Reveal Character in Snippets

March 2, 2017

Today’s society runs 0n sound bites and 140-character postings. Few of us have the luxury of sitting down for hours to enjoy reading fiction. Instead, we claim our reading time while riding public transit, waiting for appointments, or at the end of  a long, busy, exhausting day.

Authors need to be mindful of how readers read. When introducing your reader to your characters, it’s best to remember what it’s like when you first meet a person. You don’t get that person’s entire backstory all at once. The longer you know a person, the more you learn about him or her. Here are some tips to help you reveal your characters in snippets.

  • Consider what the person’s name tells you about the person. Is it a common first name? Surname? Does the surname remind you of certain countries? Ethnicity? Is the first name a family name or unusual in some other way?
  • Describe how the person dresses (you may include jewelry choices in this also). Is the person in uniform? Casual? Dressy? Flashy? How comfortable does the person appear in that attire? Clumsy? Tugging at what he or she is wearing? Picking lint off a shirt? Wearing a wedding ring?
  • Notice how others interact or react to the character you’re introducing. Do you sense respect? Tolerance? Admiration? Frustration?
  • Listen for any speech nuances. Does your character have an accent? Speak with sophistication? Use street talk? The dialogue you write can help here.
  • Take note of the character’s table manners and types of food he or she prefers. Does the character know when to use a salad versus a table fork? Where did that knowledge come from? Does the character prefer finger food? Fast food? Fine dining? Desserts? Why?
  • Give insights into the character’s class status by offering what the parents do for work (professional, trade, business owner, etc.). Can also give insights into where the character lives or has lived growing up.
  • Offer insights into the character via his or her inner thoughts, comfort level in different situations,  personal strengths or insecurities, etc. Share what in the character’s background contributed to character feeling this way.

Your readers want to get to know your characters, but not all at once. You don’t know everything about everyone you meet right away. You learn a little at a time. So it should be with  revealing your characters to your readers. Weave the backstory into your writing a little bit at a time using dialogue, observation, and action. Happy writing!


Good Stories Require Conflict

February 9, 2016

Whether you’re writing a fiction story or a nonfiction story, you need conflict to create a good story that keeps the reader’s attention. By definition, there are two sides to every conflict. Your job is show the conflict so well that your reader has someone or something to root for.

Simply put, conflict is confrontation–tension between characters or tension between factions of the environment or tension between characters and the environment.

What you’re really striving to write is action and suspense, better known as drama.

Here’s the formula: Effective drama creates exciting conflict that eventually develops robust action and substantial suspense. You instinctively knew that already, but now that the formula is simplified for you, you’re more apt to notice it in your own reading.

As always, you want to show, not tell, your reader what’s happening. When your reader creates the mental image of what’s going on in your story, he or she becomes more engaged and willing to root for one side or the other in the conflict.

Basic story plot requires someone wanting something (a goal). Something gets in the way (conflict). That something creates trouble for the character or for what the character wants or for the way the character can get it.

Characters get into trouble by something they do or by something done to them. Show the reader how the character solves the problem. If there’s action involved, show the character’s feelings (fear, anxiety, anger). If there’s suspense involved, show the character hiding, waiting, feeling dread of being caught.

Sometimes a character’s trouble comes from within. Show the reader how the character struggles with a problem such as betrayal, feeling too strongly (love or hate), or dealing with other internal conflicts. Show the reader the choices the character faces, then show the reader the action the character takes to move in the direction of one choice or the other. Keep the reader guessing about which way the character will finally go.

Keep the reader in the action of your story. You can do this by writing in present tense. Another way is using language that creates images in the reader’s mind. Active verbs help this. Which of the following two sentences creates a better image for you? He drank his beer. He guzzled his beer. A third way to keep your reader in the story is to appeal to the reader’s senses. Choose words that remind your reader of how something feels, smells, sounds, tastes, or looks.

Good stories require conflict. I hope these ideas spur some drama in the stories you write. Happy writing!


Point of View Primer

September 16, 2015

When I belonged to the Minneapolis Writers Workshop, the critique fiction writers heard most often dealt with point of view errors or inconsistencies. With that in mind, I offer a point of view (POV) primer. Think back to basic pronouns and you’ll see the differences among first person, second person, third person, and omniscient points of view.

First Person: The first person character uses the “I” viewpoint. Since the reader gets the story exactly as the character does, the character has to be present at all important story happenings.

Second Person: The second person character uses the “You” viewpoint. This is a difficult point of view to write because your writing has to constantly help the reader figure out who “you” refers to.

Third Person: The third person point of view can be limited to one character or it can be used with multiple characters. However you decide to use it, third person characters use the “He” and “She” viewpoint. The advantage of third person is that the author is not limited to one person’s head (as in first person). The author can share the story from one character’s view, then see the story from a different character’s view (but you can only be in one head at a time). For example, one character may be visual while the other may be more auditory. They both experience a concert, but the visual character sees the stage, costumes, lights while the auditory character hears the melody, beat, and various instruments. CAUTION: Be kind to your reader and try to limit your writing to one POV character per chapter, or at least per scene. Let your reader know which character’s head you’re in for that chapter or scene. You can do that by starting the scene with that character’s thought or action. Also, be careful that you give all your main third person characters equal presence in the story.

Omniscient: This point of view has no single character. Instead, it relies on author comment to help the reader follow the story that jumps from point of view to point of view. Readers don’t get the opportunity to relate well to any character, but the author can easily make major points in the story.  CAUTION: While the omniscient point of view may look easy, playing God and jumping from one character’s head to the next, inserting judgments, and keeping reader attention can be more challenging to you as author (to write) than any of the other viewpoints.

If you’re a fiction writer, I trust this point of view primer will be helpful. Happy writing!

Who Tells Your Readers Your Story?

April 20, 2015

Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, you need to decide which character is telling your readers your story.

Short stories typically rely on the protagonist to do it, so I’m not going to say more regarding short stories.

If you’re writing a novel, however, here are some tips to help you decide which character will share his or her thoughts, show what he or she sees, reveal his or her emotions, and communicate his or her knowledge.

Consider using these tips to help you determine the point-of-view character you’ll rely on to tell your story. Once you make your decision, you must remember that the character whose point of view you’re using is the only character whose thoughts are known because you can only be in one head at a time.

I used to tell my students that each of them only knows what’s going on inside of self. They can guess what’s going on inside another person’s head, but they can’t absolutely know. When you’re creating the whole world (as fiction writers do), it’s easy to forget that you’re only in one head (one character’s point of view) at a time.

Now for the tips to help you determine which character is telling your readers your story.

  • Remember that readers get to know everything your point-of-view character does. Thus, the character telling the story has to know everything you want the reader to know so he/she can share it with the reader.
  • Consider where the point-of-view character will be throughout the story. Since the character is telling your story, he/she has to be present in the scenes that are crucial to your story. And, just as importantly, he/she has to be in the culmination scene that brings everything together.
  • Decide which character requires the most involvement in the story. Your point-of-view character shouldn’t simply narrate the story. Instead, he/she should be involved and have something personal at stake–a risk of danger, a quandary of some sort, a threatened loved one, etc.
  • Figure out which character will be changed the most by what occurs in the story. Avoid characters too stubborn to change, characters who won’t survive the story’s timeline, and characters who are careless or who are unaffected by life.
  • Get involved with your point-of-view character and make sure he/she is telling your story the way it should be told. One mystery author friend of mine had to rewrite her mystery because the character she originally chose as the murderer wouldn’t commit the murder. Other authors have shared similar experiences about characters taking on lives of their own, so make sure you’ve selected the right character to tell your story.

If you’re currently writing fiction, measure your character against these tips. If you’re contemplating writing fiction, use these tips to help you decide which character gets to tell your readers your story. Happy writing!



Improve Your Fiction by Rewriting

August 18, 2014

Most authors think the creating, not the rewriting, is rewarding. The question then becomes, “Rewarding to whom?” Creating may be more rewarding to the author, but it’s the rewriting that rewards the reader.

Decide which of these three rewriting options works best for you, then use it. You may try all three, but most authors typically settle on one as the most effective.

  1. Write the original draft as quickly as possible and don’t stop until you’re done. You may end up with a mess, but  you know who the characters are and what happens in your story.
  2. Write one scene or chapter at a time. Revise that part of your work until you’re happy with it, then move on.
  3. Rewrite constantly. When you choose this option, you write and rewrite at the same time. The piece is finished when you’re done.

When you rewrite, there are three things you want to watch out for.

  1. Plot. In a separate document, write down your plot summary, then ask these questions:
    • Do events occur logically?
    • Is what happens coherent?
    • Why is each event included?
    • Is anything missing from what happens?
    • Does anything happen that doesn’t add to the story?
    • Does everything that happens make sense to the reader?
  2. Character. In a separate document, write a description of each of your major characters, then ask these questions:
    • How does dialogue fit what’s going on with the characters?
    • Are your characters making appropriate gestures for their personalities?
    • How do memories impact the actions of each character?
    • Have you repeated descriptions of the characters (you only need a physical description once)?
    • Have you given your reader enough insight into your characters?
    • Do the events fit the characters participating in them?
  3. Details/language. Make sure you’re giving your reader enough details to help the reader create images to see what’s going on, then ask ask these questions:
    • Are your details vague or flabby, or do they offer enough detail to create mental images?
    • Is there a better word choice to show your reader what you see when you write the scene? Examples are: tossed versus threw, watched versus observed, smiled versus grinned, frowned versus scowled.
    • Do you include enough details? For example, you can describe something as fancy or frilly, or you can offer more detail and describe something as decorated with lace.

Rewriting is a lot of work, but you have options. See which one works for you. Happy writing!

The Right Way to Write a Story

June 11, 2014

Every writer writes stories. Even nonfiction writers include stories in their narrations. So what’s the right way to write a story? Here are some general guidelines to help you.

  • Brainstorm or mind map your story components, asking “What if?” for each one.
  • Review the components of your story and create a skeleton (outline) to organize them.
  • Take your original idea, then expand it by adding a problem.
  • Take the problem, then stir it up by making it worse. Sometimes you’ll have to implicate things rather than state them outright.
  • Connect your characters to the problem. You do that by asking how your characters feel about what’s happening and asking what they are willing to do about it. NOTE: When things start happening and when characters do things you don’t expect is when your story comes alive.
  • Get to know your characters. Who’s who? What’s what? Learn about the main character, then expand your knowledge of the other characters. See how the characters relate to each other. Name each character, then write a list about them, describing each one.
  • Hook your reader in the first page or two of your novel. Let your reader know who the story is about, where it takes place, and what the problem or conflict is. Begin dramatically with action or flashback, but begin!
  • Sit down, brainstorm, move your character around, rewrite what’s already written if you find yourself stuck in your writing.
  • Write with the end in mind. Your protagonist should solve the dilemma in a logical way. Most likely your protagonist will have changed in the process of finding the solution.

Here are a couple of other tips that might help you as well.

  • The story title should hint at what the story is about. Titles should be catchy and interesting, not corny or dumb.
  • If you need more pages in a novel, create another villan.
  • If you decide to write a prologue, it should be terse and a rapid description of the tension in the story.
  • As you read other stories, notice how little dreams are used. Why? Dreams are weak and cheat the reader of real action and tension.

The years I served as president of the Twin Cities Sisters in Crime offered me wonderful opportunities to meet many successful fiction writers. To me, writing fiction is the most difficult writing there is because the author is accountable to the reader for creating the entire world in the story. If the reader finds any inconsistency, the author risks being rejected or at least ridiculed. Fiction is fun reading, but only when the author has worked very hard on writing it. Happy writing!


Point of View Pointers

April 7, 2014

You, as author, have a responsibility to your reader to make your story clear. Confusing the reader by switching points of view in your story or novel is a big no-no. Why? Your reader won’t know who’s talking or whose story it is. Here are a few pointers to help you keep your reader happy and on track.

  • In a short story, focus on one point of view–typically the main character.
  • In a novel, multiple points of view are acceptable, but keep them clearly separated (by chapter or by obvious breaks within a chapter).
  • Using the primary character’s point of view means your reader is in the character’s head, feels what the character feels, sees the world through the character’s eyes.
  • To communicate what a secondary character may (I emphasize may since the point of view is not the secondary character’s and you’re not writing from inside that character’s head) feel or think, use various clues such as body language, gestures, tone of voice, voice volume, word choice in dialogue, etc.
  • When you are writing from the primary character’s point of view, it’s critical you realize you can only know what that character is thinking, feeling, etc. In real life we don’t know what another person is really thinking, and so it should be with the people living in your fiction.
  • Remember to help your reader see whose point of view you’re writing by making your primary character stand above the others. You can do this by using point of view to show he or she is stronger, more human, or more complex than other characters.

These are just a few pointers to remember about point of view. The most important pointer, however, is to avoid bouncing your reader among multiple points of view. Keep your point of view focused. Happy writing!