The Nature of Choice

I’m feeling a bit philosophical today so if you’re not in a similar mood, I’d recommend coming back to this post at a later date. Fair warning.

In exploring the possibilities and challenges of interactive fiction, I find myself constantly bumping up against the thorny philosophical, and occasionally theological, question of choice. How much choice do we actually have? How much influence over the outcome of our lives?

You see, in writing IF, I often find that I’m creating the illusion of choice and freedom. Readers can choose from a variety of options in any given situation and those choices do have real effects on the story. Yet they are always driven inexorably forward to certain major milestones. While in the midst of creating such works of false freedom, I can’t help but wonder if real life is rather similar. We can make choices, thousands of them on any given day, but do they really change what happens in a meaningful way? Or do they just thrust onto side streets and down rabbit holes that all lead ultimately to the same place?

And would it really be so bad if that’s the way it all worked?

Is our free will really as important as we think it is? Or could we possibly take some comfort from knowing that the course of our lives is unfolding according to the grand plans of a master writer?

Creating Characters – Consistency Matters

There are plenty of mistakes to be made when it comes to crafting convincing characters but I’d say the biggest one is a lack of consistency. If a character acts a certain way in one scene, it’s important that she acts the same way in another.  Unless, of course, there’s a good reason to explain the change. But if you establish early on that your character is afraid of heights, then have her calmly walking across a tight rope a few chapters later with no mention of that phobia, you’ve got a problem.

Consistency is key when it comes to personality, preferences, manner of speaking, background, and a thousand other details. You can’t ever drift when you’re writing a character. Each time you need to write a line of dialogue, get in that character’s head. Don’t put words in his mouth, let him say what he would say. If he was real and actually in the situation you’ve put him in.

Now, when it comes to major characters, this is usually easy. We writers often become very attached to our main characters, spending hours developing every facet of their personalities and backstories until they feel as real as our best friend. For some of us, maybe they even become our best friend. Writing such characters is easy, natural, because we don’t have to imagine what they would say or how they would respond. We know them so well, that every line virtually writes itself. The challenge arises, and many manuscripts fall apart, when we go to write less important characters.

You know the kind I’m talking about. The ones you didn’t spend much, if any, time thinking about beforehand. The ones who are mainly there to fulfill some role that’s necessary for moving the plot forward. The general recommendation, of course, is to avoid such characters entirely. But when you just have to use one, make him consistent. Down to the small details of the way he walks and the way he talks. When you do this, even for characters so minor as to be insignificant, all of your characters will feel more real. Your entire manuscript will take on new life.

So remember, consistency matters.

Start at the Right Moment

Just a bit of second-hand writing advice for you today from Writers Write in South Africa:

While identifying common mistakes that lead to losing readers, Amanda Patterson says this:

Writers start at the wrong moment in the story. Authors need to introduce the protagonist in the opening scenes. I am not interested in the weather or minor characters. I am also not interested in your protagonist’s backstory until something meaningful happens to her. Once it does, and if I really need to know, you can tell me how she ended up there.

This is excellent advice and the rest of the article, “The Three Mistakes Writers Make That Stop Us Reading Their Books,” is filled with even more. Go check it out!

Creating Characters – It’s in the Details

Interesting, realistic characters are perhaps the most important part of any story, but I believe they’re especially important for speculative fiction such as Science-Fiction and Fantasy. When the world of your story and the events that fill it are beyond belief, you need something to make it real. I often tell my ghostwriting clients that compelling characters are the best way to do that. If your characters feel like real people your readers can relate to, then your story will feel just as real, no matter how fantastic the plot or setting.

But how do you create such characters?

I won’t pretend to be able to fit a complete answer to that question into a single blog post — after all, entire books have been written on the subject — but I do want to give you a piece of the answer today and come back to share more in future posts.

The first piece is: Details.

I could end it there, but that wouldn’t be worth your time, so let’s go on. A major key to creating realistic characters is in fleshing out every detail that makes them who they are. Appearance is important, but I’ve outlined some thoughts previously about how that might not be so important. And, either way, it’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean the details of the character’s background, history, family, culture, personality, habits, pet peeves. All the things that make us (flesh and blood people) real and interesting. Your characters need to have those things too.

Many writers are famous (or infamous) for delving too far into backstory in their books. Character development is a chance to get all that backstory out of your system and keep it out of your manuscript. Write detailed histories for your characters, even the minor ones. You should know everything there is to know about every character who crosses your page. You never have to spell out all those details in the book, of course. Getting caught in that trap is how writers end up dumping so much backstory on their readers that the actual story gets buried and forgotten. However, just by having those details written down somewhere (even if only in your head) your characters will come to life. They’ll do things that may seem unexpected because they have deep seated, hidden motivation from their past; just like a real person.

As a bonus, this will help your story write itself. When you have characters with detailed histories, you don’t have to imagine how they will react to an event because you already know how they’ll react. Their past experiences motivate them to respond in certain ways and all you have to do is write what your characters want to do naturally.

Details are the key, at least one of the keys, to creating engaging, believable characters. In fact, I would say that details are the foundation to realistic characters. You need a lot more to make sure they come to life on the page, but without a solid, detailed history, those other things will fall flat.

What Can Fiction Do?

I talked a few weeks ago about the purpose of fiction and shared that, for me, its purpose is “to challenge my readers’ pre-conceived ideas about faith and its role in the world.” I want to take those thoughts a little farther today by exploring what fiction is actually capable of accomplishing. Can a story actually change something about a person’s behavior, actions, or ideas?

My basic argument is that fiction can affect a person’s thoughts, but not his actions.

Let’s unpack that a little.

I don’t think that a person will do something differently just because of a story she read or watched or played. At least, not because of the story alone. For example, let’s say our hypothetical consumer of ficiton watches a movie that encourages her to do more to do more to take care of the poor. She already believes this is important but has never done much about it, despite that belief. A situation many of us have found ourselves in one way or another, I’m sure. Will watching this movie inspire her to finally act on her belief? I don’t think so.

Let’s try a different scenario. Another hypothetical consumer fiction has never given the poor a thought in his life watches that same movie. I think there’s a much better chance that he will ultimately end up taking some action to help the poor. Why? Because the piece of fiction made him do it? No, because it challenged his thinking, opened his worldview to something new. It is the shift in his perspective that will lead to action, not the movie. I believe that fiction can bring about such a shift in perspective, but not inspire direct action.

This reveals the root of the problem I have with most of what’s called “Christian fiction.” It aims to encourage us to do things we already know we should be doing. Those movies and books want to prompt action based on beliefs that their target audiences already hold but aren’t acting on. Pray more, be a better husband/wife, read your Bible, these works tell us. But if we already know we should be doing these things, the only response such pieces of fiction elicit is to make us feel good about seeing a movie that affirms as important the same things we think are important. At best, we make a resolution to do better in that area, but we’ve probably made similar resolutions plenty of times before. Ultimately, we come away unchanged. What good is that?

Fiction has power when it challenges our beliefs rather than affirming them. Fiction should force us to consider things we haven’t considered before, or to examine a long-held value in a new light. That change in thinking is what will push us to act. The change in perspective gives birth to changed actions.

What do you think? Can fiction directly affect our actions or is its power restricted to our minds and perceptions?

The Importance of Describing Characters

A strange irony I’ve discovered about myself is that, despite being a writer, I’m horrible at describing people. If you ask me to describe someone I met, the result would be something like this:

“He had brown eyes, kind of dirty blond or brownish hair. It wasn’t long, but wasn’t shaved or anything, either. He was maybe a little taller than me, and…”

And that’s it. Eye color, hair color, height. And none of it particularly useful in identifying a person’s appearance as unique. How many people did I just describe, after all?

Unfortunately, this weakness carries over into my writing. Settings I can describe. Character emotions I can delve into through interior monologues, or actions that push those emotions to the surface. Backstories I can reveal subtly and unobtrusively. Dialogue I can make vivid and lifelike. But ask me to tell you what a character looks like and I’m left stumbling over vague references to hair and eye color. I’ve even looked through some older character profiles (ok, they’re not really all that old) and found characters that I never bothered to endow with any more detailed of an appearance than “blue eyes, blond hair.” Obviously, that needs to change.

Part of what’s held me back from delving into character appearance already is the fact that it’s never been important to me when I’m reading a novel. I find that I skim over descriptions of physical appearance and don’t even remember them later. I don’t care what the character looks like, I care what she says, what she does, what happens to her. So when it comes to my own writing, I don’t feel compelled to give my readers every detail of physical appearance.

Yet I know that not everyone reads the same way I do, with a voracious hunger to devour the plot and pick it apart piece by piece. Lots of people (so I’m told) create detailed mental images of everything they read. So they have very specific pictures of what the main characters look like formed in their mind. If I don’t give them a description, they’ll be forced to make it up on their own or go through the whole story with fuzzy blob (marked only by hair and eye color) for the protagonist. That would look awful in a movie, obviously, so I’m sure it’s just as bad playing on the mental screens of you visual readers.

So, with all of this in mind, I’m setting out to reform my writing. To describe the fine details of how my characters look, including not only hair and eye color, but face structure, hair texture, eye shape, body type, and more. It’s hard, because I don’t even have a clear picture of these things in my own mind when I create a character, but I hope my readers will appreciate it and that my stories will come alive because of it.

What do you think? Are detailed character descriptions important? Annoying? Necessary? A waste of time? Will you easily lose interest in a book that doesn’t paint a vivid picture of the main characters? Or do you skim such descriptions and tend to let them slip from your mind?

Writing Goals

I’ve recently had a major shift in my schedule that allows me considerably more time to write than I’ve had before. I earn money as a ghostwriter, so I’ve been spending most of my day writing for almost two years now. The only problem with that is that I’ve been spending most of my day writing other peoples’ stories while my own have been relegated to the back burner. On the one hand, it’s great because I’m getting paid to write. And that’s the goal, right?

Well, mostly.

On the other hand, I’m not getting my own stories done and writing them is important, too. Now, thanks to some recent changes in my life, I have more time to devote to writing those stories. So, I’m laying out some goals for myself. Goals that are more specific than, “Finish my novel… someday. And publish some short stories, too. Probably.”

Let’s start with The Other Side of Hope, my current work-in-progress. I’d rather not say when I started working on this novel because it’s been way too long, especially considering that the current first draft word count is sitting at just over 26K. But now I’m setting a hard and fast goal and putting it out there for all of you to see. I will finish the first draft of The Other Side of Hope by November 31. Then the editing, revising, and re-writing will begin and I won’t comment on when that will be done just yet. But there will be a first draft by the end of November.

In addition to that big project, I’ll be continuing to work on short stories. “Just a Drop” is going through the rounds with magazines now and I’m going to keep sending it out until it finds a home because I feel really good about that story. While that’s happening, I’m diving back into Samokei, the world of “Everyday,” to write another story there. You should see excerpts from the first draft of “The Howling Wood” appearing here by mid to late October and I hope to have the full story available on Amazon before year’s end.

So there you go, my writing goals for the next few months.

  • Finish the first draft of The Other Side of Hope by November 31
  • Get “Just a Drop” published
  • Publish “The Howling Wood” on Amazon by December 31

Feel free to check in on me and ask how I’m doing!

Now it’s your turn. What are your writing goals? We’ve just got a few months left in 2015, so what do you want to get done between now and January 1?

How Do I Write a Novel? Part Two

In Part One of this series on writing a novel, I introduced the idea of how to plan a novel. If you haven’t read that post, you should probably go back on do so before trying to follow the advice here if you’re just starting to plan your novel. But, if you’ve already got your idea and basic plot in place, you can probably start here.

Write Character Summaries

Characters drive all good fiction. While you might be able to find some counterexample to that statement, I’m still going to hold to it. If you want to take your readers on a journey, engaging characters are the way to do it. But how do you create engaging characters? I’ll talk more about that in detail another time, but I’ll summarize for now. What I like to do is write a detailed synopsis of the story from the perspective of each of my characters. I’ve been using my novel-in-progress The Other Side of Hope to illustrate my points so far, so I’ll continue that here. From the beginning I had two characters in mind: the Christian extremist and the Muslim soldier. Ethan and Hamid as they are now known. So I started with them. As you do this, you’ll find a need for more characters along the way. In my case, by the time I’d written summaries for Ethan and Hamid, I had family members and few friends for each of them. So then I went back and wrote summaries for each of those new characters. You should also find yourself adding a lot more detail to your plot as you do this. Let the characters control things and take the story where they want to.

Write Character Profiles

This step is intermixed with the previous one. As you’re creating (or discovering) characters and writing summaries, make character profiles for them as well. These should include basic information like physical description, personality, likes/dislikes, habits, and ages, as well as story specific things like motivation. I like to include a note about each character’s primary internal and external conflicts. Other things to include are motivations, desires, and goals. This profile will probably expand and change as you go about planning the story and learn more things about your characters.

Write a Detailed Synopsis

This is the fun part (or at least one fun part) because it’s where your characters really start to influence your story. By this point, you’ve got a brief plot summary and a bunch of character-based summaries and profiles. I already mentioned that in the process of writing those character-based summaries, you were probably adding a lot of detail to the story. The more detailed your characters get, the more they influence the events in the world around them that you’re creating. This is the time to go back and integrate all those details into one place. Write a detailed synopsis with all of those new plot points. This should probably be several pages long. My detailed synopsis for The Other Side of Hope was about 4 pages. You don’t need to have every little figured out, but this should give you a strong template for your novel.

Plan Out the Scenes

Now you go deeper and plan out even more detail by creating a scene-by-scene outline of your novel. You may be familiar with the distinction between “Show” and “Tell” in writing. To tell a story is simply to go through its basic elements, relating the things that happened. This is what you’ve got in your synopsis. To show a story is take your readers into it the lives of the characters so they see what happens and hear the conversations. When you make the scene outline, you’re deciding how you’re going show your story to your readers. A single sentence in the synopsis may require two or three scenes to be effectively shown to your readers. This is where you figure that out. I usually write a small paragraph for each scene that guides me as I write it. No dialogue or detailed description, just a simple summary of what needs to happen. Check out the Technology for Writing section of the blog for some tips on tools to use for this.

Write the Thing!

That scene outline is the road map to your novel. Once you’ve got it done, you’re ready to get writing!

How Do I Write a Novel? Part One

If you want to write and you’re anything like me, that question weighs heavily on your mind. Maybe you’ve got a specific idea, or maybe not, but either way, the task of crafting tens of thousands of words into a coherent story is daunting. How do you just write something that long? How do you know if the idea you have will even make a story long enough to fill an entire novel? Maybe some people can just start writing and end up with something that makes sense 80,000 words later. But I’m not one of those people. I need a method, a plan. If you’re like, here’s a plan of attack you can use.

Before I go any farther, I want to give credit to Randy Ingermanson. He created the Snowflake Method and that’s what I used to start planning my first novel. What I’m going to share with you is certainly influenced by the Snowflake Method, but it’s not identical.

Start With A Seed

Every story has a seed, the raw essence of idea, the foundation everything else is built around. Maybe it’s a character, maybe it’s a scene, maybe it’s a concept. Whatever it is, this is where you start. To make things more concrete, I’ll use the example of the novel I’m writing now, The Other Side of Hope. The seed for this story was the idea that if Christianity and Islam were flipped in terms of their global influence and power, Christians would likely be the ones carrying out acts of extremism in the name of their religion. I wanted to tell a story that would help Christians (since that’s my current cultural context) see the world through the eyes of a Muslim.

Know Where You’re Going

Once you’ve got the seed, you need to know where you want the story to go. What’s the message that you want to leave the readers with? What’s the punchline at the end of  your story? I firmly believe that you need to have the end in mind from the beginning. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for the story to change and evolve along the way, but if you don’t where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Going back to The Other Side of Hope, I knew early on that I wanted to bring a Christian “terrorist” and a Muslim solider together. I wanted each of the characters to see that the conflict between their two faiths had cost them both everything and gained no one anything.

Make a Short Synopsis

This corresponds roughly to Step 2 of Ingermanson’s Snowflake. What you want here is an overview of your story, the main points of crisis. Based on the last step of knowing where you’re going, you may already have the final crisis in mind. This is where you paint the broad strokes to get your characters (and your readers) to that point. In my novel, the first crises are the deaths of loved ones that drive the main characters to get involved in the armed conflict raging around them. This creates the circumstances in which they can meet and see the pain they’ve inflicted on one another.

This step can be as detailed or as brief as you want. But especially for a first novel, I’d recommend keeping it very simple. Basically one sentence to introduce things, then one for each major plot point/crisis. If you’re building the story from scratch, you’ll probably find this bare minimum to be helpful. You don’t want to add too much detail at once.

In Part Two of this series on writing your novel, we’ll start talking more about characters and adding complexity to your plot.

How to Write Great Dialogue

I really wish there was a simple formula that led to instantly brilliant dialogue. But there’s not.

There are, however, a few tips I can give you that will help improve your dialogue.

Watch the Details

When it comes to dialogue, it’s the small things that make the difference between believable and fake. So pay attention to everything. Word choice, sentence type, timing; everything. It’s important to think about whether or not your character would react in a given way, but it’s just as important to make sure he would say the words you’re putting in his mouth. For example, if you’ve got a highly educated and refined character using overly casual or slang language, it won’t feel real at all and the reader will loose his connection with the story.

Control the Timing

There is a natural rhythm and flow to conversation. If you want the dialogue in your writing to feel genuine, you have to find ways to capture that flow. There a couple of ways to do that.

First, avoid long monologues. How often have you been in a conversation where each speaker droned on for five minutes at a time before anyone else spoke up? That’s not how a real conversation goes. People interrupt each other, they lose their train of thought, strange sounds cut into the conversation. So break it up, make it real.

Second, use beats. Beats are the little bits of writing in between the dialogue. Their most basic purpose is to identify the speaker (i.e., “he said,” “she said,”), but they can also add rhythm when used correctly. Beats can be used to insert small actions in the midst of conversation, such as what a character is doing with his hands, or what his facial expression looks like. Used skillfully, beats break up dialogue in natural places, giving your reader room to breathe and appreciate what’s going on in the scene.

Remember Who Knows What

In general, dialogue is a good place to reveal your backstory. It’s certainly far better than lengthy narrations that fill the reader in on everything (you think) they need to know. But be careful not to get carried away. For your dialogue to be believable, your characters must only say things that need to be said. What this means is, if all of the characters in a scene are familiar with the backstory, whether it’s a certain character’s past, the history of the world, or something else, there’s no reason for one of the characters to explain that backstory. Think of it this way, if you and I both know what happened at the party last weekend because we were there together, I’m not going to tell you all about what happened at the party last weekend. Because you already know. So remember who knows what and don’t force your characters to listen to information they don’t need to hear just so you can show the readers. Reveal information naturally and your dialogue will be more natural.

Get Feedback

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” If so, toss it out of your brain right now because it’s a gigantic pile of steaming feces. Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. If you practice the wrong thing, you won’t get better, you’ll just beat that incorrect pattern into your head.

Lots of practice is essential to writing good dialogue, but you need to make sure you’re actually practicing good dialogue. So reach out to friends, whether they’re writers or not, and get them to read your conversations. Ask if they feel natural or forced. Ask if they feel a connection with the characters. After you’ve gotten feedback from some non-writer friends, you might want to have some more experienced eyes look at your work. If you know a writer or two, great. If not, check out Scribophile for a great online community where you can get your work critiqued.

Now go and write some great dialogue!