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Monday, November 25, 2013

Tricks to Make Violence More Intense

Picture Credit: http://www.nytimes.com/
Back in September I wrote a posting on what to consider before adding violence to a book. You can view that blog posting here.

I decided to follow up on that posting by giving tips on how to add intensity to the violence you use.

I'm not going to re-hash everything I wrote in the last posting, but I think it'd be worthwhile to at least take another look at the definition of violence.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines violence as:

  1. exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse 
  2. injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation
  3. intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force 
  4. vehement feeling or expression
  5. a clashing or jarring quality
  6. undue alteration

Basically, violence is any speech, action, or threatened action that has the potential to cause harm. With this definition, you will see that most non-fiction and almost all fiction has some level of violence in it. Once you have determined the extent of violence you want to present in your book, you next need to look at how to bring out the level of intensity that you are looking for. You can do that by mixing the following tricks:

  • Speed of time
    • Scenes with violence can slow down to show a blow-by-blow account or speed up to show how a stretch of violence (think battle or extended fight) affects a character. Most scenes that contain a lot of violence, such as a battle, will alternate between slowing way down and then speeding up again.
  • Motivation
    • Pay attention to why your characters are fighting. Motivation will not be the same for every character and that will make their fighting different. For example, a hired gun will not stick out a fight like a person defending something he or she cares deeply about. Know how far your characters will go and at what point they will turn and run.
  • Avoid passive sentences
    • It's generally best to keep passive sentences to a minimum. They have their uses, but they can be red flags. But, fighting and violence is  always active. Do not use passive sentences in a violent scene. 
  • Use strong verbs
    • Spend time evaluating your verbs. How big of a picture do they create? Can you replace any of them to show more emotion? These scenes have room for tons of emotions to cover the page--fear, sorrow, hate, disgust, confusion--the list could keep going. Brainstorm to see if you can get more onto the page with your verbs.
    • BUT don't use unfamiliar verbs. This is the last place you want to be showing off an unusual vocabulary. It will only slow down the reading. A slower scene is less intense.
  • Action first, then reaction
    • The easiest way to explain this one is with an example. 
      • Wrong: His head snapped back when she punched him.
      • Right: She punched him and his head snapped back.
    • If you put the reaction before the action, it takes the reader just a little more thought to piece the story together. In an action scene this extra thought slows down the reading, which in turn makes the scene less intense.
  • Short sentences
    • This goes back to the idea of making the reader's pace pick up. Short sentences will add to the speed and intensity. They also can portray the fact that the characters are in a high-emotion state and are thinking a little more jerkily than normal.
  • Choreograph
    • If the fight starts inside of a house, don't suddenly have the character outside. Know where every character is throughout the fight and clue the reader into movements, otherwise you'll lose the reader. You really do want to choreograph it out--arrows on a sketched map are enough--but your characters' surroundings should be an important part of the violence. 
  • Give details
    • Don't skimp here. Violence should be heavy action with just a peppering of character thoughts. Let readers know what is going on. They want the major movements (so far as the main character is capable of seeing) and they want the movements of individuals. Yet, don't dump information. Make the description you use meaningful by making sure you find the things that pull the strongest at the characters' emotions.
    • Think the fight out until you can visualize it. Then describe all the parts that stand out most for the character. You can do this in a way that shows what the character is thinking without specifically saying it. In a battle do her eyes keep shifting to the blood and the growing pile of dead? Or does he notice the endless stream of the enemy and the way they rush? Is your character callous to it or are all the images new?
  • Only apply immediate feelings to small specifics
    • A continual reminder that a man doesn't like a battle is okay, but it will be much more memorable if you assign a specific reaction to the look in his enemy's eyes, or to the feel of slicing into someone, or to the sound or smell of blood spurting from a wound. You get the idea. Don't forget to feed these little specific feelings into the whole scene. They won't get old as long as you don't run out of ideas because you're not saying the same thing over again.
  • Dialogue
    • Adding a little dialogue can help, but don't spend time on long conversations. We're talking about a word or short sentence here and there. Speech should accent what is happening, not interrupt it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Problems that will Kill Your Story

Picture Credit: http://bittsandbytes.net/MAY_2010/05.02.10.html
This is not way intended to be an exhaustive list of everything that can be done wrong in writing. I don't think that such a list exists anywhere on the planet. And if you can make a complete list, then you'd better publish it and the rest of us can all learn from you. :)

This is going to cover just a few common problems in beginners' stories.

1. Too much backstory

This is especially a problem when the backstory shows up at the beginning of a book. If the reader really does need to understand a list of things before they will appreciate the opening scene, then maybe you have started your book in the wrong place.

No matter where backstory shows up, a tidbit at a time is generally all a reader will stomach. Paragraphs of the stuff--or even pages of it--will take away more than it adds. Find ways that fit into the story to share bits at a time. In writing, less is usually more. The fact that you could write a discourse on your characters' pasts is a good thing--that means you know your characters well. But please refrain from sharing the discourse when two sentences at the perfect time will be sufficient. 

This is like setting the scene. Just because you draw out a detailed map of a character's house (which I would recommend doing) does not mean the reader has to have a step-by-step tour. It just means that you won't get lost in that house when you're talking about your character's actions.

2. Too many scenic details

Wherever you are reading this posting, stop and look around you. If you wanted to describe every single detail perfectly, you could probably write volumes about your current setting. But guess what? It would be insanely boring! 

Readers will fill in details with things that they are familiar with--all you need to do is give them a rough outline. A word or two here and there is generally all you need to set your scene. Make sure the details you give count. If you're going to stop and talk about a specific tree that the character sees, you'd better have a reason that the tree is so important that the character stops to examine it.

The classics are generally full of descriptions that wouldn't be included today. I would never condemn them for it--I really like the classics--they just ran with different rules than we have today. But if you are using Charles Dickens as your guide in how much description your scene needs, then you are writing to an audience that lived and died quite a while ago.

3. No consideration of emotions

Think about how things affect your characters. Consider them to be real people. Do their thoughts and feelings make sense? If your character witnesses a murder on page 5, is she absorbed by her hairdo on page 7?

Feelings and emotions are motivating factors. They should drive what your character is thinking and doing. And they don't disappear just because you're ready for a new scene.

4. Unmotivated emotions

This may seem similar to the last one, but I believe it's a different category. The point is that people have reasons for their emotions. If your character is a control-freak, then please give me a reason for it. Something in his life or emotional well-being has to contribute. Once I understand why he is so afraid of being out of control, then I can appreciate his temper when things don't happen the way he wants.

This is true of any emotion, fear, or feeling. It does not always have to be because of something her parents did wrong when she was a child, but give her some basis for why she feels the way she does.

5. Every character acts/reacts the same

I talked about this one just a few weeks ago, but it bears mentioning again. Don't slide into stereotype reactions. Every teen in the world is not a rebel; every man is not insensitive; every woman is not an emotional basket-case; every murderer is not trying to reap vengeance. If your characters all react and feel the same based on their category, none of them will be genuine. 

Get to know your characters as individuals and look at their response based on who they are and their past experiences. Trust me, taking this time in the preparation stages will pay dividends once it comes time to write.

6. Specifically in childrens and young adult books, too much adult involvement

I couldn't resist this one even though it doesn't apply to much of literature. If you are writing young adult, middle grade, or any of the children's categories, then please avoid having the adults swoop in to save the day. Think Harry Potter here. Harry and his friends must be the ones to save the day even though they have limited magical experience. Even when the adults get involved, Harry and his friends are still in the major problem-solving roles. You may argue that it doesn't make sense--no adults are going to sit back and wait for a 12-year-old to save the day. That's true. But guess what? It's fiction. Find a reason for the kid to have to be the one to do it. The audience that is reading the book longs for the power to make a difference in the adult-run world where they live. They enjoy the release of seeing kids their age save the world (literally or figuratively). And admit it, you get into the books too or you wouldn't be writing them.

Speaking of adults swooping in to fix all the problems, be cautious of parental involvement in the story. You don't have to give broken homes and neglectful parents to all the kids in your book, but if half the book is about how much fun the main character has going around town with her parents, then your book is not likely to grab hold of your intended audience. This is back to the idea of independence. It's great if your main character gets along well with his parents and grandparents, but they should spend the vast majority of the book on the sidelines. The exception is that if the parents are the problem the main character is dealing with, then they should be present more.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Outlining And Free-Writing: A Give-And-Take Relationship

Picture Credit: https://blogs.montclair.edu/cwe/2013/
I used to swear that outlining wasn't for me.

I knew it wasn't because back in high school my English teachers (who really were wonderful teachers in many ways) taught me how to outline. You start with a bullet-point outline of every major plot movement. Then you go to chapter 1 and decide what happens, then you move on to chapter 2, and so-on until your outline is perfect. Only then can you write. I couldn't do it effectively so I determined I am not an outliner.

And from that point on I didn't outline because I thought I knew what I needed to about the subject and I was certain I didn't have anything to gain from it.

Until a few years ago.

I ended up in a class taught by Dan Wells, author of I am Not a Serial Killer. I actually went with a closed mind, but he still managed to get through to me. His class is amazing and you can view it in a You-Tube series here. He created an outlining technique that was completely different than I'd heard of before and it made sense to me. (I won't go into each of the steps in this posting, but you can see them all in an earlier blog posting of mine here with only a few minor changes as I found ways to better adapt them to myself.) For the first time I heard the recommendation to outline after your book is written if you didn't do one at the beginning. This way, the outline can be an editing tool to help find holes in the plot. I did it to a book I was working on, which I thought only needed finishing touches, and found to my dismay that my entire story lacked a point! With the help of the outline that I created, I was able to re-work my story and it made an amazing difference.

After I looked at all the time I spent re-writing, and the tens of thousands of words that needed to be deleted to change the story, I decided that maybe outlines are not a bad idea during the beginning stages.

Since then I have declared myself an outliner. I end up making changes to the story as I go and I have found myself adjusting the outlines from time to time when my changes are big enough to alter key points of what I'd planned. So I still have free-writing in me. But I outline to save time. I want to know where my story is going and I want to make sure it's progressing in a logical way before I type the last words. I also find it helps me brainstorm and it helps me to tie events together better when I know why everything that happens is critical to getting the story where it needs to go.

I do think there is a place for free-writing. And I still won't say that everyone must outline before they start writing. But I am now a firm believer that if you write without an outline, you should probably make one while you are in the editing process--you just might be surprised at what you will gain from it.

Also, I believe that there is not a single right way to outline. I still obsess over Dan Wells' outlining method to the point that I can't believe anyone can write without it, but it is not the only one out there. Elana Johnson, author of Possession, is a fervent outliner but she commented once that she didn't like Dan Wells' method because it didn't work for her. My point is that before you decide that outlining is a waste of time, try different methods or play around to figure out your own. Because whether you like to use them at the beginning or the end, they can help improve your writing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Emotional Rollercoaster

Picture Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plutchik-wheel.svg

Have you ever run into a cast of characters who all seem to react identically to every possible scenario?

There are two things you should do to make sure this never happens to you and your characters. First, you should create a character arc for every major and secondary character. Next, you should pick out an emotional pallet for each character.

Character Arc

Your character arc doesn't have to be a complex graph. Just start by taking a look at what the character wants and fears. Remember, each character in a story thinks he or she is the main character. What does the character want to accomplish? What is he or she doing to work toward that goal? What are his or her biggest hindrances? How does his or her past factor into all this? A person's past always influences how they think and what they do. Knowing your characters inside and out will make them work together and clash against each other in believable ways. In every scene you should know what each character present wants to accomplish.

Emotional Pallet

Now you need to come up with your characters' emotions. What is each character's base emotion--on an average day what feelings does he or she have? Is she bored with her life? Is he terrified that his great secret will come out? Does she have a nagging drive to prove herself? Does he feel overburdened? Each character's base emotion will be different. Now look at how different stimuli will affect each one differently. A character who is confident about herself will react differently to bullying than a character who is trying desperately to hide behind fake confidence. It is the same with every character and every stimulus. As you look at your characters' strengths and weaknesses, you should be able to develop a list of emotion words that describe them in different situations.

And don't overuse happy, sad, scared, mad...or any other bland emotions that don't go into much depth. I used a picture of the Plutchik Wheel to introduce this topic, which is a wheel of emotions developed by Robert Plutchik. But this wheel doesn't expand our emotion vocabulary much beyond basic emotion words. W. Gerrod Parrott's Inventory of Emotions will give you many more words. Look at a thesaurus for more ideas if you need to. 

By the time you are done with each character, you should have a unique list for each one of your characters. Try not to let the same emotion word describe any two. Then when you are writing you can look back at the emotion list for aids in describing how a character feels and reacts.