Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Resolutions and a Boxing Day Break

It's the day after Christmas. I'm taking a break from the blog (just this week). To ease you into the New Year, here's a link to...

Writer's Resolution 1 - Be ready for tomorrow

It's actually part of a series you are invited to explore.
I'll be back with a new post next week.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 11 - Creating distinct voices for your characters

Try this. Eliminate everything that is not between quote marks from a scene or chapter and read what’s left. (If your story is told first person, with more than one point of view, you may be able to include more narration, but may need remove any identifiers.) If a reader can easily tell different people are speaking (and identify them, even as A, B, and C), you have done a good job of giving each character his or her own voice.

Don’t have a reader? Mark the section and turn on your computer’s text-to-speech function. (Both PC users and Mac users can do this.) Now listen and see if you can clearly identify who is speaking based on the character’s voice, ignoring the content.

You want to be successful in providing distinct voices for your characters, first and foremost, for clarity’s sake. You never want to have readers  wondering, “Wait. Who’s talking?” And, whenever there is a long passage of dialogue or the beginning of a new scene, your story is vulnerable to this problem.

Pulp stories often used to lean on accents and catch phrases to distinguish characters, and, rather than risk confusion, you can do some of that, especially with lesser characters. But use a light touch. Highly structured stories rely on types. Young adult fiction often has a cast of jocks, ice princesses, nerds, freaks, and such, and these can help readers stay oriented, too. But, at times, it seems as if the characters from one story could be shifted into another without anyone noticing. If your characters have wildly different backgrounds and perspectives, distinguishing them might be trivial. The main characters of the original Star Wars are very different. The same is true for Chinatown.

But many stories can’t depend on unnatural (pulp) and natural (varied backgrounds) distinctions. Think of the many students in Dead Poets Society, who are of the same class and culture. In these cases, writers need to work harder to create clear variation in voice.

But even when characters are easily distinguished, it’s worth searching for ways to make them unique. Why? Because every time your character speaks — whether in dialogue or first-person narration — you have an opportunity to deepen the characterization and more fully realize the emotion and engagement of your reader. These also orchestrate the rhythms and sounds of your prose, adding to its beauty and power.

Sometimes, voices emerge naturally, from the first pages. If cliches are avoided, that’s organic and a great way to create distinct voices. Don’t challenge gifts from your muse. Alternatively, I’ve written before about interviewing your characters. The key is listening to the answers and going at it long enough for the personalities to emerge. Here are some specific things to try:
  • Ask questions you want to hear the answers to. Make these open-ended (never answerable by yes or no). Include “Tell me about…”
  • When you ask a question, jot down the complete first answer. Then wait. See if your character fills the silence with more. (This is a great technique in real life, and I was amazed to find it works with invented characters, too.)
  • Ask your character what he or she might ask the adversary (which can be the love interest in a romance). Then ask the character to imagine he or she IS the adversary and to answer the questions from that perspective. This provides new information AND makes the character assume a persona further away from the writer. Creating that distance can be powerful.
  • Ask the character how he or she would do something. This can be related to a task in the story, but it doesn’t have to be. Asking about a process like picking out a gift for a loved one or talking a cop out of a speeding ticket or helping someone find lost keys creates a reason to talk that is within a context that inspires clear answers. In addition, these more or less generic questions can be asked of several different characters, and you can see have the replies vary (or don’t).
When everything still seems too much the same, I try acting. I try to inhabit the character, standing in a way he or she would and purposely setting my mouth in an unfamiliar way. Then I answer questions via dictation. (Dictation programs can get weird when you do this, but the point is not a perfect transcription.)

I admit that this is a radical approach. It may mean you can’t do this work with other people in they house without creating a disturbance. But I haven’t had a case yet where I didn’t get valuable information that led me to distinct voices.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 10 - Torture test your scenes

I've been working to improve scenes that showed up in my story but aren't up to the quality of some of the other scenes. It took me about three hours to go through 20 scenes of a Young Adult novel I'm working on, and it made an amazing difference. Here's what a card for one of the scenes looked like.
Now to explain:

Scene number indicates where it is in the manuscript. This is the 12th scene in the novel. I added "S" because this manuscript has more than one viewpoint character and this scene is from Sarah's point of view.

Title That bolded bit above, Stalking 101. This is optional, but I've found titling scenes helps me to keep a focus on them. Often, it also reveals something about their nature. If I can't title a scene, it's a pretty good indication the scene isn't really needed.

Pages (pp38-40) In addition to providing a reference for revision, having the page numbers across many scenes gives me a sense of how much variation there is, when scenes run long and when scenes run short.

Goal Every scene needs a purpose. The main goal here was for Sarah to solve the riddle of some strange behavior by the new boy at school, Daniel.

Conflict Sarah had a goal, but it wasn't easily accomplished. As she followed Daniel, he seemed to sense he was being spied upon. And once he got to the abandoned house he was squatting in, he was able to catch her snooping.

Consequences I have these in practical terms (got her secret, but got caught) and emotional (responsibility, fear, empathy). For each of the scenes I analyzed, I included both of these.

Setting For me setting is time as well as place, and I want to check to see there are enough touchpoints to help the reader get/stay immersed in the story and that the setting is appropriate to the experience. Here, noir-ish elements support feelings of guilt, fear and vulnerability.

Cliffhanger This does not have to go all "Perils of Pauline," but there needs to be a reason to keep reading. Usually, an interesting question suffices. Making sure the reader cares about what happens next is good enough.

A lot of these card sections are reference. and some are not for everyone. I do believe that testing each scene for a goal, conflict, consequences, enough of a setting for reader immersion, and a reason to keep reading is essential to effective story revision. That means five factors for each scene (about 40 scenes in a feature script, typically 60 or more in a novel.

This simple analysis showed me some scenes I'd written were incomplete (and ideas on how to fix them came readily to mind). I also noticed which felt underwritten and thin. The surprise for me was how the cards came together to reveal sequences and suggest ways to cut, add, and improve story logic. A lot was accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. (If this had been a script, it would have provided direction for fixes for half the story!)

So here's what you might try at home. In your story, think of a scene that is less remarkable than your other scenes. Create either a full card for it (like the example) or just test the scene for goal, conflict, consequences, enough of a setting for reader immersion, and a reason to keep reading. If anything is missing or weak, you already have a payoff from the exercise. But don't stop there. Analyze the scene before and the scene after so you get a good view of how it fits into the larger story. Chances are, this will give you additional insights.

Even if you don't do every scene, looking at the weak ones is likely to provide you with ideas on how to make them -- and your story -- stronger.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 9 - Sneaky villains

Not all stories need villains. Not all antagonists need to be bad. And, when you can give the bad guys good points, that adds dimensions to your story.

There are lots of ways to create and enhance your villains, and I wrote about some of them in a five-part series that began last March. Today, to continue Try This at Home, I'll introduce three things you can experiment with to make your villains more difficult to handle because none of them hit your heroes in straightforward ways.

He's so nice. One way we deal with real-life troublemakers is by sharing thoughts and experiences with other victims. Even if these don't prepare us for the next assault, they validate what we went through and make us feel less singled out and alone.

Which is why making the villain seem nice to others is so painful for your hero. No one believes he acted so viciously. They wonder if your protagonist is paranoid or cruel. How can he or she say such awful things? Whenever your protagonist is isolated, the burden of abuse becomes harsher. If you make everyone around your hero a fan of the opposition (or at least sympathetic to the bad guy -- seeing him as the victim), every complaint gets stifled. Every action aimed at escaping persecution is questioned.

Put this into action by seeing if your villain can, minimally, make someone dear to the protagonist into a loyal ally.

You're a bully. When the villain is seen as wronged, weaker, or downtrodden, he gets a strange power. People root for the underdog. They want to champion the oppressed. I remember Danny Simon saying that Michael J. Fox's character in Family Ties could get away with anything because he was so small. Standing up to him would automatically make you appear evil. But imagine being at his mercy instead of safely in the audience?

I remember, back in the days before credit cards were ubiquitous, a baseball hero of mine took his savings and bought a sports equipment store. One by one, the local Little League teams outfitted themselves on credit and didn't pay their bills. They bankrupted him and forced him back out on the road as a radio announcer. They were villains who knew his complaints would make him look like a bully.

See if you can find a way to give your bad guy the appearance of being powerless compared to our protagonist.

Winning is the only thing. There are villains who are so obsessed, they have no limits. They'll damage themselves rather than lose. Certainly, mobsters who are so ruthless they kill off whole families create shock and can terrorize their victims. But there is a special fear when the bad guy seems to have slipped off the rails because he is willing to see those he himself loves get hurt rather than suffer an insult.

An example of this in real life that might fit this, depending upon your point of view, is Gordon Liddy holding his hand over a flame to make a point. If you take your villains and mess with Maslow's pyramid of needs, giving them priorities that lead to their accepting horrible losses and the unimaginable will become all too real.

So put your hero up against someone who vividly illustrates his "natural" responses are inverted.

Note that none of these explicitly target the hero or, by themselves, cause him harm. You can disadvantage your protagonist (and shift the balance to the antagonist) in many ways that are indirect. Passive-aggressive actions, gaslighting, and enticements that reveal the flaws of the main character all fit this model. And they are all difficult to defend against.