Monday, October 29, 2018

It's Your World -- Now Share It


Whether you write fiction or stay in reality, you are in charge of the world. The entire freaking world. That’s a lot of responsibility, and even more demanding when you realize you have to bring that world to life for the reader. Then you realize that everything from the sky to the ground and all points in between can only be created with words. That’s a pretty big grocery list.

Before you panic, keep something in mind. The biggest mistake you could make is to create an entire world before you know what part is important. This goes for fiction and non-fiction alike. If your story is about a child growing up in the Midwest during the Seventies, you first need to know what is important and what can be left behind. Will the Vietnam War play a role? Sino-US relations? Nuclear power? Disco? These were all actual Seventies things, but if they do not fold into the narrative or at least give the world some real texture, there’s no need to remind the readers about them (especially disco).

Let’s take a deeper look into non-fiction world-building. The first danger is that when we write true-to-life stories, we already know the world around us, which makes it easier to leave it out of the writing. However, this is the world we need to bring to life for the reader. The reader needs to walk those streets with the characters, to invest themselves in this story, especially because it’s non-fiction. A true story better feel true-to-life, or it misses the point.

There are plenty of details I could offer about where I grew up. I had a Jones family on either side of my house. The rolling easement by our house was perfect for playing football, save for the railroad spikes lying around from when a spur track ran through there. Most every house had a fence save for ours and the house up the hill behind ours, which made the two properties into one long sledding run – save for one brutal phone pole right in the middle. High-voltage power lines crossed over the field across the street, their dull electrical hum like droning bees. Everyone insisted the lines were not a health hazard, but the dandelions in those fields constantly fused into mutated seven-headed abominations. Ah, childhood.

Those pieces of information created a nice feel for the area, but at this point, are any of them important to the story? Should I focus on the sledding? Not important for a summer story. Is the power-line situation worth anything? Well, probably not, unless I mention how the Jones family’s chickens constantly laid eggs with soft, rubbery shells. There’s a lot of information about this neighborhood, but most of it is distraction. I would rather stick to the details that fill in the story.

It’s also important to note that in a longer narrative, any detail that comes into play will bring with them an expectation of importance. The author Anton Chekov had a simple rule: If there is a gun over the fireplace in the first act, the gun gets fired by the third act. This applies to most any detail. If I talk about the easement space ripe for football, the reader will expect football. Otherwise, the reader feels like something was left out of the story. They feel disappointed.

Now, in the world of fiction, the further away your world is from reality, the more you have to infuse your narrative with that new world. Not just the parts critical to the plot, but the parts that keep the world unique and original, and that justify this different reality. As opposed to reality writing, the new world is entirely unfamiliar to the reader, so elements can have purpose even without being crucial to the plot.

A common failure of futuristic science fiction is when the author focuses on some element important to the story – space travel, for example – but does not offer anything sci-fi into everyday life. The reader will not be drawn to the world as a great new experience. In the future, fashions, hobbies, and even the simplest of things should at least have an exotic feel to them. Think of futuristic movies where a character orders a drink… and it’s blue. Blue! Is it important to the plot? No. Does the blue represent some critical change in the character? Not likely. The blue drink, however, reminds us that this is a different world where many things are possible, and the simplest thing can be blue. In this regard, our fictional world needs its fair share of blue drinks.

My preferred method of world-building in fiction-fantasy is to start shaping out the world as I write the story, then challenge myself to understand how it ties together. If the story is in a sword-and-sorcery world, but it involves a child on a farm who meets a magical creature in the woods, I should focus on the immediate issues: the creature, the woods, the magic around that meeting. At this point, I am not worried about whether they live under a merciless king, a dragon threatens their land, or the forces of darkness are preparing to wage the final battle of good versus evil. I think about the farms, the woods, and the creature.

As the world grows and the adventure expands, those other issues might come into play. However, I can still sprinkle my little world with fantasy elements to keep the reader invested in the fantasy. Maybe the farm grows a hearty corn used in making the breads preferred by dwarves rather than humans. Or maybe they grow tangleberries – a tasty fruit but the vines are very difficult to navigate. Does the child have a horse? Maybe just a pony? Perhaps the family is poor and can only afford to get a pet snark for the kids to ride (snarks do not eat a lot but they are very slow and smell like spoiled stumpfish). Life on the farm now has a fantasy element even if it’s not big and flashy – it’s different, and the reader pays attention.

For any story, world-building is a crucial part. Setting the stage – especially in genre-specific stories – provides the reader with the chance to walk through the character’s world, to invest their time and interest in the environment, and get a feel for it beyond the words. They will know that world. They will understand that world.

If it’s done particularly well, the reader might even wish they had a pet snark.


Friday, October 26, 2018

The Joys of Character Research


It is a rare person who gets excited about the thought of research. However, writers do this all the time – often without knowing it. As we become writers, we start noticing the little details of the world. We start appreciating things with all our senses. Simple things suddenly have a meaning we never saw, and we start looking at the world with the mindset of, “How would I write that moment?”

We are a weird bunch indeed.

However, when it comes to writing about a particular subject or incorporating a specific element into our story, we might not yet have all the information. If we write about a doctor, our medical knowledge might be limited to Google and Wikipedia, which will not help that character much and it could weaken the writing. This is where we do a little research – just enough to make our writing stand out.

And yes, it’s fun.

So let’s say I have a character who is a bartender. I use this profession because I personally have a few years of experience behind the bar, and I know some details that would stand out. Mostly the little things – the different habits between full- and part-time bartenders, the lingo, different ways of life and so forth. Surprisingly, the least important detail for a bartender character would be knowing actual bartending  like how to mix drinks. Unless their character quirk was a special way of making a Long Island Iced Tea, it doesn't play a big role. Rather, the human details will make that bartender real – even if they never mix a drink in the narrative.

For convenience, this commentary covers the two schools of researching a subject – method research and inquisitive research. Each one has its pros and cons and both are effective. The real decision comes from which one best fits your process.

Method research is similar to method acting – just throwing yourself into the situation. In the bartender scenario, a writer would go to bars and study every motion of the bartenders. They would listen to how they spoke, watch their mannerisms, and compare how someone behind the bar at a bowling alley would differ from someone at a busy night club. It becomes investigation, all while the writer thinks about their character and how they would address situations. If the writer sees a bartender skillfully manage annoying customers, then they think whether their character has that kind of patience or social skills. How would their character work the customers for a tip? When they give back five dollars in change, is it all in singles and they give it to the customer with their hand right next to the tip jar?

This process is very intense, but it does have limitations. Some professions are not easily observed, such as the doctor we mentioned beforehand. Others are very difficult to access, such as first-responders, due to the very nature of the profession. For situations that can be easily observed, method research can give the writer a very hands-on feel for their subject.

The other school is inquisitive research, which reverses the method process. This starts by writing the character and putting them through their motions. The bartender section is written up (but not polished) to the point where the writer knows the character’s drives, motivations, and purpose in the scene. They focus on the character part, and then get people with bartending experience to look over the piece to make sure it sounds genuine. From there, it becomes a question-and-answer situation, with the writer trying to fit what they’ve written into what their bartender friend has experienced.

Similar to the method process, this has limitations. Do we have friends who have the experiences we are looking to write about? Is their opinion a good example to use? This is more difficult to apply for that reason, but the benefit is that the writer knows exactly what the character needs beforehand. If the bartender character is overworked, the writer can ask questions to their friends that directly address that point. The inquisitive part can be very specific: “What is the most you ever made in tips for one night? Give me an example of what a great busboy does. How about a bad busboy? Did your place call them busboys or barbacks?” These specific questions give the writer exactly what they need and little else. The writer might not know everything about the life behind the bar, but they know enough to make the character believable and genuine.

Most importantly, when you need to research a character, do not be afraid to ask around. Put yourself out there. Between you and me, I think people are quietly excited when they have a chance to help a writer create a character. Putting the word out that you are looking to talk to someone who knows a thing about bartending will usually draw a good response. If your friend has a friend who used to bartend, do not hesitate to ask if you could be introduced to them for a few minutes to help with your novel. The experience is well worth it, and you might get a free drink out of the deal.

Reminder: Include their name in the acknowledgements when you get published. It’s just common courtesy.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Details and How They Influence Writing


There are no tigers in Africa. Chicago does not have car pool lanes. The Los Angeles Lakers were originally from Minneapolis, and the Utah Jazz first played in New Orleans. There are more people claiming Irish heritage in New York City than in Ireland.

As odd as these facts may sound, they’re all true. More to the point, not everyone might know or understand them, and some might entirely disagree. That’s human nature, and it makes for some great talking points. (Side note: In Nelson Mandela’s moving autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he mentions how he and his fellow inmates in Robben Island discussed whether tigers lived in Africa, because they were not all sure – even though they all lived in Africa.)

The point is, these little details can make a setting feel genuine, or missing them can turn it somehow off-center. Just as this applies to dialogue (see my previous post for this discussion), those little details will create depth and dimension in a setting.

Plenty of these details will fly right under the radar to the average reader. Most people won’t think twice about a Chicagoan sitting out on Navy Pier, watching the sun set over the lake. They will enjoy the scene for the writing, never caring that Lake Michigan is east of Chicago, so the sun rises from the lake but doesn’t set over the lake. Some people might notice; most will not. 

The important part here is not geography, it is that the writer is missing an opportunity to highlight differences – to create a dramatic moment from something as simple as where the sun sets. The scene can be the same Chicagoan at the same location, but instead, he sees the shadows of the skyline stretching across the water or yearns to be on the other side of Lake Michigan so he could see that lake sunset. Now the location gains some texture

I’ll offer a simple life example – the stars. Most readers of this blog live in the northern hemisphere, so they are familiar with the Big and Little Dip per, Orion’s Belt, and the Northern Lights. I spent my first thirty years in that same hemisphere, seeing the exact same things and taking them for granted. Then I went to Cape Town, South Africa, and noticed how the world changed in so many ways – especially with the stars.

One night I looked up, and all my familiar constellations were gone. The Big Dipper had run away, taking the Little Dipper with it. Cassiopeia had left her throne, Orion had gone fishing. The northern stars were gone, but now I had the Southern Cross to gaze upon, That Crosby, Stills, and Nash song finally made sense. I might’ve looked like quite the oddity standing there in the night, staring to the southern sky, but to me, that moment meant everything. I was in the story now.

The little details help in filling in the environment, but they can become amazing focal points for the main character during the journey of growth and realization. As mentioned in a previous post about story structure, the protagonist should be confronted with situations and elements that prompt change. These can be fights, tough choices, or sudden losses, but they can also be realizations. The drama can be as big as a near-death experience, or it can be as simple as seeing the stars a different way.

The Japanese traditionally use four fingers for chopsticks, while the Chinese use three. Europeans hold cigarettes differently than Americans. It is courteous to pick your teeth after a meal in Morocco. When we observe these little differences, we can actively decide if the character knows about them, is aware of the difference, or has a realization once the difference becomes apparent. And as writers, we should always be looking for those little things that seem odd. And any one of these would not only add some depth to your writing, but would make a good focal point for observational realization.

From a cultural perspective, some of these observations are difficult to track down without a passport, some spare time and a lot of frequent-flier miles. In this case, I highly recommend observational comparison reference books to help fill in gaps. The one I use the most frequently is Going Dutch in Beijing, but a few simple internet searches about regional behavior differences can get the same result.

Most importantly, if a writer really wants to make a locale stand out – whether a real place or fictional – they should not be afraid to do their research. Not the scientific research of hypothesis, test, etc., but a little investigation into what makes a place so distinct. With real-life places, this is easy. With fictitious worlds, this is more difficult, but far more enjoyable.

Next stop – research and world-building

Friday, October 19, 2018

Giving Our Characters an Authentic Voice


As the holidays approach, I look forward to my family coming from all around for the usual – food, festivities, football, and fighting. Regarding the last thing, we no longer have dramatic battles about important subjects. However, once someone brings up the difference between Midwestern and West Coast dialects, it’s just a matter of time before the Brussels sprouts start flying.

They're all the same, but they say different things
It’s a simple thing: In California, someone would describe the highway they would take by saying, “I’ll take the 405,” whereas someone around Chicago would say, “I’ll take 405.” The difference is one word – “the.” Neither way is better than the other; they are two different ways of saying the exact same thing. Such holiday disputes never truly get resolved – nor should they – but this highlights the importance of those little parts of dialogue that make a character feel genuine.

In fairness, not many people will consciously notice that difference. However, a book about Chicagoans where they “take the 294” will sound off-key to Midwesterners, and Angelenos will feel that “take 405” was bad editing. In this regard, it becomes a distraction. More to the point, it suggests the author was not fully invested in making their characters multi-dimensional.

Local dialects and mannerisms are wide and varied, and most people won’t notice the occasional mistake. However, when you, the writer, examine the way people speak and how they shape certain phrases, you start giving that character more definition. That character stands out on the page, and perhaps it’s because they use the phrase “grocery sack” instead of “grocery bag” (welcome to the southern Midwest.)

Use of the word “soda” versus the word “pop” or “cola” is a prime example, as this great map shows. It’s surprisingly well-defined (and anyone within one-hundred miles of Atlanta calls every dark cola “Coke” due to that area being the main Coca-Cola distribution hub.) Until a few years ago, “sweet tea” was the Deep South version of “iced tea” for the colder climates. Even the predominant sport of a particular region will influence how they talk through their metaphors – baseball euphemisms are not as common in Alabama compared to the football metaphors (Roll Tide!)

This also goes for social groupings as well. For anyone who has been in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc, there is a particular jargon used among the members. “Share” is used as a noun – when someone talks to the group, that is their “share.” Terms like “ownership” and “choice” have an entirely different weight to them. If someone writes about an AA meeting without knowing this lingo, only AA members will notice the weakness of the story. However, if the author incorporates these terms, AA members will feel it is genuine, and the average reader will feel more invested in this writing due to its detail.

This advice is not just a discussion about how our language is different throughout the great Melting Pot. If you write about someone in Atlanta choosing between sweet tea or a Coke before getting on the highway to go to their AA meeting, this is priceless. Most stories are about something else. There are two important takeaways from this post – pay attention to character detail when it’s required, and when possible, give characters details.

It may sound odd, but when the writer gives characters deliberate little quirks and habits, they pay off in big ways. More importantly, if those little eccentricities stand out because they are against the cultural norm, it provides an opportunity for the character to be defined by that difference. No average, native Chicagoan would ever say, “y’all.” Therefore, if the character does use that word, it gives the writer a chance to explain how it came to be – the character spent two memorable weeks in Baton Rouge or was a lifelong fan of Roy Clark. People will remember that.

And hopefully, someone will remember that when I say, “take 294,” it means I am a lifelong Midwesterner who will always think that “take the 405” just sounds weird. See you this Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Last Words Are Pretty Tough As Well


In my last post, "The First Words are the Hardest," I discussed the importance of that first sentence and how it set the stage for all those tens of thousands of words to follow. After all those words have been written and the story has reached its ending, we need the second-most-important sentence – the last one.

The closing line does more than conclude the story. What follows this sentence is the reader closing the book, setting the story aside, and considering just what they read. This will be echoing in their mind as they let their inner critic take over. If this line is effective, they might exhale gently, hug the manuscript, wipe away a solitary tear or all of the above – or maybe not. However, if this line fails; if this line does not meet the build-up created by the author, things can get ugly fast. The bad line can carry over to the next book that reader picks – assuming they ever pick another book you write.

I would offer some of literature’s great closing lines, but that’s a problem. The first thing a good closing line should do is bring closure to the story, and getting that line first is a bit of a spoiler. Without naming the book, a great closing line was simply, “I’ll try.” Two words, yet if I told you those words first, it would ruin the story about a man torn between settling in to a safe but boring life or taking a risk at something he really wanted in life. The writing would still be engaging, but you already know the ending, and lose the suspense.

To make a great closing line, first look at the story and think about what question it asks. Think about what the challenge is for the protagonist. Write one sentence about the hero’s journey that ends with a question – the answer to that question should be found in the last line. The concluding chapter will tie up all the loose ends and be full of all kinds of summarizing details, but that last sentence needs to crystallize how our hero has grown, changed, and ultimately reached that answer.

This rule does not just apply for books – any narrative will be judged on how it concludes. People read character sketches, narratives, and stories of all sizes to participate in an experience that preferably has a beginning, middle, and end. If they are not satisfied by the result, the experience is a disappointment because it does not offer the escapism of a full, complete story. As someone once said, “If I want to see a boring story that doesn’t go anywhere, I already have my life.”

Typing the final line of any work is a very exciting experience, but never be afraid to change it. Write several concluding sentences. Get a lot of outside input, and be open to change. By the time all that storytelling is complete, it might be satisfying to just wrap it up with the hero walking off into the sunset. However, the reader better be equally pleased with this, or al those thousands of words will be for nothing.

This is not to say that the ending cannot be controversial – the hero can fail at the mission, not learn the great lesson, or even die. These things will be talked about and discussed for years to come if they are written well and fit the mood. But if that last line does not offer a conclusion of some form to the question asked by the story, the whole story is at risk.

It’s easy to write a great three-hundred page story then ruin it with the last page. Give that last sentence a particular amount of attention – enough to do justice to everything that preceded it.


Friday, October 12, 2018

The First Words are the Hardest


The first time I was shot, the only pain I remember was from falling against the check-out counter.

Now, if you are reading this sentence, you are likely expecting to find an answer to some of the questions presented by that opening line. That is what a good opening sentence does – it moves the reader into the narrative. The reader wants to know what happened, why was I by a check-out counter, and why did I say, “The first time I was shot,”?

(No – I have never been shot. I have, however, fallen against a check-out counter. That hurt.)

Opening lines should be memorable, perhaps more memorable than the book itself. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” “In the beginning,” and so forth are part of the literary lexicon. There is good reason that they have such a lasting effect, but before we get all tied up in the perfect opening line, let’s think about what that line should be and shouldn’t be.

The most important rule of any opening sentence is simple – the first sentence should make the reader want to read the second sentence. Not just read the second sentence, but want to read it. The opening sentence needs to be the hook that reels in the most reluctant reader. It can be done with immediate action or suspense, a very clever line, or dramatic foreshadowing, but often it is as simple as quality writing that promises an enjoyable story. J.R.R. Tolkien starts The Hobbit with, “Once upon a time there was a hobbit.” That’s enough of a promise to get things moving.

One important rule of what to avoid – establishing the scene for the first chapter with the opening sentence. Usually, chapters should start with a defined setting, but the first chapter is different. The first chapter is the beginning of the book – a much greater demand than where that chapter takes place. The chapter can be set up in due time. The reader needs to be brought in first.

A common mistake is when writers treat the opening of a book like the opening of a movie. The narrative focuses in on the world, narrowing its perspective toward the life of the protagonist and giving the reader a sampling of their existence. That can work as a chapter, but it will not work as an opening line. That first sentence cannot be the written equivalent of, “DreamWorks presents…” Rather, the opening sentence needs to be what brings you into the theater, so to speak.

So what should the opening sentence involve? The requirements are fairly simple. First, it needs to contain an element critical to the rest of the story – a theme, the mood, the main character. It also needs to set the pace for the tone of the writing. And ideally, it should plant the seed of a question in the reader’s mind – not by overtly asking a question, but by presenting something interesting that prompts the reader to pursue an answer. In the opening of The Hobbit, the first line creates a simple question in the reader’s mind – what is a hobbit? In A Tale of Two Cities, the reader is presented with a contradiction of, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and so forth, and pursues an answer. Simple, yet effective.

Possibly the single-biggest error writers make when writing that first sentence is getting bogged down on writing that perfect first sentence. Yes, those first ten-to-twenty words are very important, but there are eighty-thousand words or more just waiting to file in and fill those pages. Furthermore, as those words all fall into place, the story can change. The writer can discover relationships, themes, and even plot twists that didn’t stand out when this was all about that first sentence. In short, the story can change. And if that story changes, perhaps the first line will change too. The opening might be better suited to presenting one of these newly discovered elements, or taking on a different voice. There will always be time to make that first line perfect. Don’t let the rest of the writing wait for that moment.

And if you ever get frustrated with the opening line, put it aside for a bit. It will wait for you, I am sure. It is better to tackle it when you are ready than to agonize over it when you have no better ideas. It even even worse to type up something horrible. The unofficial Worst Opening Line Ever – “It was a dark and stormy night,” from Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – violates all the rules, but someone considered it good enough for that moment. Now, 188 years later, it is more memorable than the book, but for the wrong reason.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Breaking the Rules With Dialogue


In a previous post about giving characters their own voice, I mentioned one of my shameful speech habits and how it made my voice stand out – for better or worse. That’s a helpful tip when it comes to writing dialogue, but it’s just an appetizer. Notes on dialogue make up a full seven-course meal with two desserts.

Elmore Leonard, one of the true craftsmen of dialogue
The late Elmore Leonard offered this simple line among his famous rules: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” A more honest line has never been spoken when it comes to dialogue. A beautifully written, grammatically perfect, razor-sharp piece of dialogue will usually stand out from the rest of the page – and not in a good way. Crisp, clear writing is usually the opposite of dialogue.

Some writers go to a park or a Starbucks, grab a seat, and just people-watch for hours to gather insights into writing more descriptive, realistic characters. The same thing works for dialogue – just with the ears. Listen in on conversations in the elevator, on the train, in a park or at Starbucks, and key in on all the little nuances of the spoken word. Listen to the bad phrases people use (“irregardless,” “taken for granite,” and “I could care less” are just some examples) and how they interject filler words everywhere. Listen to all the “well,” “like,” and, “sorta” that people use. People stutter, stammer, stall on phrases, and make all these tonal changes. Speech is not perfect, though including all these missteps is not a good idea.

(I used to record conversations on my phone so I could listen to them later and target little nuances of dialogue. I later deleted them – it started feeling a little too stalker-ish – but the lessons stayed.)

Before you throw everything possible into the dialogue of your next character, keep in mind the importance of moderation. In real life, when someone speaks with their bad grammar and verbal miscues, we compensate for it by reading their body language, following their change in tone, and occasionally asking questions. No such luck with written dialogue. Your writing is the only tool, so it has to incorporate spoken-word miscues but still be readable at first pass. Otherwise, a very elaborate speech still loses the reader’s interest.

One of the more educational endeavors I ever made into dialogue came as a contributing editor to Newton Berry’s Bughouse Square. The main character was Lester Lusker, a young man in the 1950s, moving to Chicago from his home state of Mississippi. Lester had a southern drawl, some significant issues with the rules of grammar, and he talked way too much for his own good. Oh – the book was also in the first person, so his narration had the same defects. Yes – I had the privilege of editing this.

Aside from learning the Mississippi twang and all the different euphemisms that came along with it, I learned how to moderate the dialogue. Certain words were tag phrases for Lester, so they stayed at all costs. Some phrases needed context to make sense, others made for good filler, and too many of them created lines that made no sense to the mainstream reader. And they all made Lester Lusker a clearly defined character, with a way of speaking that still rattles through my brain.

On a final note, don’t be afraid to read your dialogue aloud. Not in your head, but aloud, preferably in your character’s voice. Record it if you want, but listen for the little cues and notes you throw into it, the parts you add in when you read it like a script. Sometimes you will say words that aren’t on the page just because they naturally flow when you are going through the process. Trust your voice at that point, and include those parts. Include everything that you hear when that voice feels natural. It should sound like dialogue at that point.

And if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Style: Defining Our Writing and Breaking the Rules


Regular readers of this blog have likely grown used to the way I present different ideas. The comment follows a clear outline, the word count is between six- and nine-hundred words, occasionally sprinkled with my own life experiences. This structure works well for me, and when it’s used consistently, the reader grows used to it. However, the reader might also grow used to my style, and not realize that my writing style is full of little sins.

Sins? Yes. I commit grammatical rule violations, some of which would make an editor shake with rage. Occasionally when I offer a counterpoint, I start the sentence with “But,” which is shameful (the appropriate word is “However,” which is another discussion.) I occasionally slip into the passive voice when telling a personal anecdote. I have used fragmented sentences. Once? Twice? A dozen times? I also end sentences with prepositions, use contractions inconsistently, and often exceed the thirty-word rule for sentence length. And I also start sentences with “and” on occasion.

It took me years to learn how to break all these rules. I am not about to change.

The fact of the matter is that I learned all these rules first before I gained enough knowledge to break them (Thank you, Mr. Ozog, for teaching me grammar structure in high school despite my disinterest.) Knowing the rules is more than just understanding the discipline of the English language. It creates a baseline, a default setting to establish what everyone goes with. Then from there, we learn what each little rule violation does.

Take, for example, starting off a sentence with “But” instead of “However.” The latter word is the proper way to start a new sentence, while “but” is a conjunction, used to merge two separate clauses (Enjoy this clip from Schoolhouse Rock to better understand conjunctions.) The same sentence can be written either way while following the rules, and the result is pretty much the same. The fun part comes when the sentence is written in violation of the rules – the effect suddenly stands out.

Below are three ways of writing the same thing. The first two are grammatically clean. The third is not. Which one stands out?
  • “Jonah saw two roads before him, heading in opposite directions toward opposite fates. The world would change from this point. However, he did not know which road to take.”
  • “Jonah saw two roads before him, heading in opposite directions toward opposite fates. The world would change from this point, but he did not know which road to take.”
  • “Jonah saw two roads before him, heading in opposite directions toward opposite fates. The world would change from this point. But he did not know which road to take.”

The third example turns the indecisive action into its own sentence, no pauses from a comma, no follow-through from the preceding clause. It is abrupt. It stands apart. It highlights Jonah’s dilemma and gives it importance. It is grammatically sloppy but structurally important because it breaks the rules effectively.

Here are some rules that are incredibly important to understand, memorize, and practice, if only for the purpose of knowing how to break them later.
  • Don’t use the same noun, verb, adjective, or adverb twice in the same sentence
  • Avoid fragments/incomplete sentences
  • Never chain together descriptors
  • Keep non-dialogue sentences below thirty words

Here is how we break those rules effectively:
  • “She shouted toward the sky, shouted at the heavens, shouted so loud that God Himself could not ignore her anger.”
  • “With this decision, he knew he could never look back. Not now. Not ever. Never. Never again.”
  • “They ran through the smoke toward the exit, gasping, panting, coughing on every breath, choking from the toxic fumes, holding back the pains burning their lungs for just one more moment, for one last step to push themselves through the crash doors to escape the inferno.”

In each example, the rule violation is done to emphasize the particular mood. The drama is heightened because the reader senses something special is happening here – something so special that it was worth going against the rules. Maybe the reader sees it as a break in the rules, maybe not. The important part, however, is that the reader feels the heightened mood. If the reader feels what the author intended, then the passage is written properly – rules or no rules.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Importance of Narrative Voice


The last post talked about the tools to give characters stand-out voices. However, the voice that fills most every page is in fact the narrative voice, so it has to be the most unique voice of them all. Without the narrative coming through just as clearly and as strongly as the characters, the gap between dialogues becomes an ordeal for the reader, who ends up skimming through pages looking for quotations rather enjoying the writing.

Narrative voice stands out in particular when the story is written in the first-person perspective. This puts us into the mind of the main character, so it better be a memorable place. It is where readers get to see how the gears turn, where thoughts come from and go to, and all the behind-the-scenes decision-making that shapes the hero’s journey. If that inside view of the main character does not offer anything more than the characters words and actions, then the author might want to reconsider why this is the chosen perspective.

Consider a first-person perspective story in the thriller genre, where the action moves the hero from one risky situation to another, tension at every step. The character may be speaking and acting in quick, sharp bursts, but this provides the opportunity for the narrative voice to provide insights and explain actions and decisions, plus demonstrate the doubts, fears and conflicts that the external action never reveals. At this point, even though the narration is from the perspective of the main character, the duality of narrator versus character creates two distinct, complementary entities that make the story that much more intriguing.

The first-person perspective is easy to examine from the narrative point of view. Things get tricky when either the story shifts between character viewpoints (a difficult writing task) or when the story is from the third-person. Focusing on the latter, the narrator needs to have some kind of quality that offers something more than what the main character would normally say, see, or do.

The simplest way to give third-person narration its own quality is to take one aspect of the protagonist’s character, and imbue it in the narration. If a character is placed into a strange, new world, think about how that character sees this new environment. Is it frightening? Amazing? Boring? Once that choice has been made, pour that perspective into every adjective in the narrator’s descriptions, make the narrative absolutely resonate with that feeling.

Probably the most common genre to use this technique is the mystery novel – horror in particular. In any horror novel, the reader already understands that the main character is scared or even terrified. What sets apart the great novels from the others is when the reader feels this terror coming from every direction – from descriptions of a stormy night to that creepy house by the cemetery, those landmarks should radiate uncertainty, insecurity, and a sense of dread that even the characters may not fully appreciate. In this genre, the narration becomes more than just the descriptive voice, it creates the mood that haunts the reader.

Narrative voice is very difficult to pin down in any particular work. At least in the first draft, opportunities to express mood and create a memorable environment often get lost in the process of storytelling. We only fully understand how these should be expressed once we have completed our work. At that point, we can inject that mood into areas where it serves the story best, and shift to a lighter voice when necessary.

The narrative voice can play a crucial role in developing a story. It is perhaps the most important thing to influence a story’s direction, other than the author’s actual writing style.

So guess what the next post will be about…