“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most commonly given advice in writing, but there are places where telling is the right choice.
Tag: write tip
The Manuscript Shredder recommends: The Negative Trait Thesaurus
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s thesauri are a common sight on many writers’ bookshelves. Why? These books offer tons of information is a simple to reference form. Where many books on writing are long essays intended to be read from cover to cover, these books are organized as reference materials allowing writers to find the answer to their question quickly and get back to writing.
Why would I need a Negative Trait Thesaurus?
Characters need flaws. (No, being an adorable klutz doesn’t count.) Real people have flaws. Your characters should too. Flaws will make them more relatable and more realistic.
Without flaws, your characters cannot grow or change. Flaws are also sources of tension and conflict. These are critical for propelling your character into action. No conflict means no story.
Character flaws also allow you to set up a dynamic relationship between the hero and the villain. The contemporary villain is no longer allowed to sit in a dark tower and think evil thoughts. He must be actively trying to keep our hero down. The most effective villains are those that mirror the hero’s flaw. For example, in the Lego Batman movie, Batman’s flaw was his inability to form meaningful relationships. The Joker mirrored this flaw by always working with a team of villains. Every time they two fought, Batman was alone and the Joker had an enormous crew. This dynamic emphasized Batman’s flaw and brought an additional layer of tension to the relationship.
What’s great about the Negative Trait Thesaurus?
- This book is the blueprint for planning character arcs. It is simple to reference and easy to understand. Ackerman and Puglisi have stripped the information down and presented it in a clear, concise format that won’t have you wasting hours searching for answers.
- The book is comprehensive, covering over 200 different character flaws. You will never run of personal demons to give your characters.
- The book also has short essays on using the material to improve your writing. These compact articles provide valuable insight without wasting space.
What’s not so great?
This book is a starting point, not an answer key. Adhering too closely to the suggestions can lead to formulaic writing. Make sure you add your own unique perspective to your characters.
Add the Negative Trait Thesaurus to your writer’s library
Ackerman and Puglisi have created a superb reference for writers. While I like most of the books in this series, The Negative Trait Thesaurus is my favorite. If you only have funds for one, choose this one.
A link to the book (Affiliate)
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Create better scenes with a scene planning worksheet
Thinking about winging it for NaNoWriMo? You could end up staring at a blank screen with nothing to show for it. Don’t sit down to a blank page; have a plan. Scene planning worksheets will give you a simple framework to brainstorm your ideas so you will know what to do with those precious minutes when you actually have time to write.
Every writer has a different process, but sitting down in front of a blinking cursor with no idea what you’re going to write is a fast-track to frustration. Unless you have practiced free-writing and are comfortable typing whatever comes into your head, trying to write without a plan will lead you to long hours and little productivity. For many people, there is nothing more paralyzing than a tiny blinking line.
What is a scene planning worksheet?
Scene planning worksheets are outlines where writers can identify the key elements they want in their scenes. This will help ensure that scene have a purpose and are accomplishing story goals. Some of these elements include:
- Characters in the scene
- POV character’s conflict/actions
- Antagonist’s actions/reactions
- Character arc significance
Writing without specific goals can lead to scenes that do not serve the story and will eventually need to be edited out.
How to use the worksheet
The First Page
The first element is deciding if you are writing a scene or a sequel
This is based on the book by Dwight Swain (affiliate link, but I highly recommend this book)
- Scene- Conflict oriented: shows the character’s goal, the conflict/antagonistic force preventing him from achieving that goal, and ends with a disaster/failure
- Sequel-Transition oriented: shows character’s reaction to the disaster, the character processing the implications of his dilemma, and finally making a decision on how to proceed
After you have made the first decision, fill in the motivation, conflict, and stakes.
The next section is for the character’s actions. This will give you a place to summarize your sequence. The worksheet has four steps, but you may need more or less. There is no wrong answer.
The last box is the results of the scene. Did the POV character reach her goal? Decide what changes as a result of the scene.
The second page
If the conflict is resolved, follow the left column to increase the tension.
If the conflict is unresolved, follow the right column to raise the stakes.
This step is critical to keep the forward momentum going in your story. If the stakes remain unchanged, then essentially nothing has happened in your scene. A static story is a boring story. Consider the ticking clock analogy. Even if the stakes are “or he will die,” you must show that eventual consequence drawing near. Everytime you main character succeeds or fails, her problems need to only get worse. Keep this pattern up until the final battle.
Dark moment: this the hook that will get the reader to move on to the next chapter. This could be a sudden revelation or a last-minute bombshell. This will also set up the next scene or sequel in the sequence.
Tip: Make sure the previous scene/sequel leads logically into the next. A character who just found out her little sister was kidnapped isn’t going to go shoe shopping. The “disaster” is a scene sets up the “reaction” in the sequel and the “decision” in the sequel sets up the “goal” in the next scene. If you break this chain, your plot will feel disjointed.
Scene planning is another tool for writing
There are dozens of scene planning worksheets available online. If mine doesn’t work for you find one that does or create your own. The desire to write may be innate, but the ability must be learned. Finding your process will take time.
Try scene planning to make your writing process easier. You will write faster with better results, which means less editing later. Something every writer can appreciate.
The most frequent problem I see with drafts written in first person is the overuse of I-construction sentences, or its close cousin, “me” as object.
This week’s shredding was an absolute mess. Three chapters with no transitions, no actual scenes. It was written in a stream of consciousness memoir style. The narrator blipped in and out of awareness in glimpses of memories. Pieces that had only a loose chronological organization. Then it moved to another character and recounted his backstory in the exact same fashion. It was less like a novel and more like two people sitting at the kitchen table talking about a book they had read.
It was a mess, a beautiful, open, honest, raw and bleeding, mess. I loved it.
As I got to the end of the partial, I realized the overall structure of the book was a Joy Luck Club set in a small town diner owned and operated by recovering addicts. Each chapter of the book was dedicated to one of the people working in the diner, telling their story and how they came to the work at the diner. It was a collection of addiction stories, each poignant and painful.
The hazy structure of the narration served the story. In the opening chapter, we learn the story of the owner and how/why she came to open the diner. We also know that she was high through most of the narration. For this reason, the sudden flashes of consciousness make sense. Most of the day was blocked out. Her experience lacked transitions because only a significant moment would push through the drugs and make a permanent memory. If the author had given us clear transitions, we would have lost the sensation of being high with the character.
As an editor, this MS drove me insane. I wanted to make it fit into neat little packages: defined scenes with clear goals, story arcs, clean transitions, no backstory dumps, all the things the writing guides preach about. But the reader in me fell deep into the story. This manuscript is an example of why writers shouldn’t always follow canon. There are times to be rebellious.
Innovation is the basis of art
All the arts are perpetually evolving. Artists are constantly pushing the boundaries. Chaucer dared to write in English. Mozart dared to write operas about people, rather than gods. Brunelleschi’s demonstration of perspective revolutionized Renaissance art. Innovation is the life of the arts. In the current climate, innovation in the visual arts this tends to be rewarded, where the publishing industry remains staunchly conservative. Add this to the current decline in traditional publishing and most houses are reluctant to take chances on novels that stray from the formula. Literary fiction, in particular, is plagued by its reputation for low sales. It seems to be something from another age, as American cultural icons are more Kardashian than Truman Capote.
Perhaps we need to resurrect the romanticism of the starving artist, and writers should take more chances, straying from the formula and worrying less about what will sell. Writers should listen to their own stories and do what the story demands.
Had the author chosen to turn her story into a narrative fiction and followed the rules, the book would have lost its impact. It would have become like every other book on the shelf, and its beauty would have been lost.
How do I know if I can break the rules?
The short answer is you don’t. With any experiment, your only option is to try it and then analyze the results for yourself, but there are a few guidelines.
- Be intentional. If you are going to break a rule, make sure you leave no doubt about whether it was an accident. In this MS, the narration lacked any transitions. This worked because the MC was stoned. Breaking the rule added to the experience, it made sense logically. If the writer had only left out transitions in a few places but left them in others, it would have looked like a mistake. She could double-down on this if she made clear transitions when the MC was sober.
- If you are writing genre fiction, e.g. romance novels for a specific line. Breaking certain rules will guarantee your novel will never get published or might mean you have to rethink your category.
- Know why the current convention doesn’t work for your story and why breaking the rule is a better choice. The movie “Pulp Fiction” is famous for telling a story out of order. This was an innovative method when the movie was released, but it is the reason the movie works so well.
Be selective about what rules you break.
Conventions exist in writing because they work on some level. Readers rely on these conventions to make sense of a story. In the same way people tend to like music they are familiar with, people also like story structures that meet certain expectations. Give your readers enough that is familiar that they feel comfortable, and then stretch them gently. Breaking every rule without cause will turn your MS into an undecipherable mess, but introducing some innovation will drive the evolution of literature and propel your MS into something memorable.
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