Category Archives: Writing Process

These posts show the rules I try to follow in my writing, and other information about the writing process in general. They are primarily for me, but I hope you find them helpful as well. Please let me know what works for you in the comments.

Rule #3: Reality in Fiction, Part Two

I talked about making the characters in fiction real, but how real are the plot and the story?

A little bit of everything

When was the last time in life you only had one thing going on at a time?  In my life, I feel like I am constantly bombarded with something new before I have even addressed previous issues.  I never have a moment where there is only one thing I have to worry about.  Likewise, in a book, the characters need to have more business in their lives than only the primary conflict of the story.  While the book may not give any details for those other events, the events themselves need to be there.  Also, while the plot itself can only cover certain aspects of the action, the overall story needs to include virtually every emotion or type of story (comedy, adventure, romance, coming of age, tragedy, redemption, etc.).

Fortune

I am not able to control everything that happens around me.  There are often fortunate (or unfortunate) occurrences that significantly change the way my life is feeling.  The same should also hold for characters in a book.  Not everything that happens to them (or even that furthers the plot) should be in their control.  It may be some other character, divine providence, or just blind luck.

Another consideration is that the physics of the world need to be realistic.  The rules can be exaggerated or changed (for instance to include some form of magic), but must be consistent throughout the story.  The best explanation I have seen of this point is Sanderson’s First Law, which essentially states that the larger a role magic has in solving problems in the plot, the better it needs to be understood.

Time

Here is one of my personal pet peeves.  Characters are introduced at the beginning of the story, and for most of the book, readers are shown the characters’ flaws.  However, at the moment of the climax, or immediately after it, those flaws seem to have disappeared.  Now clearly, it takes time for a person’s character to change, and it will almost always happen gradually.  A very similar situation exists for virtually every major plot point as well.  It takes time to do most things.

Note that this does not necessarily refer to the storytelling itself.  The pacing of the story is one of the tools in an author’s arsenal to maintain reader interest.  I have found, however, that my interest is captured by an unpredictable plot better than nonstop action.  Also, the climax is not the end of the story.  I find that I am more annoyed than intrigued when a book is go-go-go-go-go-and done!  I want to actually see some of the resolution.

More than meets the eye…

A good book should feel like a window looking into a new world.  It should give a glimpse of what is there, but the best books also give a feeling that there is so much more just out of sight.

Rule #3: Reality in Fiction, Part One

Okay, talking about reality in relation to nonfiction writing has a pretty intuitive meaning.  But fiction by definition contains parts that have only ever occurred in the imagination.  (Note that I didn’t say they haven’t actually happened.)  How then can these parts be real?  The easy answer is verisimilitude.  That is an English teacher word which basically means it feels like real life.  So how do I accomplish that?  To me, it is about the readers’ ability to relate to the book.  I think this starts with the characters.

Good vs. Evil

All right, show of hands.  Who knows someone that is absolutely, purely evil? And I am talking EVIL.  The kind the intentionally kills kittens because they are cute, and thoroughly enjoys doing it.  You don’t know anyone, do you?  I didn’t think so.  Real people can be annoying, rude, and mean–even intentionally and consistently.  In general, I think they do so either out of selfishness or ignorance, or only to specific people or at certain times, not to everyone all of the time.  I am not saying that “evil” people do not exist, but they are rare.  The same goes on the other extreme of the spectrum.  All this being said, why then should I populate a book with only characters who are completely good or completely evil?  How can readers relate to that?  The heroes need to have their warts, and the villains need to have their redeeming qualities. 

As the author, I need to understand all the characters’ motivations.  (Note: “I want to take over the world,” is not a motivation in itself, it is a goal.  The motivation is “I want to take over the world because…”)  The better I know why the characters are doing what they are doing, the better I can flesh them out, and the more real they become.

A similar argument holds for just about any personality traits.  The more one-dimensional characters are, the less a reader will care about them.  Take, for example, Wile E. Coyote.  I could hardly wait to see how things would go awry with his plans.  He would end up falling off the cliff, or the boulder would land on him, or the dynamite would explode in his face, and I enjoyed it.  Why?  Because his character was one thing only: a mouth trying to eat the lovable roadrunner.  On the other had, take Ebenezer Scrooge.  At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, I think few people would object to an anvil being dropped on his head.  But as the story progresses, we get to know him.  At the end, I would have been horrified if he had been left to rot in his grave alone.  One-sided characters can still be good for entertainment value.  But I would not expect a reader to connect with them.

Character Development

To me, the term character development in a book has two related meanings.  First, there is the work that I as an author do to understand who the characters are, and the cues in the book that relate those things (either directly or indirectly) to the readers.  Second, there is the change that dynamic characters undergo throughout the course of the book.  I think that character development (particularly the second meaning) is the single most important component of the story that is being told in the book.  The plot is a vehicle, and the characters drive.  Not only with their internal struggles, but also with the interactions between characters.

Ultimately, the goal (at least for me) is for the readers and the characters to be able to connect.  I want the readers to say, “I know someone like that.”  Perhaps even “That’s me.”  I want the readers to feel as if they have found an old friend.  And in order for that to happen, the characters have to be real.

Rule #2: The Plot is Not the Story

I have read a number of books in my life, and I could categorize them into three broad headings.

First, there are the books that I want to read again and again.  They have impacted me in some profound way that makes me want to experience those books again, because they have more to offer me.

Second, there are books that I have read once, put down, and never really thought of again.  They were not bad books, I simply had other books I would rather read.

Third, there are books that just plain annoyed me.  They were painful for me to read, and in some cases, I have not even been able to finish the book.  I have no desire to ever read them again.

What would cause a book to fall into one of these three categories?  I would attribute it to the difference between the plot and the story.  What is the difference?  My definitions are as follows: the plot is what happens in the book.  It includes everything the characters experience.  The story is what happens because of the book.  It includes everything the readers experience.

The first thing that I take away from this distinction is that, in most books, virtually the entire plot is told directly in the book.  There may be some details that are left ambiguous, so the readers need to fill in the blanks for themselves.  But even in these books, the plot is completely in the control of the author.  The story, however, is created by the interaction of the words in the book with the readers’ imaginations, dreams, and previous experiences.  Obviously the author can only control half of this equation.

So why do I care about the story, if I can’t control it?  Well, I think an author can still have quite a lot of control over the story of a book, but how?

I think one of the most important factors in the story is character development.  If the characters are real, then readers can relate to them.  If readers can relate to the characters, they want to know what happens to them.  They laugh with them, cry with them, hurt for them, celebrate for them.  If characters are shallow or solely ridiculous, they may still serve entertainment value, but the readers will have a much harder time caring whether they succeed at what they are trying to accomplish.  In fact, the readers may even be rooting for those kinds of characters to fail.

Perhaps some literary examples will help to illustrate.

I love Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.  I have yet to read a book by either of them that does not qualify for the first category.  One thing that is interesting to me is that there are not typically epic adventures in their books.  No one is racing off to save the world.  With a few notable a exceptions, their plots generally consist of events that could happen to just about anyone at any time.  And yet, they are some of the most compelling books I have read.  Why?  Because when the characters are real, the readers will follow them wherever they go, whether it is across the universe or across the room.  I also read a lot of fantasy, and find that a character does not need to be human to be real.

Another example is Harry Potter.  First, full disclosure.  Yes, I read all the books.  Yes, I found them entertaining.  No, I would not put them in category one.  They would fall more in the second category for me.  Why?  I think the story in the books is fairly strong.  The interaction between the characters is very spot on.  But I thought the plot was weak.  I found each book to be a little too formulaic and the overall series too predictable.  Yet despite these flaws that I perceived in the plot, I continued to read, because I was interested in the characters.  I had invested too much in those characters to not find out what happened to them.  But when I had finished, I did not necessarily want to read them again.

This brings up another important point.  As hard as I try as an author, I may not reach every reader.  Don Quixote, for example, I gave back to the library after I had read about a third of the way through.  I had simply had enough of a stupid man almost getting himself killed.  It wasn’t even entertaining to me.  It fell into my third category.  Yet there are many people who might place it into the first.

One other thing to note is that while the plot is not the story, the plot does influence the story.  Obviously, a good plot will help to tell the story, though if the readers cannot relate to any of the characters, the plot may not be enough to keep them reading.

Now what do I do about it?  How can I craft a good story?  First, I need to know the characters.  If I, the author, do not know my characters, how will the readers?  Second, I need to consider what is the message of the book.  I had a teacher in a speech class who told us to use the “so what” test when writing our speeches.  She said we should imagine the audience asking, “so what?”  We needed to make sure that we answered that question in the speech instead of forcing the audience to actually ask it.  When I write, I need to take the time every once in a while to step back and ask, “so what?”  Why do the readers want to know this?  Why do they want to keep reading?  What does it mean?

And the readers’ answers will likely be different from mine.  But that is one of the joys of reading.  While everyone gets the same plot every time, the story is personalized to each reader, and is new every time you read it.

Rule #1: Write!

Okay, everyone hates self-referential rules.  And this is clearly circular logic: if you want to write well, the first thing you need to do is write.

That being said, I have found that I have a tendency to avoid things that I would like to do, but I’m not sure if I can do them well.  It primarily stems from fear.  I am afraid to try and fail.  So instead, I procrastinate.  Then I can convince myself that I have the best of both worlds: I haven’t failed, but I haven’t given up either.  I’ll just do it later.  Well, “later” never seems to come.  The adage “practice makes perfect” is a bit of an oversimplification, but it also contains truth.  In order to be good at something, most people have to practice.

Footnote a to rule #1: write a lot.

Let me diverge a little.  I once went on a mission trip to Brazil.  I was going to spend two years there, so it was important to speak Portuguese.  I had an instructor who once said to the class that before we could speak Portuguese well, we would need to make some number of mistakes.  Now, lets assume for the sake of argument that the number of mistakes is 1000.  He said that we had a choice.  We could go out and speak as much as possible and make those 1000 mistakes in a few weeks, or we could close our mouths, take two years to learn the language and never be able to communicate with natives while we were in Brazil.

In a similar fashion, there is bad writing in every writer.  It is not a reflection of the ability of the writer, but simply a fact that not every word you write will be a Gettysburg Address.  Unfortunately, if the bad writing never comes out, it becomes lodged in the writer’s cerebral cortex, and can overcome all writing.  So, you have to let it out.  The bright side: unless it is a writing assignment for some class, you never have to show the bad writing to anyone.  But don’t throw it away without at least reading it through first.  There may be something valuable in it, one phrase, one idea in pages of garbage.  There may be entire sections that would be good with a little reworking, but even if there isn’t anything worth keeping, getting it out of the way frees up your mind for the good stuff.

Addendum to Footnote a: Write a lot, even when every word is not pure Shakespeare.

One further analogy.  I used to play basketball quite often, but I was never what you might call a shooter.  My problem was, the way I held the ball and moved me hands when shooting were not exactly the most conducive to directing the ball into the basket.  I remember a friend telling me that if you have bad form, just shooting free throws again and again will not help you.  You will simply be reinforcing bad habits.

So how do you know if you have “bad form” in your writing, and what can you do to fix it?  There are any number of writing classes at colleges across the world that can teach grammar, spelling syntax, and even give insights into subtler details such as craft.  But there is a simpler (and cheaper) way.

Rule 1.1: Read

And read a lot.  Read a wide variety of authors and styles, but it is most important to read other works directed to your target audience.  If you want to write a spy novel for children, you should read spy novels written for children.  It is not necessary to do any formal analysis of the books, but it is necessary to think critically about them.  What worked well, what didn’t?  The more you read, you will develop a sense of what you like, and it will make writing easier.

In future posts, I will discuss various exercises or games that can also be used to home writing skills, and stay tuned for Rule #2…