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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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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 – 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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