Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tip Tuesday: The Power of Groups

Nanowrimo, once limited to the dreary month of November, now gives writers three opportunities a year to unleash a creative writing frenzy in a group setting (officially). In addition to the original worldwide event, writers can also participate in Camp Nanowrimo, in April and July. I'll be participating with the same fantastic group I worked with last July, starting tomorrow.

Working with a group can be great to stimulate creativity and word count, for a few reasons:

1) Inspiration. Especially when I'm working with writers who are more productive and successful than me (as is the case with my group), I'm inspired by watching their word counts climb day after day.

2) Focus. Setting aside a limited time period to accomplish a lofty goal takes away the wishy-washiness of "maybe" getting around to writing. When I'm committed to a group all working toward that goal, the focus is increased. Plus, I've told all these people I'm going to finish, which leads to point 3:

3) Peer pressure. Everyone else is doing it, and doing it successfully. Now they're watching me, and I've made promises.

If you're looking for some writing motivation, it's not too late to join Camp Nanowrimo and find a writing cabin for the month of April. Good luck, and good writing!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Good characters create story

The other day I reached a sticking point on my work in progress, and couldn't figure out where I'd gone wrong. I'd sketched out my scenes with end goals in mind, and had my hero navigating through the obstacles one by one. Here was my outline with the events neatly laid out. Here were the words on the page, sitting there like dead fish and boring the hell out of me.

That's when I realized I'd committed a mortal sin of writing. My character, the one who the story is supposed to be about, wasn't making the story. He was sitting lifeless in a contrived stew of events. No wonder I was bored!

Chuck Wendig has written a couple good articles about character agency. Per Wendig, agency is "a demonstration of the character's ability to make decisions and affect the story." In other words, story isn't an external factor that happens to characters. Good characters make the story, through their actions, reactions, strengths, and weaknesses.

The most frustrating part of my block was that I had created a rich character with lots of struggles, both internal and external, and tons of investment in the central conflict. And nothing of that was coming out on the page. He was sitting inside this cardboard structure of events, watching, his own actions having no effect whatsoever. He could have gone off on a vision quest in the middle of the scene, and the story would have stayed the same.

I broke my block by doing some free writing. Why was my character essential to the events happening in story? (Hint: up to this point, he wasn't.) How could I rewrite the scene so that it was more difficult for my character? What would his true, unique reactions be to these events? How would they change the outcome of the scene?

Turns out, introducing a different character who made his life harder would be a better way to go. It would bring out the parts of him that had been hiding under a pile of dreck, and bring life to the story again. So that's what I'm working on today.

Next time you run into a wall, where events seem to be spooling out without your character having an effect, take a step back. Get to the essence of who that character is. Now, spin the scene. What events would make this scene harder for this particular person? List some possibilities. Go with the strongest one, and try a hundred words in that direction. If that's working, try a hundred more.

Did this exercise work for you? How do you bring life to your characters and story when you get stuck?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Integrating Dialogue and Action

Recently a writer asked how to make his dialogue more interesting. He found having characters speaking, interspersed with "he said" and "she said", felt repetitive. Yet these dialogue tags are necessary for a couple of reasons. They show us who is speaking and provide a break in the narrative. While ideally dialogue tags are supposed to be invisible (the eye runs over "he said" and "she said"), just like any other overused convention, they can become tiresome to the reader.

But effective dialogue does much more than delineate the speaker. How can you balance the need to know who’s talking when, without the text becoming boring?

Let's look at an exchange that uses only dialogue and simple tags:

"Did you talk to Gino?" asked Starla.
"Naw, haven't seen him yet," said Cinnamon.
"Better watch out. He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad," said Starla.
"Right now I have bigger problems to worry about," said Cinnamon.

What does this exchange tell us? Two individuals named Starla and Cinnamon are talking about a man named Gino, who wants his money. But a lot of information is missing. Where are they? What's happening? Also, the identical structure of each paragraph (dialogue followed by "said [name]" or asked [name]") becomes wearing on the eye. And there's no action, just static dialogue. Boring.

Here's that exchange with more information worked in. Notice also how additional cues are used to show who's speaking:

Starla leaned over the old coot's chest, reaching her arms around to the bar on either side of him. She shook her shoulders lazily. Tuesday lunch was the worst shift, and Denise was a jerk for sticking her and Cinnamon with it. So petty.

The gin-soaked geezer was paying attention to her assets, not her mouth, so she might as well discuss business. She called over her shoulder, "Did you talk to Gino?"

"Naw, haven't seen him yet." Cinnamon craned her neck around to face Starla.  She waved her backside at the twenty-something bling factory on the neighboring stool, her long legs stretched out in front of him.

"Better watch out," said Starla. "He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad." The geezer exhaled his martini breath at her and reached out a shaking hand. Why did they ever think that was a good idea? She slapped it away.

The fellow with the bling opened his wallet then turned it upside down and shook it, shrugging. Cinnamon rolled her eyes. "Right now I have bigger problems to worry about."

Now we have a much more complete picture. The addition of action (Starla leaned, reaching, shook her shoulders) provides movement to the scene. Starla and Cinnamon’s actions also show us that they’re at work, and the nature of their profession. From the visual cues (the bar on either side of him, the neighboring stool), we see the setting. And sensory details (exhaled his martini breath) pull us further in.

We also get a sense of the characters’ attitudes toward their work and current clientele. Starla shakes her shoulders lazily. Cinnamon rolls her eyes at the guy who’s stiffing her.

By including Starla’s thoughts, we also establish that she’s our point of view character. (Denise was a jerk. So petty. Why did they ever think that was a good idea?)

The shift in action makes it clear who’s speaking throughout. In place of a typical dialogue tag, in paragraph two, Starla calls over her shoulder. This adds more action. All this, and “said” only appears once!

Note that you can go overboard with description in dialogue. Depending on the pacing of the scene, sometimes a few quick exchanges with no interspersed action can work. But if you feel like you're watching a ping-pong match when your characters speak in long, uninterrupted blocks, try and break it up.
Dynamic dialogue incorporates action, setting, thought, sensory details, and more to create a rich reading experience. Next time you’re hung up on “said” and “asked”, look for ways to work in these elements.

How do you add vibrancy to your dialogue? Where do you get tripped up? If you have a question about writing you’d like me to answer, shoot me an email at faithvanhorne [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks for reading!