New Project – the Alec Stover mysteries

Well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know it’s been about six months since I’ve posted any new articles here. I took some time off for the holidays at the end of last year. Then I started a new project – the Alec Stover mysteries. This is a new series that I’m starting with plans of producing a new book every four months. For more info, visit the site by clicking the link above.

I do intend to get back to posting articles here. So keep an eye out and come back often. In the mean time, I hope you’ll check out the new series.

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Descriptive Writing – Tell me about your characters

In last week’s article I touched on how and to what detail writers describe their characters’ appearances.  Today I want to look at things from a slightly different angle.  If someone were to say to you, “Tell me about your main character,” how would you respond?  Would you immediately give a physical description?  Or would you start with other qualities, such as age, gender, ethnicity, background, etc.?

 Notice that I used the term “about.”  That’s an important distinction.  “About” means a lot more than how your characters look.  Of course it includes their physical appearance.  But it also encompasses their demographics, traits and personality, attitudes, habits, quirks, etc.  When someone says, “Tell me about your wife,” or husband or best friend or whomever, you tell them more than simply what they look like.  In fact, how they look might be one of the last things you mention, if at all.  And yet, when describing characters in our books many of us immediately jump straight to a physical description and do not pay enough attention to the other qualities that make up the character.  There’s nothing wrong with providing a physical description up front.  It offers a snapshot.  But, like a snapshot, it’s one dimensional.  To make our characters more interesting we need to provide the reader with a deeper insight.  We need to tell them about our characters.  Granted, it takes time to develop your characters.  But why not start that process when you introduce them?  Consider the following:

 Nicole glided into the room with the grace of a dancer.  The beige jodhpurs fit her snugly and the black, knee-high boots enhanced the shape of her legs.  The navy jacket had padded shoulders and was tailored at the waist, giving her torso a pronounced V shape.  She held a riding crop in one gloved hand.  With the other she pulled a ribbon from her auburn hair, letting it fall over her shoulders.  She brushed it away from her face as she turned toward me.  It was the first time I’d seen her in almost twenty years.  Outwardly she still had that same youthful exuberance.  But when she looked at me I could see there was now a wariness in her pale blue eyes, a hesitancy that had not been there before.

 With this paragraph we get not only a physical description of Nicole but also a little insight into her personality.  “The grace of a dancer” tells us something about her demeanor.  What if she had strode into the room like a field general?  How would that change our picture of her?  Jodhpurs and a tailored jacket…a riding crop in one gloved hand…  What do her clothes tell us about her?  “Almost twenty years” gives us a point of reference for her age, albeit somewhat vague.  Youthful exuberance…wariness in her eyes…hesitancy…  These are all phrases that tell us about her personality, make her a little more interesting, perhaps even introduce a little intrigue.  What has she experienced that changed her personality from assured and confident to hesitant and wary?

 What about the name?  Nicole.  If she were named Mary or Rosalita or Lakeisha how would that affect your mental picture?  What about Buffy or Mimsy?  Names are important and we should give careful consideration to their selection.  Don’t create a conflict by giving your character the wrong name.  Sometimes you can get away with having a strong, dynamic female character named Mimsy, but typically it doesn’t work.

 As I said in my last article, the point of describing your characters is to provide enough detail for the reader to “see” them.  That doesn’t mean that you need to write a page-and-a-half of flowery description when you introduce your characters.  Just don’t limit yourself to a flat picture that only shows the reader what they look like.  A physical description provides a snapshot.  Telling your readers “about” your characters adds dimension and depth.

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Descriptive Writing – Darling, you look marvelous!

When it comes to describing their characters, writers use a lot of little tricks and techniques to tell you what they look like.  They might have someone comment about their looks, or have the character catch a glimpse of him or herself in the mirror and “reflect” on what they see, or simply offer a brief description.  But most authors do take the time to provide a visual description.

The most unusual technique I’ve seen was by a French writer who gave a description as an aside.  For example he might write: “Detective Walker – mid-forties, tall, thin, black hair with a touch of gray, pressed dark suit with his badge clipped to his coat pocket – strode into the room and looked down at the body of the deceased…”  While this is unusual, and a bit distracting at first, it does provide a snapshot of the character – without a lot of wasted effort.  I typically recommend avoiding anything that interrupts the flow of the story.  But I was surprised how quickly I accepted this technique.  After the first few times it really wasn’t a distraction at all.

 While it’s best to work the descriptions into the story as seamlessly as possible, it can become a challenge at times, especially for writers who have recurring characters.  You want to provide enough information about the recurring characters so that if a reader starts out of sequence, on book three for instance, he’s still provided enough description to see your characters.  But you don’t want to bore your dedicated readers who already know the characters because they’ve read the previous books.

 In her “alphabet series” Sue Grafton gives detailed descriptions of her recurring characters and locations so that you can pick up any book in the series and not be at a loss as to what anyone looks like.  Robert Parker, on the other hand, offers virtually no descriptions of his recurring characters in his series.  I guess he figures that if you want to be told what they look like, start at the beginning.  I was actually introduced to his Jesse Stone series by one of the movies starring Tom Selleck.  So now when I read the books I see Tom Selleck, even though the description of Jesse in the books doesn’t match.  You might think that would be a problem, but it really isn’t.  I already have a picture in my mind of how Jesse looks and that’s what I see.

 So that brings up the question – how much physical description should you provide?  As a test I read a section of a book to my wife, then asked her to tell me what the characters looked like.  She was able to do so with very little hesitation even though there were no physical descriptions in what I read.  In the absence of description she simply provided her own.  I think in many cases readers do this regardless.  So I tend to provide sketches of my characters but not a lot of specific detail.  Like a pencil drawing where the lines don’t all connect, but your mind sees the line anyway.

The point of descriptive writing is to provide enough detail for the reader to “see” the character.  That’s all.  This can be accomplished with a few well-placed lines…and you might be surprised by how few.  The next time you’re describing what one of your characters looks like, pare it down and see how well you can describe them in as few words as possible.  I’ll offer a few techniques for doing this in my next article.  In the mean time pay attention to what other writers do.  I think you might be surprised how little actual physical descriptions some of them provide.

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Effective Dialogue – Hey, watch your language!

Not long ago my wife and I were standing in line at the movie theatre and two guys behind us were talking.  After a few minutes of what I considered to be excessive profanity, I turned to them and said, “Hey, would you watch your language?”  They both looked at me like I had suddenly grown a third eye.  They were surprised that I had said that to them and I was surprised that they didn’t realize how offensive their conversation was.  They kind of shrugged and muttered a confused apology and really didn’t talk very much after that.  Then, when I got to my seat and the movie began, I realized that the dialogue in the movie was even more offensive than the conversation I had heard outside on the sidewalk.  Ultimately, it spoiled what could have been an entertaining movie.

So, as a writer what should you do?  You want to “keep it real” and you want your characters to sound “authentic.”  But how much is too much?  I think most would agree that the language in Scarface was over the top.  A lot of people would also say that the language in shows like The Sopranos is offensive.  It may be realistic and authentic but a lot of readers still find it distasteful.  Profanity also loses its emphasis if it’s overdone.  Then it just becomes, as my mother would say, bad manners.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t use profanity at all.  There are times when a well-placed expletive adds a lot of punch.  In some cases it can also be humorous.  But the effect is lost if every other word is profane and every adjective begins with F.

Some authors will tell you that for their tough guys to be convincing they have to use that kind of language.  After all, a street thug who talks like a librarian isn’t very realistic.  But I disagree.  The language a character uses isn’t what makes him tough.  What makes him tough are his actions, his attitudes, and his personality.  For example, I think just about everyone would consider John Wayne to be the epitome of the “tough guy.”  You’d be hard pressed to find a guy tougher than “the Duke.”  But did he ever play characters who talked like Scarface?  I’ll venture to say that if he had it would’ve had just the opposite effect – it would have detracted from the character rather than added to it.  Is Tony Soprano tougher than Vito Corleone?  Granted, he talks tougher, but is he any more believable as a tough guy?  Humphrey Bogart came off as being pretty tough in The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and several other movies without uttering a single expletive other than perhaps a well-placed “damn.”  And Bogart was a little guy – 5’8” and maybe 135-140 pounds.  A few other notable tough guys: Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen.  Okay, maybe I’m showing my age here, but the fact of the matter is all of these actors were very convincing tough guys without using a lot of profanity.  In fact, most used very little compared to the dialogue we hear today in our movies and read in our books.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to use profanity to make your characters tough or real or authentic.  In fact, if you don’t develop your characters properly overuse of profanity has the opposite effect – it makes them look like punks and wannabe tough guys.  Actions speak louder than words.  What makes your tough guys believable is what they do and what they think as well as what they say.

Use profanity sparingly and use it to provide emphasis.  A pinch of salt adds flavor to food.  Too much ruins it.  The same is true with profanity.  So, when you’re writing dialogue, watch your language.

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Effective Dialogue – Proper formatting

In this article I’m going to provide four more simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:

  1. Don’t write phonetically
  2. Don’t use italics
  3. Go easy on the exclamation points
  4. Use paragraphs that include actions

Few things are more distracting or more frustrating than trying to read dialogue that is written phonetically.  “Wail, dayud-gum!  I ain’t a gunna let dem young-uns git away wit dat!”  Huh?  Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen dialogue this bad in print…and it wasn’t a joke.  This falls back on the most basic premise in writing dialogue: don’t write anything that causes the reader to stop, back up, re-read, or waste time trying to figure out what the heck your characters are saying.  If you’ve developed your characters well enough, then you don’t need to write their dialogue phonetically.  The reader will hear it as it would be spoken without all the misspelled words, hyphens, apostrophes and other odd characters.

You also want to avoid italics.  About the only times italics are acceptable are when the reader is thinking to himself, having a dialogue in his own head, so to speak.  Sometimes you also see italics used to denote a flashback or departure from the present time.  But even that can be confusing.  Don’t use italics for emphasis.  Simply use the appropriate tag: he shouted, she wailed, etc.  Besides, italicized print is harder to read than regular font.

Too many exclamation points are also a problem.  It’s okay to use a few but too many become annoying.  Use tags and scene settings to provide emphasis, not punctuation.  If you’ve set up the scene properly, the emphasis should be obvious.

The last rule for writing dialogue is to break it up into logical paragraphs.  Each time a new character speaks, start a new paragraph.  This is how to let the reader know who is talking without using a lot of tags.  But if the same character is speaking and doing something at the same time, you don’t have to break that into several paragraphs.  You can use the action to create the scene and reduce the use of tags.  For example:

        Mary glanced around the restaurant, then reached into her purse.  “I’ve got something for you.” She placed a plain, white envelope on the table.  She leaned in and lowered her voice.  “This is what you’ve been looking for.  This letter explains everything.  Everything.”  She drew the last word out, making sure he understood the letter would leave no doubt.

See how the combination of dialogue and action set the tone for the scene, provided emphasis, and kept the action going without a lot of stops and starts?  One paragraph with one person talking, but interspersed with actions and descriptions.  No italics or exclamation points or tags.  But the reader knows Mary is the one talking and hears her speaking in a hushed voice, whispering, making her point and emphasizing her words.  The words and actions set the tone, not the punctuation.

From the viewpoint of an agent or editor, nothing screams novice writer!!! more than using italics and too many exclamation points.  Phonetic writing is also distracting and should be avoided.  If you need punctuation to make your point then you haven’t developed your characters well enough or set the scene properly.  Remember that the reader will provide the emphasis and hear the dialects without a lot of coaching.  Don’t distract them with punctuation or odd phrasing or confusing paragraph construction.

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Effective Dialogue – No expostulating allowed

In this article I’m going to touch on three very simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:
         1. Avoid too many identifiers
         2. Leave out odd descriptors
         3. Use proper phrasing

A common mistake many novice writers make is to put in too many identifiers, or tags, to let us know who is talking.  When only two people are having a conversation you can almost avoid tags altogether.  The conversation naturally flows back and forth and it is evident who is speaking by the formatting.  But often writers put in too many he saids and she saids or they will do a lot of name calling to “help the reader keep up.”  For example…

         “Carol, can I talk with you for a minute?” Bob asked.
         “Sure, Bob.  What’s on your mind?”
         “Well, Carol, you know I have this big proposal due tomorrow,” Bob said.  “I could sure use your help.”
         “No problem, Bob,” Carol replied, looking at her watch.  “I have a meeting in a few minutes.  Can we get together after that?” she asked.
         “Yeah, I guess so,” Bob responded.
         “Okay” Carol said.  “I’ll come by your office as soon as I get out of this meeting.”

This dialogue can be cleaned up and will read much better by eliminating most of the tags and all the name-calling.

         Bob stopped Carol as she came down the hall.
         “Hey, can I talk with you for a minute?” he asked.
         “Sure.  What’s up?”
         “Well I got this big proposal due tomorrow and I could use your help.”
         “Okay.”  She glanced at her watch.  “But I have a meeting in a few minutes.  I’ll come by your office when I’m done with that.”
         Bob nodded and Carol hurried off to her meeting.

Of course, the best approach would be to strike this whole scene and start with them talking in Bob’s office.  As it is you have an unnecessary discussion that ends because Carol has a meeting.  Unless her meeting has something to do with what Bob wants to talk to her about then you should cut it out altogether.

Another problem writers run into is using odd descriptors.  They’re concerned the reader will get bored or distracted by all the saids so they start using descriptors like he exclaimed, she sighed, he intoned, she breathed…  I’m currently reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.  Her characters do a lot of sighing and breathing words in their conversations.  I find this distracting.  People sigh and they breathe and they speak.  But they rarely do those things at the same time.  But my all-time favorite odd descriptor is something that you used to see a lot in the Saturday Evening Post years ago: he chortled.  I don’t even know what that means.  I’ve never heard anyone chortle in my life.  Thank goodness that descriptor has gone out of style.

The fact of the matter is that readers breeze over all the saids without much thought.  But they get distracted when someone intones or chides or expostulates.  Stick with the same old boring descriptors – he said, she asked, he replied, she shouted…  There are plenty that you can use that will not distract the reader or break up the flow of the conversation.  Just use them sparingly.

The third rule is to use the proper phrasing.  Robert Parker tends to follow a question with the tag he said.  I found this very distracting when I first started reading his books.  Then I noticed that I was mentally reading he asked even though he said was printed on the page.  But you don’t want to distract the reader.  If someone asks a question and you follow it with a descriptor, simply say he asked.  That’s no more effort than he said, and it’s the correct phrasing.  No distraction.  You read right over it and keep going.

In review, when writing dialogue avoid using too many identifiers.  When only two people are talking you can leave out most of the tags.  When three or more people are involved in a conversation then you have to use more tags.  But you still want to keep them to a minimum.  Don’t use odd descriptors.  People say things, they ask questions, they may argue with each other from time to time, but don’t let them expostulate.  And be careful to use the proper phrasing.  Improper phrasing distracts the reader and breaks up the flow.  You want your dialogue to flow and sound natural.

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Effective Dialogue – Get to the point

One problem a lot of novice writers make with their dialogue is they put in too much extraneous conversation.  It’s important to understand what to leave out.  An easy way to do this is to ask yourself, why is this conversation important?  If your characters are meeting over lunch, skip over all the discussion about the menu, what to order, hold the mayo, pickle on the side, blah, blah, blah.  Get to the point. Unless it’s important to the plot or helps with character development, who cares if your character tells the waiter to put the salad dressing on the side?  Most of the time it’s not important at all.  So begin the scene where the important discussion begins.

Another thing to watch for is anything that breaks up the flow of the conversation.  Anything that makes the reader stop and say “Huh?” needs to be fixed.  This generally happens when someone says something they wouldn’t say or does something that doesn’t make sense.  Dialogue should flow and not be interrupted by a lot of stops and starts.  I’m not talking about pauses while the characters react to something or do something that is important to the story.  I’m talking about breaking up the dialogue with unnecessary descriptions.  If the dialogue is too fragmented, then you may be putting in a lot of extra words that aren’t needed.  Go back and read for content.  Does it advance the plot or provide insight into the characters?  If not then you should cut it.

Pacing is also important.  If your characters are talking over lunch, don’t have the food arrive then be gone after only a few comments.  Think about how it would happen in real time and write it that way.  If it only takes a few minutes for the conversation to take place, then don’t have the waiter take away their empty plates when they finish talking.  Let them talk, then take a bite of their “untouched” sandwiches.  Dialogue over food can be a real gotcha if you’re not careful.  If the reader stops and says, “Wait a minute, when did they eat all that food?” then you have a problem.

One last point – avoid the soapbox.  Rambling discourses become boring very quickly.  Get the point across and move on.  If you’re at a party and some blowhard is going on and on about something, you generally tune him out or move on to a more stimulating conversation.  Your readers will do the same thing.  Don’t bore them with speeches.  Remember, you’re writing scenes in a novel, not producing a transcript.

There are only two things you want to accomplish with dialogue – advance the plot and develop your characters.  Anything else is fluff.  Unless you’re getting paid by the word, get to the point.

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Effective Dialogue – Dialogue should be heard not read

For me, dialogue is the true measure of a writer.  I’ve found that if a writer is adept at writing dialogue, then he’s almost always good at everything else, as well.  Writers who fall into this category also seem to use it a lot – not just so their characters can speak, but to show us what their characters are like, to explain how they think, to advance the plot, to provide humor and entertainment, etc.  Well-written dialogue is a terrific tool.  On the other hand, nothing detracts from a story more than poorly written dialogue.

When I was a kid and just beginning to get serious about writing I asked my dad how to write dialogue.  He gave me some basic, grammatical instructions and offered a few do’s and don’ts.  Then he said, “If you really want to learn how to write good dialogue study the writers who do it really well.  Start with John O’Hara, Ernest Hemingway, and Eudora Welty.  They are masters at dialogue but they each have their own style.  Studying how they do it will give you a good understanding of how it should be done.”  Then he thought about it some more and said, “The bottom line is dialogue should be heard not read.  When you read what you wrote, are you reading what you wrote or are you hearing the characters talk?  If you’re hearing their conversation then you got it right.”

Obviously, the authors Dad recommended were of his era, but they are still worth studying.  Later in life he added Scott Turow and Elmore Leonard to the list.

When I’m writing and I’m in a groove, it’s like I’m sitting in a booth at a diner and listening to the conversation in the booth behind me.  I’m not really aware of thinking very much or choosing words or putting in punctuation.  It just flows and I simply write down what I hear.

This relates back to an earlier article where I talked about getting to know your characters intimately.  If you really know your characters then you don’t have to think too much about what they would say or how they would react or any of that.  It’s almost like you’re involved in their conversation, not writing dialogue.  So, if you’re struggling with it, or if you don’t know what they would say or how they would react, then you probably don’t know your characters well enough.

Next week I’ll get into a little more detail about the technical side of writing dialogue.  But for now my recommendation is to study the people who write dialogue really well and pay attention to how they do it.  Likewise, if you know someone whose dialogue drives you crazy, study them as well.  It’s always good to know what not to do.  Then look at your own dialogue.  If it needs work you need to determine if it’s a technical problem or if your characters “just don’t sound right.”  If that’s the case then you don’t know them well enough and you need to take the time to get better acquainted.  If it’s a technical problem…check back next week.

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Plot Development – Tools for outlining

In this last article on plot development I want to talk briefly about tools you can use for outlining your novels.  There are any number of tools you can use, from low-tech to high-tech, depending on your preference.  You can simply write or type an outline.  You can use some kind of graphical computer program to create a visual picture of the structure.  Or you can use an in-depth charting tool.  In writing Consequences, I actually used Microsoft Project because I had a lot of dependencies that I needed to keep up with so that the timing worked to build the suspense and tension as the story progressed.  But that’s overkill.  You don’t need anything that complex to outline a novel.

The method I prefer is actually very low-tech…multi-colored index cards (or large post-it notes) and poster boards.  This is easy to use and provides a great big-picture, visual depiction of your plot.  Here’s what I do.  I use different colored cards for the MP and SPs and red dots to signify the “hooks.”  Hooks are simply points where I want to provide surprises or throw out something that will keep the reader turning pages.  On each card I write a quick note explaining what happens in that chapter.  Then I stick the card on the poster board.  If the chapter includes both MP and SP content then I’ll put the SP card below the MP card on the board.  You can accomplish the same thing by using the same colored cards and writing the info on them in different colors.  But I prefer different colored cards because it really jumps out at you when you stand back and look at it.  You can also lay the cards out on the floor and shuffle them around.  I prefer putting them on poster boards taped to the wall because I’d rather work standing up than crawling around on the floor.  It also keeps my cats from sitting on the cards or batting them around and getting them out of order.

This poster board with the cards attached works kind of like the storyboards they use for movies.  It makes it very easy to survey your plot to make sure everything is flowing like you want it to, that the SPs are woven through the story at the proper intervals, and that you’re providing enough hooks at the right places to keep the reader interested.  You can easily shuffle things around if you find gaps or problems with the sequencing of events.  You can add hooks if you identify any slow areas that need a boost.  And you can quickly see where you’re repeating yourself or putting in scenes that aren’t really needed.  Remember that you don’t have to write out your chapter cards in order, either.  You can write the cards as the chapter ideas come to you, then shuffle them around to see how they best fit together.

If you’ve never used this technique before I highly recommend it.  I think you’ll be surprised how helpful it is.  It’s cheap and easy and doesn’t require any hardware or software or other technical junk that can get in the way.  And, if for some reason you don’t find it useful, you haven’t invested a bunch of money.  As a matter of fact, you probably already have the materials you need to give it a try.

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Plot Development – To outline or not to outline…

I’ve had more than a few authors tell me that they don’t outline their novels.  They just sit down and start writing and see where it goes.  For what it’s worth, one of those was a successful author.  None of the others have met with any measure of success.  Be that as it may, the subject of this article is to discuss outlining your novel.  This is in reference to fiction writing, obviously.  If you’re writing a non-fiction book or anything other than fiction then you’re going to create an outline for your project.

I’ve heard lots of reasons for not outlining – it stifles creativity, it’s too confining, it’s boring, it’s too much like writing a term paper, to mention just a few.  Typically these excuses come from authors who are more enamored with the idea of “being a writer” than authors who actually produce manuscripts that are readable.  On the other hand, if you were responsible for creating a huge, important sales presentation at your day job, would you outline what you wanted to present?  After all, this is an important presentation that could bring in lots of money for your company.  It needs to be professional and slick and impressive.  Besides, your name’s going to be on it and you’re going to be responsible for presenting it to the big wigs.  Your credibility is at stake.  You better believe you’re going to outline that sucker.

So…what’s different about a novel?  Do you want it to be a money-maker?  Do you want it to be professional and impressive?  Unless you’re ghost writing or using a pseudonym, your name’s going to be on it.  Your reputation and credibility as a writer are at stake.  If an outline could help, why in the world would you not create one?  Well, again, there are lots of reasons and I’ve even used some of them myself.  As a matter of fact, I have about five novels that I’ve worked on without an outline.  They aren’t finished yet.  Go figure.

I think one reason authors don’t outline their novels is because they don’t know how.  It’s actually quite easy and if done properly won’t stifle your creativity.  In fact, it’s a very creative process itself and can be a lot of fun.  The first thing you do is develop your “cocktail party description.”  This is what you tell people you meet at a cocktail party who, when they learn you’re a writer, inevitably ask, “What’s your book about?”  Or maybe it’s what you scribble down on a cocktail napkin in the airport lounge as you’re waiting for your flight.  This is one paragraph, only four or five sentences, that states what your story is about.

Harry Bishop is living comfortably in a quiet little southern town, the kind of town where nothing much happens, and that suits Harry just fine.  But his peaceful existence is soon interrupted.  The trouble begins when a friend dies in what appears to be a tragic accident.  In the aftermath Harry learns that his friend had a few secrets of his own…the kind that involve the type of people he left Detroit to get away from.  In spite of his attempts to avoid involvement, Harry soon finds himself embroiled in a deadly, real-life chess match with a ruthless mafia hitman and an adversary from his past who still holds a grudge.

Next you take the cocktail party description and expand it into two paragraphs, then three, then four, and so on until you have two or three pages that outline what’s going to happen in your novel.  Keep in mind, this is still a high-level, very general outline.  But it does include how the story ends.  This is what an agent or publisher might request if they ask for a synopsis.  This should also include a paragraph or two about each of your subplots.

Once you’ve completed your synopsis you will work through the same process with your characters.  Refer back to my earlier articles on character development for more information on how to do this.

Now it’s time to sit down and diagram your plot like we discussed in the article on main plots and subplots.  Once this is completed you write a brief description for each chapter.  Keep it brief, no more than three or four sentences.

Harry comes home to find Charlie waiting for him at his house.  They listen to a CD Charlie brought over and make plans to meet for lunch on Monday to celebrate Harry’s birthday.  But when Harry hasn’t heard from Charlie by Monday evening he goes to his house and finds him, dead, floating face down in the river.

Now, when you sit down to write the chapter described above, you know what you’re going to write.  But you haven’t outlined it to the point that it becomes restrictive or limits your creativity.  There is still plenty of room for creativity in how you set up the scenes, how you describe what happens, how you write the dialog, etc.  And, of course, this is just an outline.  It isn’t set in stone or written in blood.  It’s written on paper, in pencil…metaphorically if not literally.  If you get a better idea you can always change it.

When you’re outlining your chapters you may want to do them all before you start writing your first draft, or you may only do a few at a time.  I generally outline three or four chapters, then write those chapters, then outline the next three or four chapters, and so on.  That way I always know what I’m supposed to be writing at any given time when I sit down and starting mashing keys.  You will need to experiment a little and see what works best for you.

That looks like a lot of work, but you know what?  Writing a novel is a lot of work.  Outlining will help you stay focused and “on track.”  It can also help prevent writer’s block since you know what you’re supposed to be writing when you sit down at the keyboard each day.  Outlining also helps reveal places for twists and turns and “hooks” to keep the reader turning pages.  I’ll go into more detail on this in my next article.

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Plot Development – Memories, flashbacks, and linear progression

Writers use a lot of literary devices to tell their stories.  Two of the most popular are memories and flashbacks.  Although similar, they are not the same.

A memory is simply that – a character remembering something that happened.  It’s simple and can be very effective in character development.  It’s brief, provides insight, and doesn’t break up the flow of the story.  It can also be a good way to create intrigue, build suspense, and bridge subplots to the main plot.  The key point here is that it’s just a quick trip inside the character’s head.  It only becomes distracting if there are too many of them.

A flashback, on the other hand, actually takes the reader back in time to another place.  This may be a quick detour or the plot may be reset, so to speak, at that point in time and move forward from there.  Flashbacks show us something about the character, explain why he behaves the way he does, or expose something important to the development of the plot that would otherwise not be known.

The problem for many writers who use flashbacks is that they overdo it.  They put in so many flashbacks it becomes distracting.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep up if the flashbacks aren’t sequential.  If the first flashback is a year ago, and the second six months ago, and the third two years ago it’s easy for the reader to get lost.  Especially when the flashbacks involve the same characters.  In movies it’s a little less confusing because the characters may look older or younger or dress in different styles.  But it’s still hard to keep up and trying to set the scene in a novel can be cumbersome.  You could do what they do in the movies and establish the time specifically…three months ago…  That works fine in movies but not so well in novels.

A much more common use of the flashback is to begin at a point very near the climax, then reset the story to a previous point in time and move forward from there, explaining how the character came to be in such a desperate predicament.  This allows you to “hook the reader” right off the bat.  Then the story resets and moves forward in a linear progression, building tension and suspense as it leads up to the point where the novel began.  In essence, the whole story is a flashback but I prefer this technique to the quick detour because of the linear progression.  It’s easier to follow, requires fewer “establishing shots,” and allows the story to flow without too many distractions.

In a story with numerous flashbacks it’s also helpful to have a linear progression with the flashbacks.  For example, let’s say you’re writing about a serial killer.  The main plot occurs in the present, but flashbacks can be used to explain how he became a serial killer.  The first flashback might be when he was six years old and something devastating happened in his life.  Then the second is when he’s ten and he first starts showing tendencies toward violence.  The third is when he’s seventeen and he assaults a young girl who lives in the neighborhood.  Then the fourth is when he’s twenty-two and he kills for the first time.  This type of linear progression within the flashbacks explains in a logical manner what transpired to create the psyche of the killer.  In this example, the use of flashbacks is critical to the story and more effective than if we simply started when the killer was six and moved to present day.

One interesting note about linear progression – it doesn’t have to be forward.  One of my favorite movies, Memento, progresses backwards.  It starts at the end and, instead of leading up to a climax, it works backward and explains how the main character got to where he was at the beginning.  It takes a few scenes before you realize what’s going on, but due to the really strange story line and a very unique flaw with the main character it works and it’s fascinating to see how everything is developed.

In summary…memories and flashbacks can be very useful tools in character and plot development.  But you should be careful to not overdo it.  Too many can disrupt the flow of the story and can be confusing.  Also consider using a linear progression, even with your flashbacks.  Life happens that way.  Time marches on, as they say.  Perhaps for that reason, it’s easier to follow a plot that has a linear progression.

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Plot Development – MP, SP1, and SP2

Have you ever considered how the plots were constructed in your favorite novels?  Do you look for formulas or plot structure in the novels you read?  If you’re a writer, do you diagram your plots so you know when to focus on the main plot, character development, or your subplots?

I think most authors say they don’t use a formula or plan their plots out in too much detail.  They say things like it’s too restrictive, limits creativity, even takes the fun out of writing.  If it becomes overly structured it’s too much like writing a term paper or a book report instead of a novel.

Well, this may or may not be true.  That probably depends on the writer’s personality, experience, talent, and so forth.  One thing is for sure – the authors who churn out one novel after another have a structure they follow.  It may be subconscious, but it’s there nonetheless.  You can prove this by diagramming their novels.  They follow a pattern that moves from main plot to subplots, back and forth, in such a way that you don’t get lost or forget what’s going on.  The experienced writers just kind of know to do this and don’t need to diagram it.  But the beginner or novice generally needs help keeping everything running smoothly.  The good news is that it’s really easy to do and if you keep it on a high level it won’t limit your creativity.  Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate the point.

By industry standards, a novel is 50,000 words or more.  The page count in popular fiction varies tremendously but most popular fiction runs about 250 pages in print.  That computes to roughly a 300 page manuscript.  With an average word count of 250 per page in manuscript format this computes to 75,000 words.  Obviously, these are rough estimates since these numbers can greatly vary depending on the amount of dialogue, descriptive content, paragraph length, etc.  But these are good averages to work with.  Plus, the math is easy.

Within all those words the writer has to develop his characters, throw them into some kind of situation or crisis, and add some additional material which will be one or more subplots.  A good rule of thumb for allocation is 65-25-10.  65% devoted to the main plot (MP).  25% devoted to subplot one (SP1).  10% devoted to subplot two (SP2).  If we continue with our math this breaks down to approximately 195 pages devoted to the MP, roughly 75 pages for SP1, and only about 30 pages for SP2.  Character development occurs throughout and is generally not included as a separate word/page count.

The key is to concentrate on the MP while working SP1 and SP2 into the storyline without getting too sidetracked.  You don’t want to be away from any of your plots so long that the reader forgets what’s going on.  In creating the structure you can actually map it out, chapter by chapter.  You want to loop back to your SPs every four or five chapters, depending on how long your chapters are.  For example:

Chapter 1 – MP
Chapter 2 – MP
Chapter 3 – MP, SP1
Chapter 4 – MP
Chapter 5 – MP, SP2
Chapter 6 – SP1
Chapter 7 – MP
Chapter 8 – MP
Chapter 9 – SP2
Chapter 10 – MP, SP1
…and so on.

This not only gives you some direction on what you need to be working on next, it also helps you keep the action connected.  In Consequences the MP was concerned with the mystery surrounding the death of Ron Maddox.  SP1 launched FBI Agents, Trevor Washington and Betty Logan, into a separate investigation that took them to South Florida.  However, while working on the case in Florida they uncovered evidence that pointed back to the Maddox case.  SP2 followed the actions of Ron’s widow, Carol.  This plot also provided information that tied back into the MP.  To make it all come together at the right time in the MP I had to chart out what happened where and when in both SPs because it was very time sensitive.  Without a detailed plot structure that would not have been possible.

One more point about structure.  You can work on each plot separately if that helps.  Then you simply go back and weave them all together.  This is a great option if you find yourself with writer’s block.  If you’re bogged down with the MP, write for a few days on SP1 or SP2.  This also helps you come up with twists and turns and allows for foreshadowing and red herrings and all that other literary junk writers like to talk about.

The next time you read a novel, or watch a movie for that matter, look for the MP and SPs.  The MP will be the major conflict that drives the story.  Very likely one SP will deal with a relationship, usually romantic, in which the main character is involved.  The other SP will be a device for character development, typically it involves a little humor and levity, and may not be directly tied into the MP.  It will be very evident if you look for it.

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Plot Development – There must be conflict (part 2)

When we left off last week Mary was in a bad situation.  She was concerned about the well-being of her family and their financial woes.  This was compounded by the possibility of losing her job which was their sole source of income.  But then the stakes got decidedly higher as three armed men entered the bank.  Concerns over long-term issues suddenly evaporated as one of the men stuck a gun in her face and started barking out instructions.

“Fill one bag with the money in the drawers,” the man said.  For a second Mary was immobilized by fear and just stood there staring at him.  “LET’S GO!” he shouted and she took one of the bags and hurried to the first teller window.

As she was doing this the other two robbers herded the patrons and bank personnel into a corner of the lobby.  One of the men began collecting cell phones and personal items while the other man grabbed the two remaining bags off the counter and went into the vault.

Mary set the bag on the floor and opened the first drawer.  As she removed the bills from the tray the man slammed his hand on the counter.  “Quit screwing around,” he said.  “Just dump everything in the bag.  Come on, move it.”

She took the till out of the drawer and bent over to put it in the bag.  In her haste a bundle of fifties fell into the trash can under the counter.  The man didn’t notice and she left it there.  As she moved to the second window she realized that her position was blocking the view of the cameras and the robber on the other side of the counter couldn’t see what she was doing as she bent to put the till in the bag.

Mary realized she had just discovered a way to stash away several thousand dollars.  If she could figure out a way to get the “trash” out of the bank later no one would know she had the money.  The bank would assume the robbers had it all and the robbers wouldn’t know the difference.

She moved to the next teller window and removed the till…

So, what’s your impression of Mary now?  Faced with an opportunity in the midst of a chaotic situation she made a decision to do something that she never would’ve considered otherwise – basically, rob the bank where she worked.  Did this decision change your opinion of her?  What about your interest in the story?  Are you more interested in what will happen next?  In ten paragraphs we expanded a single internal conflict into something much more complex.  If we had devoted those ten paragraphs to Mary standing at the teller’s window, worrying about her financial problems, would you still be reading?

By adding conflict we created a moral dilemma in addition to the threat of physical violence.  We added tension and suspense that will extend beyond the actual bank robbery itself.  We also greatly expanded Mary’s character.  What she decided and how she reacted to conflict added depth to her character.  What if she changed her mind about taking the money?  How would that affect your impression of her?

In my next article I’ll explain how to actually construct a plot by alternating between the main plot and subplots and how to use those subplots to create conflict that feeds back into the main plot.  But the keys to remember at this point are that you must have conflict and internal conflict provides depth to your characters and generates a more powerful response from your reader.

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Plot Development – There must be conflict (part 1)

The essence of storytelling is conflict, the struggle between opposing forces.  Conflict provides the motivation for your characters to act, to experience things they haven’t experienced before, to better understand who they are, and in some cases to evolve (or devolve) into someone different.  Basically, without conflict you have no story.

Types of conflict are internal (Man vs Self) and external (Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Society, Man vs Machine, etc.).  Most stories include several of these and the outcome is generally the resolution of the primary conflict.

Typically external conflict forces the characters to face some type of internal conflict with which the reader can empathize.  Disaster movies are classic examples of this.  Some great catastrophe occurs – a terrible storm, a devastating fire, a cruise ship flips upside down and begins to sink – which forces the characters to struggle with internal issues in order to survive.  They must find emotional strength they didn’t realize they had.  Or maybe they must face a phobia that has plagued them their entire lives.  They might have to deal with a problem affecting a relationship or come to terms with the loss of a loved one.  In some cases they may even have to resort to violence or act in a way that shakes their very moral fiber.  Can they do it?  Will they do it?  This is what draws the reader in and holds his attention, what builds suspense, and what elicits an emotional reaction to the story.

Let’s look at an example of how external and internal conflicts affect the characters and can change the tone of the story.

Mary was at her teller window at the bank counter but her mind was elsewhere.  Her husband had lost his job almost three months ago and her young son had been ill.  The bills were piling up and their only source of income was her job.  And then the rumors started that there would be layoffs at the bank, as well.

She spoke with the branch manager that morning and told him how much she needed this job.  He said he understood and he would do what he could but it was really out of his hands.  Of course, Mary knew that was BS. It may not be his decision on whether or not to lay off employees, but he would decide who was let go.  And the fact of the matter was that he liked the younger women who worked there more than he liked her.  He was always flirting with them and she had heard that he was “involved” with one of them.  Mary knew that if any tellers were laid off she would be the first to go.

The more she thought about it the angrier she got.  She despised her boss and was beginning to hate her job.  If she thought she could find work somewhere else she’d walk out of the bank today and never look back. Then the worries about her job vanished as three men suddenly burst through the front door.  They were wearing ski masks and dark overcoats.  Two of them carried shotguns and the third had a large pistol that he pointed directly at her as he walked across the bank lobby.

“Do exactly as we say and nobody gets hurt,” the man shouted.  He tossed several large bags on the counter and motioned at them with the gun.  “Fill ‘em up and be quick about it.  Anyone tries anything stupid, we start shooting.”

Okay, so Mary is definitely dealing with some internal conflict here – concern about the well-being of her family and, perhaps, some issues with self-esteem.  This is compounded by the external conflict of possible layoffs at the bank.  This is a tough situation and our hearts go out to her as we think about how we’d feel if we were in a situation like this.  Then another external conflict, the bank robbers, changes Mary’s focus.  It’s no longer about the job and what might happen in the future.  Now it’s about the very real, very immediate threat of violence.

Next week we’ll continue our story and see how changes in conflict can affect the reader’s perspective and the intensity of the story.  Will Mary’s internal conflict over her family’s issues affect her actions during the course of the robbery?  Will the threat of violence give her an epiphany about her job and what is really important in her life?  Will something happen during the robbery that will create even more conflict for poor Mary?  Stay tuned…

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Plot Development – Two simple formats

There are two simple plot formats that have always been popular – the “epiphany plot” and “the worm turns.”  Personally, I’m a big fan of the epiphany plot.  This is where the main character has an epiphany as a result of the conflict in the story.  Often the epiphany occurs right before the climax and affects the outcome of the story but it also extends beyond the context of the story.  The revelation changes everything from that point forward in the life of the character and often those around him.  With the epiphany plot the main character learns something profound about himself and, sometimes, the reader learns something about himself as well.

With the worm turns plot format the main character is someone who doesn’t like conflict, indeed does everything he can to avoid conflict.  But at some point he can’t run away any longer and must turn and face it head-on.  This plot structure was very popular in the past but is not quite so prevalent these days.  However, it still works, partly because of its simplicity and due to the emotional connection it often establishes between the reader and the character.

Back in the early to mid ‘70s there was a TV show, Kung Fu, about an orphaned American raised by Shaolin monks who returned to the American “Old West” in search of his half-brother.  The entire series was based on the worm turns plot structure.  In every episode Kwai Chang Caine (played by David Carradine) was bullied and mistreated until he could no longer tolerate it.  Then he kicked the snot out of the bad guys and left town to avoid any further conflict.  Often the abuse of another meek, peace-loving person was the catalyst for Caine to spring into action and “Kung Fu” somebody.  But every episode was written around this simple format.

As you might guess, stories based on the worm turns format often incorporate an epiphany for the characters, as well.  Combining the two concepts makes for an even more powerful plot.  Without the epiphany you tend to have a story that simply emphasizes gratuitous violence or sadistic behavior.  Good examples are the Death Wish movies starring Charles Bronson.  In the original movie there is a ton of internal conflict and the main character has a very significant epiphany which makes it a powerful movie.  However, in the sequels he is simply portrayed as a vigilante who hunts down thugs and sociopaths.  Without the internal conflict and the epiphany the sequels lose their entertainment value and even their focus.

In my next article I’ll go into more detail about the types of conflict – internal and external – and describe how they work together to provide depth and intensity.  But in the mean time, think about the novels and movies you really like.  I think you’ll be surprised to see how many of them incorporate these two simple plot formats.

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