Tag: writing

Scene Planning Worksheet

Scene Planning Worksheet

Scene planning worksheets will give you a simple framework to brainstorm your ideas so you will be ready when you actually have time to write.

How to avoid info dumping in dialogue

How to avoid info dumping in dialogue

Trying to sneak backstory into your dialogue rarely works. Fortunately, there is a better way

Correctly using Author Intrusion

Correctly using Author Intrusion

Authorial Intrusion: doing it right and doing it wrong-author toolbox

Thanks to Trish for suggesting this topic.

Authorial Intrusion is a literary device where the author intentionally breaks from the narrative and addresses the reader directly. Used correctly, this device can create a relationship between the author and the reader adding an additional layer to the story. Used incorrectly, it becomes an annoying nuisance. If you plan to intrude on the story, use these tips to make sure the reader really wants you there.

Correct use of Authorial Intrusion

In the classics, authorial intrusion was more common. Hawthorn in The Scarlet Letter, Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, and Hugo in Les Misérables are a few examples. (These intrusions also exist in plays as an aside or other forms of breaking the 4th wall.)

In these examples, the authors would interject commentary about a social or political issue into the prose. These comments were not intended to come from the POV character and often were used to illustrate how a character’s or society’s views were mistaken. These interjections could be a short as a phrase, or, in the case of Victor Hugo, could go on for pages. Usually, these were related to the theme or were otherwise politically motivated.

Authorial Intrusion is less common in contemporary literature.

Authorial Intrusion in contemporary literature is more commonly used for comedic effect or to portray the author as a character. Books like A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket uses frequent Authorial Intrusion. On the first page, Snicket begins the story by addressing the reader directly.

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. … I’m sorry to tell you this, but that’s how the story goes.

Snicket pops in and out the narration frequently, either to comment on the direness of the situation or to explain the meaning of a difficult word. This creates the illusion of Snicket, not as an invisible author, but as a living person who has discovered this story and is sharing it as a warning to others.

Incorrect use of Author Intrusion

In most stories, the author is invisible, intent on creating an immersive experience for the reader. Unfortunately, beginning authors often conspicuously bungle their way through the prose, banging their knees on the coffee table and stepping on Legos. Invisible or not, the reader is keenly aware of their presence.

POV errors

If you are writing in 1st person POV or deep 3rd, you shouldn’t use authorial intrusion. (If anyone has an example of this working, I want to see it.) You will break the illusion of immersion. In these POV’s, there is no omniscient narrator who is allowed to interject his/her thoughts into the story. Every word that is written must come from the POV character’s thoughts.

Political correctness

For example, if the POV character is a racist jackass, the writer might feel compelled to add in a sentence to let the reader know she doesn’t personally hold the same beliefs. Consider

I forced them all to line up against the wall, the others, the tainted ones. They don’t belong here. This is not their home.
It was an evil, terrible thing to do.

What? Notice how the POV character seems confused. Either she believes the others are bad, or she believes that mistreating them is wrong. Which is it?

Writing evil characters can be difficult, but just like in acting, give yourself “permission to play.” Remember these are your character’s actions, not yours. Readers expect villains to be evil, and they expect anti-heroes to have questionable tactics. Also, without mistaken views, there can be no redemption arcs. You don’t have to take time out of the narration to let readers know you think the villain is a bad person.

Unfamiliar concepts

Then Mary took the Babe in her arms, turned her eyes toward the heavens, and marveled at the stars twinkling like so many LED’s.

Huh? Using words or concepts that don’t exist in the POV characters world is jarring for the reader. A medieval sword described as humming with electricity? Only if the character is a time traveler. Keep contemporary concepts out of your historical character’s mouth.

Social values

A close relative to this is a character who inexplicably shares the author’s social values (often Judo-Christian) despite being raised in a society that does not share these values. My pet peeve is the devotion to virginity as a sign of higher morality. (notice: author intrusion!)

Unexplained knowledgeAuthor Intrusion-www.themanuscriptshredder.com

These would be concepts that do exist in the character’s world, but the character would not know about them. For example, if I suddenly knew something about sports. Or when the author slips in research by having the janitor accurately name the top-secret components of the Manhattan Project. Watch out for instances where you might be tempted to show off your research. The reader knows the character wouldn’t know these terms and therefore the illusion of being in the character’s viewpoint is disrupted.

Also, if the author pulls away from the POV character to tell the reader about something that happened off camera, or a detail that the character doesn’t know.

This second job was going to kill her, but she needed to pay for AJ’s medicine. Jane tossed her apron on the chair and collapsed on the old mattress. The one grandpa had stuffed with money decades ago.

If this were omniscient POV, the intrusion would be fine, but in limited or deep POV we can only know what Jane knows. Notice how the intrusion forces distance between to character and the reader. We can almost feel the camera pulling away. Instead of lying on the pillow with Jane, we are now hovering above her looking down.

Make sure your characters words are their own.

Dialogue mistakes

The final problem with unintentional author intrusion is dialogue mistakes. Here, characters use words of speech patterns that are not correct for the character.

In contemporary novels, all the characters sound like the author. There’s no use of regional colloquialisms, or speech patterns distinct to a specific character.

In historical novels, characters use words that don’t belong in their time period. This rule has a lot of flexibility. There are many examples of historical books/movies/TV series that do use contemporary language. Reign, Moana, A Knight’s Tale are a few examples of where this works. If you plan to use this technique, do some research and make sure your choice is intentional.

But what about fantasy novels?

Fantasy set in a completely fictional world does not need to sound like a Renaissance Faire. Again, do your research and use the conventions associated with your genre. Game of Thrones sounds completely different from A Court of Thorns and Roses, yet both are historical fantasy. Whichever direction you choose, keep the style consistent.

Author Intrusion can add texture to your narration.

Correctly using Author Intrusion can create another layer of storytelling adding dimension to your novel, but unintentional intrusions jar the reader out of the story, create distance, and make your writing sound amateurish. Watch out for these mistakes and keep your readers fully immersed in the story.

 

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Most Common Mistakes in Opening Chapters

Most Common Mistakes in Opening Chapters

Common mistakes that will ruin your opening chapter and how to fix them.

Changing Telling into Showing

Changing Telling into Showing

“Show don’t tell” is probably the most commonly given advice in writing. So why is it so important?

Correctly Using Beats in Dialogue

Correctly Using Beats in Dialogue

Give me a beat!

seriously, please.

Pages of uninterrupted dialogue will make your readers crazy. It will lead to characters who seem to exist outside their bodies, ghost-like characters who cannot interact with their settings, characters who are devoid of emotion, and even characters who don’t have a thought in their heads. Don’t let your novel read like a script. Use beats.

What is a beat?

In a movie, beats are the silent moments between lines of dialogue. These are the moments where actors add personality and character to the script. Actors create a complete internal monolog to give their characters authenticity. The same must also happen in a novel. Real conversations have pauses and breaks. In a novel, beats are shown through the actions that happen between lines of dialogue.

“How are you feeling?” Something twisted in her chest. It was Neil’s voice. There were so many times she had wanted to wake up and hear that voice. God, she had missed him.
Except for the part that he was a jerk, and he left her, and she hated him.
“Ok, I suppose. My head hurts.”

The text between the two lines of dialogue is the beat. Notice how the dialogue is the least interesting part of the interaction. Without the middle, this exchange would be meaningless.

What happens when the beats are missing?

The results are usually referred to as ‘talking heads:’ disembodied voices that no longer interact with their settings. Readers begin to lose track of where the characters are. The setting vanishes.

beatsin-dialogue

The second problem is pacing. Dialogue without beats feels rushed. Consider

“How are you feeling?”
“Ok, I suppose. My head hurts. Are you driving my car?”
“After that botched exorcism, Mrs. Wilson kicked us out. Threatened to have me arrested. You were still unconscious so I had to steal your car. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Botched? How did he get out of the circle?”
“Dear old mommy felt sorry for him.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. He could have killed you. How’s your arm?”
“I’ve had worse.”

Notice how the dialogue feels rushed. We are unable to connect with either character, and we know almost nothing about what is really happening in the scene. Our characters never have a moment to think, and so they give the impression that they never do.

Now compare the original

“How are you feeling?” Something twisted in her chest. It was Neil’s voice. It sounded so good to hear it. There were so many times she had wanted to wake up and hear that voice. God, she missed him.
Except for the part that he was a jerk, and he left her, and she hated him.
“Ok, I suppose. My head hurts.” Trees whizzed by the window. That explained why her chair was moving. “Are you driving my car?”
Did he rummage through her purse to get the keys?
“After that botched exorcism, Mrs. Wilson kicked us out. Threatened to have me arrested. You were still unconscious so I had to steal your car.” He smiled at her. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“Botched?” Images of Jimmy attacking Neil flashed through her head. “How did he get out of the circle?”
He drummed on the steering wheel with his thumbs. “Dear old mommy felt sorry for him.”
She sat up. The car spun around her head. The pain behind her left eye began to pulse. A migraine wasn’t out of the question quite yet.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. He could have killed you.” Neil had his leather jacket back on, but she didn’t see any other evidence that he was wounded. “How’s your arm?”
He brushed her hand off his sleeve. “I’ve had worse.” Why was he being short with her? She hadn’t done anything.

Notice how most of the scene takes place outside the dialogue. The two characters aren’t saying what they are really thinking, which adds to the tension between them.

When we lose the beats between the dialogue, the MRU is incomplete.

(If you are unfamiliar with the Motivation-Reaction Unit, read this post)

While speech can function on either side of the input/output cycle, relying solely on speech omits feeling and action from every MRU. Without feeling and action, characterization vanishes. Readers need to know what is going on in a character’s head to connect with them. Include feeling, thoughts, and movement, where necessary, to fill out your MRU and tell the entire story.

Non-POV characters should also have complete MRU’s. (Obviously, we will need to leave out internal dialogue, but a non-POV character’s thoughts should be detectable through their external responses.)

How to fix talking heads

If you have a scene that is several lines of uninterrupted dialogue, you may have a problem with talking heads.

Isolate every line and create an MRU surrounding it.

Creating an MRU

Motivation/Input

Dialogue is only one component of the motivation or input portion of the MRU. Characters continually take in information through their five senses. Stop for a moment and pay attention to all of your senses. At this moment you are getting information from all of them. However, your brain can only focus on one at a time. The writer must decide which senses a character will be noticing at any given moment and relay that information to the reader.

For the first line of dialogue your POV character hears, choose a secondary sense to add additional information. Sight is the most frequently used, but don’t forget about the others.

“I’m open to suggestions,” she said, her voice barely audible over the ‘critical failure’ warning blaring in the background. (Notice I did not use the word “hear” in the sensory description.)

Reaction

How does the POV character react to the new information: the reactor’s about to melt down and the person in charge doesn’t know what to do? Maintain the correct order for the reaction:

  1. Feeling: (involuntary responses) His lunch made a few quick flips around his stomach.
  2. Action: (mental, i.e. thoughts as well as physical movements) He glanced down at his mop and bucket.
  3. Speech: “You’re the engineer.”

Keep in mind your non-POV character is on her own MRU cycle. All the information from the custodian’s reaction becomes her motivation. Even if you can’t include the engineer’s thoughts, you, as the writer, should know what they are. This will help make sure your secondary characters have their own lives.

Now that you have all this additional information, you need to cut some, or most, of it back. Vary your beat length for specific effects. A heated argument will have short beats to maintain the energy and forward momentum. Longer beats are required for a character making a life changing decision. Experiment to find the right pacing for the emotional intensity of your scene.

Using beats in dialogue

Most lines in dialogue need beats

Beats are the window into the POV character’s mind. It is everything else that is happening in the scene: what a character sees, smells, touches, tastes, hears, and thinks. They anchor characters in their setting and firmly in their bodies. Beats are necessary to tell the entire story. Don’t let your characters be voices lost in space; make sure you utilize beats in your dialogue.

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Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Bad feedback will ruin a wonderful story. Learn to recognize bad advice.

What’s the deal with Passive Voice?

What’s the deal with Passive Voice?

The definitive guide to recognizing passive voice and when to use it

Creating a Killer First Line

Creating a Killer First Line

The Secret to Writing a Great First Line

The first line is the most examined line in your story. Many readers will use this small collection of words to judge your entire book. Make sure your opening line is selling your story.

According to Jeff Gerke, an opening line must be “simple, engaging, and appropriate for the tone of the book.” (The First 50 Pages, p. 193)

pexels-photo-94303

Creating a simple opening line

Opening lines need to have one idea. Too often writers want to pack too much information into an opening line. As a result, the opening line answers whatever question it poses and leaves the reader no compelling reason to read further. Or it becomes too convoluted and confusing for the reader to follow. Deliver information in manageable bites. No one wants to eat the entire steak at once. No matter how delicious it is.

Compare:

The scent of fresh baked cookies hits my nose as I entered my best friend Julie’s bakery, The Cookie Brigade, making my stomach growl, while my brain simultaneously reminded me that I only have three more weeks to fit into my size 6 wedding dress.

or

The scent of fresh baked cookies filled me with an overwhelming sense of doom.

Notice how the simple line is much easier to swallow. It also sets up a question, inviting the reader to learn more.

Creating an engaging first line

Creating a killer opening line

An engaging first line is one that captures the reader’s interest. Sounds simple, but this is the part that trips most writers because what captures a reader’s interest is subjective. It’s also difficult because the writer already knows where the scene is going so many writers stuggle to get enough distance from the subject to see if the first line is truly engaging.

Gerke further explains that effective opening lines fall into four categories: Striking, profound, funny, mysterious. (p. 197)

Striking: Everyone has a demon; mine is sitting in a beat-up leather recliner smoking menthols.

Profound: The worst evil was always the one hiding behind respectability.

Funny: There are two things that work best when they’re invisible: God and underwear.

Mysterious: I woke up on the other side, knowing there was no way home.

Matching the tone

The first line is the introduction to your book. It must match the overall tone of the story. No matter how snappy your opening line is, if it doesn’t match the rest of the book it doesn’t work. Imagine beginning your gothic horror with a joke, or your rom-com with a graphic depiction of violence. It doesn’t work.

Steps to creating your opening line

  1. Plan out your scene.
    This scene must start your story. There must be conflict. The conflict does not have to be the story’s main conflict, but it must be the first step in your character’s journey. No false starts. No matter how clever or funny the dialogue, or how much world-building, or character building you have in the scene, if the conflict isn’t part of the character’s journey, it does not get the responsibility of being your first chapter. There is too much at stake to waste those critical first pages not telling the story.
  2. Visualize your character at the beginning of this scene.
    Have a clear picture of where your character is, what she wants, and what is in her way. Once you have this, you can decide where you need to start your scene. Only show the reader enough for the conflict to make sense.
  3. Now write what is right in front of your character’s face.
    This can be literally right in front of their face, or it can be the last thought that runs through your character’s mind. Remember the character must be focused on his current conflict. The opening line must introduce or lead to this conflict.

Have something? Now make sure it passes Gerke’s test. Is it simple, engaging, and appropriate for the tone of the book?

Yes? Great job. If not, figure out which element isn’t working and try again.

A memorable opening line can sell your book

Writing your opening line is difficult, but it’s not impossible. The effective opening is a simple, engaging hook that introduces your story and gives the reader a reason to continue. By using Gerke’s checklist you will be sure you have created the introduction your novel deserves.

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Further reading: (affiliate, but I genuinely recommend this book)

 

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Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

The secret to increase tension, raise the stakes, and propel your readers to the very last page.