Category Archives: How to Write

How to Read the Classics to Become a Better Writer

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Top Three Things to Learn Before Writing a Novel

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How to Tell a Good Story

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The Importance of Beta-Readers, and How to Find Them

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How to Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.

DON’T DO THIS.

Don’t do this either.

AND DEFINITELY. DO. NOT. DO THIS.

Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

Related Posts

Creative Writing

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

Publishing & Writer’s Life

How to Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

A Week in the Life of a Writer, and a Peek Inside my Office

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Filed under Actors, Authors, Books, Classics, Creative Writing, Films, Films/Movies, How to Write, How to Write a Book, Movies/Films, Movies/Television, Research, Stories, Storytelling, Writing

How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

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 When I first decided to write a novel, I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I’d written and published poems, articles, and essays, but never any fiction. To get ready for my first novel, I read lots of how-to books on writing novels, but they said some of the silliest things, including that I needed to have characters, plot, and dialogue. Anyone who’s ever read a novel knows those things, so I didn’t feel those books helped me when I was trying to figure out how to transition from poetry and non-fiction to fiction. My first novel was historical, so after I completed all the research, and after I knew who my protagonists (both narrators) were, I wrote a detailed outline. Then I began writing the novel.

Within a month, my characters started doing things that weren’t in my outline. I was shocked. Since I’d never written fiction, I hadn’t realized that characters could do such things. At that time, I also didn’t know any other fiction writers: all my writer-friends wrote poetry or non-fiction, as I did. None of them seemed to know how fiction worked when it was actually being written, so they told me that I must have “forgotten” to include those scenes in the outline.

I redid the outline, feeling pretty confident that no character would surprise me again. Less than two scenes later, another character did something unexpected. I redid my outline again. And, once more, my characters surprised me with something I’d “forgotten.”

As you can imagine, I was beginning to get annoyed with my own characters.

Instead of trying to force them to follow my outline, however, I ditched it.

Oh, I glanced at my original outline a few times after that, but instead of attempting to stick to it, I just waited for my characters to tell me what was supposed to happen next. To my surprise, that approach worked. In fact, my characters showed me scenes that I would never have consciously thought of, so I quickly learned to trust them to guide me in writing a novel.

I’ve never outlined a novel since that initial try. Though I realize that many writers feel more comfortable writing outlines for their novels, especially if they’re writing a series of novels, I think every writer can benefit from writing a novel without any outline. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s also very artistically rewarding.

The Importance of Conflict

If you’re not familiar with the concept of Urgency, which keeps readers turning pages, then you should read my post on Urgency for additional explanation of the term since I am only going to be discussing plot Urgency in this post.

Most readers initially read a book for its plot: they turn pages to see how the story unfolds. There are many published authors who are master storytellers — i.e., their plots are so compelling that the reading audience cannot put the books down — without necessarily being brilliant writers: their characters may not be fully developed or their writing style may not be exceptional. Good storytellers who write successful books have mastered plot Urgency, however, and that is all that matters to their readers.

Urgency is somewhat easier to develop when it is part of the plot because you must have conflict in plot, and conflict readily lends itself to Urgency. All fiction must have conflict: without it, there is no reason for the audience to continue reading. You could almost say that stories exist so that the audience can see how the characters work through the conflicts they encounter.

Traditonal Categories of Conflict

The traditional divisions of conflict in fiction have typically been divided into these categories:

man vs. man
man vs. himself
man vs. nature
man vs. supernatural

Of course, many stories, novellas, and novels have many of these conflicts all at the same time. It doesn’t matter how an author classifies his conflict, only that he include conflict in his fiction.

You should increase the plot conflicts in importance and intensity throughout the novel to maintain your readers’ interest. Some writers call this the “dramatic arc,” while some critics call this the “rising action,” which simply means that it is a series of conflicts increasing in intensity until you arrive at the peak, which they call the “climax,” meaning it’s supposed to be the “ultimate conflict” of the work.

Dénouement 

Historically, the  “falling action” or “the dénouement” (translation, “untying or unraveling the knot”) occurred after the ultimate conflict. In the dénouement,  all conflicts among characters were resolved, and all resolutions to the fictional world presented. The dénouement was meant to be a sort of catharsis for the reader, releasing any remaining anxiety and tension, while eliminating difficulties for any of the characters. In short, these were the days when readers had to be reassured that they were reading a story, and, in effect, the author had to inform them how everything turned out.

Although some authors still include a dénouement in the form of an epilogue, which ties up any loose ends in the characters’ stories and answers any remaining questions readers might have, much of contemporary fiction, especially books written in series, no longer include a dénouementInstead, authors who write book series typically end each book with plot Urgency in order to make the reader want to get the next book. In literary fiction, authors often end on Urgency because they want the endings to be ambiguous, morally questionable, or open to interpretation. As fiction itself has become more sophisticated, so has its readers — or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any event, readers no longer need an author’s reassuring dénouement at the end of a piece of fiction.

Conflict in a Series

If you are writing books in a series, remember that each book has to have its own increasing conflicts, and the series itself has to have its own separate, ever-increasing conflicts. Many authors make the mistake of writing an incredible first book in a series, with a tremendous plot, full of great conflict and Urgency, then write subsequent books in the same series where the plot slows down tremendously (the books also often get shorter) and the Urgency virtually disappears. Even if you’re using an outline, you need to keep plot Urgency in the forefront when writing your novels. Without an outline, plot Urgency is imperative.

Knock Your Protagonist’s World Off Its Axis

To begin your novel, especially if you’re trying to do it without an outline, you should write the one scene that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis. That means you’re introducing both your protagonist and your antagonist (or, at least one of the antagonists) in your novel immediately, and that’s a good thing. Make sure that this earth-rocking event is described in detail. You want your readers to connect immediately with your protagonist: they should want to know how he will handle this event. Write it in sufficient detail to keep the readers wanting to continue your story.

Backstory

Previously, some literature or creative writing instructors used to insist that the protagonist’s “backstory” had to be presented before any major conflict was shown. If these instructors drew this premise on the board, they showed it as a flat line before the “rising action” of the plot was presented. Visually, that flat line of the backstory was very symbolic: nothing important happened. The backstory was, literally, the history of the characters before any conflict began.

As fiction became more sophisticated, readers no longer wanted to plow through endless “backstory” in which nothing happened: they wanted to jump right into the action. Writers have learned to eliminate this flat plain of backstory and weave anything of importance in the characters’ history into the main story itself. Most successful fiction now starts with Urgency; thus it begins with conflict.

Starting with characters’ backstory, even if it’s the backstory of your protagonist, is a sure way to eliminate Urgency from your novel. Start with the event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, and you’re more likely to engage your readers’ interest from the first page.

Additionally, no matter how much of your characters’ backstory you write for yourself — including lists of character education, skills, or physical description — you want to avoid large blocks of backstory anywhere in your novel, as these blocks of information, which do not move the plot forward, will slow your story down. Instead, put any pertinent information from your character’s backstory in as hints or, even better, simply let the backstory, which is the protagonist’s personal history, determine your protagonist’s behavior. You don’t ever need to write several chapters (or scenes) of backstory to explain why your protagonist is behaving as he does: readers can infer that it has something to do with his own backstory, or they can, alternately, interpret his behavior for themselves.

Ask “What Happens Next?”

Once you understand the importance of Urgency, especially plot Urgency, and once you have written the scene which details the event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, then you only have one other “step” to keep in mind while writing a novel without an outline: ask What happens next?

When you know what happens next in the plot, which is the main story in your novel, make sure that you write that scene fully, including any other characters that are involved, as well as dialogue. Make sure that you write the second story-plot scene completely, and make sure that it has conflict.

Bear in mind that though this may be the second scene in the main story of the novel, i.e., the second scene in the plot-conflict, it may not end up being the second scene in the novel. You may decide, in subsequent drafts, that another scene may work better after the initial scene. You may have a flashback scene or a (brief) backstory scene; you might introduce the antagonist more fully.

The second scene in the plot-conflict of the story advances the story itself with Urgency, as should each scene which moves the story forward. If you were to put them one after the other, you would have the main plot of the novel. There may be other scenes in the novel, such as those which reveal backstory, other conflicts, relationships between the characters, sub-plots which have their own stories, etc., but the major plot-conflict story — the one which starts the novel itself — should always be clear to the readers so that they can follow what happens.

Now you should have at least two scenes, both involved in the major plot-conflict of the story, both with Urgency, fully written, both of which move the plot forward toward the eventual final conflict of the story.

Now ask again, What happens next?

Each time you ask this question, remember that you are thinking of the major plot story with its increasing conflicts, which lead to the ultimate (and final) conflict (in the stand-alone book or in the entire series) in order to “answer” this question.

Each time you get an answer to this question, write the scene completely, in as much detail as possible.

Repeat as necessary.

Other Scenes

Although many other scenes and plot events may appear to you, you should write these parts of the book separately since they may not appear in the final version of the novel: they may be backstory, for example, and though you may need to know these stories in great detail to write the novel, your readers may not need as much detail about the backstory.

Also, recall that this is your first draft — which should never be published as it is — and you will have plenty of time during revision and editing to change Point of View, re-arrange scenes, insert or delete sections, add or subtract characters, etc. Concentrate on conflict and plot Urgency when writing the first draft of a novel without an outline: that will keep your work focussed.

The Great Unknown

You do not have to know the entire story yourself when writing a novel without an outline in order to successfully enjoy the process itself. Some writers know the beginning and the end when they initially get the idea for the novel. They don’t know how to get from the beginning to the end, but they’ve learned that they don’t have to. Other writers do not get a vision of the story’s end along with their vision of the novel’s beginning, but they proceed with anyway, trusting that their artistic intuition will guide them.

That’s basically how you write an entire novel without an outline: concentrate on plot-Urgency, start with the single event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, and discover each subsequent scene in the story by asking What happens next?

Does that seem too easy?

That’s because you’ve never done it yourself.

Does it seem to hard to write an entire novel like that?

Depends on whether you like the excitement and the challenge of discovering your own talent as you discover the story of your characters.

Obviously, writing without an outline isn’t the only way to write a novel, but it’s certainly a thrilling way for writers to attempt at least once in their careers.

Related Posts

Writing

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

Publishing

How to Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

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Filed under Creative Writing, How to Write, How to Write a Book, Stories, Storytelling, Urgency, Writing, Writing & Revising

How to Pitch Your Book

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Agent: Pitch me your book.
Author: What?
Agent: Tell me what it’s about in one sentence. Make me want to read it.
Author: You have to read the book to know what it’s about.
Agent: No, you have to Pitch it. You have 4 minutes left.
Author: It’s about loss.
Agent: What kind of loss?
Author: All kinds.
Agent: Loss of life? Loss of money? Loss of love? Help me out here.
Author: It’s about all kinds of loss. And love.
Agent: What kind of love? Family love? Married love? Platonic love?
Author: All kinds.
Agent: Time’s up.

That is a verbatim interaction, and it happened at a Writing Conference. The unpublished writer kept insisting that the agent had to read the entire manuscript to know what it was about. Obviously, the author didn’t understand the all-important Pitch. Writers have to metaphorically “sell” their manuscripts to agents, editors, and readers. Writers do that with a Pitch. Even if you’ve been traditionally published before, you’ll probably have to Pitch each new book to your agent or editor — unless you’re a bestseller — so learning how to Pitch a book is one of the most important things writers ever do. It takes some practice, but you can learn how to Pitch your work effectively by following a few guidelines.

• The best Pitch has Urgency, because without Urgency, it won’t get anyone’s attention.
(If you don’t know what Urgency is, read my posts on Urgency Pt 1 and Pt 2.)
• A Pitch should ideally be one sentence.
(It doesn’t have to be short, but don’t make it too very long.)
• It should fit only one individual book.
• It should not reveal the ending.
(Though it may seem obvious that a Pitch should not give away the ending, you’d be surprised how many writers ruin their Pitch this way.)

Now, let’s analyze some weak and strong Pitches. The following Pitches are not very successful (these are real Pitches to agents and editors) because each Pitch should be concise, unique, and attention-grabbing.

It’s a rags-to-riches tale.
It’s a Cinderella tale.
It’s a coming-of-age story.
It’s about love.
It’s about loss.
It’s about my uncle the dentist.
It’s about my life.

All those are too vague.
And the one alluding to Cinderella gives away the HEA ending as well.

In Hollywood, it’s common for people Pitching a new show or film to compare the project to previously financially successful shows and films. The Hollywood people listening to the Pitches don’t have to have seen the films mentioned: all the producers have to know is whether or not the films made money. Book Pitches that mimic Hollywood film Pitches compare themselves to other successful books or authors. This type of Pitch can be either too vague or too narrowly specific. Either way, it will fail.

Love Kay Scarpetta? Missing Mitch Rapp? Do Clancy and Grisham make your day? Check out [Author]: she won’t disappoint.

This Pitch doesn’t compare authors to authors, or books to books, or even characters to characters. Instead, it mixes fictional characters with authors, but not with the authors who created the aforementioned fictional characters. Further, if a reader don’t know any of those names, he won’t read the book. This Pitch is trying to capitalize on characters from bestselling books, as well as on bestselling genre authors, but it’s too generalized, vague, and mixed-genre to work.

This could this be the next 50 Shades except it’s darker, rougher, more graphic, and more intense than 50 Shades of Grey.

This Pitch is very specific, and it might work for readers of the bestseller, but not if they don’t like “darker, rougher, more graphic” sexual scenes. For anyone who hasn’t read the original book it’s modeling itself after, the Pitch makes no sense.

He’s Dexter, if Dexter was a professionally trained covert espionage agent with a wicked sense of humor.

This Pitch mixes the character of a television show, with whom readers may not be familiar, with the unnamed “He” of the Pitch, and says “he’s Dexter, if Dexter was…” all the things that Dexter apparently is not. I’ve never seen Dexter though I’ve heard of it. All I know is that he’s a cop or detective or some other law enforcement person who’s really a serial killer. So I know absolutely nothing about this book. Worse, I don’t want to.

For fans of Nalini Singh
• If you enjoy Michael Crichton, Philip K. Dick, or Robert Ludlum, you need to read this book
• Twilight meets Outlander

These all fail for the same reasons: if the reader doesn’t recognize the authors, the books, or the genres, the Pitch doesn’t succeed at selling.

Even worse than these weak Pitches, however, is the trend among self-published authors to attempt to use subtitles as Pitches. These authors end up with subtitles that are neither Pitches nor subtitles, but merely a list of genres or buzzwords.

An Electrifying Whodunit
• A Supernatural Boarding School
• A Paranormal Time-Travel Espionage Romance
• A Compelling Action-Packed Military Adventure Crime-Thriller Suspense Mystery
• A Well-Written Cheeky Frontier Cowboy Historical Western Erotic Inspirational Christmas Romance
• Gritty Action and Heartfelt Drama Meets Alien Adventurers And Conspiracy Theorists
• Twists, Turns, Greed, Gunfights, Romance, and Espionage. What More Could You Want?
• A Gripping, Thrilling, Bang-up Financial Mystery That Stops You In Your Tracks!
• A Dark Brutal Psychological Thriller Suspense With A Twist You Won’t See Coming That Will Keep You Guessing Till The End!!!

Yeppers, those subtitles, complete with all the exclamation points at the end, are desperately trying to be Pitches because they’re attempting to “sell” the books to the readers. I think the authors are also trying to review their own books in the subtitles, but I’m not sure. I’m guessing you already know why these wannabe Pitches don’t work.

Now you’ve seen the most obvious things that doom a book’s Pitch: vagueness, lack of Urgency, unfamiliar allusions, genre lists, faux review buzzwords.

What makes a successful Pitch? It is unique: it fits only that one book, not even another book by the same author. It has Urgency, which is what makes the reader want to find out more. It’s one sentence long. It does not reveal the ending.

Here are some successful Pitches, most written by traditionally published authors or their editors, but some written by Indie authors. (These Pitches were at the beginning of the book’s back cover editorial review; I’ve edited the punctuation in a couple places.)

• When a woman’s body is discovered submerged in a crab pot in the chilly waters of Puget Sound, Detective Tracy Crosswhite finds herself with a tough case to untangle. (The Trapped Girl, Robert Dugoni)

• In 1939 Nazi Germany, Death has never been busier… and Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing something she can’t resist: books. (The Book Thief, Markus Zusak)

• On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary: presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. (Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn)

• Rachel Jenner is walking in a Bristol park with her eight-year-old son, Ben, when he asks if he can run ahead: it’s an ordinary request on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, and Rachel has no reason to worry — until Ben vanishes. (What She Knew, Gilly MacMillan)

Here are a few more successful Pitches. I read most of these when I was teaching University students or writers at conferences to Pitch their work. I received some as an editor. (Most of these Pitches belonged to books that were then traditionally published.)

• If you knowed the truth about me, and about what I done, you wouldn’t be the first to spit in my face, and then order me to explain myself right quick.

• On a regular day that should be as uneventful as the rest, Lorena sees her business partner murdered: now who will keep her safe?

• “My name is Holden,” and you probably know me already from the famous book about me, Catcher in the Rye, by my pal JD, but I doubt if you know my most secret story.

• Conrad has spent his life looking for answers to the questions that haunt all of us: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Who first thought of putting a corn-breaded hotdog on a stick to deep-fry it, and why?

• Lies, manipulation, and murder are everyday occurrences in the world of espionage, but when Agent Jennifer Raye is forced to work with her former lover to stop the delivery of a weapon to a terrorist nation, she fears one of them will not survive.

• I loved him more than I loved myself, and that was why I had to kill him.

• When four rape victims come to Ben Pace — a Lakhota healer — Ben is given the task to help these women seek justice while, at the same time, aid them in their healing process. (How the Strong Survive, Newton Love)

• At Frank’s Roadhouse in Half Moon Bay in December 1930, the good life of the Roaring Twenties is still in full swing until a blackmailer begins targeting Frank’s wealthy and well-known clientele. (Roadhouse Affairs, Newton Love)

You’ve seen some Pitches that fail, and you know why they don’t work. You’ve seen some Pitches that succeed — for agents, editors, and for general readers. You’re ready to start writing your own. These tips can help you write the strongest, most marketable Pitch possible:

• include Urgency
• say it in one sentence
• tailor it for only one book
• don’t give away the ending

With practice, you should be able to write reasonably successful Pitches for your books. Be sure to try the Pitches out on family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and co-workers who have not read the entire book. Once you have a successful Pitch — one that makes people say, “Wow, I want to read that. Where can I get a copy?” — then you should memorize it in order to be able to effortlessly deliver it whenever someone asks you what your book is about. You need the Pitch before and after a book is published. If you’re querying an agent or editor, put your Pitch at the start of the query letter. If you’re self-publishing, the Pitch should be at the start of your “editorial description / editorial review.”

Want me to look at your Pitch? I’d be happy to. But please don’t put it in comments, on the twitter, or on the book of face, because all my accounts are public. Send your Pitch to me via the Contact form, and I’ll let you know if I’d want to read more of the book when it got published.

Related Posts

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

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Writing Effective Dialogue

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Once fiction writers have mastered Urgency (parts one and two) and creating realistic characters, the next major stumbling block is usually portraying effective dialogue. The biggest mistakes inexperienced writers make are including absolutely every single word or sound someone might say in real life (things like uh, duh, hmmm, etc.), writing dialogue so wooden and lifeless that no human on earth could ever possibly talk that way, or attempting to imitate Voice artificially through incorrect punctuation, for example, rather than through vocabulary or dialect patterns. That kind of dialogue can end up looking something like this,

“Uhn-uh, NO. You did NOT just say that. Oh, noooooo, you are NOT realllllly ser-i-ous, ARE you? Because. I. Do. Not. Believe. This. Uhn-uh. Not. At. All. I am NOT going to stand here and take any more CRAP-OH-LA from YOU, buster,” she shrilled like a cockatoo, waggling her eyebrows at him in defiance and disbelief.

That kind of dialogue is so distracting, the readers notice more about the way the author wrote the scene than about what’s going on between the characters. With only a few tips — and lots of practice — you can learn to write dialogue that is more effective than many real life conversations, and that’s essential for successful fiction.

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Aim for Artistically Natural Dialogue
Unless you are already an accomplished in the area of writing dialogue, I recommend that you speak all your dialogue into a tape recorder or smartphone’s voice memos before writing it. Say everything as naturally as you normally would, that is, at the speed and in the tone that you would use if you were actually having that conversation. If your character is angry, then raise your voice and shout. Make sure you do all the parts of the dialogue. In other words, pretend you’re all the characters and pretend you’re acting out all the parts.

After you have the scene’s dialogue, play the recording back and try to write out the dialogue as closely as you can — except for the uhs, duhs, etc. Putting in every single word or sound people might say in an actual conversation might seem like the best way to write fictional dialogue, but that type of presentation can be deadly. Fiction is not life, after all, but an imitation of it for artistic purposes. That means authors are making compromises to keep readers interested. Dialogue should seem to be natural without actually being a real-life conversation. Dialogue should never bore readers. Don’t put any tags (he said/she said) when transcribing the recording: just start a new paragraph each time someone new is speaking.

After you have written scenes with dialogue, you should read any spoken passages aloud, doing all the characters’ parts as if you’re in a play, aiming for natural speech patterns. Even better, you could have someone else read the dialogue aloud to see how it sounds coming out of someone else’s mouth, and this would work best if the person were not intimately familiar with your characters. Be sure to modify or delete whatever doesn’t work. You’re aiming for artificially natural dialogue: this is fiction, after all. Presenting realistic yet effective dialogue is trickier than it seems, but eventually, with enough practice, you’ll be able to do dialogue without recording it,  and without reading it back to yourself aloud.

Have Characters Talk Only to Each Other
When people speak to each other, they often leave things out since the information is already known to all the parties involved in the conversation. One of the deadliest dialogue mistakes writers make is including information the characters already know, such as shared events from the characters’ past or the full names of acronyms with which they’re already familiar (e.g., having FBI or other law enforcement characters say each individual word of VICAP in a police procedural). If the characters were real people in these situation, they would never say such things to each other. This type of dialogue is written to convey that information to the reading audience since the characters themselves already know it. Having your characters talk only to each other, not to your readers, is not only more effective, but it can also increase Urgency by maintaining the readers’ interest.

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Include Silence and Action
Often, beginning writers forget that not everything has to be spoken aloud. People do not always respond to each other verbally, even in heated arguments. Actions and silence sometimes do speak louder than words. Silence and gesture on the part of your characters can be very powerful. One-sided dialogue interspersed with silence or with description of behavior rather than with verbal responses can be an interesting way to show the relationships, history, nature, and conflicts of your characters.

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Show Characters’ Nature, Relationship, History, and Conflict
Dialogue should be important to the novel’s Urgency and character development. If you have dialogue that can be skipped over, take it out. Dialogue itself should have Urgency; it should reveal the nature of the characters’ personalities and their history together; ideally, it should also have conflict. Dialogue can be used to include any information from the “back story” or the characters’ past that you haven’t included anywhere else. No matter what genre you write, your dialogue should sound natural while it reveals the relationships, natures, history, and conflicts of the characters.

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Delete Inconsequential Dialogue
Too many times, authors put in dialogue that doesn’t convey any important information. That makes some readers skim or even skip dialogue because they’re not expecting anything of consequence to be there. If readers can skip anything in your work without missing something, that is a strong indication that you can delete that scene, chapter, or dialogue. Of course, if, like Hemingway and other literary masters, your dialogue is intentionally banal at times because it’s revealing a particular character’s nature, then by all means, leave the banality in. As long as it works symbolically and the readers don’t get bored, then it will be effective. However, if the readers can skip a section of fiction without missing anything of consequence, it needs to be deleted, even if it’s dialogue.

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Eliminate Dramatic Dialogue Tags
I know you’ve probably been instructed to use strong verbs in your writing, and I completely agree with that. But the one place you don’t need strong verbs is in dialogue tags. If you use only the essential tags — he said/she said — and use them only to prevent readers from mis-reading the dialogue, you’ll be forced to make your dialogue more important and relevant to the fiction.

This tip is the one that has always caused the most vociferous objections and rebellion in creative writing classes because it means using no tags like he shouted, he yelled, he implored, etc. It means no tags like she laughed, she whispered, she crooned,, etc. And it most definitely means avoiding tags like he intoned, she pontificated, he menaced, she growled, he enunciated, she elucidated. It means you don’t even put a tag like he asked; instead, use he said/she said even if the character is asking a question. As long as you have the requisite question mark, the readers will understand. Further, dialogue tags should be presented only to help readers understand who says what. Tags should be eliminated whenever possible, and otherwise virtually invisible. That will keep the readers concentrating on what the characters are actually saying to each other rather than on how the writer is putting down the scene.

Strong verbs make the readers do the work in the dialogue, not the writer. Tags like he shouted, she screamed, he cried, they whined, etc. are all dependent upon the reader to interpret how the dialogue is supposed to be read. Instead, the author needs to put the shouting, screaming, whining, etc. into the dialogue itself. Showing is more effective than telling, even in dialogue. In this example, all the whining is in the dialogue itself, not in the tag.

“But I don’t understand why you don’t want to see me anymore,” he said. “Why? Can’t you at least tell me that? Please, just tell me that. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Please, just answer the question. Why can’t we be friends? Why not? Please, just tell me. Please.”

Similarly, adverbials — phrases or words that tell how, why, when, or where, and which modify verbscan cause dialogue problems. A manner adverbial tells how something is done, and it’s the how adverbials that weaken the dialogue because the writer is depending on the adverbial to to convey the emotion rather than on the dialogue itself. Combined with strong verbs, this can lead to some pretty melodramatic dialogue tags: he shouted venomously, she snarled as viciously as she could, the child whimpered piteously, etc. Basically, the writer is telling the readers how to interpret the dialogue rather than writing strong dialogue.

In the examples below, there is only one word spoken, yet the readers are expected to interpret that one word in wildly disparate ways based on the verbs and the manner adverbials  (how) that follow, which I’ve intentionally exaggerated to make a point.

“No,” he shouted.
“No,” he laughed.
“No,” he whispered.
“No,” he growled.
“No,” he whined.
“No,” he begged.
“No,” he implored.
“No,” he snarled.
“No,” he giggled.
“No,” he pleaded.
“No, he whimpered piteously.
“No,” he hissed angrily.
“No,” he shouted venomously.
“No,” he whispered erotically.
“No,” he moaned with pleasure.
“No,” he begged like a whipped dog.
“No,” he implored like a cold, starving beggar in ragged clothes, all alone and homeless on the blustery streets.

One of the deadliest things that can happen in a piece of fiction is to have the readers unintentionally laugh at dialogue, which most often happens when they’re reading the tags rather than the dialogue itself. To avoid jarring readers out of the fictional world, an author should include dialogue that portrays how it is said by the word choice, sentence structure (not through arbitrary or incorrect punctuation), repetition for emphasis, and other good writing techniques.

Though strong verbs and adverbials may be good for showing a character’s action in other areas of fiction, they tend to weaken dialogue, especially if the author relies on those things to tell how the dialogue is to be interpreted, rather than to show the manner in which the dialogue is said in the dialogue itself.. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have your characters doing something as they’re talking. In this example, “I never loved you,” he said, turning away before she had a chance to answer, the tag is he said, and the next phrase shows his action as, or immediately after, he says it. There’s nothing wrong with showing what your characters are doing as they are saying something. Just don’t depend on verbs or adverbials to convey how the dialogue is being spoken.

Further, you can show the volume of the character’s voice in other ways besides putting verbs or adverbials in your tags. You can have he began to shout in the text before the character’s dialogue appears, or, more challenging for you and rewarding for the readers, you could make his dialogue resemble shouting by your word choice. For softly spoken dialogue, you could have another character ask the person to repeat what was just said, implying that it was whispered, mumbled, or otherwise unintelligible to the character who requests clarification. There are many inventive and effective ways to show your readers how the dialogue is being spoken without using melodramatic tags.

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Summary of Guidelines for Writing Dialogue
Here’s the summary of my suggestions and tips for writing effective dialogue in any genre.

• Aim for artistically natural dialogue.
• Have characters talk only to each other.
• Include silence and action.
• Show characters’ natures, history, relationships, and conflicts.
• Delete inconsequential dialogue.
• Eliminate Dramatic tags

Remember, these are tips and guidelines, not rules or injunctions handed down from Mt. Sinai. Take what you need, my Lovelies, and leave the rest.

Related Posts

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths about Point of View

Urgency in Fiction, Part One

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

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Mastering Fiction and Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded, 15thAnniversary Edition © 2001, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. (Shorter excerpt formerly included in Mastering Point of View: Using POV to Create Conflict, Depth, & Suspense. Story Press: 2001.)

May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written consent of the author or the publisher. Educators and Conference leaders may use materials with attribution to author and copyright information. Please do not support piracy of intellectual property.

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No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters

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Character development is one of the most important things an author has to master to create memorable and vivid fiction. Without realistic characters, the reader will not be able to relate emotionally to the novel.  After Urgency (in fiction and in opening lines, titles, etc), character development is the most important element of fiction to master.Unlike short stories, which can successfully have a more limited number of characters, novels most often have many characters. The more characters you introduce into a piece of fiction, the more work you have to do to make those characters distinguishable from each other and to make each character come alive on the page, even the minor ones. Further, you don’t want stereotypes — saints or demons — but realistic characters that will live in the minds of your readers after they’ve finished your book. Here are some tips.

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TRADITIONAL CATEGORIES OF CHARACTERS

When being discussed in literature and in creative writing classes, characters have typically been divided into four major types or categories: flat, round, static, and evolving.

Flat Characters
Flat characters are like cartoons or caricatures: they are one-dimensional; they are not realistic human beings because they lack the emotional depth and complexity of living humans. Flat characters often become stereotypes whose behavior is predictable according to their types: villains do bad things, heroes save the day, damsels are in distress, etc.

Round Characters
Unlike flat characters, round characters, as their name implies, are three-dimensional. In other words, they are realistic human characters with the emotional range, depth, and complexity that real people have. Most famous characters in classic literature are round characters. If you find yourself questioning a character’s motives or behavior when reading a piece of fiction, then in all likelihood, that character is a round one.

Static and Evolving Characters
Often people confuse static characters, who do not change throughout the piece of literature, with flat characters, who are not realistic human beings. Round characters can be static. Their being static simply means that they do not change throughout the work. If they do not change and they are round characters, then the author obviously has a reason for that character’s not changing. It may be political commentary, symbolism, irony, etc.

Evolving characters, as their name indicates, change through the course of a work. A flat character, since it is not like a real human being, could not be an evolving character. His changing would automatically elevate him into a round character.

Evolving Characters in Literary vs Commercial Fiction
In literary fiction or other stand-alone books, if a character is going to change and evolve, then, obviously, he must do so in that one book. In commercial fiction, the characters may evolve over a series of novels. Crime fiction series also often have the crime-fighter protagonist changing over the course of the series of books, usually while dealing with different criminals or crimes. If you write a series, remember that most people are usually changed by their experiences, so if you want to create vivid and realistic characters, they should change over the course of the series.

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CREATING REALISTIC CHARACTERS

Even if you are writing commercial fiction and intend to write a series of novels containing the same characters, it is advisable to develop the characters as fully as possible within each novel in the series. In literary fiction, of course, it is essential that the characters come to life in that one book. Although it takes patience and practice, it is not difficult to create realistic, round characters with the depth and complexity of living human beings. Here are some tips to help you.

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• LIKE YOUR CHARACTERS

The most important tip for creating realistic characters is one that is difficult for some writers to accept: Like your characters. An author has a moral responsibility to like all of the characters he creates, even when the character could be considered a villain. If you don’t like your character and are glad when something bad happens to that character, that is an indication that you have not created a round character.

Liking your characters is not synonymous with approving of everything the character does, but it means making a commitment to learn enough about the character so that you understand him, telling the story from the character’s perspective no matter what point of view you write in, and understanding him on his terms rather than on yours.

That doesn’t mean the character must be a hero, but it means that, as a writer, you have empathy for the character and understand his behavior. This empathy will consequently transfer from you to your readers because it will help you create realistic characters.

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• LET YOUR CHARACTERS LIVE THEIR OWN LIVES

Consider your own children, spouses, siblings: each has a unique personality, with good and bad characteristics. You may not like how your husband puts the empty milk carton back in the refrigerator, but you still love him. And if you don’t want to fight all the time, you learn to stop nagging him about it. Your wife might be unfaithful, but be a good mother, so you stay married to her, hoping that she will stop having affairs. Or, you might divorce her, but allow her to share visitation since she has never harmed the children with her adultery. These are real life situations. You need to do this with your fictional characters, too — let them live their own lives and make their own choices.

Forcing a character to live the author’s life rather than his own prevents the character from acting according to his nature.  All characters, if they are to be fully developed, round characters, have to learn (or not learn) from their own lives, not from their author’s life. By allowing the characters to live their own lives, by letting them be true to their own natures, whether or not you personally approve of their choices, you will create characters who are real human beings. In the simplest terms, you are allowing your artistic subconscious to form the characters for you rather than being consciously aware and in control of every aspect of your art. Characters that come from the subconscious are more powerful and realistic.

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• KNOW YOUR CHARACTER’S PAST

Knowing your character’s past makes him more real, even if you don’t use every single piece of this background information in the final work, because it is the character’s history that makes him behave as he does. This approach is especially beneficial for minor characters, who don’t get as much attention as the major protagonists.

For example, let’s say your male protagonist is being unfaithful to his wife — not for the first time. To convey this information to the reader is simple. During one of their fights, the wife can say to her husband, “You promised you’d never leave me, not even when you fell in love with that one from Chicago.” With only a few words, the wife has become more realistic — she’s been hurt before and despite her husband’s continued infidelity, she does not want him to leave her — and we’ve learned more of both the husband’s and wife’s history.

Give each of your characters a complete past, no matter how little of these details appears in the final draft. Some writers like to use questionnaires to help them create their characters’ histories. If you find this helpful, do so. Such questionnaires might include information about the character’s favorite color, food, vacation spot, or pet. It might have questions on the character’s education, income level, marital status, and health.

You don’t have to use a questionnaire, however, to learn about your haracter’s past. In fact, you don’t have to write each character’s entire history before you write the novel. I don’t know everything about my characters before I start writing a novel. I discover their personalities as I’m writing the novel, just as I would learn about another person in real life over time, by spending time with him and getting to know him.

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Writing out every single nuance and idiosyncrasy of your characters before you’ve written the novel and not deviating from that list is one of the surest ways to turn your characters flat. How can they develop, mature, grow, live when you’ve predetermined absolutely every single one of their personality characteristics? Joyce Carol Oates has often said, “If your characters can’t surprise you, then how can you surprise your readers?”

One of the most rewarding ways to discover your characters’ nature is simply to write the novel and trust your characters to reveal themselves. After you finish each scene, ask your characters, “What happens next?”  This process can be quite frightening the first few times, but it can also be exhilarating. Some people feel more comfortable with detailed outlines; some get extremely stressed when they ask the questions and don’t get an immediate response. I’d advise you to try it with at least a scene or two, and see how it progresses. You don’t have to throw away your character outlines if you’ve already made them: just put them away in a drawer and don’t look at them. Give your characters a chance to talk to you and tell you what they’re like. Then let them develop according to their desires. Because your characters will not be pre-conceived or their behavior pre-determined, they will be more realistic.

As long as you know everything about each character’s background before you finish the novel, any pertinent information can easily be inserted in the appropriate places before you submit the manuscript to an agent or an editor, or before you self-Indie publish the book. That’s one of the valuable tasks that revision serves: it allows you to flesh out the characters in earlier scenes after you’ve learned about their personalities in later scenes.

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• GIVE CHARACTERS BOTH POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE TRAITS

One of most difficult premises for some writers to accept is a simple fact of human nature: everyone has both positive and negative personality traits. If you want your characters to live on the page and in your readers’ hearts, you must give characters both kinds of traits. Thus a murderer could have a sense of humor, a juvenile delinquent could be fiercely devoted to his pet, an unfaithful husband could be an ideal father or a talented musician. You need not make a character intentionally evil. In fact, realistic fictional characters are not often consciously evil. They might be selfish, arrogant, etc., but they need not be consciously evil.

Unreliability
When writing in First Person Point of View, you can use unreliable narrators to make them more realistic. When a narrator is unreliable, he is not necessarily lying, and this is an important distinction. In other Points of View, you would have to show that someone is unreliable when interacting with other characters, rather than from the readers’ perspective.

Denial
In addition to using unreliability, you can use denial to make your characters realistic. To explore this area, I recommend *  you read Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self-Deception, by Daniel Goleman. This book is a fascinating explication of the ways human beings unconsciously protect themselves from painful knowledge (or memories) with self-deception — denial (again, not lying). Characters who are unreliable because of denial may be telling the absolute truth as far as they’re concerned. This is an important distinction to creating characters that you like who are realistic.

Positive Illusions
In addition to denial, the use of illusion can help you create realistic characters. Shelly E. Taylor, in her book Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind, explains how positive illusions affect all human beings. The simplified version of Taylor’s theory is this: at times, all people must deceive themselves in order to survive, and these self-deceptions, whether conscious or not, are healthy. Each time you get into a car, for instance, you are under the “illusion” that you will not have an accident. This “healthy” illusion allows you to do things that might otherwise be too frightening, like driving on a freeway during rush hour.

Final Words on Unreliability, Denial, & Positive Illusions
Recognizing these concepts — that people are sometimes unreliable without lying, that they are literally unable to face some knowledge and so therefore do not face it, and that humans live with healthy, positive, beneficial illusions — will help you create realistically human characters. The more you learn about human nature in general, through psychological studies or through direct observation, the more easily you can create realistic characters.

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• IRONY AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Finally, one of the most powerful tools for creating realistic characters is irony. A famous critic once defined irony as “a secret between the author and the reader,” and it’s one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard. To create realistic characters, use ironic tension. Think of irony as a secret between you and your audience, one your characters do not know, and use irony to create more realistic characters. It is challenging to use irony because it is very difficult to show your characters being blind to something without having your audience accuse you of being blind as well. This is especially difficult when you are making political commentary, such as Twain did with his protagonist Huck Finn, who, repeating the beliefs of his society, still believed in the moral “rightness” of slavery. Because the readers know that slavery is not moral, it becomes a “secret” between the author and his readers that Huck has not yet learned. Using denial and irony gives the reader a deeper understanding of your characters as “people,” making them more realistic. It also allows you to make political commentary on the events in the novel without having the characters act as your political spokespersons. That is irony.

Using Hints for Negative Traits
Irony is also vital when you are creating realistic villains or other unsavory sorts of characters. To avoid creating caricatures, you should only give the reader hints about your character’s negative side (which other characters may misinterpret or fail to notice entirely). Hints is the operative word here. If you make your protagonist a raving lunatic — ranting, screaming, throwing things, shooting animals, kicking holes in the walls — then there’s not much of a secret for the author and reader to share. The quandary is to create an attractive character — attractive in the sense that the reader wants to know more about him — while at the same time demonstrating to the reader that you are not some dim-witted author romanticizing evil.

In addition to making characters more realistic, irony makes fiction more satisfyingly complex because, in effect, it makes the reader a “co-conspirator” with the author and the other characters who are “in the know.” Though irony might seem heavy-handed the first time you try it, remember that the information you’re presenting may, indeed, seem obvious — to you as the author — but it isn’t necessarily obvious to the other characters or to your reader, for that matter. That, in fact, is the very point of irony, and that’s the reason it helps you create human characters.

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Review of Guidelines for Creating Realistic Characters

• Like your characters
• Let them live their own lives
• Know every character’s past
• Give each character both positive and negative traits
• Use hints to show negative traits
• Use unreliability, denial, and positive illusions to create psychological realism and complexity
• Use irony

Liking your characters, allowing them to live their own lives, endowing them with good and bad characteristics, the skillful use of unreliable narrators — these are all valuable tools for creating realistic characters. Observing human nature and becoming conscious of the techniques other skillful writers use will also help you develop your own characters.

Take what you can use, my Lovelies, and leave the rest.

Related Posts

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths about Point of View

Urgency in Fiction, Part One

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

 

* I do not get any money if you purchase books that I recommend for your development as a writer. (back to post)

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Mastering Fiction and Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded, 15thAnniversary Edition © 2001, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. (Shorter excerpt formerly included in Mastering Point of View: Using POV to Create Conflict, Depth, & Suspense. Story Press: 2001.)

May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written consent of the author or the publisher. Educators and Conference leaders may use materials with attribution to author and copyright information. Please do not support piracy of intellectual property.

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Tips to Get You Through NaNoWriMo

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Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world test themselves doing something that might break them spiritually, psychically, or psychologically: NaNoWriMo, when they set the month of November aside and attempt to write an entire novel in 30 days. Besides training for and entering an Iron Man Competition, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, has to be one of the most challenging and demanding tasks anyone can voluntarily give himself. According to the organization which started the “contest” about 15 years ago, the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (175 DS manuscript pages, based on a count of approximately 300 words per page) in thirty days. That’s about 1,700 words, or six DS manuscript pages a day.

It’s a first draft: you’re not supposed to publish the book you write during NaNoWriMo as is. You’ve got to revise, edit, get feedback from readers, re-write, edit, revise some more, have some coffee, then decide whether you want to Indie publish or attempt to get an agent and try for the traditional New York publishing route.

In short, NaNoWriMo isn’t about getting published and becoming an author: it’s about being a writer.

If you’ve done NaNoWriMo before, you know it’ll strain every relationship you have, make you want to quit your job to write full-time, make you wonder if you’ve completely lost your mind, and convince you that you are not a writer after all. If you’ve never attempted NaNoWriMo, you’ll find those things out soon enough. NaNoWriMo is the closest you’ll ever get to being a full-time writer until you actually are a full-time writer. Here are some strategies to give yourself a fair chance to discover if you really want to be a writer, because writing is very hard work.

Skip the Outline

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I know some people are convinced that they cannot write a novel, especially if it’s in a series, unless they have the entire novel outlined in advance. Some people even outline all the novels they project in the series before they have even written the first book. But writing outlines, no matter how detailed, is not writing a novel. Not even in a rough draft. You have to actually sit down and write a novel to be writing a novel, not just outlining it. When time is as limited as it is during NaNoWriMo, drop the outline and concentrate on writing a draft of the book itself.

If You’re Going to Ignore My First Tip
and Write an Outline Anyway
,
Then Ignore Missing Parts

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Still convinced you need an outline even when your time is as severely limited as it is during NaNoWriMo? Then you’re going to have to compromise somewhere. Even when you have an outline, you may think the whole book in mind just because you have scenes A, B, C, D, and E firmly in mind and jotted down in whatever system you’re using. Then, after outlining scene E, you suddenly realize that the next scene in your head seems to be J.

What happened to scenes F, G, and H?

You have no idea, but they’re not there.

Do not stop writing while waiting for scenes F, G, and H to come to you. If you insist on outlining, and there are missing parts, then just ignore those missing parts for the present, and continue outlining: J, K, L, M, N…

O, P, Q will probably be missing, though you’ll know what scenes R, S, and T are supposed to be.

As far as I know, all writers experience these initial “gaps” in their vision while writing novels, even if it’s not their first. If you insist on writing an outline during NaNoWriMo, skip over the missing parts and getting down the scenes that are readily there.

If you are going to write an outline rather than exclusively working on the novel itself this month, then limit yourself to one or two days of writing a bare-bones outline. You’ll need the rest of the month to write the novel itself.

Don’t Count Words

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I know that NaNoWriMo’s stated goal is to write at least a 50,000 word novel this month, but less than 10% of NaNoWriMo’s official participants consistently reach that goal. More important, probably no agent, editor, or publisher will ever ask you how many words are in your novel. They’ll either love the book or they won’t. They’ll either think they can sell it to potential readers or they won’t.

The sponsors of NaNoWriMo want you to write at least 50,000 words because the traditional division between a novella and a novel is by word count. Anything around 40-45K words usually considered a novella (under 40K words is either a novella or long short story), while books with more than 50K words are considered novels. Some agents and editors disagree with these numbers: they think 80K words is novel material. So, the 50K word-count is merely NaNoWriMo’s attempt to encourage you to write a piece of fiction long enough to be considered a novel, rather than a piece of fiction which would automatically be labeled a novella or long short story.

Don’t count words as a measure of your progress as you’re actually writing. Just write as many or as few words as you think you need to tell a compelling story. Then, if you must count words, wait until NaNoWriMo is over to see how many words you actually wrote.

Schedule Writing Time
Like It’s Your Job

Set aside a schedule for writing each day, and write for that full period. Pretend it’s your job, because, for one month, it will be. Whether you have the luxury of being able to do NaNoWriMo full-time, or can only do it part-time, try to write at the same time every day, taking regular breaks.  Remember not to worry about the quality of the writing.

When I taught University, I got up every single day at 5 a.m. and wrote for 2 hours before I had to get ready to go to work. I discovered that the more often I wrote, the more I produced. I likened it to pumping water out of a rarely used well: at first, it’s difficult to get the flow started, but if you work that pump every day, for a predetermined amount of time, the pump gets used to working, and more water flows.

You have to spend a certain number of hours a day or week on your paying job, no matter what it is. This month, writing is your job, and you have to set aside a specified amount of time doing your job. Just do it. Schedule your writing on a calendar and keep to it, every single day during NaNoWriMo.

Don’t Re-read what You’re Writing

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NaNoWriMo is 30 days to get yourself disciplined enough to write the first draft of a novel; to give yourself official permission to write full-time; and to announce to your family, friends, and to the Universe itself that you are going to write for the entire month.

If you read over the parts you’ve already written, do you know what you’ll want to do? Re-write, revise, polish, perfect. That takes precious time away from writing the initial draft. Don’t do that. Just write the first draft of the whole thing.

The time for re-reading and re-writing and revising will come afterward, because you simply don’t know how long those processes will take. During NaNoWriMo, do not re-read anything you’ve written. Just write. Try to get that first draft of the entire novel out. That’s what the month is for. That’s what you’ve committed yourself to. Do it.

Always Be Prepared to Write,
No Matter Where You Are

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Your subconscious brain — where your artistic intuition resides — never sleeps. Ever. It gets tired. But it never sleeps. Even when you’re not working on any particular scene, or you think you’re not working on the book at all, the writer in you is working on something.

You think you’re sleeping soundly, and you suddenly awake with a new scene. You think you’re taking a walk, and suddenly you see something new happen to your protagonist. You think you’re driving your children to a swim-meet or to football practice, and new dialogue pops into your head.

I’d advise always carrying a notebook, laptop, tablet, or voice recorder (most Smartphones have them) so that you can get these scenes down whenever they come to you. If you don’t, they won’t be there the next time you sit down at your desk to work on your novel. No matter how many times you repeat the exact words to yourself on the drive home from the soccer field, your brain will be blank when you get to your desk or computer and attempt to write it.

Be prepared to write anywhere, anytime during NaNoWriMo.

During NaNoWriMo, especially, since your time is so strictly limited, write down a scene (or record it) as soon as it comes to you. Otherwise, it’ll be lost.

Eliminate All Negative People
From your Life & Environment

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Committing yourself to writing a draft of an entire novel in only 30 days is enough hard work to kill some people, so you don’t need family, friends, colleagues,  or the bagger at the grocery store making snide remarks, negative comments, or otherwise expressing their doubts at your ability to write the draft of a novel in one month. Keep away from those people at all times during NaNoWriMo. This is mandatory and non-negotiable.

This is mandatory and non-negotiable.

Writing a book, especially if it’s your first or if you’ve never been published, will give you plenty of self-doubt for free. Don’t take it from anyone else. Not during NaNoWriMo nor during any other time either. There’s enough rejection in this business without getting it from people who claim to love and care for you. Stay away from them during NaNoWriMo and concentrate on writing your novel rather than on listening to their so-called good advice.

Ditch the Jammies
& Be Professional

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I know there are some writers who wear their pajamas to write. Or they wear the “outdoor” equivalent of pajamas: sweatpants and T-shirt. That’s fine if it works for them. But when I worked as a University Professor, I dressed up, complete with heels, jewelry, mascara, and lipstick. When I write, I do the same thing because it’s my job and I’m going to work. Yes, I now work at home and no one ever sees me but the cats, the dog, and my guy. But after I’m dressed, my guy always asks, “Going to work?” and then stays away from my office when I’m in there.

Just as my getting dressed for work is a visual clue for him, it’s an emotional clue for the artist in me. Don’t lounge around in bed in your jammies during NaNoWriMo and expect to get a lot of writing done. Get up, clean up, get dressed, and go to work.

Don’t Do Anything
in Your Writing Space
Except Write

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This may seem self-evident, but unless you’ve written several books, you may not realize that the creative energy of the book you’re writing stays in the place where you write it. I have an office and have always had one, even when I lived in a small apartment. I do nothing in my office except write my books. I never graded papers in my office, did taxes, or even read a book at my writing desk unless that book had something to do with the research for the novel I was currently writing. As soon as I enter my office, the artist in me is ready to write and work on the book. You need to give yourself a writing space, too.

You may only be able to carve out a separate table in the corner of your kitchen during NaNoWriMo, but no matter where you’re working on your novel, you should do absolutely nothing else in that space — not even tweet about how it’s going — however confined your writing space or “office” may be. No one else should be doing anything at the place you’re writing, either, because you need every ounce of your own creative energy there for your novel.

Take Care of Yourself Physically

You must eat, stay hydrated, sleep, take breaks from writing — even during NaNoWriMo. One of the biggest causes of “writer’s block” is exhaustion, trying to “push through” the hard spots, not taking care of yourself, needing a break.

Just as you must sleep, eat, and stay hydrated every single day just to stay alive, you must take breaks from writing the novel, stretch muscles that will become sore and painful from prolonged overuse (and may even become injured), exercise muscles that stiffen from sitting in one position for prolonged periods. Walking, T’ai Chi, and yoga work best for me. I have a treadmill in my office for breaks from the actual writing when I want to continue thinking about a book.

During NaNoWriMo, you’re working extra hard on a task that is already extremely challenging and difficult — physically, mentally, and spiritually. You must take care of your body — with exercise, rest, regular breaks, naps, food, and non-alcoholic liquids in order to survive and pass this endurance test. Take regular breaks, including breaks for exercise and resting, to survive NaNoWriMo. That way, you’ll get even more writing done.

Take Care of Yourself
Spiritually & Emotionally

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If you’ve never written an entire novel before, you have absolutely no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into. Don’t look at the novel as a whole: break it down into parts. A section. A chapter. A page. A paragraph. A sentence. Congratulate yourself at the end of every single writing session on how much you wrote.

You must nurture the artist in you spiritually and emotionally because the publishing world does not think in those terms: it thinks only of profit and loss. I’ve known plenty of bestselling authors whose books were dropped the moment their sales decreased. It’ll be up to you to support yourself emotionally after you get published, so you might as well get used to it now.

Pat yourself on the back, be proud of yourself, and congratulate yourself for a job well done every single day during NaNoWriMo.

Start with something like these comments:

I’m committed.
I’m brave, courageous,
and dedicated.
No one else can do this as well as I can.
I’m giving this my best shot.
This is going to make me happy, no matter how tired I might sometimes get.
I’m a writer, and writers write.

Summary, So Far…

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If you’re already writing for NaNoWriMo, good for you: keep it up. Turn to this advice when you have a break. Turn to this advice when self-doubt creeps in. Take what is useful to you, and discard the rest. If you haven’t started yet, but you told yourself you would, then use these tips to help you get started.

• Skip the outline (or, at the very least, ignore missing pieces of outline)
• Don’t count words
• Schedule writing time like it’s your job
• Don’t re-read what you’re writing
• Always be prepared to write, no matter where you are
• Eliminate all negative people from your life and environment
• Ditch the PJs and be professional
• Don’t do anything in your writing space except write
• Take care of yourself physically
• Take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually

And finally, this…

If You’re Going to Write,
Write: Don’t Talk

As Eli Wallach (Tuco) ad-libbed in the now classic Western, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, after he shot the man who came to kill him while he was taking a bath — telling Tuco repeatedly that he was, indeed, going to kill him — If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk.

If you’re going to write, write: don’t talk.

Talking about writing a book, no matter how much detail you go into, is not writing the book.

Only writing is writing.

So shut up during NaNoWriMo and write.

Related NaNoWriMo Sites

NaNoWriMo Official Emblem

Official NaNoWriMo Site
The NaNoWriMo Blog
NaNoWriMo on The Twitter

Related Posts

Urgency in Fiction, Part One:
How to Keep Readers Turning Pages

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two:
Titles, Pitches, etc

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths about Point of View

How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

How to Pitch Your Book

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