Friday, July 23, 2010


To all who find this message:

No, it's not going to self-destruct, but it will redirect you to this new blog by a certain Miss Elena Solodow who has decided to shuck the guise of Vivien V.

Or else.

Nothing bad is going to happen to you - but you'll be missing out.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Great Loom

I saw the movie Wanted this weekend. While there was plenty of action, there was one small detail that kept nagging at me, and still does on Monday morning:

The main characters are given the names of people to assassinate from a loom.

Yes, a loom - like the kind of loom that makes shirts.

This fact is not necessarily the end of all credibility. As long as there is a believeable explanation for it, it will work. It's kind of cool, actually.

However, Wanted offered no such explanation. No origin for this loom, no purpose, and most of all, how the followers of said loom figured out in the first place that the loom was giving them names, and also, how they knew that these names pertained to people that needed to be assassinated.

You're not going to tell me that it was just assumed, are you?

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to demonstrate how imperative it is that everything in your story has a purpose. There should never be assumptions.

Look at purpose as something that can penetrate the smallest details of your story. Imagine your main character's bedroom (if they're lucky enough to have one). Where is their bed? Where is their mirror? What posters are on the wall? If you place these items in your narrative, there should be a reason why each is placed where it is. This doesn't need to be outlined in the novel, but you - the writer - should know. Maybe their bed is placed next to the window because they like to see the moon at night. They're a fan of Led Zeppelin, so the posters on the wall are album covers. The mirror hangs on the door so that your main character can check their appearance before leaving for the day. All of this provides credibility, it feeds your character - their wants, needs, preferences.

Don't just have things in your story because they need to be there. Those things need to exist for a reason, and it's your job to provide that reason. Remember: never assume, or presume. Provide purpose.

Plot especially can give way to the greatest holes. In a narrative, one thing needs to give way to another. One event is caused by the one before - one purpose leads to another. If your main character has a purpose - a direction - in one scene, that purpose should lead them to the next scene, and then the next. That purpose/direction can change throughout, but it needs to lead to the next event. All of this provides credibility. The second a reader does not believe what you are telling them, that's when reluctance to turn the next page will set in.

Characters need to have reasons for doing what they do (a purpose), and each event in a story needs to have reasons for happening (a purpose). See how purpose feeds through the entire narrative?

If you are questioning a character or a scene, the necessity of either will be revealed when you question their purpose. If you can't find a reason for that character or scene to exist, then they probably don't belong in your narrative. Their existence can most likely be given to another scene or another character.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Million Minds

When I was starting on my novel a few years ago, my first inclination was to use multiple viewpoints. Two drafts existed this way, moving between a set of five characters. Eventually, I locked in to one character, but how does a writer know when a novel should have multiple or single viewpoint(s)?

Beginning writers are more likely to fall into multiple POV. In my opinion, multiple POV allows a budding writer to get to know their own characters when they start a first draft. You write how Bob sees the world, and how Alice sees Bob, and what Chris likes for breakfast in the morning, and you know that Jennifer hates her job and why.

It's the "why" that writers are striving for. If you start a first draft, staying strictly with Bob, then you might not feel as close to Jennifer as you do with your main character. Sure, Jennifer will have her purpose (hopefully) within the narrative, but there is something binding about writing in a character's POV, a relationship that's created when you delve into the mind of someone else. But once that relationship is established, some writers don't want to let go. If they've given Jennifer a mind of her own, can they lock her out in another draft? It seems slightly unfair to Jennifer, doesn't it? But if you feel that guilt, you've done a good job of connecting with your character. You care about them. And because you care, you'll be better able to express who they are without giving them a viewpoint. It will come through their action and dialogue.

Imagine a first draft as the foundation for your final draft. That foundation is a playground - nothing's built yet - and your characters are your children being taken out for a day of fun. You let your kids out of the mini-van and they play, interact, throw some rocks, make some sand castles...all the while you (the parent and writer) observe each one of them and take mental notes. You see that Bob makes his sand castles very tall because he wants to emulate his father the architect, and that Jennifer loves to throw rocks because she imagines herself a princess fighting off trolls, and Alice sits in the corner by herself because she thinks no one likes her, and Chris starts digging a hole in the sand-box because he's trying to reach China.

You know your characters now - their goals, their mindset. The next step is figuring out a) what the story is, and b) whether or not you're going to let all four of your children in on it.

Some writers might presume that knowing their characters is enough to warrant a POV. But the question that should be asked is do you need to know the intentions of Bob, Alice, Jennifer, and Chris all-at-once? Even if Bob seems to bring something unique to the story that Alice doesn't, does that mean he should get his own take on the story?

Probably not.

Viewpoint is a story-choice, it's not the story itself. Even if you have four viewpoints, it doesn't mean that the four children are going to be interesting. It's the story that needs to be interesting in itself. And the story needs focus. Once your story has a purpose, you can choose a character (or characters) that best serve that purpose. But remember - there should be a reason that Alice and Bob both get a POV. If Alice pops in for one scene to say her piece, you need to know that there's no other way to let the reader know who she is. Can she tell Bob? Can she show Bob who she is by her action? Do we need to know exactly what she's thinking in that one scene?

Multiple POV can be an easy route. A writer doesn't have to work as hard to show a character through action when they can open up that character's mind and tell all. Even in third person, the thoughts are there, told through a narrator.

I'm not downing the use of multiple POV, as long as it works, but in many cases it's not needed to serve the ultimate goal of the story. A lot of the time it detracts from the intrigue of the novel because the writer takes up pages letting each character have their say without moving the story forward at the same time. We see one event happen in the eyes of three different people. That repetition slows the narrative.

I would recommend the use of multiple viewpoints for a first draft, only for the purpose of getting to know your characters. That will give an idea of who is going to be the most compelling viewpoint, and more importantly, who is going to drive the story forward. If you decide to add another viewpoint, even for a chapter or two, you will at least have a sense of that character and their purpose, and knowing that purpose will keep their viewpoint focused and necessary. It will aid the story - not detract from it.

So, if one of Jennifer's imaginary trolls comes to life, kidnaps Alice, and escapes down the hole Chris has been digging, your story has begun - but who to tell it? I'm voting for the kidnapped Alice, the loner who finds her true self as she escapes from an evil troll kingdom. But maybe Chris' daring bid to save Alice could provide more adventure. That's ultimately a writer's choice, and a very important one.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I'm probably going to write a post...maybe...I think...

It is a tendency among many writers to show uncertainty in their work. Look at the following examples:

1) Bob approached his car and found Susan leaning against the passenger side door, presumably waiting for him.

2) He watched her open her lunch pail, probably ready to eat her lunch.

3) The boy was barely able to hold in his laughter.

4) He kicked the ball high up in the air, which seemed to be his method of confusing the opposing team.

5) She fingered her hair-brush, possibly thinking about whether or not she should brush her hair.

In each of the above examples, I used words that make the narrator sound uncertain. You could argue that in a strict third-person POV, the narrator cannot be sure of everything, all of the time, but there are instances where it's better to pretend that they are in order to keep your sentences clean and to the point.

Let's look at example number one:

Bob approached his car and found Susan leaning against the passenger side door, presumably waiting for him.

In this sentence, the "presumably" is not only an adverb, but is also the word that makes this sentence unsure of itself. This is in Bob's POV, so it can be said that Bob might not know what Susan is doing there. Is she waiting for him? Did she mistake his car for her own?

In this instance, however, Susan's actions define her intent. The first assumption a reader will make when Bob finds Susan at his car is that she is waiting to speak with him, so it's not going to hurt the narrative if Bob doesn't show uncertainty over it. Look at the sentence with out the "presumably":

Bob approached his car and found Susan leaning against the passenger side door, waiting for him.

I would probably cut this sentence down even more by not indicating at all that Susan is waiting for him, but cutting the "presumably" helps it along tremendously. Do you see a difference? Do you still think Bob needs to presume anything?

Let's look at example number two:

Bob watched Susan open her lunch pail, probably ready to eat her lunch.

In the above sentence, "probably" is our focus. Again, Susan's actions imply her intent. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when Susan opens her lunch pail? Sure, she could have a thousand different purposes in mind when she opens her lunch pail, but - and I hate to use the word - presumably, she's going to eat her lunch.

So with that in mind, do we really need Bob to suppose that she's going to eat her lunch? Let's look at the sentence without the "probably":

Bob watched Susan open her lunch pail, ready to eat.

This sentence isn't the best of all sentences, but you're already on track to making it clean and concise by removing that seed of presumption and/or doubt.

Let's look at sentence number three:

The boy was barely able to hold in his laughter.

In my opinion, using the word "barely" keeps the boy in a state of inactivity. He's not entirely able to hold in his laughter, but he's not unable either. Above is a prime example of the difference between being direct and indirect.

Using the word "barely" gives the feeling that the writer him/herself is unsure. It creates a more active sentence if the boy is actually doing something, instead of "barely" doing something. Use every opportunity to command your own writing. For instance:

The boy couldn't hold his laughter.

Sounds better, right? You as the writer are labeling the boy's actions directly, instead of leaving him and his laughter in a vague state. It's a small thing, but makes all the difference.

Example number four:

Bob kicked the ball high up in the air, which seemed to be his method of confusing the opposing team.

Here we have "seemed to be". The narrator of this sentence - someone watching Bob play - leaves the possibility that Bob is doing something else by kicking the ball high in the air. But does there need to be that open possibility? Can't we presume that by kicking the ball high, Bob is using his skills to foil the other team? Look at the sentence without the uncertainty:

Bob kicked the ball high up in the air, his method of confusing the opposing team.

Here we have a very direct, clear sentence. Bob kicks the ball high, using his method. The reader gets a better idea of Bob this way as well, since the "seemed to be" allows for Bob to be vague. He could be doing this, but he could also being doing that. I don't know. You never want to say "I don't know" as a writer. Know what you're writing, and who is doing what.

As mentioned, in some cases the narrator of your story will be unable to know something for sure, but weigh the instances where your character can know without becoming an omniscient god; when it doesn't affect the narrative, or the reader's perception of the character and/or POV.

Let's look at the final example:

She fingered her hair-brush, possibly thinking about whether or not she should brush her hair.

That's a lot of words for someone simply touching a hair-brush, right? There's a lot of writerly doubt here with "possibly thinking", and "whether or not". Is she going to brush her hair, or isn't she? Does the reader really need to see your character in doubt over it?

Let's look at an edited version:

She fingered her hair-brush for a moment, and then brushed her hair.

I would go even further with this, and edit it to:

She brushed her hair.

You are removing all doubt on the writer's part, and the narrator's. Remember what the focus of the sentence is: the character brushing her hair. Do you need to up the word-count of your novel or story just to shed light on a character possibly, maybe thinking about doing something? If you want to express the character's constant indecision over things, it might work, but overall, you probably don't need it. Or, to practice what I preach: you don't need it.

There's no "probably" about it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dialogue Tags

He argued.

She cried.

He yelled.

She accepted.

He asked.

She inquired.

He suggested.

Okay, hopefully you get the point by now. I notice in a lot of books dialogue tags like the ones above. Look at this line of dialogue:

"How are you today?" Joe asked.

Most readers admit to skipping over any dialogue tags such as "Joe asked", and if that's the case, do we really need to go beyond "He said" and "She said"?

With the above line of dialogue, the question mark is the indicator that Joe is asking a question, so you're only repeating yourself by saying "Joe asked". Some dialogue tags use fancier words to appear as though they are not repeating any information, but they still are. For example:

"How are you today?" Joe inquired.

To inquire is to ask a question. So Joe is asking a question, and the writer is reiterating the fact that Joe is asking a question. See how this line of dialogue reads without:

"How are you today?" Joe said.

Using "said" is a less-intrusive word. And if you don't need to indicate who is speaking, you can nix it entirely. Two words gone from your word-count!

Look through your manuscript at all of your dialogue tags. Do you use tags that are more than just "said"? What are your tags providing in explanation? For instance:

"Get back here, you scoundrel!" Susan yelled.

Read it without:

"Get back here, you scoundrel!"

Not only does the sentence inform us that Susan is angry, the exclamation point at the end indicates that she's probably yelling, so do I really need to add in "she yelled"?

No. It can be cut.

For another example:

"Sure, I'll take the job," she accepted.

Here, the character is saying Yes to something, and there is the unnecessary repetition of the fact that she's accepting the job. It can go.

As mentioned, most readers skip over dialogue tags. They're focusing more on the name of who is speaking and then moving on to the next line, so if your reader is going to skip over information such as "yelled", "accepted", etc. Why write it? Use dialogue tags other than "said" only when really necessary to convey information that cannot be conveyed in the dialogue itself.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


What exactly is a story? And what makes that story compelling?


Stories are interesting because they create questions in a reader's mind. You introduce an intriguing character, and the reader wonders about the rest of their existence.

What is going to happen to this character?

You create a dilemma for that character, which raises the question of "what will happen" to a higher level.

How are they going to solve this problem?

Your character goes on their quest (whatever it may be), and presumably trouble will follow them. They meet a love interest.

Are they going to end up together?

The villain shows his face.

How is this bad guy going to be exterminated?

The bad guy creates even more problems. The love interest is kidnapped in a scuffle!

How is the main character going to save their love interest?

The main character must finally face down the villain to save their love and the world.

Is this going to end happily?

The main character wins over the bad guy and it does end happily.

I feel sated. Is there going to be a sequel?

That's a very simplified version of a story, but should demonstrate how a narrative gives rise to a series of questions, and those questions are what keeps the reader reading. If those questions are not compelling, and do not directly address what's going on in the narrative, then you're going to lose a person's interest.

Go through your draft and pinpoint all of those story questions, such as "what's going to happen?", and "will the hero succeed?"

Are all of those questions answered?

For instance, if you read someone else's work and start wondering about why the main character is doing something (motive), or how the main character is able to do something (ability and sense), then you are straying from your key set of questions. Those questions should be answered in the narrative. If your reader ever wonders about something that is not explained, they will lose interest.

It is hard for a writer to read their own work and discover these questions, since they already know the story, but do pay attention to what others say about your work. If they are asking you questions about things that are not answered, you must find a way to answer them, or get rid of the scene where the questions arose.

If a critiquer is wondering about something that you never meant to address, that may be a clue that you are including something in the narrative that a) should not be there, or b) needs to be developed.

Answering questions is imperative to keeping a reader. If they do not feel answers coming at them in the beginning, middle, and end, or cannot see the answers heading their way, they are going to lose interest. Imagine what taking a test would be like without any problems to solve? The writer is leading their reader through that test, and the writer needs to explain all of the answers.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Let's Fight

What is it about fighting in dialogue that makes a writer drag out every last detail? For instance, a fight between John and Mary might go like this:

M: How could you?
J: It just happened.
M: But we've been married for thirteen years, John!
J: I know that, Mary. It just happened!
M: How? We have two children together, we've been happy!
J: I can't take it back, Mary. I'm so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?
M: Remember when you proposed, you said you would never, ever hurt me?
J: Yes.
M: I guess you just broke that promise.

Telling, telling, telling. All I see is information here, not subtle in the least! Fighting between characters is one of the easiest telling-traps to fall into. The most logical reason for that is real-life fights tend to go this way. We lay out our issues to one another, listing all the reasons why the other peson in the fight screwed up, and all the reasons that they shouldn't have done so.

Sure, it's real, it happens, and most of us could probably recite our greatest fights word for word...but it's boring, folks, and - to put it simply - it's easy.

Think of the movie The Bourne Identity. Jason Bourne actually uses a magazine to fend from a guy with a knife. Knife vs. Magazine. Now that's a fight I was interested in! Bourne didn't stomp around the kitchen railing at the guy like this:

Bourne: How dare you come at me with a knife! You have no business being here!
Knife-Guy: But I've been sent to kill you! With this knife!
Bourne: Why? Why are you doing this? Can't you just tell me who I am? I'm lost!
Knife-Guy: No, I can't do that. Now let me attack you.
Bourne: No! I won't let you!

A married couple might fight like this, but let's keep our characters in the freshwater-pond, instead of a dull, gooey swamp. Here's an exercise:

The next time your characters are fighting, try to write it without dialogue - see what they do. What actions would either character use to express their anger? What would be the ultimate act that one might perform to show the other that they're mad?

If you want a little dialogue, try writing the fight with no information. Instead of listing the reasons why your characters are in the fight, think of things they might say to skirt around the fact that they're not happy with one another - maybe a normal conversation amid actions that express something more rancorous is going on. For example, a husband and wife mid-fight might have breakfast together, talking about the husband's day at work, but meanwhile, the husband is slapping jelly on his toast as though he were hitting a person, and the wife is digging at grit in the pan with her spatula so hard that the handle breaks off.

Focus on any fight at all and see how you wrote it. Are the characters repeating already-known information back to one another? Are they doing things during the fight, or just standing around like dolls? Could they be doing something that might be a better way to show that they're having a fight?

Happy Fighting!