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Posts Tagged ‘Writing Rules’

My principal sends out a morning email each school day with information about events that will occur that day. My favorite part is the quote at the end. Today’s was:

Sports do not build character. They reveal it. – Heywood Hake Brown

It made sense but it also begged another question. What builds character?

I tried to brainstorm a list:

  • Personal hardships – like having to choose between buying food for your family and gasoline to drive to work?
  • Physical Pain – like from breaking a leg and then discovering which of your friends still want to hang out with you even though you can’t walk.
  • A living example – like that favorite teacher who understood you in that one moment when it really mattered and gave you a hug.

I thought I spotted a pattern – that internal motivations built character while external reactions showed character – but that doesn’t quite work. All of the externals do reveal character but the internals are nebulous. It also seems these concepts are hard to separate. Where I see the building of character I almost always see a revealing too.

There’s something there but I can’t see it. What I can see is the answer to a long-standing mystery: Why is there evil in the world? For good. Because it reveals character. As we are tested, we reveal what’s inside so God tests us to reveal our character just as scripture states. Note that it is not because He doesn’t know what we are but because we don’t know ourselves.

So, how does this relate to writing? Revealing character is easy. Building character not so much.

(This suggests other questions like, “Does a writer need to build character in the first place?”  but that is a topic for another post. We can assume it’s a useful skill a little longer.)

So what builds character? The only thing I can think of that might exclusively build character as opposed to reveal it or involve some combination of the two is to watch another human be a good example. Humans imitate what we see others doing. We want to be like people we like. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but when we do imitate one another it’s evidence that character building has taken place.

Maybe that’s why there are so many father figures and mother figures in fiction. Even more heroes and mentors. As writers, we need our readers to identify with the protagonist and all protagonists need something to live for, some goal to obtain. So if readers get to observe the moment when the protagonist bonds with a likable hero or mentor figure, then readers will more likely bond with the protagonist.

Even more if the hero or mentor dies later.

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My recent post imitating the excellent Cockeyed Caravan blog garnered such a great response that I’ve decided to start my own series of writing rules. I’ve dubbed it Rules of the Writing Road since the Storyteller’s Rulebook was taken. 😉 I intend this to be a collection point for my insights into the craft of writing as I discover them.

Which brings me to today’s topic, the first topic of my Rules of the Writing Road.

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House, M.D. and Fringe have something in common. They both started out as excellent shows. House was a medical mystery drama starring a very unconventional doctor. Fringe was a near-future science fiction mystery show in the vein of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone.

I started watching them from the beginning and from the beginning I was hooked. I waited eagerly for each new episode to come out. Our Tivo was my best friend. And when a new episode did air I sat gratuitously glued to the one-eyed monster like a mesmerized lapdog consuming every magical moment.

Each episode of House and each episode of Fringe centered around a mystery. I *love* mysteries and while those unfolded I got plenty of character development and world exploration too. They were a joy to watch.

But something went wrong. After a few seasons, both shows changed their formula of building the episodes around a mystery and both shows fell flat for me.

You see, the problem is that viewers (including me) engage in an unspoken contract with writers. If I want mystery stories and the writers agree to provide them then I will watch. If-Then. Those mysteries were what hooked me and millions of other viewers on both shows. When the writers changed the formula they also broke the unwritten contract and I lost interest.

For me, House devolved from a medical mystery drama to a near-pure drama with only a weak medical mystery component. In some episodes there was no medical mystery, just the main characters working through some internal or relationship struggle. That’s not what I signed up for.

Fringe did the same though I don’t recall ever watching an episode that was completely devoid of all semblance of a mystery plot. Rather, Fringe’s mysteries were completely transformed. They began as discrete, tightly-constructed but loosely-connected mysteries and became a single, epic, interconnected mess. The show went from unraveling a single mystery per episode to consuming more than an entire season to partially explore one grand saga which never fully tied up all the loose ends. Again, I lost interest.

If it wasn’t already obvious, here is the rule: Keep your promises to the audience. How you get them is how you keep them as most marriage counselors know. Courting viewers is the same as courtship before a marriage. Just because you’re past the point of establishing the relationship doesn’t mean you can change the rules after the fact. Again, how you act during courtship is how you are expected to continue to act after marriage. When people make this mistake everyone suffers. Ratings fall, viewers tune out, shows get cancelled early, and writers lose their jobs.

So keep those promises.

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1. Write the sentence, not just the story

Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb

Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went, looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone. Sew yourself a custom made suit. Pick a better verb. Challenge all those verbs to really lift some weight for you.

3. Kill the cliché.

When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself, “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché. You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

4. Variety is the key.

Most people write the same sentence over and over again. The same number of words–say, 8-10, or 10-12. The same sentence structure. Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8 words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word shorties. If you’re generally a 20 word writer, make sure you throw in some threes, fivers and sevens, just to keep the reader from going crosseyed.

5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses.

A dependent clause (a sentence fragment set off by commas, dontcha know) helps you explore your story by moving you deeper into the sentence. It allows you to stop and think harder about what you’ve already written. Often the story you’re looking for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you uncover it.

6. Use the landscape.

Always tell us where we are. And don’t just tell us where something is, make it pay off. Use description of landscape to help you establish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by describing the world around the character. Look at the openings of Fitzgerald stories, and Graham Greene, they’re great at this.

7. Smarten up your protagonist.

Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated, they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.

8. Learn to write dialogue.

This involves more than I can discuss here, but do it. Read the writers of great prose dialogue–people like Robert Stone and Joan Didion. Compression, saying as little as possible, making everything carry much more than is actually said. Conflict. Dialogue as part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room. Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

9. Write in scenes.

What is a scene? a) A scene starts and ends in one place at one time (the Aristotelian unities of time and place–this stuff goes waaaayyyy back). b) A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted. c) Something happens in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the next. Make something happen.

10. Torture your protagonist.

The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

via Janet Fitch’s 10 rules for writers | Jacket Copy | Los Angeles Times.

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Eight rules for writing fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

– Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

via Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules For Writing Fiction – Novelr.

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