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I love Horror.
I must thank my Dad for cultivating a fascination with the genre in my sisters and me. Dad was for a time a criminal defense attorney and a Deputy District Attorney in Newark, NJ, so if that part of his life had been an episode of Law & Order, he would have been played by the hot girl who was there for maybe two seasons working for Sam Waterston until she scored a gig as the next Bond Girl.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Dad loved movies like A Clockwork Orange. I remember the summer he read Helter Skelter and geeked out about it.
I think I read The Exorcist when I was eleven, which is way too young, but wow, what an incredible read! I found it lying around the house. Thanks, Dad! No, really. I am so happy I grew up way before the era of helicopter parents. I still treasure the freedom I had to get into a little bit of trouble.
The Wonder of Horror
In terms of lasting impact on the reader/viewer, few genres beat horror. My favorite horror films include Silence of the Lambs, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, Carrie, and Don’t Look Now. The psychological horror of Silence of the Lambs is particularly fun—who can forget those lovingly photographed scenes in which Clarice stares into Evil, and he also stares into her.
The Terror of The Ring—Delectable!
There’s a genre of Japanese filmed best exemplified by Ringu. The American version, called The Ring, was also incredibly terrifying and, for me, one of the scariest horror movies in recent decades. The inciting incident sequence has one of the most terrifying shots I’ve ever seen. There’s this corpse girl in the closet who has been scared to death by the main antagonist, the ghost. Oh, the slow pan around the closet door, and then, the moment you see her face, and the music shrieks at you!
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen The Ring, don’t read on!
The protagonist, whose personal ghost is a child she lost (for which she blames herself), tries to find the death spot of the ghost, who was a young girl. She attempts to heal the fury of the ghost by giving it mother’s love in a climactic scene that also heals the heroine’s wound. The heroine and her boyfriend think they have succeeded.
Now comes the Lovecraftian twist: love is not enough. The ghost is pure evil. I adore this point, at which the entire moral argument shifts. Yes, love heals, but there is also evil in the world that is unstoppable, and infinite. The little boy who knows the ghost best of all says of her, “She never sleeps!”
I came across a great podcast called Writing Excuses that is hosted by several published genre authors, including Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells.
Brandon Sanderson was on a terrific Fantasy panel at ComicCon 2015. Nuggets like Writing Excuses are why I will continue to attend that overcrowded hyperstimulation fest (ComicCon). Also, because, who knew Hugh Dancy was so funny? Fannibals Forever! Get that man a big Romantic Comedy movie, stat! (RIP, Hannibal—Unless!)
Anyway, Writing Excuses has got rich material on all aspects of writing, and practical exercises. They started their 10th season, a master class on writing, this past January. Unfortunately the audio quality needs work, but the content is worth dealing with that.
If anyone from Writing Excuses is reading this post, just turn down your levels, man! Get the audio out of the red zone. And if that doesn’t work, maybe invest in better equipment? Others have told you so. Please listen. Your podcast is too awesome to snap, crackle and pop like that!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Date of Birth
Place of Birth
Role in Story
Astrological Sun Sign
Meyers Briggs Type
Age in Scene 1
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
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?
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?
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?
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:
First kiss (if it happens before story starts)
First sexual experience (if it happens before story starts)
Worst day in middle school (if it happens before story starts)
Best friend. How did they meet? (if it happens before story starts)
Love interest: When did the character know they loved them?
Worst day before story starts
Best day before story starts
REASONS YOUR HERO/INE MIGHT BE FORGETTABLE
No sense of humor
Dialogue is flat or on the nose
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.
When I was in junior high and high school, living a half-hour drive (without traffic—ha!) from Manhattan, I saw just about every play and musical my folks would let me. Broadway theater tickets cost $8 for upper mezzanine if you were a student, and a lot of my public school teachers were onetime actors who loved taking us kids to the shows.
We’d meet outside the high school, trundle onto a yellow school bus, and in less than an hour, tromp inside a theater to eagerly await the moment the lights went down and the orchestra struck up the overture. We’d be treated to magic, thrilling drama, soaring music, and spectacle.
There’s nothing like a Broadway musical. At its best, it blows the doors off film and tv. If you haven’t seen one, put it on your bucket list. Someday you will thank me.
And in London, they often do theater even better than Broadway, with their smaller theaters, delicate acoustics, and national fascination with fine drama and acting, stretching back to William Shakespeare and beyond.
Now I want to tell you about “London Road,” a musical created at the National Theatre in London. It’s about to be released as a movie. I don’t even know if it will come to theaters in the US. I must see it.
I saw the play in London in August 2012. It is not a typical musical. No toe-tapping dance numbers, although the score is haunting, and bears the kind of repeat listening I used to give “Carousel” and “Company” and “Les Miserables” when I was younger.
“London Road” arose from a collaboration between a musical theater composer and a playwright who was experimenting with a kind of “verbatim” theater. In this avant garde style of drama the actors recite the unaltered words of real life interviews, and also pronounce them with the exact cadence and accent of the interview—sometimes to the point that they are listening to the interviews and reciting what they hear on stage as they perform.
“London Road” is about people who live on a small road in Ipswich, a rural east country bourgeois English town, a bit of a backwater, where 5 local prostitutes have been murdered.
Surprisingly, the subject of the story is not the killer or the victims, but how the people of the community react to the murders, and the publicity around them, and then try to rebuild their lives. In “London Road” the people who are often the Chorus in more traditional drama become the stars. We never meet the serial killer or the victims or their families. The dialogue and libretto of the play is built from actual interviews with Ipswich people taken while the murders were first discovered and investigated—mall rat kids, media people, prostitutes and nosey neighbors. Depending on your point of view, it’s about regular people overcoming a terrible tragedy, or ignoring the social ills right under their noses that created the tragedy in the first place. The play is a kind of political litmus test. The viewer’s reaction, I’ve found, reveals a lot about their politics.
The show’s verbatim style, when set to music, is fascinating. Every vocal tick, every “um” and “sort of” is kept in, and treated rhythmically, sometimes in a staccato fashion, which makes for a delightfully textured score. The style moves from traditionally melodic, to John Cage-esque.
To folks on IMDB who have ignorantly posted their scandalization at a musical about serial murders, maybe save your judgy-ness for such musicals as “Silence!” (the unofficial musical version of [i]Silence of the Lambs[/i], which I also enjoyed).
“London Road” doesn’t sensationalize murder or prostitution. Instead it talks about the interplay of media sensationalism and narrow-minded middle class values, and the ways in which we may treat those living closest to us as “other.” Is there such a thing as community anymore? If so, what does it mean? Who belongs and who is ostracized? Can a festival of hanging flower baskets make people forget about the 5 prostitutes who were brutally murdered just a few houses away? Apparently, they can. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?
If all this isn’t enough for you, Tom Hardy’s in it, not in a leading role. Why? Because he’s a fan of the play.
See the movie.
“London Road” plays at London’s National Theatre June 9, and opens wide in the U.K. on June 12. When will it hit the U.S.? Watch this space.
“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?”
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).
takes more gradual steps
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.
summarization of events
distant and distancing
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.
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.
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?
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.
How 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.
about a single emotionally charged moment
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My friend Gwen recently asked me for a list of modern fantasy books that use the Sidhe, and other tropes of Irish magical tradition.
Here’s a quick list:
Anything by Emma Bull, particularly, The War for the Oaks – the rock and roll payload will be fun for Gwen, and, really, for anyone who likes fantasy.
The Tithe Trilogy by Holly Black – great, dare I say ‘classic’ Urban Fantasy. I love the way this starts in Atlantic City. The imagery is crisp and intense.
The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black – just finishing listening to the Audible version, and it’s so much fun.
The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa – a neat wrinkle to have a kind of fey who work with metal, as opposed to running screaming from it.
The Sidhe are always popular. People like fairy books, and I think an edgier approach definitely is appropriate to the original tales, and works for today’s teen and adult fantasy readers.
One thing I’d love to see in a modern Sidhe fantasy book is more grounded life for the Sidhe. I mean, who can spend 24 hours a day at fairy court? What does a day in the life of a fairy really look like? Do they get up and sip magical coffee? Do they read the Sidhe Times?
And since they do spend so much time at court, it seems like what you should see is a lot of the same political scheming that you would have seen at the court of Louis XIV or Catherine the Great, or the Barberini pope. I would think there would be tons of high context ceremony, lots of traditions that you’d just have to know about. Lots of people getting demolished by gossip, a la that wonderful French film Ridicule.
I enjoy the way Holly Black does it a lot. Her Sidhe are dark and dangerous and truly inhuman. The court feels real.
Readers: What’s your favorite Sidhe Urban Fantasy book or series? I know I’ve missed a lot so please, share your wisdom!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”
Every year around this time, we look back over the previous year, evaluate our successes and failures, and we resolve to improve ourselves. Around this time of year, if you don’t see NEW YEAR, NEW YOU somewhere, on a magazine cover, or as the headline of many articles, maybe you don’t know how to read.
But can we ever really hope to be different? Can people change? Or are we kidding ourselves and wasting all of this New Year’s motivation?
Can we really be different this year?
I want to say to myself and to you, “Of course we aren’t wasting our time.” Hoping to be better people is one of the things that makes us human. And if adding one to the number of the year makes us rethink things, get perspective, set goals, strive for more, then, God bless it!
But I do think there are pitfalls in resolving to be different. I have definitely fallen in before.
The Pitfalls of Resolving to Be Different
Discounting our previous successes, and
Setting ourselves up for failure.
So how can I avoid those?
The trouble with resolving to do things differently in the New Year is that it suggests that no matter how many great things we’ve done in the past year, it’s somehow not enough. WE are somehow not enough.
To send myself a healthier and kinder message, I am doing this:
List/Mindmap 2014 Wins
Find a way to take stock of 2014’s wins, and appreciate them. Write them down in your journal, and once they are there, re-read them. Then highlight them, maybe draw a mind-map about them. I am updating my list as I think of more wins. Then, when I feel it’s a nice long list, I can take a look at it. Breathe in some gratitude about all that. Remind myself that if I just did as many amazing things as I did last year, I’d have a great 2015.
Reframe the Tough Bits
But what if you look for those successes in 2014 and you have trouble finding them? Not all of us had our greatest year, and that’s OK. If that is you, then, fair enough. Remind yourself that you made it through 2014. When life is tough, muddling through is hard. And it is an accomplishment. So try to make an adjustment inside yourself and see if you can simply be grateful for that. Simply be grateful for being here. Great things can start from the place you are now.
Setting Yourself Up For Failure
I’m prone to these things that I’ll list. Maybe you are, too:
Committing without examining the consequences or letting my very good instincts do their job.
Just plain overcommitting. Trying to do too damn much, which leads me to another biggie.
Setting unreasonable demands on myself. That leads to…
Denial about all of the above. And that, eventually, leads me to…
Seeking oblivion in shopping, eating, drinking, daydreaming, and awfulizing.
What is Awfulizing?
It’s a weird addictive process in which I start thinking about how other people and other groups of people do many bad things. I focus on all of that, and I can use it not to look at myself. In this way, I can avoid unpleasant truths about my own bad behavior. Or, if ‘bad’ sounds too, well, BAD to you, then I’ll just call it behavior that doesn’t get me where I want to be.
The thing about awfulizing is that it keeps my mind off me and my responsibility for creating the life I choose to live.
So How Can I Avoid All These Set-Ups for Failure?
I have a few ideas. Let’s see how these sound to you:
Delay committing to anything until I can sit down and consider the consequences. A key tool in this quest goes something like this: “Hold on, I’ll have to check…with my husband…with my calendar…with my spiritual advisor…with my Tarot deck…with my Higher Self…with Obi-wan Kenobi’s ghost…with my cat.”
Pick one thing as my primary principle. So for me that would be this: Remind myself that this is the Year of Writing for me. So yes, I want to lose weight. I want to run lightly, like Atalanta before she went after the Golden Apple. I love buying makeup. I love seeing theater, and I love traveling. I love lots of things. But this is the Year of Writing and Full Commitment to Writing. So all other commitments must be judged by this measure: How does this serve my Year of Writing? Will this interfere with my Year of Writing?
Set fewer goals, no more than 3-5 major goals, for example:
Write an average of 1000 words per day
Finish Second Novel First Draft
Get to 140 lbs and love reclaiming my skinny self wardrobe. Hipster black jeans, here I come!
Gather more writer friends into my world. Let’s all become awesome and published and giving our full gifts to the universe!
Clean out the Hoarders Blue Room (don’t ask).
As I resolve to be different, I’m going to keep those guidelines in mind.
I hope this was helpful. Personally, I feel good about all this. I’ll check in with you around the Spring Equinox and let you know how it’s going.
Thanks for coming to my site and reading this post!
Please let me know what you are thinking about in the comments below. Share your wisdom! Ask questions! Free associate!