Monday, July 25, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 4 - Action scenes that add zip

When it comes to action scenes, how can you miss? What could be more page-turning than a chase or fighting a fire or piloting a spacecraft through a meteor storm? Most action scenes, by their nature, have specific, tangible goals. Often these are connected with basic character needs we can identify with, whether it be surviving an attack by a bear or winning the basketball game for your school.

In addition, action is visual. We can see it happening. And a good action scene actually makes our brains think we are participants to the point where our muscles respond to a hero throwing (or taking) a punch.

Sadly, many writers still mess this up. The visceral action gets swamped out by a variety of problems including:
  • Point of view changes. We can really only participate as one character in an action scene, so even a subtle shift to what someone else is experiencing takes away from the reading. Action scenes (and let’s include love scenes) require deep point of view.
  • Too much description or reflection. Every sentence that does not convey the action risks taking the reader out of the scene. Yes. A sentence here or there during the action sequence can help to ground it and provide reminders of the emotional stakes. But too much of this destroys the physical response to what is being presented.
  • Lack of identification. This is the problem with MANY amateur works. They start out with action before we have any idea who the character is or what the stakes are. It happens a lot at the beginnings of manuscripts can also can confuse and bore readers further into the book. Why? Because we want to be fully involved in cheering for the hero and feeling the joy of success and the heartbreak of failure. It's harder to care for strangers.
  • Too much or too little moment-to-moment. In the first draft, it is often valuable to record every detail of an action scene. Writers need to fully imagine what is going on in the story. But readers don't need to be presented with everything. Leave the interesting things. Hang onto the minimum of the rest that is needed to avoid being confusion. Get rid of the rest.
  • Lack of purpose. While a good set piece can be excused (occasionally), the best scenes need to have an arc. They need to move the story forward, and readers need to know how the story will be changed by a success or failure. Action just for actions sake is cheap and gratuitous — sort of like pornography. 
  • Not playing fair. I just read a fight scene where the hero grabbed a chain and used it against the villain. Huh? Where did that chain come from? Sometimes the writer is so eager to get to the action he or she forgets to describe the setting. And when important details show up later, it's a cheat. Special skill and powers, essential knowledge, and weaknesses also need to be set up ahead of time. (It can be acceptable to have surprises that make things tougher for your hero, like having a villain pull a gun.) Give the reader the chance to be a full participant.
The scenes that read fastest are those we are immersed in, both in terms of our senses and in terms of our emotions. They are free of any distractions -- no unfair surprises or excess verbiage. 

That's what not to do. So what do you, as a writer do
  • Make sure the purpose of the scene and the challenges (including beats) are clear. This may require setting things up ahead of time, before the action begins. 
  • While some reflection cues are valuable, we should actually be able to guess what the point of view character is thinking at any time during the scene. So make description and reflection barebones
  • Cut anything that is not needed. 
  • Stay in the present, making sure things happen in real time and are understood as they happen. And edit this down as well so that not every decision and action is described. 
  • Use compression. A producer once explained this to me. If an athlete is preparing for a game, it isn’t necessary to show him putting all his gear on in real time. Pulling the jersey out of his locker, and then cutting to him tying his shoe, conveys all that’s needed.
  • Choose the RIGHT action. Consider extreme responses. Don’t make it reasonable if you don’t have to. An action scene is not a task, it’s a challenge. 
  • Begin as late as possible, end as early as possible.
  • Make it desperate.
  • Include (fair) surprises.
  • Payoff (emotion, values, clues) what you’ve set up, but don’t be afraid to make things harder on your character, even if he has prepared fully.
  • Set the scene and put the action in an interesting location. It should stress the main character, have meaning, and be intriguing.
One more thing to consider is dialogue. While dialogue usually speeds a read, it slows things down in action scenes. I often will imagine how the whole scene would play out as part of a silent movie. It forces a discipline that trims the action down to the essentials and allows it to proceed with limited use of dialogue (and reflection). Once I have that, I work to make sure that whatever characters say is quotable.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fast Reads=Better Stories 3 - Thinking characters

Introspection is one of the great joys of novels. When characters let you inside of their heads, you get a different sense of who they are. You receive direct information on their motivations. In many ways, characters in novels allow themselves to be known by us more than the people around us.

However, introspection often turns out to be the most tedious part of storytelling. I think this is because writers, who have formed habits of editing in other parts of their stories, let things go in fluid, almost stream of consciousness way, when they get their characters thinking. Another common sin of writers is to use introspection as a way to toss in backstory and information readers "need to know."

And, perhaps the worst offense by writers as they create their characters reflection is paragraphs of indecision. Will I? Won't I? This sort of dithering shows up especially often in manuscripts by beginning romance writers. Something close to this also appears in genres with action, such as some science fiction, where characters get engaged in considering alternatives for their plans.

The first defense against bad introspection is understanding why it is in the story to begin with. The primary value should always be to expose aspects of the character. Readers give us permission to stretch reality so that they can get closer to our characters. Any introspection that doesn't lead to a better understanding of who this person is squanders an opportunity.

Of course, the character is revealed directly by what is valued and what is noticed. A heroine reflecting on lovemaking tells us a lot about herself by disclosing what the experience meant to her and what she considers worthy of deliberation. An important aspect of this is the emotional content. As with all scenes, a passage that includes introspection needs to have an emotional arc. This can be conveyed by the choice of words or the expression (often revealing surprising perspectives), but it's also valuable to break away from introspection to include physical responses, such as increase in heart rate.

In fact, often the best introspection is constantly being directed and redirected by action and dialogue within the scene. Making the introspection part of the general mix grounds it and keeps it from becoming overwhelming. There's a great example in this article by K.M. Weiland.

Special care needs to be taken with action scenes and love scenes. There's a tendency to interrupt and slow things down with introspection. Anyone who has ever been in a challenging fight knows that there's little time for reflection and most of this is not deep. Likewise, lovemaking is all about being present in the moment, not judging, remembering, and questioning.

But what about scenes that consists entirely of introspection? Rarely, these can enhance a story. At a key point, the protagonist may face a difficult choice before taking action, one that test him or her and requires everything the character has.When the character is approaching a turning point that requires important changes and includes key realizations before such action can be taken, a scene that is mostly introspection can add layers of understanding.

A good way to think about constructing such a scene is to imagine it as a monologue. The best monologues are addressed toward someone else or toward a resistant aspect of the speaker. "To be or not to be" in Hamlet is a conflict-ridden argument about suicide. Thinking in terms of persuasion can help to create a scene of introspection that reads quickly.

So, for faster reads, writers need to understand why they are writing introspection, have a bias toward interspersing it with action, dialogue, and other stimuli, and trimming it of all the "realistic" meandering that distracts from the purpose. And, within all of this, the introspection must pass the main test — does it reveal character? Keeping these rules of thumb in mind will help you take full advantage of the value of introspection while helping you to avoid the pitfalls that drive readers away.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 2 - Dialogue cuts

Dialogue leavens a story. It lifts it up and opens new possibilities. On the page, it beckons you -- all that lovely white space. In fact, many people skip to read the dialogue.

Unlike backstory, it doesn't tend to be a focus area for writers looking to make their stories into page turners.

But sometimes characters get verbose, rattling on, saying "hi" and "bye," being clever without a point, and repeating each other. Or, worse, the characters become creatures of the plot, inserting information the reader needs. All of these slow things down and turn conversation on the page into tedium. This is a waste.

The best guide I ever got on dialogue writing was this: It should be so enticing, you'd eavesdrop to catch every word.

The "every word" part is important. It speaks to selection and economy. Ever read a transcript of a conversation? Deadly. How people really speak is fine for a draft, but not good enough for a story.

Here are some more things to think about:

Starts and stops. I've been reading radio scripts lately, and I've been struck by how often people are greeted. And how often characters speak each other's names. In radio, there is a reason for this. It provides an indication of who is present. For novels, movies, and stage plays, greetings and the use of names are less necessary and probably should be cut. The same thing is true for goodbyes. It's natural to include these in a draft, but a good rule for revision is start the scene (and dialogue) as late as possible and end it as early as possible.

How characters should talk like real people. For most characters, dialogue is less formal. (Villains, according to Stephen King, can be an exception.) Generally, it is less fun to listen to essays and speeches and to find vocabulary in dialogue that sends you to the dictionary. Contractions are more the rule than the exception in dialogue. People also let sentences trail off (...) and are cut off by others (--). Sentence fragments are common. With these in mind, dialogue reads faster if it is in the vernacular and the exchanges are in bursts. 

How characters shouldn't talk. If you've ever read a transcript, you've seen how meandering and repetitive real dialogue is. When people are talking, they get distracted and lose their ways. They constantly look for assurances that they've heard correctly and they've been heard. For the former, this should be avoided unless it serves the writer's purpose (for subtext or to set up beats). As for restating, this is usually excusable only if it is used for the poetic sound value. Removing these makes dialogue less "realistic," but less of a boring slog to read through.

Character, not narrative. A lot of writers think they can avoid the problems of delivering context and backstory by putting it into characters' mouths. Sometimes this works, but it's a device that should never be used in a false way. Older plays use minor characters to set up stories (butler and maid dialogue). While this may have been effective once, it seems creaky and obvious now. Sometimes, humor can make it work even today, but it's generally something that distances the audience. A worse failing for writers is having key characters step out of character to provide information. Damaging characters alienates audiences and readers in a lot of ways, but it also makes those who enjoy dialogue feel cheated.

Audience. When someone speaks, they are speaking to someone else. That provides focus and shading to the words that makes the story and its characters come alive. Even monologues should be aimed at someone specific. Make sure your characters are not just spouting off, talking to hear themselves talk.

Emotion and purpose. In real life, it's okay to ask someone to pass the salt or to ramble on in a stream of consciousness way or to talk at cross purposes. These can be used for effect by a writer, but most dialogue is stripped down to what is goal-oriented. Ideally, the characters speaking are at odds in some way, with maneuvering and conflict evident throughout their discussions. And, beyond the purposes of any discussion, the characters should be feeling something throughout. For us to be emotionally involved, they need to be emotionally involved. The best dialogue of all ends with an emotional punch that pulls the reader deeper into the story.

As you revise, attention to these thoughts on dialogue can make this, the most attractive part of the story for most readers, more engaging. The most important entry here is emotion and purpose. It can make up for failures in all the others. And it also is the one thing to think about most seriously before revision.

Anything can be fixed in a rewrite, but it is easier to identify with the feelings and what the characters want while drafting a story than it is to rework dialogue to express these after the fact. In fact, it is key to your getting inside your characters in the storytelling and making the experience more organic.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 1 - Backstory

I once saw a news story about a person who had dedicated himself to long distance walking. To get the most miles per calorie, he had cut down his toothbrush handle to a nub. There are advantages to traveling light in life. Being weighed down by material goods, memories, commitments, and ideas that don't provide benefits only gets in the way of fully experiences what the world offers us.

Readers don't want to be weighed down by unnecessary verbiage. If you want to write a page turner, you need to cut, cut, cut. After having read many contest entries, I've seen lots of ways authors slow down stories. The main one is backstory, especially at the beginning. (I'll cover some of the others in future posts.)

As a reader, you know what happens when there's too much backstory:
  • The pacing slows.
  • It's difficult to prioritize and absorb all the information.
  • It delays getting to know the viewpoint character through the best tools -- action and dialogue. 
  • It distances, making emotional involvement more difficult.
  • It's boring. 
There is a big advantage providing histories of characters and their relationships, descriptions of how the world works, and details on the goals and challenges at the very beginning: clarity. No one feels disoriented. Readers understand what's going on. (The primary defense from writers who start stories this way is their readers need this information. I'll get to that.)

The information dump can be effective in some nonfiction. Long ago, I wrote instructions on how to purify biochemicals, and providing the specifics, the warnings, and the correct order for each process was essential to ensuring expensive components weren't wasted, no one got hurt, and products were available for customers. The education I'd gotten on how to write an essay was useful.

But this is not good for fiction writing. Few among us sit down to get lost in the wonders of an instruction manual. So put that kind of writing education aside when you rewrite your story. (It's okay to frontload your work with backstory in the draft -- the version no one else will ever read.)

My general rule is to cut all backstory that is not essential and to introduce it as late in the story as possible. I like readers to be hungering for these facts before I offer them. How do you do this? One approach is to mark all backstory and read the work without it. Wherever you come to a spot in the unmarked remainder where information is needed, make a note, including what, in your backstory, is required. How do you know what to add back in? Here are some guidelines that might help you know:
  • When the emotional payoff is diminished by a lack of information.
  • When the character's motivation isn't clear.
  • When there is unintentional confusion or disorientation. 
  • When a lack of information may cause a reader to put the book down.
  • When withholding information removes a setup so a plot point seems random or unfair.
The temptation to dump backstory can be strong. It often doesn't look bad to the writer (though reading the work out loud may reveal it as a problem). It can feel like it belongs. And leaving it is a lot easier than making the tough choices of what to remove and the tougher work of metering out the information in dribs and drabs in the exact right amounts, in the right places, and with the right words. 

When you cut and move things around, don't get rid of those words. On rare occasions, beta readers may tell you that they got confused, and those words may need to be added back in. Or you may need to purposely slow down the pace or direct the reader's attention elsewhere for a bigger impact. In some cases, your gut will tell you that you need those words for artistic reasons, and that's valid, too.

Most of the time, the cuts and delays will not cause problems. They'll just clear away the clutter so the reader can become immersed in your story and have a better experience.