requirement for being a writer, and one of my previous posts discussing depression is definitely indicative of that. But not every writer wants to write about their unhappiness. Quite the contrary, honestly. I prefer to write about fantasy worlds because it takes me out of where I live. Some people prefer to write about their sorrow and pain because they find it cathartic. Others want to wallow in it and exorcise their pain through sharing it with others.

The ending of your book doesn’t need to be categorically happy or sorrowful. In fact, the ending of any work shouldn’t be categorically anything. When writing a story its conclusion should be a fulfillment of the promises the story itself has made. It should be satisfying. But you don’t need to think that you need to fill some sort of literary rules about your ending because there aren’t any other than that it work with the book.

This, of course, likely comes as no surprise to any of you who follow me because I believe in telling your story and following where the story takes you. While there are certain tenants to storytelling, there is no requirement for any specific kind of ending for your book. You need to write where your heart goes. Stories end where they are meant to end, and you shouldn’t eschew any particular type of ending just because someone else finds it trite. If your story ends with “happily ever after,” then it ends with “happily ever after.”

Some of the reason folks these days lean toward darker endings is because they believe it makes their work edgy. It’s similar to the trend of killing off main characters a la Game of Thrones. While I do not prefer or employ this technique, I wouldn’t tell someone not to employ it if it works for them. However, I do recommend not giving into the pressure of feeling as though you are obligated to do any particular thing in that regard. Just because something is popular at the moment doesn’t mean you need to leap onto that bandwagon. At that point, you lose some of your artistic integrity because you’re attempting to fit a formula or mold rather than digging deep into your own creativity and allowing that to dictate what your writing will entail.

Ultimately, you need to write the story and book you want to write. This may mean that not everyone likes it. It may mean that not everyone will want to publish it. However, if you water something down far enough to please everyone, it will please no one. Listen to your gut and let the story whisper in your ears. Write what the muse tells you, and the heck with anything different.

The Fine Line: Description

Many writers struggle with description. I recently had a manuscript that, in the same chapter, suffered from over-description and under-description. The author told the reader every inch of the main character’s morning routine in intimate detail and then didn’t describe the setting whatsoever. The balance of describing things is difficult because we are told over and over that we need to move the plot forward. Everything we write should push the story onward. And then we read big name authors like Tolkien and Martin who describe everything in complete, intricate detail.

In the end? It comes down to taste. Do you prefer Hemmingway’s stark writing style that doesn’t spent words describing something so trivial as a character’s hair color unless it’s important or do you want to be Tolkien who filled his world with so much detail it took forever to dig through it to find the plot? While, by my writing style, you can probably guess my preference, it’s important to know what your style is.

For me, I’m somewhere in between. I like to give readers information that might not be directly plot-related but fills out the world, but I don’t want to drown my readers in it because it, to me, destroys the pacing. Finding this balance in your own writing is tough because you never know how much is too much or how little is too little until you read it. You’ll also hear conflicting stories at every turn. Some writing coaches will tell you one thing, and some will tell you another.

Ultimately, it’s your choice how much description you want to use. Choose one and stick to it, though you can experiment a bit with short stories and essays to decide which is going to be your personal style. While your style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, you should take the time to learn and understand it.

Now, let me pull back a little and say there are empirical points where there can be too much or too little description, or where you might be using description improperly. These points aren’t a style choice; they’re places where you may be using things wrong.

How do you describe things poorly? By using a “laundry list” of adjectives or using adverbs unnecessarily, you’re not providing rich description. Let me give you an example of poor description and then an example of good description to show you what I mean.

Poor Description:
The bright, clear, yellow sun slowly rose over the tall, snowy mountains.

Good Description:
The morning sun spilled golden light across the snow-capped mountains like honey, clinging to the stark edifice of the ragged cliffs.

The reason the first description is poor because you can see a laundry list-style list of adjectives at the beginning, an unnecessary adjective, and another short list of adjectives following. It’s childish writing which might work for a children’s book (whose limited vocabulary means limited description), but for adult fiction it’s weak.

The key here is going to be to use description well in your writing. The amount of it is going to vary from person to person, but make sure you aren’t using it improperly and poorly, regardless of how much or how little you may choose to employ.

“Character Autonomy”

I’ve been gone awhile due to my health, but I’m hopefully back now. I’m going to write once or twice a week until I find my stride again, but I haven’t abandoned the blog. Life has just been distracting me from my work here.

So, this particular subject created a hotbed of contention in a writing group I’m part of today, and it’s one I’ve seen all over the place. When a writer says, “My character did ‘x’, and I had no control over it at all! I had to write his story that way,” most of the rest of us head for the hills because the belief that your characters have a complete life of their own, over which you as the writer have no control whatsoever, is a sign of mental illness. Now, that isn’t to say our stories can’t surprise us, or our characters might go in ways we hadn’t initially planned, but suspend your judgment until I have a chance to explain my assessment of both sides of this coin.

So, on one hand, our characters are creations of our mind. We made them. We chose their parts (even if it was an unconscious decision which I will get to later), and they do not exist outside our heads. At least not in their entirety. On the other hand, our characters are comprised unconsciously out of bits and pieces of people or other characters we have seen or encountered in our lives. We are, after all, repositories of information. People whose characters just sort of appear in their heads fully formed (rather than created deliberately) are accessing their memories in a less structured manner, though they are doing similar things. Even when we choose attributes, we often are creating mirrors of people we’ve encountered in our lives. The reflection is unconscious in either case, and the only thing that differs is the method.

I am, perhaps, somewhat unique in the sense that I experience both methods of character creation. Sometimes, I build a character with each aspect intentionally designed for a purpose or chosen with care. Other times they walk out of my brain and onto my mental “stage” fully formed.  Neither method is more valid than the other, but they both stem from the same places.

Now the big difference in “my character dictated the scene” and “I dictated the scene”—not counting mental illness—is that in the first scenario the writer’s subconscious or unconscious mind is writing the story. They might not know it at the time while they daydream about their characters, world, and plot, but that’s what they’re doing. Their mind is chugging away and utilizing their memories and experiences to create stories based on things they’ve read, seen, or experienced. They are also extrapolating what could happen next. Usually, this takes place while the writer is daydreaming or letting their thoughts wander rather than dictating the exact details of a scene.

The other scenario means the author is constructing the scene like an architect. They plan every aspect of it and write each word with intent and deliberation. While they often have lines or details that come to them while they write, their experience is rather different from those who just have experience of everything appearing in their head as though by magic. The architect is drawing from the same well of inspiration; they are just accessing it through different channels.

When it comes to writing a book, both methods are important. Being able to unchain your thoughts and let your imagination wander and paint pictures you may not have expected is a valuable tool. When we daydream we are at our most creative. We are letting our mind roll over what matters to us, and come up with all kinds of different possibilities. On the other hand, being able to plan and construct our scenes and characters as needed is an important skill as well. In the end, a blending of both of these tools will make you a powerful writer. Both have their time and place.

Returning to the “my character did ‘x’” and “I made my character do ‘x’” conversation, what we are seeing is a lack of realization on both sides of what the other is saying. Not counting the potential mental instability where delusions are a condition, we need to recognize what is being said because in some ways, both are right and have merit. Most of us are very aware that our characters don’t exist outside our sphere of control and outside our minds. And yes, we have control over them. At the same time, many writers (particularly those young in their journey) don’t know how to access their creativity without daydreaming. Being able to do that and willingly create in that way is a skill that is learned rather than daydreaming which is instinct to us–most folks do from the time we are children.

Also, learning to articulate the differences and understand exactly what’s happening with each style of writer requires a little more understanding of both writing and of the way we think and process information. If I know someone to be mentally stable, and they talk about how a scene wrote itself, or a character “made a decision”, I usually chuckle with them. Largely because I know what they’re trying to communicate. I can also bemoan alongside the architects when a scene just will not congeal the way we’re trying to write it. Or rejoice when something comes together exactly as it was planned.

We really are all doing the same thing; we’re just approaching it from different angles and using different language to describe the same process.

Writing Effective Combat Scenes

My triumphant return commences today. I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long, but between my husband’s health and my health we had the snot kicked out of us the last week. The good news is my husband is recovering, and I’m just waiting for the weather to break so I can return to my normal activities.

A friend recently messaged me about writing a combat scene. She had three good guys and three bad guys all involved in a melee and was struggling with figuring out how to make it make sense. Writing a large combat scene is challenging, and writers often stumble with combat in general, so I thought it prudent to address the issue.

Let’s start with the basics of writing combat, shall we? This is a cross-genre reality, by the way. It doesn’t matter if your characters are using swords, fists, firearms, or futuristic laser weapons, these will apply.

1) Do not give a blow-by-blow.

I don’t need to know every single movement to understand what’s going on. Unless there’s a theatrical reason to show a specific aspect of a motion, don’t detail it. I’ll show you what I mean:

Jon lifted his hand, pulling it to his side and setting his weight before driving it into Paul’s face, stopping before he over-straightened his elbow so he didn’t hurt the joint.

Jon punched Paul in the face.

The difference between the two should be apparent. The first would work in, perhaps, a training scenario where the character is really analyzing every movement he’s making to study it. In that moment, the reader is focused on all those little details along with Jon. They’re part of the flow of narrative. In a real combat situation, however, we don’t stop to think about all those things. We just punch our enemy in the face. You can specify the location of the hit (the nose, the mouth, the gut, whatever) if it’s important, but don’t over-complicate each action. If you do it will lead to a thirty-second fight going on for fifteen pages, and the readers will have fallen asleep by then.

As a martial artist, I can tell you it’s tempting to give a full, rich description of every blow, but as a reader I know they won’t care about that unless you’re reaching a very specific segment of the population who enjoys that kind of thing. If those folks are your demographic then all the more power to you. In the real world (unlike the world of theatrical combat and cinema), fights are usually over in about thirty seconds for close quarters combat (knife, sword, open hand). And thirty seconds is actually a pretty long fight. Firearms confrontations can last longer with the addition of cover and movement, but at that point the emphasis is less on the shooting than it is on the hunting and tactics.

2) Focus on one set of combatants at a time.

Imagine you’re watching a wide-angle shot of field combat with no one as the “main character”. You just sit up in the clouds, watching a group skirmish. It’s chaotic, it’s hard to follow, and unless you’ve got the camera focused on a specific set of combatants you aren’t going to see a whole lot other than the general gist of the conflict. Much like with dialogue, if you have too many characters acting at once it becomes chaotic fast. If you have three good guys fighting three bad guys, and two sets of fighters are not the driving factors of the story—have them as background. You can comment that they are, in fact, fighting. You can even say when one of them wins or loses if it’s important. However, keep the camera on the main character(s). Whichever fight is the most important should be what’s on screen.

When you’re in a full melee, you can narrate things happening around the main character—and you should—but don’t lose your focus. To take an example from cinema, the photo below illustrates what I’m getting at. The medium is different, of course, but we should be doing the literary equivalent of this:

 

Empire-1

The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies,Copyright by Warner Bros. Entertainment

 

As you can see from this still shot of “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies”, Bard (the man without the helmet whose face we see) is in the middle of a melee with a whole host of terrible, faceless orcs all dressed in almost the same armor. Visually, they did this to make sure he (the main character of this shot) stands out. You can have action happening all around the main character and their conflict, but their personal struggle should take center stage. We can see that there is other combat happening around and behind him, but he is the one our eyes are drawn to.

3) Do at least a cursory study of whatever art you’re portraying.

Yes, watching YouTube videos at 3am counts as cursory study. I cannot tell you how irksome it is to read a book where it is clear the author has never even held (or seen outside of cinematic use) the weapon their character is using. People forget to count the number of bullets their character’s gun carries until a crucial moment where they pull the trigger and click ! (As a side note, semi-automatics don’t do that!) While I by no means expect anyone to study and grow proficient in an art before writing about it, I recommend at least watching enough videos or reading enough information that you know these few things. If you have weapon-specific questions regarding firearms, swords, or open hand please feel free to drop me a line through a comment or send me an email. I’ll be happy to talk to you about it until you don’t want to hear about it anymore!

These quick studies are surprisingly important. Say I’m writing a medieval story, and I have no idea how crossbows work (as most people don’t), I might not realize that the crossbow heralded the end of the plate mail period because it rendered plate mail useless. Crossbows (which required far less training than a long bow) could kill a man wearing full plate armor from a long distance away. They were hated weapons because they revolutionized the playing field and gave an unwashed peasant the same killing power (or more) than a Lord. If you have a world where crossbow bolts are bouncing off plate mail, you’ll give every historian who knows the reality of that tidbit a twitch. I have similar reactions to unrealistic portrayal of most combat. It’s not personal, but when you know what it’s supposed to be, you have to try very, very hard to suspend your disbelief when someone is using it improperly.

4) Make sure you address the characters’ emotions during combat.

While, yes, your characters are swinging swords or firing pistols or what have you, those aren’t the only things happening in a fight. Their emotions are probably all over the place (unless they’re trained killers—then note that!) and their adrenaline is pumping. Chances are their hands might be shaking with the adrenaline rush, or they’ve got tunnel vision. You don’t need to spend a great deal of time on these things, but tossing them in here and there makes sense. It evokes feelings. In cinema we can see a character’s hands shake, their facial expressions, hear the tremor in their voice, but in literature we need to show those things to the reader. It’s an important part of a fight, so don’t forget it!

5) Keep your setting straight.

Wasn’t that table on the other side of the room? Wait, I don’t remember there being stairs here! Writers sometimes jumble up settings during a fight for the purpose of drama. Make sure you keep them consistent and mention important set pieces before they come into play. If your character is going to be thrown through a plate glass window make sure the reader knows there is one before the big moment because otherwise it will, to them, be a magically-appearing set piece, and those are a huge faux-pas.

What one of my editors at Insomnia Publishing, Joshua Quivey, suggests to authors is that they do a quick sketch of the environment. You can do this in any program resembling MS Paint or even on graph paper if you aren’t artistically inclined. For us nerds out t here, we’ll recognize it like a D&D map of the dungeon with the author knowing what goblins and kobolds lie around the next corner and the readers (adventurers!) creep along, hoping their torches stay lit and that the chest in the corner isn’t a mimic.

Absence

Hey, everyone. Sorry to break my usual posting schedule. My husband is in the hospital with an infection. He’s going to be fine, so there’s no cause for worry, but I’ve been kind of busy with that this week. I could use your thoughts, prayers, and well wishes for him, though.

I hope to return to your scheduled insanity on Monday.

Timelines In Writing

So you’re writing a novel where time plays an important part. Maybe your characters only have a few hours or days to handle something. Or maybe you’re jumping back and forth between future and past to try and tell a story in two places at once. Sometimes this means telling parts of a story in flashbacks or flash-forwards (which is a thing now, shush). It works in television—why can’t it work in writing?

The problem with flashbacks in storytelling in general is it removes the reader from the action of now. If you are telling two stories that are intertwined, that’s one thing (as in The Vanishing of Katherine Sullivan by Christina Weaver), but if you are just taking the reader back to a certain point in the life and times of the characters this device must be used carefully because it can often read as a deus ex machina or, even worse, just be an expositionary dump. Neither of those things are your friend, so you need to handle the flow of information carefully.

On the other hand, if you aren’t paying much attention to your timelines you can also make silly errors like starting a scene in the morning and by the end of the fifteen-minute conversation it’s suddenly 3am. I am guilty of having done that more than once because the timeline sort of slips away in my head, and since it’s not important to the plot, I lose track. That kind of thing happens, so make sure when you’re self-editing you look for that kind of thing.

Another type of time faux pas has to do with travel. Is your character going from one place to another? How long should that realistically take? If you’re traveling by horseback going at a comfortable pace for the horse, they can make about 40 miles a day in decent terrain. Much less in harsh terrain. It also depends on the health of the horse, the weather… I could get really technical and boring, but I won’t. However, you do see my point. While most readers (I’m using a lot of italics today) won’t pick up on small things like having a horseback ride take a day or two more or less than it realistically should, make sure you do take into account that kind of information when writing. Particularly, as I said earlier, if time is an important factor in your book.

I currently have a novel in developmental editing that tells a large chunk of a story and then flashes back for a long time before flashing forward again. The problem is, the author wants to avoid giving away the story outside of the flashbacks (for good reason), so they have characters discover information that isn’t shared with the reader until this large flashback sequence happens. This kind of technique and used in this way is jarring to the reader because it drags them out of a story they’re well-established in (the flashback sequence happens halfway through the novel) and thrusts them into another story with new characters that the reader has heard of by name but doesn’t really know. It’s a little disorienting and feels out of place.

My recommendation to this author is to move some of these flashback chapters out of this large section and insert them earlier into the book, providing a dual timeline for the story and thus giving the reader valuable information earlier on and not destroying the reader’s feeling of intimacy with the main character. The key here is to not have time flowing normally and then ratchet it back before hurling it forward again. It becomes confusing.

I’m sorry if this blog entry isn’t the best ever; it’s written while half-awake. I promise, Wednesday’s will be more interesting, but this particular thing was in my head while working.