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Writing Prompts 61-70

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Creating Realistic Characters

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Characters

Creating Realistic Characters

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

(with examples)

Dialogue

Writing Good Dialogue

Writing Effective Dialogue
(with examples)

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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.

Read excerpts from
Mastering Fiction & Point of View

shutterstock_33337354

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Wanna see something scary? Take a look at a few of the terms floating around in creative writing handbooks to explain Point of View: viewpoint ...
Continue reading
stock-photo-52076944-young-woman-sitting-at-home-with-pen-and-paper

Myths about Point of View

If you haven't yet read the post Who's Afraid of Point of View, you might consider reading that first, so that you are familiar with ...
Continue reading
images-4 copy 2

Urgency in Fiction, Part One

If I hadn't fallen off the mountain, I never would have believed it. Actually, I did believe it before I fell off the mountain, but ...
Continue reading
Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

If you haven't read "Urgency in Fiction, Part One," I'd suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that ...
Continue reading
family-1623997

No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters

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 ...
Continue reading
talking-1239092

Writing Effective Dialogue

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 ...
Continue reading

from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.

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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.

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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

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.

• 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.

• 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.cc

Read excerpts from
Mastering Fiction & Point of View

shutterstock_33337354

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Wanna see something scary? Take a look at a few of the terms floating around in creative writing handbooks to explain Point of View: viewpoint ...
Continue reading
stock-photo-52076944-young-woman-sitting-at-home-with-pen-and-paper

Myths about Point of View

If you haven't yet read the post Who's Afraid of Point of View, you might consider reading that first, so that you are familiar with ...
Continue reading
images-4 copy 2

Urgency in Fiction, Part One

If I hadn't fallen off the mountain, I never would have believed it. Actually, I did believe it before I fell off the mountain, but ...
Continue reading
Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

If you haven't read "Urgency in Fiction, Part One," I'd suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that ...
Continue reading
family-1623997

No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters

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 ...
Continue reading
talking-1239092

Writing Effective Dialogue

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 ...
Continue reading

from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.

* 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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Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

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If you haven’t read “Urgency in Fiction, Part One,” I’d suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that one, won’t make much sense. Part One was about the types of Urgency and putting it into the actual fiction you are writing.

Though these posts are aimed at fiction writers — since they are excerpts from the upcoming Mastering Fiction & Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 14th Anniversary Edition of the original 2001 Mastering Point of View, published by Story Press — the concept of Urgency applies to all types of writing, from non-fiction to poetry, from screenplays to memoir. Because the first edition of the book was aimed at fiction writers, the revised version is, too.

This post is about how editors in the Traditional Publishing Land of New York use it in titles as marketing tools — which is their job — and how you can learn to do it, too. There are plenty of examples from Indie and self-published authors here. If they can do it, so can you.

And by the way, no one taught me about Urgency when I began to write fiction. Another writer I knew who was accepted into a prestigious MFA program read one of her stories in class — a story that I’d read and liked a lot — and was blasted by the professor in front of the entire class. The writer was told that she needed to put something in her story that would make it “a lot more urgent.” When she asked the professor what he meant, he said, “You’ll have to figure that out yourself.”

Since she knew that I’d borrowed $18K at 17 7/8% interest from the bank to take a year off work, without pay, to write my first novel, she passed that “message” along to me via a mutual friend. So I had to figure out exactly what the professor meant by making fiction “a lot more urgent.” It took me a while, but eventually I figured it out, coined “Urgency” as its name, wrote my first article on it at the request of editor Sylvia Burack (for The Writer, in 1997) and have been passing it on to writers ever since.

The original article has also been anthologized in many books and other magazines, including those published by Writer’s Digest Press, so you may have seen shorter version of it there, or on my website, under Mastering Point of View since a shortened version appeared in the first edition of that book.

Urgency in Titles

In traditional publishing, the contracts give the editors the final say on the title of an author’s book — because the title is part of marketing, and that is the editor’s job. All authors can learn to put Urgency into their own titles, however, so that they do not get changed by the publishing house.

Urgency in titles is also vitally important if the author is Indie publishing since he’ll have no editor helping him make his book more marketable by making the title have Urgency.

Here are some examples of titles which have Urgency, randomly chosen from a variety of genres, including short fiction, novels, plays, memoir, and non-fiction since all titles must have Urgency to get readers’ attention.

  • My Date With Satan (Stacy Richter)
  • Church of Dead Girls (Stephen Dobyns)
  • The Killer Inside Me (Jim Thompson)
  • I Married a Dead Man (Cornell Woolrich)
  • Waiting to Exhale (Terry McMillan)
  • Possessing the Secret of Joy (Alice Walker)
  • The Killing Gift (Bari Wood)
  • Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham)
  • The Man in the Iron Mask (Alexandre Dumas)
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)
  • Cracking India (Bapsi Sidhwa)
  • As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  • Girl, Interrupted (Susanna Kaysen)
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)

A trip to your local bookstore or library — or a scan online — will reveal an exciting array of titles.  Some are good; some aren’t. Unless the authors are already bestsellers, however, only the titles with Urgency are likely to attract readers.

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Urgency in Classic Opening Lines

Most stories and books, no matter when they were written, contain Urgency. And they have it in the very first sentence, despite what some neophyte writers believe. Look at the wonderful Urgency in these classic opening lines, in various Points of View.

  • I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them. (Isaac Asimov, I, Robot)
  • It must have been a little after three o’clock in the afternoon that it happened. (Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land That Time Forgot)
  • Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. (Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth)
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ( Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
  • They found me in the gutter. (Mickey Spillane, The Girl Hunters)
  • Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith. (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

Though the concept of Urgency may have been called different things in the past, or may not have even been called anything at all by the earliest storytellers, it’s always existed, and it exists to keep the readers (or the listening audience, when storytelling was oral, before books were readily available) attached to the story to find out what happens.

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Urgency in Contemporary Opening Sentences

Most fiction, whether contemporary or classic, starts with Urgency. That means in the very first sentence. Some authors call it a “hook,” and some call it the “attention-grabber,” but it’s all Urgency by other names. It gets the reader’s attention and makes him want to continue reading. Look at the opening sentences of some contemporary novels, and you’ll find wonderful examples of Urgency.

  • When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. (Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • They shoot the white girl first. (Toni Morrison, Paradise)
  • When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent. (Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy)
  • Throughout the long summer before my mother’s trial began, and they during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county — her character lynched, her wisdom impugned — I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked. (Chris Bohjalian, Midwives)
  • Stupid me — I fell right into the old pattern and spent a week pretending I was a moving target. (Peter Straub, Mr. X)
  • Red is the color of violent death. Red is the color of strong feelings — love, passion, greed, anger, hatred. (Tami Hoag, A Think Dark Line)
  • Through the doorway which led from her receptionist-secretary’s office into her own, Catherine Morris Perry instantly noticed the box on her desk. (Tony Hillerman, Talking God)
  • I was late, and I don’t mean the kind of late where I spent too much time doing my hair and was now stuck in traffic. (Gemma Halliday, Spying in High Heels)
  • People disappear all the time. (Diana Gabaldon, Outlander)

images-11 copyUrgency in the Opening Sentences of Indie Authors

When the 1st edition of Mastering Point of View was published by Story Press in 2001 (it had been researched and written in 2000), e-books did not exist. Neither did the concept of Indie authors. Only traditionally published authors and self-published authors got their books into print, and only the former had a chance of getting their work into bookstores.

Print-on-demand (POD), which allowed publishers to print books only when they were ordered by bookstores rather than to do print-runs of thousands of copies in advance — necessitating warehousing of any un-shipped copies — revolutionized the printed book industry. Furthermore, the creation of e-books and portable, functional e-book readers allowed more authors without traditional representation in the New York publishing conglomerate to get their books out to potential readers. Since those markets didn’t even exist in 2000, none of those authors were included in the 1st edition of Mastering Point of View.

Since its initial publication, however, with the advent of POD and e-books, more Indie authors have been able to get their fine, well-written books out to the public via online bookstores. Many of these authors have become best-sellers, and all of the Indie authors cited in this book, many of whose work will be found excerpted throughout, are excellent authors who deserve special recognition for their courage in choosing Indie publication as well as for their mastery of fiction fundamentals and Point of View. All these authors, writing in many different genres, have Urgency in their opening sentences.

  • I have a way of becoming invisible. (Cecily Anne Paterson, Invisible)
  • This is the way the world ends — not with a bang or a whimper, but with zombies breaking down the back door. (Amanda Hocking, Hollowland, Book 1, The Hollows)
  • His movements were slow, his roots ripping free of the earth and then replanting with every step. (Emma Kathryn, “Tidal,” Puppets & Dolls)
  • From the first moment I laid eyes on him, I knew I was going to murder him. (Peter Dawes, Rebirth of the Seer, Book 1, The Vampire Flynn)
  • The hardest thing about killing a hitchhiker was finding one to pick up. (Blake Crouch & Jack Kilborn [J. A. Konrath], Serial)
  • Sarah Sawacki checked her watch against the clock on the dash and returned to her vigil. (John Potter, Chasing Innocence)
  • Killing someone is a lot harder than you’d imagine. (L. T. Vargus, Casting Shadows Everywhere)
  • The planet recedes rapidly in the viewport as I gaze upon it. (Drew Wagar, “Metal,” Fusion)
  • It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. (Seumas Gallacher, Vengeance Wears Black)
  • Boone Sumner sat in his pickup truck, gnawing the same thumbnail that he always gnawed when his nerves went a-jitter. (Aaron Saylor, Sewerville)
  • Oh, bugger. I had been hoping for a quiet evening. (John Dolan, Everyone Burns, Book 1, Time, Blood, and Karma)
  • The ship hung above the earth that had created it like a giant, old style compass needle, pointing towards the stars and potential salvation. (John Hoggard, “Baby Babble,” Fusion)

Don’t take any chances on not grabbing your reader’s attention from the very moment they pick up your book or look at a sample of your work. Put Urgency in your first sentence.

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MAINTAINING URGENCY

Urgency must be maintained throughout the piece of fiction to be effective. Chapter 2 of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, for example, begins with this line: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” That’s fantastic Urgency and it’s in Unlimited Point of View.

Though it may seem artificial for you to continually have to be aware of Urgency as you’re writing the novel, it will not be artificial to your audience. On the contrary, even when an experienced writer reads other books with Urgency, the writer is still turning the pages as rapidly as he can to figure out what’s going to happen, just as any other readers would. As you make the Urgency integral to the plot, character development, or Voice, you can write in any Point of View and effectively maintain your readers’ interest.

Successful authors in all genres maintain Urgency. Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novel Outlander demonstrates consistently maintained Urgency in First Person Point of View: her female protagonist, Claire, while on her second honeymoon in Scotland, is transported from 1945 back to the past in the early 1740s. While there, Claire constantly worries about getting back to her own time, even as she agrees to a marriage of “convenience” with a young Scottish clansman whom she finds physically and sexually attractive. Gabaldon maintains Urgency through plot (conflict) and character development.

In Book 1 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, author J. R. R. Tolkien ends virtually every small section within each chapter with Urgency. So each time there is additional white space — when a scene is changing — Tolkien puts in Urgency. He also puts it at the end of each chapter, but, surprisingly, that Urgency is not always as compelling as the Urgency at the end of each section. In any event, he consistently includes it — in plot (conflict), dialogue, character development, or Voice — to keep the story moving steadily forward and to keep his readers engaged.

George R. R. Martin does the same thing in his Song of Ice and Fire [Game of Thrones] series, which is written in Unlimited Point of View. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different character, and the chapter is titled with the name of that character. (Martin calls them “viewpoint” characters, but I’m not sure what that means; what I do know is that while most of the events in each individual chapter are related from said-title-character’s perspective, the entire series is written in Unlimited Point of View.) At the end of each character’s chapter, Martin ends with Urgency, usually in plot (conflict).

Chris Bohjalian, author of several best-selling books, including Midwives and The Law of Similars, is an absolute master of Urgency in plot (conflict), character development, and Voice. Many of his books use First Person Point of View, often presenting different perspectives. No matter the perspective, the Point of View, or the subject matter, Bohjalian consistently maintains Urgency throughout all of his works. As a fellow author, I can see perfectly well when he is putting Urgency in, but that doesn’t stop me from staying awake all night to keep turning the pages and discover what happens to his characters.

Maintaining Urgency, in any form, will keep your readers interested in your work, even if it is a series of books, running into thousands of pages. Without Urgency, readers will quickly lose interest in the fiction, so you need to master it before you attempt to master anything else.

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FINAL WORDS ON URGENCY AND POINT OF VIEW

Since Urgency in achieved through plot, character development, and Voice, it can be maintained in any Point of View. Voice may be easier to develop in First Person Point of View, and so, the more fascinating the Voice of a narrator, the greater the Urgency would be. There are many examples of novels in First Person Point of View that have Urgency in plot and Voice, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. However, there are many other books which develop and maintain Urgency in various Points of View, including Second Person (Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City), Unlimited (C. L. Bevill’s Bubba and the Dead Woman), and Outer Limited (Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy).

Urgency takes a little practice at first, but once an author understands the concept of Urgency as “the thing which keeps the reader turning pages” through plot, character development, Voice, or any combination of the three, then Urgency can be present in all Points of View.

Also, this is where your beta-readers (called “family and friends” when I was first publishing) will be most helpful in giving you feedback: to determine if your work has lost Urgency, simply ask your beta-readers, whether they be friends, family members, or paid professionals, to indicate any points in the work where they lost interest, put the work down to do something else that was not an emergency, or wanted to read some other book. If all your readers mark the same places, then you know you need to work on Urgency in those areas of your book.

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EXERCISES TO DEVELOP URGENCY

1. Go to the bookstore and spend an hour or so reading the opening lines of novels. How many of them impart Urgency? How many of them keep you turning pages, right there in the bookstore? How many of them do you buy so that you can finish reading? If a book can’t pass the Urgency test, it isn’t very likely to have either a large or an enthusiastic audience.

2. Write the first sentence of your novel and make sure it has Urgency, whether in plot, character development, or in Voice. The point of view doesn’t matter, so long as there’s Urgency. Pretend this is the only sentence your audience will read, that they’ll buy the book based on how intriguing or interesting they find this first sentence. Make it the best piece of writing you can. Now, show it to as many other people as you can and ask them the following questions:

  • Would they want to continue reading based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you do have Urgency. If not, you need to work on it.
  • Would they want to buy the book — as an e-book — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have good Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in paperback — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have better Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in hardcover — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have excellent Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in hardcover or paperback — and every other book you’ve written, based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have fantastic Urgency, and you’ve definitely mastered this concept.

3. Write the first paragraph to the first sentence you wrote for exercise 1. Make sure you periodically include Urgency in the paragraph and that you end with Urgency. Show this paragraph to your readers, as many as you can find, and ask them the same questions you asked for the first exercise, substituting “the first paragraph” for “the first sentence.”

4. Write the title for your novel and make sure it has Urgency. Show this title to your readers, as many as you can find, and ask them the same questions you asked for the first exercise, substituting “title” for “the first sentence.” (Don’t get too attached to your titles, however, since editors and publishing houses have the contractual right to change the title: a title is for marketing purposes, and there are many stories of famous authors who say they simply never got used to the title of their published book, which was chosen by the editor. However, after my first book, none of my titles have ever been changed, so you can learn to put Urgency in your titles — marketable Urgency — and keep the titles you like: just think of the title as a marketing tool.)

Read excerpts from
Mastering Fiction & Point of View

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Urgency in Fiction, Part One

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from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.

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