You Don’t Need Talent to Be a Great Writer

You Don't Need Talent to Be a Great Writer

Think you need talent to be a great writer? In working on my VCFA WCYA Graduate lecture on how to believe in yourself as a writer, I came upon a game-changing book: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. It blew away my ideas about what it takes to excel at anything.

Myth: You Need Talent to Be Great
Truth: Deliberate Practice is the Only Path to Greatness

Common Sense and the Talent to Be a Great Writer

Recently, when I shared the title of Colvin’s book with an art student of mine, he made a “You crazy!” face at me. He was sure the only thing he needed as an artist was talent, and without it, he was sunk. I don’t think he is alone. It seems to be common sense that only talented people succeed as artists, as writers, as cyclists, as chess masters, as business moguls, as great leaders, as anything. So many people believe this. Maybe you had a teacher who told you to give up on your dream because you didn’t have the talent. Everyone knows getting good takes talent.

Turns Out, Everyone is Wrong

Amadeus: Talent is Overrated
Mozart is shocked to discover deliberate practice, not talent, made him great.

Don’t you wish people trusted science more than they trust common sense? I do. Look around. Watch the news. I really wish… but, anyways….

In Talent is Overrated, Colvin, building on the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, debunks the role of talent. He says that even Mozart, that poster child for the power of talent and divine inspiration, got great through something called “Deliberate Practice.” After all, Mozart started making music at the age of three, and his father was not only a highly respected musician and composer in his own right, but a taskmaster with crazy high standards, and an astute teacher.

In the world of psychology and business, there is a field of study called the “Science of Expertise.” It has already upended the eminence of inborn talent. Experts in this field have studied not only sports figures and chess masters, but musicians, artists, and writers. What they found is that early ability did not yield greatness.

What did? Deliberate Practice.

Malcolm Gladwell on Deliberate Practice
This Guy is Deliberately Smart

What is Deliberate Practice?

People say “Practice makes perfect,” but it’s not just practice that yields great work. (Plus, there’s no such thing as perfection, and I think it is a damaging concept for artists. I’ll probably do a future post on this.)

Art teachers like me say you have to make a thousand bad drawings before you can start making good ones. But it isn’t just making a ton of crappy work, or playing the same set of scales every day that does the trick. It’s a particular kind of practice. Colvin describes these key characteristics of Deliberate Practice:

  1. It is focused specifically on improving performance. This means working on the stuff you don’t do well. You need feedback to figure out your particular weak spots . If you’re playing tennis, you may already know the forecourt backhand is your Kryptonite. But as a writer, you need a critique from a trusted source to know that dialogue or character development, or plotting, or sentence structure is not your strong suit. Designing your practice to improve your performance also means breaking down skills into their component parts. Only by breaking it down can you improve. For example, if my main characters are weak, I have to go micro to figure out what isn’t working. Is it my POV voice that doesn’t feel specific enough? Is it that my character is always reacting instead of taking action? Does their dialogue sound wishy washy, or like every other’s dialogue? Does my word choice make the reader feel patronized, or is my tone too distant, creating a big psychic gap between protagonist and reader? Do I have the real sense of what the character is feeling, all of it, in all its complexity? Once I know what isn’t working, I have to design a repeatable practice that improves those skills. More on that below.

  2. It must be done repeatedly. This is the part where the Carnegie Hall cliché is correct. Where it’s about putting in the work and stacking up the hours. O, Grit, why is there no substitute for you? There just isn’t. We know it instinctively as storytelling creatures. A tale with a hero who doesn’t have to learn, to try repeatedly and fail, well, that story doesn’t feel real to us; it lacks gravitas. We know anything worth getting takes work.

  3. It requires continuously-available feedback.  Feedback can come from a teacher, or from a source that is easy to interpret. Benjamin Franklin, seeking to improve his essay writing, studied a publication called “The Spectator. ” He read an essay from it, then put it aside, summarized the main points, rewrote them in his own style, then compared his version to the essay, noticing specific aspects of his writing that needed improvement. Franklin used “The Spectator” as his master teacher, and his own well-honed objectivity. Not all writers, I find, have that objectivity. Franklin was also a scientist. Personally, I love having a mentor. I also love having feedback from other writers whose work and opinions I respect. And there are particular craft books that I keep rereading.

  4.  It is highly challenging mentally.  Learning builds new neural connections in your little gray cells, which means it is mentally taxing. Therefore, most people can’t do Deliberate Practice for more than 5 hours per day. Often, they do it in sessions around an hour to ninety minutes, say the scientists. For writers, who often need day jobs to stay solvent, this is good news. Five hours per day is a lot, but it’s doable with a day job, or with a family (probably not both).

  5. It isn’t fun. This is the bad news, but it’s an important point, because if a skill is fun for you to practice, it means you are in your comfort zone. And you don’t learn in your comfort zone. You also don’t learn in the panic zone, where the task is hard enough to strike fear. You learn in a special zone where the task is difficult, but still doable, with a bit of work and grit. This is called the Learning Zone by Professor Noel Tichy. I’ve heard it called the Growth Zone, but whatever you call it, you know you’re there when you are more satisfied having done it than you were while you did it.

Talent is Overrated: Learning Zone

Nobody Said it Was Easy

Maybe the reason people persist in believing in the myth of talent is because hard work is hard. If getting great were really all about talent, then you either got it or you ain’t. Done and done. Go watch Game of Thrones and pop a cold one.

Deliberate practice is difficult. But the hugely good news is, it can be done. And, since it is hard to do Deliberate Practice, not everyone will do it. That gives those willing to do it a competitive edge.

hese Guys are All Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway Days in Key West) Talent to Be a Great Writer
These Guys Are All Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway Days in Key West)

Deliberate Practice for Writers

So what would deliberate practice look like for a fiction writer? Veteran writing teacher Barbara Baig has an incredible set of lessons on her blog. She has based them on the precepts of expert performance studies like Ericsson’s. Definitely check out her lessons, and her books. They can help you build your own writing Deliberate Practice regimen.

Here is my brief summary of the Deliberate Practice steps I am testing out as a writer. Try them for yourself, and see what you think:

  1. What do you need to improve? Get feedback on your work from a trusted source: a mentor, an editor or author who is willing to read your work critically and give you details. I don’t think there is any substitute for experience here. Find a master, if you can. It’s worth it. That is part A. Part B is being able to take that sage advice. Taking feedback is a special skill in and of itself, and it’s worth a post on its own. For now make a list of the skills you want to improve.
  2. Design your practice. My practice has a warm-up, which I do every day, and when  do it, I put a sparkly sticker on that day in my wall calendar. I kid you not. Rewards are important, and my Inner Child enjoys sparkly stuff. The warm-up is the morning pages, which is 3 pages of free-writing. Morning Pages come from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to be creative. After the warmup, I work on exercises focused on improving my character development. I do side writing, in which I speak directly with my characters. I ask them pointed questions. I ask them about what I need to do next. I brainstorm ideas with them. I also hang out and ask them about the meaning of life. Really. I have this one vampire character who is so wise about many things. I do all this in addition to getting words on the page that are meant for my draft. Cool things can happen. Sometimes I’m writing scenes in my morning pages. I let it happen. I type them into my side writing in Scrivener. Or they might even end up in my draft. Why not?
  3. Make a schedule, commit to it, set up rewards, and do it! Since talent doesn’t matter, why should inspiration? Life is unpredictable, so I get my writing done first thing in the morning. Every day, with very few exceptions. I get up, grab coffee, and start my morning pages.
  4. Get feedback. I review my work critically a few days after I have drafted it. I know my weaknesses by now because I’m getting expert feedback in my MFA program. Once I graduate, I will be in a weekly critique group. I take the feedback, cry if I need to, give myself a bit of time to recover, then try again.

This is how I do it. How do you make sure you are improving? Comment and share below.

Also, next time your inner critic tells you you don’t have the talent to do this, tell them that Barbara Baig, Anders Ericsson, Geoff Colvin, and I said they’re full of it. Because you don’t need talent to do this, or anything, with excellence!

Tell Your Inner Critic He Is Full of It!
Full of It Inner Critic

Read This Next

“How Deliberate Practice Can Make You an Excellent Writer” by Barbara Baig

How to Be a Writer by Barbara Baig

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron; Talent is Overrated

 

Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise

 

My Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Top 5 Writing Craft Books, because who doesn’t live a good top 5 list?

I am hard at work on a middle grade novel set in Bermuda, and my graduate lecture for VCFA on The Alchemy of Radical Self-Belief, and it’s fun! And tough. And fun!

For my lecture, I’m reading a particularly eye-opening book. Although not a writing craft book, it has powerful info on how to be a high performer in any field. It involves something called “deliberate practice.” Check it out by clicking below:

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

The List of Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Now that you have the bonus recommendation, right up front, here is my list of great writing craft books, in no particular order:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

Straightforward and usable. Brings clarity to the revision process. Many aha! moments lie within these pages. Think you understand show don’t tell? Read this and you may be in for a surprise. Great stuff on leaving space for the reader to collaborate with the story.

What's Your Story? by Marion Dane Bauer

What’s Your Story by Marion Dane Bauer

Especially helpful when you are mulling your story over before getting it on paper or into the computer. Says it’s for kids, and it’s great for adults, too. Simplest and clearest description of plot and conflict I have ever seen.

The Plot Whispere by Martha Alderson

The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson

This is the most intuitive approach to plot structure I’ve found. Plus it includes the writer herself in the hero’s journey. Stories, Alderson believes, are about the writer going on their own hero’s journey. How else can we bring the reader along?

Reading Like a Wrier by Francine Prose

 

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

How to take your favorite books and learn exactly how the author did a particular thing, then do it yourself in your own work. You can learn to write crowd scenes like Tolstoy, or Omniscient POV like Rowling.

Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins

Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins

When the writer feels what their characters are feeling, the whole story pops off the page and feels authentic. This book has so many great techniques for inside-out, method character development.

Hope this is helpful to all you writers out there! Have a great week!

Have a favorite writing craft book I didn’t mention? Comment below and let us know why you love your favorites.

Strong Characters Through Side Writing

Consider How Side Writing Could Deepen Your Fiction

 

Brandilyn Collins wonderful craft book Getting Into Character

If you don’t feel close to your characters, you can’t expect your readers to.

When you think of a friend, you don’t imagine what makes them like everyone else, do you? No, you remember their quirks, their contradictions, their particular turns of phrase, their noble traits, their flaws. These are the things that make you laugh, wonder, and bring you close.

But as a writer, how do you discover vivid character traits that ring true?

Creating Strong Characters

I’m reading a wonderful craft book that is helping me get in touch with my characters from an unusual creative source—acting.

Brandilyn Collins’ Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors has terrific techniques.  I’ll share just one with you. Really, you’ll want to read the whole book.

Blue Sky Thinking - Writing Your Story World
Blue Sky Thinking – Writing Your Story World

Side Writing

What is side writing?

Many writers find they can build strong characters through side writing. Side writing is anything you do as a writer that isn’t designed to go into your final draft. It’s the study, the inner exploration that helps you build your story world, the psyche of your characters, and the relationships between them that drive the conflict.

Side writing for a novelist is akin to an artist’s sketchbook. An artist tries out all kinds of techniques in their sketchbook. They draw studies of their subjects, they doodle, mess around, use pencils, or ink, or whatever medium they like, they tape in ideas. Sketchbook work doesn’t have to be good. It’s all fodder and inspiration for the final polished art pieces.

Your side writing should be your playground, where you flesh out and test your ideas.

Try this: Main Character Interview
  1. Set aside at least a half hour to try this exercise.
  2. Do a brief meditation in which you try to picture your main character. Close your eyes and visualize them sitting in front of you. Just take a few minutes and focus your energy on your protagonist. When you start to feel a little ridiculous, and like, wow, we writers sure are eccentric, then open your eyes and start writing.
  3. You can try writing by hand, or typing into your writing software of choice. If you are having trouble feeling in touch with your main character, I recommend trying doing this by hand, at least at first. It makes you slow down and pay attention.
  4. Start by greeting your main character like he or she is a real person. (This is a game of let’s pretend for grown-ups.)
  5. Then start having a conversation in which your goal is to chat and get to know each other.
  6. As you go along, get to the heart of what you really want to know about your character. Why are they so bent on revenge? Why are they so mad at their best friend? Whatever unanswered questions you have, ask them. You may not always get answers. Deflection is interesting, and you may want to ask again later.
  7. Get more specific and pointed as you go. Ask questions that will help you know the character’s big sticking points, their big terrors, their deepest most secret yearnings.
  8. Here are some suggested questions for after you are past the small talk: What would you die for? What do you live for? What is your biggest fear? If you won a billion dollars tax free, what would you do first? If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? (Big questions like these can help you see what matters most to your main character.)
What to Do with the Interview Text

Once you are done with your interview, you may find you like the process. You may want to begin each writing session with one of these, to warm up, to get into your character’s voice. Great!

Keep everything and refer to it later, before you write scenes from this character’s point of view. You can start a writing session by asking a character what they want in this upcoming scene. You can even ask them advice on how to write future scenes.

This side writing exercise has a distinct advantage over the commonly recommended character questionnaire. In this exercise you are talking to your character directly, so you get to speak and hear their voice. And you are answering as your character, so you will get new information about how they feel. They may even share new secrets with you.

Your novel’s world and people begin to live inside your imagination long before the plot swings into action. Side writing exercises the one above can be a terrific way to start sketching out that world and those people, so that your main character starts off vivid and strong.

Villains – They Make or Break Your Story

Disney's Fabulous Villains
Disney’s Fabulous Villains

VILLAINS – THEY MAKE OR BREAK YOUR STORY

“Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.”

—Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect

ANTAGONISM

Think back to you middle school English classes and you may remember there are many kinds of conflict. There’s hero against nature, hero against God, hero against society, hero against himself, and hero against someone else. Antagonistic forces like storms or totalitarian governments can destroy your protagonist’s world. If these kind of antagonistic forces are powerful in your story, you may not need a villain. Plenty of stories don’t have one.

In The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, there is no villain. The antagonistic forces are the protagonist’s overwhelming grief and guilt tied up in the death of her friend, the divorce of her parents, and her own inability to connect, possibly because of an undiagnosed neural diversity.

In Neil Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, 15 year old Caleb Bosch is losing his mind, caught between a dream world of a voyage to the Marianas Trench, and the increasing menace of his own real world paranoia and disorganized thoughts. The captain of the voyage at first seems like a mentor character, and slowly transforms into something darker as the story progresses. Here the author has chosen to personify the main character’s dilemma, creating a kind of villain, but through most of the story, the hero’s mental illness is the main antagonistic force.

The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

ANTAGONISM PERSONIFIED

The human mind finds it easy to externalize evil, and as writers we gain many advantages by putting a human face on our antagonistic forces; by creating villains. Want to rail against what you hate? Want to show what’s wrong with a certain philosophy of life? Give it a human (or alien, or unicorn, or dragon, or Ewok) face.

Javert, Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Voldemort, President Snow, the Wicked Witch of the West, Professor Moriarty, Joseph Stalin, and Hitler—all vital to the stories in which they appear. Try to imagine Harry Potter without Voldemort (he’d be a boring little kid, and his lack of specificity as a character would be more glaring than it already is). Who would Clarice Starling be without Hannibal Lecter? (Just an FBI trainee—would she even be in the story if Jack Crawford hadn’t needed to dangle her like bait in front of Lecter, the real crime fighting master sleuth of Silence of the Lambs?)

 

QUICK SELF-QUIZ ON VILLAINS

Write down your top five villains. It may be someone who rubs you the wrong way, or someone who just personifies evil.
What makes the villains you listed memorable?

My favorite Bond Villain - Sophie Marceau in The World Is Not Enough - full of contradictions
My favorite Bond Villain – Sophie Marceau in The World Is Not Enough – full of contradictions

WHAT A STRONG VILLAIN CAN DO FOR YOUR STORY

  • Drive the plot
  • Push the hero to the breaking point
  • Keep the muddle in the middle from getting too mucky, e.g., to fight Act II sag by getting busy doing bad things.
  • Keep your tension rising
  • Provide a foil for your hero’s life philosophy
  • Provide a dark mirror for the hero’s dilemma

Pan vs. Hook
Pan vs. Hook

HERO AND VILLAIN – A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN, OR HELL?

Sometimes heroes and villains are exact opposites, and sometimes, often in Noir stories,  they are dark and light mirror twins. One could argue that Harry Potter’s closest relationship, especially in the later books, is with Voldemort. There’s a lot to be made of what is different and what is the same between hero and villain.

To go deep on this vital relationship, do some side writing:

  • Pretend your hero and villain are in couples counseling. You be the therapist and see what happens – write down what everyone says.
  • Write a scene in which your hero and villain meet before the villain has gone bad. What if the one guy helps the other out of a bad situation, and they end up taking a road trip to Vegas? (not possible with the unreasoning relentless kind of villain or the Satan trope, which is just pure evil).

American Psycho - Villain as Protagonist
American Psycho – Villain as Protagonist

KINDS OF VILLAINS

The Extreme Philosopher – Great theory, taken too far – Javert, who loves the law and rationalism so much it blinds him to compassion and complexity. Javert realizes that he’s made himself a villain and jumps in the river. Tommy Lee Jones in the The Fugitive, who becomes the ally.

The Anti-Villain – this guy or gal helps the hero solve the crime or right the injustice. Lecter is also this guy. Godzilla, who in the sequels kills worse monsters to save humanity.

The Unreasoning Beast/Machine/Monster/Zombie/Alien/Supernatural Whatever – This character represents the urge to destroy, is utterly irredeemable and unstoppable. He just keeps on coming. She never sleeps. Nosferatu, Jekyll, Yul Brynner in the film Westworld, The Terminator in (not uncoincidentally) The Terminator, the girl in the well in The Ring/Ringu. All those Walking Dead gray guys. The Martians in War of the Worlds.

Doctor Evil – Basically he has a nefarious plan to take over the world and he will monologue about it. Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. If you’re going to use this trope, you may want to give it a comic edge, or find ways to go for more depth (see below), or spin it in a surprising way, because it has been done to death, to the point at which it begs to be lampooned with great relish. See Doofenshmirz in Phineas and Ferb, see Brain in Pinky and the Brain. See, of course, Dr. Evil in all the Austin Powers films.
The Charming Sociopath – Hannibal Lecter is a variant of this form. So is Moriarty. So is the Frank Langella or Gary Oldman Dracula, not the Bram Stoker variety. This guy you often don’t see coming because his social skills go to eleven.
The Social Darwinist – Anyone so sure of his own superiority that he is bent on genocide. Dr. Mengele in Boys From Brazil, Sir Lawrence Olivier in Marathon Man.
The Wounded Villain – Roy Batty in Blade Runner. (Until the last scene he seems to be the Machine.) The Phantom of the Opera.
The Petty Bureaucrat/Flunky/Minion/Thug – Agent Smith in The Matrix, Gil Lumbergh in Office Space. They love to torture others with the rules. They enjoy just following orders.
The Bully – Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, All the Heathers in Heathers. Nurse Ratched, Ace in Stand By Me. This is a type we all meet in life, so their easy to hate.
The Stealth Villain – Thought your best friend was on your side? Surprise! He’s been plotting your downfall all along. The best friend character in The Truman Show. Norman Bates is this for a little while. Tommy Lee Jones in Laura Mars. Oops – Dissociative Identity Disorder.
The Corrupted – Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. These guys used to be idealists, dreamers, but not any more. Often they serve as a warning to the protagonist by showing the results of bad choices.
The Disturbed – Annie Wilkes in Misery, Norman Bates in Psycho. Major Axis I Diagnosis.
The Ultra-Hot Villain – The hero should be terrified, but instead, he’s hot and bothered. The Darkling in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, any femme fatale in any Noir, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction
Pure Evil. Satan, Sauron, Lucifer and variations. The personification of Evil. The Wicked Witch of the West. Max Cady in Cape Fear.
Villain as Protagonist Dexter in Dexter – a psychopath who fights crime. Humbert Humbert, American Psycho, Alex in A Clockwork Orange
Unintentional Villain – Frankenstein’s Monster, King Kong, Claude Rains’ Invisible Man.

Moriarty in Sherlock - the Villain as Hero's Dark Mirror
Moriarty in Sherlock – the Villain as Hero’s Dark Mirror

MY VILLAIN IS FLAT AND BORING. WHAT DO I DO?

  • Give them higher stakes. Why ruin one person’s life when you can destroy the world?
  • Give them a fun backstory, a wound that they might try to heal with vengeance. A wound can make your hero and your reader empathize with the villain. This can be a wonderful complication. Check out the origin stories of comic book villains. What turned your bad guy bad? Could it have gone another way?
  • Give them a heart. In The Phantom of the Opera, the disfigured Phantom falls for Christine, then starts murdering people to help her get ahead. He is a monster, but he can love and be hurt.
  • Give them a contradiction. The human mind is fascinated by things that don’t fit a neat pattern. Hannibal Lecter is a vicious cannibal who can murder without his pulse going over 80 beats per minute, but he also has a great sensitivity to beauty and the highest kind of culture. (Harris is probably making a big point there.) He gets out of prison but doesn’t go after Clarice because “he would consider that rude.”
  • Give them a rationale. Remember, everyone is a hero in his own life, and every great philosophy, when taken too far, can lead to horror and dystopia.
  • Give them a sense of humor. Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first Tim Burton Batman movie won moviegoers over with this bit of dialogue in which he describes his former boss, played by Jack Palance, “He was a thief, and a terrorist. On the other hand he had a tremendous singing voice.”
  • Give them a secondary role in the story, like mentor, or love interest, or surprise ally.
    Weapons and Furnishings. Give them an object that they always carry around. Give them a catchphrase. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” “Yippe-kiyay!”

RESOURCES

These books and websites have some great material on Villains:

TVtropes.com
Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer.
David Corbett, The Art of Character.

ACTIVITY

Instant Villain – Just Add Evil

  1. Write everything in this exercise from the POV of your villain.
  2. Think of someone who bugs you. Give them a new name and they will become your archvillain.
  3. Give your villain maybe a superpower, a magical object/weapon, and even an awesome vehicle, then have them describe all that cool stuff to you.
  4. If they are corrupted or wounded, what made them that way? Imagine the scene and jot down a few notes so you can write it later. Have the villain tell you about it.
  5. What’s in the villain’s bedroom closet on the top shelf?
  6. You can dialogue with your villain or write scenes from their point of view. The more you do this, the better you’ll know them, and the more they might surprise and charm your reader.

Outlining Your Story

Flying high now!

Outlining Your Story

One of the most daunting tasks a writer ever faces is to outline their work. We’ve spent so much time creating the fictive dream, developing our characters, crafting dialogue and description, that to reduce it all to a play-by-play, point-by-point overview of plot can seem an overwhelming challenge.

Somehow it hurts to boil it all down. And, let’s be honest, with everything going on in your story, it’s hard to know what to include and what not to.

Ya Gotta Do It

Still, outlining is necessary. Agents and Editors will thank you for a good chapter outline. It helps them give you notes, and sell your story to others. You’ll need a clear, tight synopsis when you’re querying agents and editors, too, and without an outline, you’ll be stuck weeding through your text page by page.

So, fellow novelists, let’s roll up our sleeves and learn how to outline.

cropped-margaret_mayo_mcGlynn_tiber_1260x240.jpg

Outlining Methods

A Quick Method for Outlining

  • Put each story element on file cards
  • put them in the order you want
  • go through and tell the story to several people. Voila—story feedback without having written one word of prose! (From Robert McKee’s book Story)

Snowflake Method

Source: Randy Ingermannson at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

If you have a limited amount of time and need an outline before you write, this is a great method. I used it myself before my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

In 10 steps, The Snowflake Method will give you a wide array of useful tools once you’re done. You’ll have an elevator pitch in the form of a one-sentence log line. You’ll have a full page synopsis. You’ll tackle character description, three-act structure, and you’ll really get to know your characters, including your villains, super-quick. Check out Randy’s website above. He also has a full-length book on The Snowflake Method.

Dan Wells’ 7 Points Method

Dan Wells, (author of the John Cleaver series), along with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, has a FANTASTIC PODCAST CALLED “WRITING EXCUSES.” He also has a useful method for outlining. You can find it on YouTube here. Using a Star Trek Role Playing game manual, Dan worked out how to outline any storyline in 7 points.

I love this one because it’s relatively easy to remember what the 7 points are, and how they work. It gets complicated when you realize that each of the story lines in your novel should have its own 7-point arc.

Dan Wells 7 Points Genres
Dan Wells 7-points applied to various genres

A Brief Breakdown of Dan Wells’ 7-Point Method

Here are the 7 Points:

  1. Hook – The hero has a sad boring life.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – Hero becomes a NEW ROLE.
  3. Pinch 1 – Bad Guy attacks.
  4. Midpoint – Hero learns the truth about SOMETHING and swears to defeat the VILLAIN/ANTAGONIST.
  5. Pinch 2 – Companions fail the Hero, and Hero is left alone.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Facing VILLAIN, the Hero discovers the power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Hero defeats VILLAIN

Here are the 7 points, using Stars Wars: A New Hope as an example:

  1. Hook – Luke is misunderstood farm boy who longs to be a star pilot and have adventures.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s distress signal to Luke. Luke brings the ‘droid to see Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives him his father’s light saber and offers to teach him to become a Jedi. The Force is strong with him, and Luke is now a Jedi in training.
  3. Pinch 1 – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed by Imperial Troops.
  4. Midpoint – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dead; Luke decides he wants to rescue the princess and join the rebellion and become a Jedi like his father.
  5. Pinch 2 – Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in a duel with Vader.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the Force to drop the proton torpedo into the ventilation shaft and destroy the Death Star. The power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Death Star is destroyed. Rebel base is safe. Time to hand out some medals!

Wait, Didn’t A Lot More Stuff Happen in Star Wars?

Now, obviously, there is a lot more going on in Star Wars, A New Hope than the 7 points listed above. There’s Han Solo needing to escape Jabba the Hut. There’s the ‘Droids plot line as they squabble with each other and try to survive on Tatooine, being captured by the Jawas and sold to Luke’s Uncle Owen. There’s the plot line of the Rebels, and the stolen plans for the Death Star. There’s Princess Leia’s plot line in which she is captured and tries her best to save her home planet, but to no avail. Darth Vader even has a plot line of his own, in conflict with the more modern approach to evil represented by Governor Tarkin. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s plot line is important as he faces Darth Vader in an old school sword battle. He represents the entire world of the Jedi Knights. Star Wars was planned by Lucas to be an epic, so its plot lines are sprawling. But you get the idea.

A Fancy Spreadsheet For You!

I have used Dan Wells’ 7 points to create a Google Sheet. In it you’ll find the 7 points for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Wizard of Oz (the movie), Pride and Prejudice, Othello, and The Telltale Heart. This shows how the 7 points can work for all genres. The only major genres missing here are Mystery and Suspense. At some point I’ll add those in.

Download the Spreadsheet HERE.

Chapter Outline Technique from the Editor of Harry Potter!

The chapter outline is a useful tool for when you are submitting a final manuscript to an editor. It will help them track all kinds of information in your story, from ages, to dates, to conflicts, to plot points. It will make the editor and the copyeditor your friend. You can also use it as a tool to refine and polish your manuscript before submission.

Plot like this on a spreadsheet:

Column headers:

  • Name of Chapter
  • POV Character – only one.
  • Location
  • Day, Date and Time
  • Conflict
  • One-line synopsis
  • Chapter Question – what question keeps the reader turning pages?
  • Key Plot Points Revealed

Fill in each of these for your chapters, one chapter per row, or, if you have complex chapters, one row per scene. Then go back through. It’s going to be easy to see if you don’t have enough conflict going in a chapter or scene. If you don’t, think about summarizing that section of the story, and saving the scene for the more dramatic moments.

For more on this method, see Arthur A. Levine Books Harry Potter editor Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight and her podcast (with knowledgeable screenwriter James Monoghan), the Narrative Breakdown. Cheryl is a rock star editor, and this podcast has wonderful stuff on all aspects of storytelling.

Best of luck plotting your stories! Do you have Outlining methods you recommend? Share them in the comments below!

Happy reading and writing!

–Margaret

Creating Unforgettable Characters

Margaret Mayo McGlynn YA Fantasy Author

What’s the most important thing in your story? What do readers bond with more than any other aspect of a story? The characters. How do you make yours unforgettable? Please enjoy the tips below gleaned from some of the best books and thinking I could find.

David Corbett says something in his The Art of Character that rings true for me. To write great characters, first know yourself. How? My advice is, go into therapy and start examining your own motivations. It will have lots of side benefits in your life. It will also stir up your emotions which, for an artist, is great fodder. Also, read lots of psychology books.

To write great characters, first know yourself.

A lot of what you’ll find below comes from Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, a book that gets right to the meat of storytelling. I recommend it very highly. Buy it here.

ONE-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION OF A COMPELLING MAIN CHARACTER:

Characters don’t exist without story. Story can’t work without characters. The whole plot-driven or character-driven dichotomy is a false one to my mind. A character reveals himself through his reactions and actions in a story. A story moves forward on the actions of its characters. To me, when people describe a story as character-driven it just means that story has realistic, surprising, three-dimensional, compelling-as-hell characters.

Below is an awful sentence in terms of prose elegance. But it’s great at describing the scope of a main character’s journey through a story.

A TYPE OF HERO/INE (e.g., 16-year-old prep school student, reclusive Hobbit, young justice-minded scion of an Italian-American crime family syndicate, plucky Southern Belle just before the Civil War) experiences an INCITING INCIDENT, and wants OUTER DESIRE, but ANTAGONISTIC/ANTAGONISTIC FORCE throws up roadblocks at every turn. Despite FLAWS, and HERO/INE’s WOUND/GHOST, HERO/INE GOES TO EXTREMES to get OUTER DESIRE with the help/hindrance of ALLIES and MENTOR, mapping a CHARACTER ARC from STARTING STATE to ENDING STATE and, after fighting their FLAWS in a WORST NIGHTMARE climax, having the INNER DESIRE beat out the OUTER DESIRE in tense internal conflict, and succeeding or failing to get OUTER DESIRE, HERO/INE discovers that they really wanted INNER DESIRE all along and heal their GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA or at least learn to live with it better, unless it completely destroys them, in which case your story is a tragedy, not that there’s anything wrong with that, unless Hollywood is right.

Hero/ine Checklist

So what does all that jargon in the sentence above mean? I break it down below.

  • INNER DESIRE (usually selfless and noble, aka what the character needs to learn, or what they really need deep down). Some authors call this the character’s “Need.” The INNER DESIRE expresses who the main character really is in their best self. Example: Clarice Starling’s desire to protect innocence. Scarlett O’Hara’s desire to save and preserve Tara, her home.
  • OUTER DESIRE (usually selfish) Clarice’s Starling’s ambition to rise quickly in the FBI. Scarlett’s desire to marry Ashley because he’s the perfect noble Southern gentleman, which would ennoble her, except she’s not really all that noble, so if she’d gotten him, it never would have worked.
  • HOW DO YOU SHOW THAT THE INNER DESIRES AND OUTER DESIRES ARE IN CONFLICT? In LA Confidential, Bud White talks to his lover Lynn Bracken about wanting to be smart enough to solve the Night Owl case, even though his outer goal is to protect women and get even for his dad’s physical abuse. (When he solves the Night Owl, that puts Lynn in danger, and because the bad guys want to destroy him, they use his hot-headedness against him so he ends up punching Lynn.) His desire to be seen as smart and to be taken seriously as a real detective is his INNER DESIRE.
  • HOW DO YOU SHOW THAT THE INNER DESIRE IS WINNING OUT OVER THE OUTER DESIRE? Example: Scarlett makes it back to Tara, and even though she wants to run off with Ashley, she sees how bad things have gotten (and she must save and preserve her family home (INNER DESIRE) so she helps her sisters and everyone there pull it together. At the midpoint of the story, she vows to “never be hungry again.”
  • CHARACTER ARC: there are several options: HERO/INE doesn’t change like Shane or Candide. Or HERO/INE accomplishes goals through good, but stays essentially the same, like Forrest Gump. Or becomes stronger like Clarice Starling. Or learns that her role as family matriarch is ennobling like Scarlett O’Hara. Or like Michael Corleone, goes from good to corrupt and also from weak to powerful.
  • GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA: (repetition compulsion): Clarice couldn’t save the spring lamb but she is compelled to try to save Katherine, another innocent about to be slaughtered. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is literally the GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA. It represents his desire for revenge and justice that drives him to destruction. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is literally being stalked by his own shadow self, which he unleashed in an act of vainglory.
  • FLAWS. These often come naturally from the ghost or core trauma. Or they might be a function of personality. In Ember in the Ashes, Laia is spying for the Resistance because they have promised to get her brother out of prison, but she’s shy and not apt to take risks, not courageous like her brother and parents, so at first she makes a terrible spy. She will have to overcome her flaw of cowardice if she is to get her OUTER GOAL, which is to save her brother. Michael in Tootsie has a major flaw: He’s a great actor, but he overthinks everything, which makes him impossible to work with. This flaw becomes a strength when he harnesses his perfectionism and creates a flawless female disguise, which lands him a lead on a soap opera. Katniss’s abrasive directness becomes an asset when she becomes a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and it makes her a fantastic figurehead for rebellion. Look for ways your characters’ greatest flaws can become a great strength in your story.
  • CHARACTER INTRODUCTION: The first time you see each of your characters should be memorable, and this is especially important with your HERO/INE. The way you introduce them should be a layered reflection of the main character’s state of mind and their character arc. Use everything: where they are, what they are wearing, what they are doing.
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Every character should have realistic flaws. Nobody’s perfect. Would this sky be as pretty without the big storm cloud?

Example of Character Introduction:

“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.”

–Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

“Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck. There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick or The Whale.

  • WHAT BITS OF BUSINESS IN YOUR SCENES REVEAL THE HERO/INE’S PERSONALITY, BOTH STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES? Clarice stumbling over her words at the autopsy. Chief Brody trying and trying to master the bowline knot. Scarlett making a dress out of the curtains and gargling with eau de cologne to hide the alcohol on her breath. These bits of business add a lot of richness. They are the essence of Showing (not Telling).
  • EXTREMES: HOW DOES YOUR HERO/INE GO TO EXTREMES TO GET WHAT THEY WANT? Clarice telling Lecter her most painful memory. Michael in Tootsie disguising himself as a woman to get a part.
  • SPECIFIC ACTOR WHO WOULD IDEALLY PLAY THE ROLE: Helps you visualize the character, and speak in their unique voice. Pick an actor you know well. Choose wisely and you will start to hear your main character’s dialogue in that actor’s unique voice. Dialogue is one of the strongest tools for creating vivid character.
  • MYTHIC RESONANCE: HOW DOES YOUR MAIN CHARACTER’S JOURNEY REFLECT A FAMOUS MYTHIC STORY OR SHAKESPEARE PLAY (the Bard himself retold classic myths and folk tales)? Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey. Moby Dick/Jaws and Battling the Monster as in Hercules and the Hydra. Clarice Starling visits Lecter in the dungeonesque prison basement like Theseus visits the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Katniss Everdeen faces trials like Hercules and other mythic heroes do. Katniss resembles Artemis, the avid archer Goddess of the Hunt, and the Amazons with their bows and arrows. O Brother Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain are both retellings of the Odyssey. Adding mythic elements to your main character gives them resonance that hooks the reader. Why not? There are no new ideas, just new twists on old ones. I like to play a game when I read or watch any story: What famous old chestnut does it most resemble? Believe that I was geeking out on how Sons of Anarchy is like Hamlet, and how House of Cards is basically Richard III. Isn’t that cool? I know!
  • WORST NIGHTMARE: WHAT IS YOUR HERO/INE’S WORST NIGHTMARE, AND HOW DOES THE CLIMAX OF YOUR STORY BRING IT TO LIFE? Indiana Jones hates snakes and ends up in a huge pit of them. Luke fights his greatest fear: Vader and finds out he is his father. Think of a massively climactic set piece that could put your Hero/ine in a physical manifestation of their worst nightmare. What’s Quint’s worst nightmare? To be eaten by a shark. What’s Michael Corleone’s worst nightmare? To lose his soul like his father did.
  • ANTAGONIST: A dark mirror of the protagonist. Sometimes it would take very little for the protagonist to become like the antagonist. (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, Holmes and Moriarty.) Sometimes they have the same goal, but the protagonist won’t use immoral means and the antagonist will.
  • ALLIES: They often reflect different sides of the protagonist’s personality. They sometimes help, sometimes hinder. Sometimes they betray and change sides. They can have common constellations like Kirk, Bones and Spock: gut, heart and head, for instance. Harry, Ron and Hermione: gut, heart and head again. Look for these kinds of character constellations in your favorite stories and see how you can use what works about them, with a new flavor in your own work.

Here’s an excerpt showing a famous Ally. Notice how the description of the ally is also a description of the feelings that lead to one of the OUTER GOALS of the main character:

“It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly.”

–L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

  • MENTOR: They act as a kind of superego and hold the key to the lesson the Heroi/ine is meant to learn. Obi-wan Kenobi and Yoda, Morpheus in The Matrix, and Jiminy Cricket
  • LOVE INTEREST: In Romantic Comedies, the love interest is often also the antagonist. One of my favorite kind of romances is the “sparks fly” kind of romance in which the two main characters instantly bug the crap out of each other. The LOVE INTEREST often represents the qualities that the main character needs to be whole.

CHARACTER QUESTIONNAIRE

A list of traits is not a be all and end all in creating characters. You want to become these characters as you write and feel what they feel from the inside, then report on it. This can take time and lots of backstory work. If you don’t know how a character will react to things, how they will behave, then write a scene that poses the questions and see what they do. More on this below.

Still, I think if you want to keep all the information of your characters consistent, even simple stuff like birthdays, place of birth, and so on, you will probably want to fill out a character questionnaire and keep it somewhere you can find it quickly while you’re writing.

Here’s a pretty exhaustive Character Questionnaire that you can put into a grid so you can keep the info on each character side by side. I include in it some of the elements from the checklist above so it’s all there at your fingertips.

  • Full Name
  • Date of Birth
  • Place of Birth
  • Role in Story
  • Astrological Sun Sign
  • Meyers Briggs Type
  • Enneagram
  • Age in Scene 1
  • Gender
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Hair color
  • Eye color
  • Skin color
  • Posture
  • Language(s) spoken
  • Appearance details: Overweight, underweight, clean or untidy, shape of head face limbs
  • Frequently used metaphor or descriptive tags
  • Movement: clumsy, elegant, plodding, meticulous, shuffling, graceful, etc.
  • Ethnicity and race
  • Class
  • Occupation
  • Education: Degrees and majors. Also, extracurriculars.
  • Home life: What makes up their family at home and how are those relationships?
  • Mom: Name, alive or dead, best day with her, worst day with her, overall relationship.
  • Dad: Name, alive or dead, best day with him, worst day with him, overall relationship.
  • Siblings and birth order. Relationship with siblings? Good days, bad days?
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Place in social group: leader, follower, outcast
  • Which table would they sit at in the high school cafeteria?
  • When they were 7 years old, what did they want to be when they grew up?
  • Political affiliations
  • Hobbies
  • Favorite Books
  • Favorite Movies
  • Favorite Music
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Mannerisms: specific gestures. What does the character do when they are nervous?
  • Verbal mannerisms: What words or phrases does the character use a lot? What is their voice like? Do they speak quickly or slowly? With an accent?
  • INNER GOAL
  • OUTER GOAL
  • FLAWS/STRENGTHS
  • Sex Life
  • First Kiss (age, who, where, when, how)
  • Level of Ambition
  • Frustrations & Disappointments
  • Temperament: choleric, easygoing, pessimistic, optimistic
  • Attitude towards life: resigned, militant, defeatist
  • Worst Nightmare – be detailed
  • Ghost/Wound/Core Traumas. Describe what happened. Write it as a scene.
  • Psychological disorders, and if they had a Personality Disorder, which one would it be?
  • Extravert, introvert, or in the middle
  • Archetype, Fairy Tale, or Mythic Character Comparison (Hercules, Medea, Wicked Witch, Odysseus, Cuchulain, Dracula, Baron Samedi, Icarus, Baba Yaga—lots of options!)
  • What if anything would they die for?
  • Best day of their life before story starts.
  • Worst day of their life before story starts.
  • When things go wrong, how do they react? How do they cope?
  • What does this character see as their life purpose?
  • How does the character see themselves?
  • What is their favorite thing about themselves?
  • What is the one thing about themselves they would change if they could?

FINDING YOUR CHARACTER IN BACKSTORY SCENES

These should be fun ways to get to know your characters. Write a scene about your character’s:

  1. First kiss (if it happens before story starts)
  2. First sexual experience (if it happens before story starts)
  3. Worst day in middle school (if it happens before story starts)
  4. Best friend. How did they meet? (if it happens before story starts)
  5. Love interest: When did the character know they loved them?
  6. Worst day before story starts
  7. Best day before story starts
  8. Biggest heartbreak

REASONS YOUR HERO/INE MIGHT BE FORGETTABLE

  1. Passive/No Agency
  2. No flaws
  3. No sense of humor
  4. Dialogue is flat or on the nose
  5. Too predictable
  6. Behaving like a plot puppet and not like a three-dimensional person.

A SECRET WEAPON (ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE)

  • Take an acting class. The way an actor prepares a role is also the way you want to prepare to write in the voice of your characters. Many actors write reams and reams on the history and backstory of their characters and make specific choices about key moments in the person’s life. They go way beyond what is in the text. This is what it often takes to know your characters so well that they come to life.
  • Read the best writing on acting: Stanislavsky’s works are a great place to start. I love his description of how he created the character of his own inner critic.
  • Take an improv class in which you learn to create characters. Some of your favorite SNL skit characters were born from this process. Improv will loosen you up in all kinds of ways.
  • Here’s why I think some training in acting is fantastic. When I write, I become the POV character, and if I’m doing it right, my language choices change according to who she is. I experience the events of the story through her personality. To get into that dream-like state, sense memory exercises can really help.
  • Even if you would never publish it, write your own memoir. Focus particularly on the key moments in your life — the things that are most emotional for you, that have juice. Then change names and just enough of the details to protect the innocent—or the guilty—and pop them into your character’s backstory, or even into the story proper. When you reach a moment in your character’s story that is emotional, dig into your own story for an event that brought up similar thoughts and feelings.
  • Great advice to actors is also great advice to writers. Use yourself. As Mrs. Which said to Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time, “I give you your flaws.” Use them to make realistic characters with lots of shades of gray.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Please share your comments here. I’d love to hear what you think. Also, share your tips on building characters.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Show Don’t Tell

 

SHOWING NOT TELLING

“Show don’t tell,” is common advice to aspiring authors, but what does it mean? What is showing and how does it work? Is telling always bad?

“Showing is like watching a scene in a movie. All you have is what’s on the screen before you. What the characters do or say reveals who they are and what they’re feeling. Telling, on the other hand, is just like you’re recounting the movie to a friend. Which renders the more memorable experience?”

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing for Publication

“Readers have high expectations. They don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves.”

—Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus

What does it mean to show and not tell?

  • Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and physical manifestations of feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and intellectualized labeling words.
  • James Scott Bell talks about Jurassic Park the movie—scene when Sam Neill’s character first sees the living dinosaur “in a story you would describe it…[like this]: ‘Mark’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He tried to take a breath, but breath did not come…’ The reader feels the emotions right along with the character.” Compare that to this: “Mark was stunned and frightened.”
    • In the first passage, the writer describes what the character is doing and experiencing in his body, and lets the reader draw their own conclusions about what the character is feeling.
    • In the second passage, the writer tells the reader what the character is feeling, which prevents the reader from experiencing that feeling directly.

So, what’s the difference? Showing leaves room for a reader to inhabit a character, to walk a mile in chafing army boots or wobbly platform shoes, to live vicariously (without the interposing narrator buzzing in the reader’s ear).

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Showing

  • actions
  • words
  • thoughts
  • body sensations
  • immediate
  • immersive
  • takes more gradual steps

Telling

  • filter words, aka, “the Frame” that puts the reader outside the experience, watching the character go through it: she saw, he heard, she mused, he felt, she wondered, he realized, she thought, he surmised, he concluded, etc.
  • emotional labels: angry, shocked, terrified, alarmed, irritated, etc.
  • exposition
  • summarization of events
  • distant and distancing
  • a shortcut

Why Show and Not Tell?

Why is it more compelling to show and not tell? Why does it give a more direct experience?

  • Showing is more impactful because of how human beings experience our lives.
  • When something happens that matters to us, we feel bodily sensations and we think thoughts about what’s going on.
  • What we don’t do in the moment is say to ourselves, “Gee, I’m angry.” or “Hey, I’m scared.” Putting a label on our feelings is an intellectual exercise we usually do later. It is generally not helpful in the moment. Rather than thinking, “I’m alarmed and very angry at Sheldon now,” we think, “I’m going to punch him in the face. But I can’t. If I do, I’m fired. Oh, but it would feel so good!”
  • We come to any text with skepticism. If there’s too much telling, we don’t buy into it. We want to be shown. Showing builds trust with the reader.

Margaret Mayo McGlynn Books on Writing

When is it OK to Tell?

We actually need both showing and telling to make a seamless narrative in fiction or memoir.

  • It’s OK to tell when you are summarizing.
  • Remember in our Scene Structure topic we talked about the difference between Scene and Summary?
  • Writers summarize events the reader needs to know, but that are not dramatic enough or important enough to put in a scene. Summary is Telling.
  • Also, it’s OK to tell, just a little bit, in mid-scene, to give the reader information they need to understand the action, aka, exposition, but a very little goes along way.

Example of Telling that works: Chapter 1 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Our house is almost at the edge of the Seam. I only have to pass a few gates to reach the scruffy field called the Meadow. Separating the Meadow from the woods, in fact enclosing all of District 12, is a high chain-link fence topped with barbedwire loops. In theory, it’s supposed to be electrified twentyfour hours a day as a deterrent to the predators that live in the woods — packs of wild dogs, lone cougars, bears — that used to threaten our streets. But since we’re lucky to get two or 6 three hours of electricity in the evenings, it’s usually safe to touch.

Why does TELLING work here?

  • The details are visual and give us a series of snapshots like a little collage: the gates, the scruffy field, wild dogs, cougars, bears. This engages our visual sense.
  • In this case, the author needs to establish quickly that the story takes place in a world unlike our own. (Necessary in all Fantasy and Science Fiction.)
  • It establishes the character of the heroine—her dispassionate voice about these things shows her bravery and practicality, her survival skills.
  • The details imply a dangerous and difficult world, which amps up the drama.
  • It (and the rest of the exposition that follows it ) sets the stage for the next little scene, which is below:

In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings on a smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods.

But wait—that first and last sentence are also telling, right?

  • Yes.
  • Not so cut and dried, is it?
  • Maybe she didn’t need that sentence? So why did she put it in? Maybe because the audience is YA and generally wants to see a potential love interest early on?
  • Either way, Showing and Telling is a balancing act. Collins uses telling as a shortcut here, but she already has a set of compelling questions going that keep the reader plunging forward.
  • Whether you are showing or telling, what’s important is including small details that suggest a larger picture. That is an art, not a science.

writer_author_YA_Fantasy_books_travelHow to Show: EXERCISE

Write 1-2 paragraphs about a single incident with a high emotional charge, according to the specs below. Be disciplined. Don’t let yourself veer away from the requirements.

  • 1-2 Paragraphs
  • about a single emotionally charged moment
  • First person
  • No adverbs – instead choose a more active verb
  • No adjectives (except factual ones like colors, size, shape)
  • Only describe information that comes through your senses (not your evaluating mind)
  • Not allowed to say “I felt…” Instead, describe the physical sensations making up the emotional reaction, e.g, “My cheeks were hot,” or “my stomach lurched.”
  • Express no opinion, no judgment, just describe what happened and how you reacted physically.

SUMMARY

  • Remember, showing directly immerses your reader in the experience of your characters by directly portraying action, thought, and reaction right there in the dramatic events of the story.
  • Telling, on the other hand, gives information, but in a non-immediate summarization.
  • Show in your scenes; tell in your summary sections.
  • When you tell, include interesting, unexpected details that paint a picture of a larger world, process or character.
  • Showing is more immediate. Use it for the dramatic parts to really hook your readers.
  • Telling helps get your readers from point A to point B in your story, and gives them key backstory that will help them understand your main character’s struggle.
  • Showing bonds your reader to your characters in your story.
  • Showing is why your reader picked up your book.
  • Telling can help your reader skip the boring parts in your storyline and get right to the dramatic parts.

Point of View

Oak Alley One Point Perspective

The point of view you choose for your novel will affect the way your reader sees your story. How do you decide which point of view to choose? And once you’ve chosen one, how do you keep it consistent?

Below I lay out the kinds of Point of View writers use, and at the bottom I give examples.

What is Point of View?

“A position from which something is considered or evaluated, a standpoint, or a place of perception.” — Jill Elizabeth Nelson, author of Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View

Point of view (POV) is the framework through which the reader experiences your story. To keep the reader within the fictive dream (aka, hooked in your work) choose a POV that enhances the tone and style of your story. Then, stick to it.

The first person narrative of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” enhances the intensely fearful atmosphere of the story. It’s as if the POV character has reached out and grabbed the reader with shaking hands. Take a look at the opening lines of the story below.

“The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe – First Person POV

True!–nervous–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses–not destroyed–not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily–how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

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How Many Kinds of Point of View are there?

There are three basic POVs you can use in your story or novel, and each will lend your tale a different flavor. These POVs each go by the term ‘person.’ a term referring to verb conjugation in English. See the quick examples below.

  • First Person—”I do this. I do that. I did this I did that.”
    • The voice of a first person narrator should not be bland. First person is a great opportunity to establish a strong voice and personality for your main character.
    • Narrative distance is close.
  • Second Person—”You do this. You do that. You did this. You did that.”
    • This POV can be edgy, which works well for urban, in your face, New Adult novels like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. If you choose to write in this POV, make sure your story will benefit from this slightly avant-garde tone.
    • Narrative distance is close, and can feel aggressive—in your face.
  • Third Person—”He does this. She does that. He did this. She did that.”

Third Person Options

Third person breaks out into two subcategories:

  • Objective, aka Limited—the story is told from within a single character’s consciousness and perception at a time. You can switch POV characters, but if you do, it’s usually best to make a section or chapter break.
    • Be careful the narrative distance isn’t too great. Take extra care to give the POV character a strong vivid voice.
  • Omniscient—the narrator isn’t in any one character’s head, and the narrator knows everything in the story. This POV is like a crane shot in a movie, or as if God was telling you the story. It can be hard to pull off. Technically, you could switch from showing one character’s thoughts and feelings to showing those of another within the same scene, but this is usually jarring to the reader—this is what’s known as head-hopping.
    • Third Person Omniscient has the grandest scope, and it can feel old fashioned.
    • It is typical of 19th Century novels.
    • It has the greatest narrative distance.
    • You may want to compensate by keeping the tension and stakes high, and focusing on shocking events in your characters’ lives.
carved wood screen
carved wood screen

Narrative Voice – Giving POV Shades and Color

No matter which Person you choose for your POV, you can select from the various narrative voices below:

  • Stream of Consciousness—based on the William James’s psychotherapeutic technique of having the patient blurt out whatever comes to mind. This style of POV puts the reader right inside the POV character’s head, privy to every passing thought and feeling, whether these thoughts make objective sense or not. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Marcel Proust used this technique. At worst, this technique produces dense impenetrable walls of text. It can be hard to not to make this approach seem pretentious, especially when you are a writing newbie.
  • Character Voice—The way a character sounds is his or her ‘Voice’ as he or she tells the story to the reader. Voice should be as specific as possible. A unique voice makes a protagonist more vivid and forges a bond with your reader. How do you get specific with your voice? Use words and phrases only that character would use. That gives your character an unmistakable way to express him or herself. And if you switch POV to that of another character, switch voice so that the reader knows they are now inside someone else’s head.
  • Kinds of Narrators
    • Reliable—This kind of narrator tells the truth as he or she knows it.
    • Unreliable—This kind of narrator may lie or withhold key plot points, keeping the reader guessing (Amy and Nick in Gone Girl).
  • Epistolary—a story told through a primary document, rather than through narration, e.g. letters, social media status updates, diaries, and text messages (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The sections of Gone Girl that are Amy’s diary are epistolary. ‘Epistle’ means a letter.
foliage
foliage

Narrative Time – Tense

You can say it happened, or you can say it’s happening, just keep it consistent, or you may lose your readers.

Past Tense—It Happened

Past tense is the mainstream convention for telling a story. Think of “Once upon the time there was…” We’ve grown up with stories told in past tense. A past tense story feels as though it is happening in the present.

Present Tense—it Is Happening

In present tense, stories feel immediate, as in blow-by-blow sports coverage, or water cooler gossip. Present tense is often how we tell stories from our lives to our friends. “So I go to the office this morning and I get in late…”

tree
tree

Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is the level of closeness that your readers feel to your narrator. The closer your reader feels to the experience of the POV character, the more the reader is hooked by the story.

In most cases, closer is better because the reader is immersed in the POV character’s experience. There are times, though, when a bit of extra narrative distance can help you tell a story. In Gone Girl, Nick keeps the reader at a distance, which clues the reader in on his unreliability. Gone Girl is essentially a who-done-it in which we, the readers, rather than a detective character, work to solve the mystery. So, when Nick drops a few bombs on us in the second act, we are not completely shocked.

Many novels begin from greater narrative distances, the literary equivalent of a helicopter shot, and then later, zoom in on one character’s internal and external experience. Often starting with a greater narrative distance gives room to establish the broad scope of the story, and the world in which it unfolds.

Examples of Narrative Distance

Far – John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.

Close – Veronica Roth’s INSURGENT

I take Tobias’s hand. The wind picks up as we stand at the edge of the car opening, like a hand pushing me back, toward safety.

But we launch ourselves into darkness and land hard on the ground. The impact hurts the bullet wound in my shoulder. I bite my lip to keep from crying out, and search for my brother.

Tips about Point of View

  1. Stick to one POV per scene. No “head hopping,” i.e. switching POVs mid scene. Yes, Hemingway did it in THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Are you Hemingway and is it 1951? Head hopping disorients your reader and gives him or her a chance to lose interest in your story. There is a way to do it skillfully, but it is a pet peeve of many literary agents and editors and can make your work look amateurish.
  2. No Narrative ESP. Avoid showing sensory details and knowledge the POV character could not know. A POV character can’t see her cheeks flush if she isn’t looking in the mirror. So if you write “Susan’s cheeks got pink.” and she is the POV character, if she can’t see her cheeks, you’ve broken your POV.
  3. Keep your tense consistent within your scenes. Make it clear when you go into and come out of a flashback, which will, in general, take you back one tense, e.g. from present to past, or from past to past perfect.
  4. Stay aware of your narrative distance. In your most intense scenes, keep your reader close to the action. But if you are establishing a new setting, or en entirely new world, it’s okay to start wide and then zoom in.
pink flowers
pink flowers

Examples – Points of Views in Literature

First Person Past – THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

First Person Present – THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Second Person Present – BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again it might not.

Third Person Omniscient Past – George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”

“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.

Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”

“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”

“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead that’s proof enough for me.”

Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later.

Stream of Consciousness (First Person) from James Joyce’s Ulysses 

a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early

An Invisible Frame

In this post I have laid out a lot of technical jargon and information about something that ideally should be invisible to your reader. The reason you choose a POV and keep it consistent is to enhance the reader’s engagement in your story. Ideally the POV should be invisible to your reader because they are fully immersed in your story, eager to find out what happens next.

Thanks for reading this post! This content was composed for the Pasadena Writer’s Group by Margaret Mayo McGlynn and Cody Sisco.

I welcome your comments. Please feel free to ask questions and share your ideas about POV here!

Resources for Writers: Kami Garcia’s Blog

Kami Garcia
Kami Garcia

Smart Writer Meets Opportunity

Kami Garcia has an unusual author success story. She and friend Margaret Stohl were teaching high school and running a teen reading group. They started noticing that the books they were reading weren’t as good as they could be. At the time, it seemed every YA novel involved a love triangle between a girl, a vampire and a werewolf. So Kami and Margaret decided to write their own, and it turns out, they had a bestselling idea, and a built-in teen focus group to help hone it. Essentially, their story was a Southern Gothic family saga with Witches. Nothing quite like it had ever been done before.

Accidental Bestseller

She told the story of their apparently accidental success at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 2015. Kami and Margaret started by serializing their story and sharing it with teens. It quickly gained almost viral popularity in their town, and they got feedback, and kept revising. They were planning put it on the internet as a free PDF when their friend, the author Pseudonymous Bosch, passed their manuscript along to his agent. It became the bestselling Beautiful Creatures series.

For Writers: A Blog of Blogs

Kami and Margaret are terrific speakers, so see them if you get the chance. Kami will be at the upcoming YALLWEST festival in Santa Monica, California.

I am a big fan of Kami’s blog. She regularly provides amazing resources for writers.

She does a weekly roundup of great writing posts she finds on the internet. There’s so much useful stuff, I find myself wanting take days off and just read and explore. She posts her inspiration boards. She shares the way she builds her worlds. She lists her favorite books on writing. During the last NaNoWriMo, she posted a video a day to her YouTube Channel, no small feat. Watch her posts and you’ll see she is busy, smart, organized and devoted to the writing process, just like you’d expect a great High School teacher to be.

Check out her blog here.

Check out Kami Garcia’s Amazon Page Here!

 

Best Books on Writing: Bird by Bird

Writing Books - Which Path to Take?

So Many Books About Writing

If you’re a writer like me, one of your vices is probably books about writing.

I call it a vice because reading a book on writing is one helluva way to avoid actually doing any writing. I know this from experience.

Publishing companies seem to know that aspiring writers tend to buy books on writing like one of my great aunts liked to buy Hummels. A search of ‘fiction writing’ books on Amazon.com yields a result of 47, 843.

Margaret Mayo McGlynn Books on Writing
Books on writing are a crowded pool

How Do I Choose?

So how to pick your next writing book? I am particularly obsessive about finding the one treatise on plot that can rule them all! I have a number of contenders, but I still haven’t found the one great book on story structure.

In the mean time, I want to know which books on writing my favorite writers recommend, so then it’s internet and another first-class time suck. It’s okay. We all do it..

Great Writers’ Favorite Writing Books

As I trawl the interwebs in search of the best books on writing, one in particular, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, shows up frequently, alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, Natalie Gold’s Writing Down the Bones, Save the Cat, and so on.

I must admit I avoided Bird by Bird because of the title. It seemed overly precious, and I wondered why the author would pick that, since it seemed to have nothing to do with fiction writing. That shows how much I judge a book by its title.

I finally decided to see what the fuss was about, so I downloaded Bird by Bird from Audible.com.

I love Audible.com. I require a steady stream of compelling audiobooks because traffic turns me into a Viking berserker. Unless I have some compelling distraction, I might ram my Toyoto Echo into that douche of a BMW who just cut me off on my way from the 5 to the 134.

This book definitely helped me keep my driver’s license.

Carving Saint Bartholomew, London
Carving Saint Bartholomew, London

Best Books on Writing: The Life

There are many books on technique, on how to build character, how to show not tell.

Bird by Bird has great pointers on plot, character, description, but what it mostly has is relief-giving advice on how to walk through life as a writer, the kind of advice that when you hear it, makes you sigh, feel understood, and, most vitally, feel motivated to go on and do what you are here on the planet to do.

Because if you are a writer, you know it ain’t easy.

Writing is a solitary affair, and the best ideas can be killed by that evil laughing hyena of a critic, that bitter maniac we all carry around inside of us.

The Audible version of Bird by Bird is ably narrated by Susan Bennett (also the voice of Siri!). The prose is precise. The way Lamott describes her own process, the obsession, the procrastination, the ADD, the hypochondria–it’s hilarious. Her narrative voice is strong and encouraging.

Quotable

This quote below made me cry “yes!” as I was hiking up over the Silver Lake hills, listening to it on my iPhone.

“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Ah, the need to be seen and heard. Thinking about it still brings up an old old ache behind my eyes and at the back of my throat. Yep, there’s my old friend.

So many things are quotable and tee-shirt wearable in this little book.

“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism.”

“Messes are the artist’s true friend.”

And then, there are the practical suggestions, which I’ve woven into my own writing practice.

“…write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.”

IMG_0936My Memoirs

Now from time to time I have told myself that I will never write my memoirs because my life is not terribly interesting. But Lamott’s book has given me the permission to write down as much as I can remember, and it feels like it’s opened something up inside me. And it keeps my daily thousand word goal going strong. I think it’s making me better. And I can thank Bird by Bird for it.

Here’s Lamott on character:

“…a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable.”

On just sitting down and pumping out that shitty first draft:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”

On truth and using your own voice:

“You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.”

Here is how she explains character-driven plot:

“That’s what plot is: what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t, everything that tells them that they should sit quietly on the couch and practice their Lamaze, or call their therapist, or eat until the urge to do that thing passes.”

A key point on dialogue:

“…remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.”

I was halfway through listening to Bird by Bird, and I knew I needed to own it on paper. I knew I was going to want to thumb through it, highlight parts of it, and tab pages.

Lamott is truthful about her own experience, about how overwhelming it can be to sit in front of a blank screen everyday and try to fill it up with something other than drivel. About how the choice to write surfaces massive insecurity.

Her solutions? Shitty first drafts, short assignments, the one-inch picture frame. I’ll never forget those. My brain can latch onto them. They work.

For the record, I still think it would do better with another title.

The anecdote it’s based on answers the question, how do you write when it’s such an overwhelming task? The answer is, the way Lamott’s father advised her brother to write a report on birds he had to do for grade school. “Bird by bird.”

Yes, that is true with writing. You just take it one bit at a time, and suddenly you are in the fictional dream, seeing and feeling it all.

Lamott says:

“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”

Her book will help you do that.