Writing

Cursed, Dumb, or Unlucky? Making Trouble for Your Characters

“Torture your characters” is advice I’ve seen so often I think I should add it to my ever-increasing list of Advice to Question. Maybe I’m mellowing in my old age, but this one does have some merit.

For one thing, if the story’s goal is achieved or the problem solved too quickly, the novel or story ends up being too short and possibly boring. Boring the reader is a cardinal sin of writing. So it’s pretty much a given that the writer must create an obstacle course their characters must negotiate to achieve whatever it is they want or need.

Two problems I’ve experienced with doing this:

  • In real life, I make efforts to avoid problems when I’m planning a DIY project, a road trip, or cooking a dish I haven’t tried before. So it goes against the grain to create problems for my main characters, with whom I tend to identify because I often write in first person.
  • I don’t like making my characters look dumb. In She Who Comes Forth, for example, France Leighton does things that may be described as unwise. One reviewer expressed concern about this; another just called her stupid. On the other hand, she is not a “Mary Sue.”

Like any other plot device, the obstacles, difficulties, or perils we create for our characters have to serve the plot. The bumps along the road must be consistent with the plot and advance it, rather than be obviously stuck in to follow the “torture your characters” rule. A deus ex machina is a deus ex machina, even if the god intervenes to mess things up rather than fix them.

If a story involves life-threatening situations, escape and flight, or the schemes of an evil antagonist, perilous situations are essential parts of the plot. But what if your story is about ordinary life? Well, there’s always the difficult boss, the unexpected guest, the leaky roof, or the machinations of bureaucrats.

In addition to fitting the plot, the obstacles have to be appropriate for the character and situation. A flat tire is a mere annoyance if time isn’t of the essence. Climbing a high ladder and crawling onto a steep roof packs more punch if the character who has to do it is terrified of heights. The best obstacles are the ones with no good or safe choice. They may include all kinds of hard choices, not only physical dangers.

Putting characters in trouble can benefit the plot in ways other than creating tension. Negotiating with the boss, accommodating (or ejecting) the unexpected guests, or figuring out how to deal with bureaucracy would be opportunities to

  • show characters’ flaws and fears
  • show how they cope with adversity
  • show how they change or grow over the course of the story by developing skills or changing attitudes.

Does anyone else have a problem with making their characters struggle? Does anyone love doing it? Share your torture tips!

Image from Pexels

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Words related to writing

A Video Chat — What We Like About Writing

Here’s another free-wheeling discussion among three writers about what they like about their craft.

Audrey, Berthold, and Mark take on a topic. To get away from the rules of writing and what can sometimes be too much focus on the negatives about writing, we decided to talk about what we like about writing. We spent a few minutes on that topic. The conversation eventually morphed into a conversation about how we write, primarily Audrey’s method. Take a look and let us know what you like about writing.

Continue reading and watch the video at Writers Supporting Writers.

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Dialogue Tags–Verbs You Shouldn’t Use?

Here’s the old contrarian again, revving up to question yet another piece of Advice to Writers.

This time it’s “Avoid dialogue tags.” If you must use them, stick to “said” and (maybe) “asked.” Often, Elmore Leonard is cited as endorsing this practice. Leonard wrote Westerns, gritty crime fiction, and thrillers. His prose style was crafted for those genres, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best style for all writing. And I’ve read that his essay, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing,” may have been somewhat tongue in cheek.

Using only “said” and “asked” is recommended because these words are non-distinctive and do not call attention to themselves, because that would distract the reader.

As with so many of these dictums (well, it should be “dicta,” but let’s not be pedantic), there’s a good deal of wiggle room. First of all, dialogue tags are needed when a conversation between two (and especially more than two) characters goes on for more than a few lines. How many readers have had to scrutinize a page of dialogue, labelling sentences as “he” and “she,” or “Bob” and “Tom” to figure out exactly who said what, because the writer omitted dialogue tags altogether? Talk about being distracted from the story!

Writers are also advised to use strong verbs for actions. “Sprinted,” for example, is preferred to a weak, wimpy word like “ran” to describe what a character does. Dialogue tags are verbs and speaking is an action, so why is it good when a character sprints or ambles, but bad when they bellow or shriek?

And no, I don’t advocate words such as “smiled” or “laughed” as dialogue tags. I agree they’re not appropriate because they do not describe ways of articulating words. But many strong verbs do just that.

“Bellowed,” “shrieked,” “muttered,” and “murmured” can show how a character utters something, when “said” would be too bland. Like spices, these words are most effective sprinkled sparingly throughout a piece of writing, but they’re no less valuable than other strong verbs. (Come to that, strong verbs can be overdone. I’ve read books stuffed with so many picturesque verbs that I’ve almost lost track of the story while bedazzled by the author’s verbal gymnastics.)

In both dialogue and action, sometimes you need a memorable, splashy verb, and sometimes a plain and common one. Recognizing these situations is part of learning how to write well.

Words are a writer’s tools. Learning to write is all about selecting the most effective words and combining them artfully. I will always question advice that puts certain words or classes of words into a verbal jail with “Do Not Use” on the door.

(Hops off soapbox.)

Does anyone else think this “rule” is a contradiction? Do you mostly stick to “said” or avoid dialogue tags altogether, or do you sometimes slip in another word of utterance?

Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

Perfectly Plotted? or, Does Story Structure Matter?

I’ve seen quite a few posts that mention story structure, otherwise known as narrative structure. Many books have been written about it.

One version of story structure looks like this:

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Image from Wikipedia. Author: Jft701. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

But does this actually help a writer who is creating a story or novel?

Here’s what I think:

These ideas about structure result from analysis and comparison of completed works, often by academics. They are the kind of thing one learns while studying literature. But (for me, anyway) the state of mind needed to bring a piece of writing into existence is totally different from that which analyzes a completed work.

A familiarity with story structures and plot trajectories is of limited use to a writer pounding out a first draft, unless that writer is a full-blown plotter, who builds a story in parts. Pantsers and others who look at first drafts like lumps of mental clay to be shaped with the tools of the imagination don’t need to worry about that stuff–until later.

“Later” is the rewrite stage, when the first draft is finished and the complete material of the story is laid out before the writer. At that point, I (otherwise known as “the writer”) can consider whether the story’s structure corresponds to the diagram above, or to any of the defined plot types, such as “rags to riches” or “the hero’s journey.”

When the first draft is finished, the writer can step back from it and analyze it, identifying places where changes need to be made, possibly making the plot conform to one of the named trajectories. But only if that makes sense to its creator, the writer.

Am I saying writers should ignore story structure? No, but I’m not sure a writer needs to worry about it at the first draft stage. But then, I write from the inside; perhaps writers who devise their creations from the outside find it helpful to consciously design them with structure in mind.

Of course, I could be wrong about this. So, fellow writers, how many of you write your first drafts with story structure in mind? Do you ever adhere to any of the defined story structures or plot types?

Featured image from Pexels

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Why Unpublish?

Writers are all about being published, either by traditional means or doing it themselves. But sometimes, authors unpublish a book.

I can think of a few reasons for this decision:

  1. The author has decided the book is unworthy or even embarrassing. Maybe it was rushed into publication and has attracted mainly negative reviews
  2. The book has attracted other forms of unwelcome attention, such as accusations of plagiarism or threats of lawsuit
  3. The book contains obsolete or inaccurate information. (This would apply mainly to nonfiction)
  4. Sales of the book have been disappointing
  5. The author has issues with the sales platform(s)

In my opinion, only numbers 2 and 3 are really good reasons to unpublish. Number 1 may be as well, but it depends. Like the decision to publish, the decision to unpublish should be made after careful consideration and asking for opinions from writing partners or trusted readers (“omega readers?”).

And if the only problem is disappointing sales, they certainly aren’t going to improve if the book is no longer on the market because its author unpublished it in a fit of pique. “No one wants you, stupid book! Take that!” (Presses the “unpublish” button.)

I think it’s best to keep books available, unless there are really good reasons to take them down.

Why? Picture this scenario: a reader acquires a book but doesn’t read it for months, or even years. When they do read it, they post a favourable review in the usual places. Five stars and praise! But in the meantime, the author has unpublished the book, so any other potential reader who sees that good review won’t be able to buy the book. Disappointed, they may not bother to seek out other books by that author.

This happened to me not long ago, which is why I’m writing this post.

Poor sales, problems with the selling venue, or unfavourable comparison with one’s other works aren’t good enough reasons to unpublish.

On the other hand, unpublishing may be part of a plan to turn a book into something else. For example, in 2016 I published four short stories as separate ebooks. I wasn’t surprised they didn’t sell, because really, I myself would hesitate to spend a dollar for a 5,000 word story, when that dollar could easily buy a full-length novel or a short story collection. The stories did get snapped up when I offered them for free (but then, almost anything does).

Last year, I unpublished those four ebooks, re-edited the stories, and incorporated them into the collection I’ve since published as Tales from the Annexe. So they are still available, but in an improved form.

An author who intends to unpublish a book because they think it’s embarrassingly bad, or because it contains factual errors, may wish to consider publishing an improved or corrected edition instead.

Fellow indies, have you ever unpublished a book, and for what reason?

Featured image from Pixabay

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 7: Unwritten and Unrealized

Some writers say their characters come alive during the writing process and even push the story in unexpected directions. But do we owe anything to characters we’ve thought up but whose stories remain unwritten, stuck halfway through Chapter 3? Or languishing in an abandoned notebook?

A while ago, in a discussion among several indie authors, I declared that I had no unfinished works. That’s actually true, although She Who Comes Forth stalled at page 17 for months before I found my way back to completing it. But I do have a complete novel that’s been sitting around unpublished since 2008.

Winter Journeys is literary fiction unrelieved by any genre fiction attributes. Moreover, it grew out of my obsession in the early 2000s with Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. And said obsession was due in part to my experiences of rejection while trying to get my first few novels traditionally published.

The twenty-four songs that make up Winterreise follow the wanderings of a man who has been rejected by a young woman and her family, and who finally rejects the world. I turned that story arc into a novel about a woman who goes through a similar trajectory in the present time, while she becomes fascinated with a particular recording of Schubert’s music.

I hesitated to publish Winter Journeys myself, first, because literary fiction doesn’t sell unless boosted by the forces of Big Publishing, literary prizes, and being made into movies. And second, because I had an intention to send it around to Canadian publishers. They do publish literary fiction, with the help of arts and culture grants from the federal government.

But since entering the realm of self-publishing, I’ve totally lost the mindset and desire to submit. (I actually hate that word, even.) So this novel continues to lurk in the shadows, although I’ve designed a number of cover images for it. Here are two of them…

Winter Journeys cover image 4
Winter Journeys cover image 5

2028 will be the 200th anniversary of the publication of Winterreise, and incidentally, of Schubert’s death. I think that would be the right year to publish Winter Journeys.

In the meantime, I’m getting psyched for writing a sequel to She Who Comes Forth, provisionally titled (what else?) She Who Returns. (You read it first here, folks.)

This is the final post in this series. I hope reading about my writing journey has been informative, interesting, or at least diverting. Here’s a link to Part 1 if you want to read it again. Links to all the other parts are there.

Well, fellow writers, do you have any stories languishing in unwritten or unpublished limbo? Do you feel you have an obligation to give them life?