What Did You Learn?

December 31, 2009

General Writing: Transitions

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 2:04 pm

Now this is a tough one. I know that for me there’s always been an issue with ending one scene and beginning the next. I’ve read books where authors have had this same issue. In Eragon for example, most scenes end with the main character passing out. For me, I used to always have people walking out of the room or going to sleep. But I’ve been working on it.

One thing I did that really helped was I started re-reading some of my favorite books and paid particular attention to the beginning and ending of each scene. This gave me a better idea of what does or doesn’t work. Think of it like a TV show or movie a little: scenes end abruptly or jump right into the middle of something that’s already happening. You want to stick to the things that will hold readers’ attention.

On Rick Riordan’s website, he has some particularly good advice relating to this:

  • Most readers, from time to time, have skipped over portions of a chapter to get to the “good stuff.” For instance, many readers will skip a long paragraph of description so they can find the next line of dialogue. One trick for keeping the reader’s interest is to zoom in on the content they want to see and leave out the rest. Writers, especially beginning writers, tend to over-explain.
  • Beginning writers tend to believe that they must “set things up” before they get into the real meat of the novel. They want to introduce characters, history, and setting before they start on the central dilemma. Chapter one is often limp, because of this. Even worse, some writers are so hesitant to get to the point in chapter one that they put off the action even further by writing a prologue. The problem is, until we know the dilemma, we won’t care about the set-up. Get to the point! Often manuscripts are better if they start with chapter 2.

While he talks more specifically about chapter one (and prologues), I think this applies to transitions as well. We tend to think of things in complete packages and so we write out every bit of what happened when cutting out some of it would keep everything moving. gen

December 8, 2009

General Writing: That Got A Little Tense There For A Moment

Good, it should have gotten tense. Dramatic tension is the heart of every good story. The form of that tension, what the character’s struggle is, will vary by character, but the tension must always be there.

For example:
A girl grows up in an ultra orthodox household. She runs away to pursue an acting career and winds up Go Go dancing at a skeevy bar to pay her rent. She’s also worked for an escort service (that requires sex as part of the escort, not just a a date). She dresses in very tight, revealing clothes. She sleeps with lots of men right after meeting them. She moves on to dancing topless, gets breast enhancements. Well, you get my drift. Now where do you think the tension in her story lies?

Things to consider when writing her story:
-Are her parents supportive or have they disowned her? Do they support her or do they support her endeavors? Does she feel like she is being judged when around them?
-Is she a scandal in the community? And whether she is or not, does she feel like she is?
-Are there any parts of religion and her life growing up that she misses and wants to return to? If yes does she pursue this or want to pursue this in any way. If yes how, if not why?

Each of these questions, provides tension in some form or another. If she wants her parents to support her and they don’t, if she feels judged even if she isn’t, if she’s in conflict with the aspects of religion that she related to.

So long as details like this are explored and examined throughout the book (as well as perhaps why she chose this alternate life and how she was exposed to it), then it can be really interesting as family dynamics, religion, and self-discovery are complex issues that everyone can relate to. But if you simply state all the things she did over her life, you leave the reader wondering where it all came from and without the tension, you don’t keep them interested. Even if it’s a true story, it shouldn’t read like a history text book. (Imagine reading a history text book of that woman’s life: Sexual Conquests of 1982…)

That idea applies to all types of stories. There must be conflict (and it doesn’t have to be two people literally yelling at each other though that’s okay too).

General Writing: Getting in Touch with Your Inner Feelings

Emotions are as much a necessary part of a good story as descriptive detail. A lack of emotion will generally lead to a detached feeling (so I suppose if you’re writing a story about a serial killer that’s okay but otherwise…) which is tough for a reader who wants to feel connected to and root for the protagonist.

I was thinking about this recently because of a submission I was reading at work. There are two different key sets of emotions that the author/narrator was lacking that made reading the story really frustrating.

The first, talking about 9/11. As it’s only been 8 years since the terrorist attack that brought down the World Trade Center, it is still an event that is pretty sensitive and evokes a lot of emotions from people all around the world. 90 countries lost citizens that day. America, and New York in particular, feels this loss the most keenly. As my dad describes it “it’s like there’s a hole in the NYC skyline.” As such, a New Yorker writing about 9/11 can be very interesting, so long as they capture the feelings involved. The feelings of themselves and of the city at large. The fear, the panic, the chaos. But to attribute feelings to people they don’t know (for example to say “she saw someone with a lump in his throat” or “they were crying for their lost loved ones” when you don’t actually know that’s why they’re crying or if they have a lump in their throat. You can guess, think, wonder, assume, but you can’t know for fact.

The second, general feelings. I’ve said before that using non-descript descriptive words is a frustrating thing. The reader wants to learn something from what you are writing so words like “sad,” “happy,” and “nice” don’t really cut it. You need to find the exact word for what the character is feeling, not a general, non-specific one. Otherwise, you’ve missed out an opportunity to tell the reader something about the character. The way a character reacts emotionally to an event (such as 9/11 for example) says a lot about them and as a writer it is your responsibility to really utilize those moments.

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