Eleven things You Need to Know
Compiled by Tim Wynne-Jones
1.Where’s the conflict?
Very simply stated, a story is the resolution of a conflict through a series of crises. The crises form the rising action of the story, what we sometimes call the narrative arc. So: no conflict, no story. Every story ought to be a “thriller” in the sense that the reader is compelled to turn the page and find out what happens next.
The word crisis, however, is a bit misleading. It comes from the Greek meaning “turning point.” So, it needn’t be a moment of calamity. Presumably, there will be few of those except if the book really is a thriller of one kind or another. But there had better be quite a few moments of gravity, of reflection leading to action, if you want your reader’s interest to remain high. And do not shy away from real jeopardy. Put your character into danger. Be merciless. As they say, in engaging fiction, things have to get worse before they get better. An author’s job has been amusingly defined as chasing one’s protagonist up a tree and then throwing rocks at him.
2. Where’s the motivation?
Characters must have a reason for what they do. If your plot requires a character to act irrationally at a crucial moment, then he’d better act irrationally earlier on and preferably more than once. If your character needs to be at a certain place in order to witness a particular event, there had better be a darn good reason for her to be there. It has been said that every story starts with a coincidence, but the average reader will not put up with coincidences used gratuitously anywhere else in the body of the text. Beyond the general motivation of a character – what he yearns for or needs, it’s also important to consider the moment of motivation – the tipping point – when a character is moved to act.
3. Whose story is it?
This is a question about Point of View. But I am not simply referring here to whether the story is written in the first-person, second person, third-person subjective, third person omniscient point of view, or whatever, so much as I am asking the simpler question: who does this story belong to? In a book for young readers, it is typically a young protagonist who wrestles with a conflict. Then it should be the young protagonist who resolves the conflict, right? Helpful adults are all well and good in real life – may we all aspire to be just that. But, when it comes to good fiction, let your young protagonists get out of the messes you’ve concocted for them more or less by themselves. If some one lends a hand, that’s cool; if someone gives them a tool or weapon or just some really good advice, great. But let the kid be the one who realizes the tool or weapon or advice is needed and let the kid be the one who uses it.
4. Show, don’t tell.
This is the most common of all problems, possibly because it doesn’t seem on the surface to make much sense. “How can I show it? I’m not an illustrator.” But of course you are. You are a painter of word pictures.
Here is an absurd example of a “told” sentence followed by a “shown” sentence.
After Lydia’s phone call, Lyle was angry and hurt.
After Lydia’s phone call, Lyle photocopied her portrait forty times, stapled the copies to his body, and threw himself into the pond in the front lobby of Ridgemont High.
The second sentence reveals who Lyle is (A nut, by the sounds of it). It makes the story specific. Words like “angry” and “hurt” only telegraph a meaning. They are too abstract to actually make us feel anything. Telling the reader how someone feels seldom engages the reader’s empathy. Let us see how the character feels through his actions and words.
5. Don’t Explain.
Here’s a piece of pretty bad prose:
“I’m famished,” said Barb, turning off the computer and gathering her homework from the study room table. “How about MacDonald’s?”
“I won’t be able to make it,” said Renata, opening her chemistry text. She was Barb’s oldest friend and played on the basketball team with her at Ridgemont High. They had been together since kindergarten and were both in the same grade but Renata was determined to get a scholarship, whereas Barb was just trying to get through her final year with a pass since she planned on working at her father’s store, anyway. “I’ve got a test tomorrow,” said Renata.
Arrrggghhhh! This reads as if the author has pushed the pause button on the action of the scene in order to let a voice-over fill the reader in on the back-story of the friendship between Barb and Renata. There’s way too much information, much of which will become apparent as the story develops, if it is needed at all. Think of watching an episode of a TV series for the first time with an ardent fan who has control of the zapper and every time a character appears on the screen, your friend pushes the pause button and explains to you who this guy is. Pretty awful, eh? What I call a Pause Button Violation.
6. We come to know characters primarily by what they do and say.
Describing what someone looks like can be useful, if, let’s say, the character is missing a limb or has three eyes. Similarly, what a character wears is only marginally relevant, unless, again, there is something remarkable about their clothes (epaulets, tassles, a fuschia sporran). Only if a character’s appearance really says something about them or matters to the plot, must you show us what she looks like. A list of features – blue eyes, shoulder-length hair, sallow complexion – does not constitute a description, what’s more, you run the risk of stereotyping. Descriptions of characters require real originality if they are to move us at all. And original means you thought of it yourself – you never read it anywhere else. So if you say, “her eyes were the color of the mathematical function keys on his Texas Instrument calculator,” you are being original (and saying more about the viewer, than the viewed, which is also good).
7. Dialogue’s chief job is to reveal character and to move the plot along.
This is a take off on a passage of dialogue that I read once in a manuscript between two boys who, apparently, walk to school together every morning.
“Hey, Randy,” said Doug. “Isn’t that the old Braxton Place? Some people say it’s haunted.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. They say old man Braxton hung himself in the attic.”
Two friends would already know all this. Do not burden your characters with having to reveal information to the reader. That’s the narrator’s job. So what about this?
“Hey, I hear Braxton’s son is back in town.”
Randy looked at the old mansion and shuddered. “You think he’ll move back in?”
“Hah! Would you?”
Okay, it’s far from scintillating prose, but Doug is providing new information and thus moving the plot along. So the subject is raised: there is something strange about the Braxton place; read on, dear reader, to find out!
As readers, we want to be a fly on the wall, eavesdropping. When the dialogue is aimed at me, the reader, I feel like a fly that has been noticed and might get swatted!
Then there is dialogue that tells us nothing:
“Wanna go for a burger?” said Bert.
“Sure,” said Hanna.
Do not waste dialogue opportunities. So, maybe Hannah’s response is:
“Make that a Caesar salad and you’re on.” Which says something about Hannah. Or: “You can think about food at a time like this?” Which says something about what’s going on. Or: “How long have you been seeing Melissa?” Which really moves the plot along!
8. Make good use of inquit phrases or tags (he said/she said.)
People sometimes think it adds sparkle to their writing to vary the verb in tag phrases, replacing plain old “said” with: cried, shouted, whispered, yelled, pontificated, uttered, declared, sneered, hissed, etc. Such people are dead wrong. (And, for that matter, you cannot hiss and speak at the same time unless you’re talking snake.) Use words other than “said” very sparingly as a change-up. By using “said” all the time, it will tend to disappear – the reader will hardly notice it. This is what you want. But it still should be there if necessary. It is sometimes punchier to miss a “he said”, now and then, especially when two people are in a lively conversation. But if there is any chance that the reader is going to become confused about who is talking, be sure to identify who is saying what.
And in dialogue, avoid adverb over-usage.
“Get the Hell out of here!” he cried angrily.
“Nice shirt,” she said, sarcastically.
In the first instant, the adverb is not necessary since the dialogue gets the point across. In the second instant, the dialogue is not doing its job, which requires an adverb to complete the author’s intention. So, how about:
“Nice shirt,” she said. “Paisley used to be so cool forty years ago.”
9. In dialogue what a person doesn’t say must be registered.
When you write fiction, you are not just the playwright but also the director and the cameraman, not to mention set-decorator. What people say is only a small percentage of what takes place in a conversation. You must not forget body language. “Bonnie shrugged.” “Tom hitched up his sock.” “Arnie scratched the wart on his nose.”
Okay, shrugs and sighs get a pretty heavy workout; be wary of them. But you get the idea. Such expressions are important when the character needs a moment – a beat – to reply. The beat allows the character to think.
You must not forget to show the conversation. When a character says something important, you might want to take the time to show a “reaction shot” of how the other person responds to the news, whether he actually speaks or not. When your characters need to think – when an immediate answer would not be possible -- use the beat to heighten the moment.
“So you’re really leaving?”
Outside a dump truck pulled up to the curb. Men shouted. Lids clanged. The compressor compressed.
“It’s time, Angie.”
What a character might see or hear in such a moment will enliven the dialogue as much as you want it to and should be pertinent – an objective correlative, perhaps, expressing the emotions of the character by looking at inanimate objects rather than telling us how the characters feel. It might be the wind turning a page on the book that is open on the coffee table, an ant walking up a half empty glass, the building across the street bursting into flames. It should not be an arbitrary observation. It is part of the conversation.
What holds a story together is often the way certain images are woven into the fabric of the text. If you describe someone as a bear of a man in one scene, show him picking up something in his “paw” in another scene. Extend a good metaphor. It increases the identity factor. But, of course, don’t overdo it or it becomes a joke.
Weaving will help to make sure that you don’t have to pile on back-story at a critical moment.
The fob watch was knocked from his hand in the fall and, as Nancy peeled out of the driveway, it was crushed to smithereens under the wheels of her Mustang. His precious watch. The one his grandfather had given him on his deathbed.
If a man has a precious fob watch, weave it in, earlier. Show him winding it, placing it carefully on his bedside table. You might want to tell us about the grandfather, too, at some appropriate lull in the earlier action. And it had better be a good long time before the watch gets crushed.
This is especially true about weapons or magic talismans or handy tools. If Sandy is going to need a Swiss Army knife to break out of a locked room, lets see her clipping her finger nails or pulling a cork with it earlier on.
11. Rhythm and Voice
Become aware of the movement of the text, the cadence, to use a musical term. A long, winding, mellifluous-sounding sentence isn’t likely to work in describing a hockey game. Short, choppy sentences probably won’t do the trick if you’re describing a moonlit canoe ride, unless the lake is rough, or the company is horrible. There are no hard and fast rules about this but it is true enough that a scene might not work the way you want it to, not because of the content, but because of an inattention to syntax.
Cadence represents the way the voice rises and falls when someone is speaking. When we love a character it is often because we love his or her voice. Often a reviewer will talk about the voice of the whole story, meaning the narrator’s voice. It is a mark of the story’s liveliness. A story with a weak plot can still hold us in its thrall if the voice is lively and original.
What does your character say that sounds different? Does he have an expression he uses that is his alone? Does he have a certain way of seeing the world? As I mentioned above, dialogue’s chief job is to reveal character; but dialogue is not just the content of what someone says, it’s how they say it. Can you give your character a lilt or make him sound sonorous; can you make him sound dull or clipped? A lot of this will depend on the choice of words and the cadence of how those words fall on our listening ear.
And, finally, cadence also refers to the way a piece of music wends towards the final chord. There is a sense to the ending of a chapter, for instance. It might be abrupt, a cliff-hanger, or it might strike a certain tone. In my experience, chapters often go on for a good paragraph or more after they have really ended. It has become a habit of mine, upon revising, to see how much earlier I might end a chapter than where it does end. This has to do as much with rhythm as anything else.