Category Archives: General Writing

Mythology and Storytelling

Classical mythology has always fascinated me, not because I believe in any sort of pagan pantheon, but because it’s evidence of the enduring power of storytelling. Something in the human psyche craves narrative, especially the epic kind. Mythological stories have woven through generations and cultures, survived wars and the erosion of wind, sand and water. They survive longer than pyramids and buildings, are more impregnable than fortresses and citadels. Storytelling is our species’ genetic memory. All it took in the ancient world was a group of people, evocative language and a warm campfire to keep it going.

Take Hercules. Here in 2018, the era of the internet, smart phones and artificial intelligence, references to this powerful mythological story still keep showing up around me. Hercules (or Heracles in Greek) came from the ancient Greeks, a culture that began nearly five millennia ago, then he remained popular through the Etruscan and Roman civilizations, which began more than seven hundred years before Christ. The character of Hercules must strike a common chord. He came up against incredible odds, suffering at the hands of Hera (Zeus’s jealous Olympian wife) and later Eurystheus the king, who set the hero out on his famous twelve labors as penance.

It’s the story of those labors that endures, even into our modern culture. Just a few weeks ago my stepmother told me her horses had been inside so much this winter, her barn was like the Augean stables, a reference to Hercules’s fifth labor, which was to clean them out. The word “herculean” is used in English to refer to efforts above and beyond normal, and Hollywood is still making movies about the Greek hero. He was an Olympian gladiator, a superhero from the ancient world.

Which warms me to my topic, using mythological stories in modern storytelling. I stumbled across a little side story that took place during the eleventh labor of Hercules. He ran into Antaeus on his way to the Garden of Hesperides to collect some golden apples, and the two of them engaged in a wrestling match. It seems Antaeus drew his strength from touching the earth (his mother being Gaia, the goddess of the earth), which is fascinating in itself because formalized wrestling has Greek origins, won by pinning someone to the floor. Nevertheless, Hercules defeated Antaeus by lifting him into the air until his power was depleted. Then he crushed him.

I jumped on that story as a metaphor in my novel. First of all, it’s a wrestling match, and my protagonist is wrestling with the past. And to defeat it, he needs to lift his memories up and expose them to air and light, thereby draining them of their power. The memories themselves are of his cousin’s death from falling into a salt mine ventilation shaft, which is, of course, a conduit deep into the earth, the source of Antaeus’s strength. So I hauled an ancient story out of mothballs, part of a myth that still resonates with people today, and framed it as a metaphor around a modern struggle.

Many writers tap into ancient myths. If you’re writing a story that deals with the human psyche, explore ancient mythology and read about the titanic struggles of Greek heroes and mortals trying to define and explain the hardships of a brutal world. A lot of nuggets are hiding there. Your task is to find them and bring them back, against all odds.

Saving the Cat

I attended a great writer’s conference in Chicago in June. One of the big takeaways for me from one of the sessions was this: Be aware of the moment your reader will fall in love with your main character, and why. The session leader referred to it as the “saving the cat” moment. When a fireman climbs the tree and saves the cat, he becomes a hero. We want to root for him. We’re engaged and want to see him succeed. When does that happen with our main protagonist?

Blake Snyder, a screenwriter, wrote a famous manual, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, which describes in detail the structure of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. The phrase “Save The Cat!” was coined by Snyder to describe a decisive moment when the protagonist does something likeable or nice. His inspiration for this was the movie Alien, where Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley actually saves a cat named Jones. Snyder writes that saving the cat is the scene where we first meet the hero and she gains audience favor and support right from the start. His point is that it’s not as important to make your character cool and sexy as it is to make her likable.

Heroes that are too noble, flat and cartoon-like are boring. Our protagonists can and should be complex characters, filled with flaws and weaknesses. This makes them human and relatable, but it can also make them hard to get close to. The protagonist Paul in my novel, for example, is not exactly a warm and fuzzy guy. He suffers from difficulties in making and hanging onto relationships. He is by nature bumbling. He mistakes people’s meaning and does things that can antagonize others. So how will a reader come to root for him? Probably they will fall in love with his need to uncover the past and figure out why he is the way he is. Or they’ll identify with his longing for connection, which we all have. I believe his “save the cat” moment may be when he begins to ache over the sadness he sees in the other main character, Lainey, and feels protective of her. So it’s less a hero moment and more an empathetic human moment.

As a balance to this “save the cat” idea, note that this paradigm is more relevant in genre fiction, or more action- or adventure-oriented stories. I would argue that other types of stories, such as those seen in literary fiction, don’t always fit this paradigm. Not every story arc is a classic hero’s journey. Read this article from The article says:

“The purpose of great narrative fiction is to argue a particular point-of-view through the context of problem-solving. It is true that fiction could seek out other grand purposes—slice-of-life stories like The Kids Are All Right, or tall tales like True Grit—but for the most part, when an author sits down to write a compelling work of fiction he is usually trying to say something meaningful.

Complete stories offer an author the opportunity to make this argument in such a way that an audience must accept it (if they accept the story’s initial givens). Authors are able to pull this off because complete stories present several points-of-view on the problem at hand, points-of-view that are impossible to hold simultaneously in an audience’s day-to-day lives. This is the true power behind great stories.”

So I would qualify these writing guidelines by saying that principles like “save the cat” are good. Until they aren’t. The main question is, what is the real story we’re writing?

Plotters, Pantsers and Plantsers

At most of the writers’ conferences I’ve attended, this topic came up: Should we plan and outline our novel before we start writing, or should we write “by the seat of our pants” and let the story happen organically?

Some people refer to these two different approaches as “plotting” versus “pantsing.” There are arguments for and against both methods. I don’t know of any writer who doesn’t at least have some clue how she thinks the plot will progress before she sits down to write. But I also know if we write constrained to a detailed outline and don’t listen to what our characters are telling us, we’ll end up with flat characters and forced plot lines. There’s something exciting about a story taking on a life of its own, and that’s what makes me a pantser. I confess, once beyond my college freshman Principles of Writing class, I have never outlined a short story.

Plotters plan out their novels in detail ahead of time, sometimes mapping every scene, so they know what’s going to happen before they write it. This makes it easier to bust through writer’s block. They’re less likely to get stuck because they know what’s going to happen next. Plotters also tend to get their novels written faster, or at least more smoothly. But if they do get stuck or discover they want to change something, they often have to redo their whole outline. And characters that have to salute and behave according to a detailed outline can seem wooden and contrived. Stories, like life, should have some complicated nuances that show up organically.

Pantsers have the freedom to take their novel in any direction they want. They have flexibility. They’re not stuck following an outline, so if they don’t like a character, they can simply kill him. Or if they don’t like the way their plot is going, they can change it. However, pantsers can easily get writer’s block and end up abandoning old projects for new ones. They can also make big mistakes in story structure or get lost or distracted somewhere along the story arc. They may end up with some beautiful writing, but the plot can be iffy and the focus fractured, and therefore the story suffers.

People who use a little of both approaches can be called “plantsers.” That’s what I’m aspiring to become. A few years ago I wrote my memoir totally by the seat of my pants, and the biggest complaint from beta readers was with story structure and some scenes that were questionable as to purpose. It had some great writing, but some of it read too much like an album of quirky memories instead of a coherent story. So eventually I’ll have to go back to that book and approach it like a mad plotter. Right now it’s sitting on a back burner… simmering.

Starting with a Scene
When I started my novel, I had an idea: some images in my head, and a couple of characters and what I might do with them. I began by writing one scene—by the seat of my pants, naturally—to see what happened. This is how I intend to start any novel-length fiction writing. If I like the experimental scene, the characters and the voice, and if they open up interesting possibilities for character development and themes and metaphors about life, then I’ll lay out a very general storyboard for the plot. Since it will be a full-length book, I’ll have to pay attention to the ebb and flow of intensity and where my plot points and climax will occur, and I’ll want to prevent the story sagging in the middle. But I don’t want to feel constrained to a detailed outline; in fact, for me that would be paralyzing and probably require a couple of margaritas!

Stepping out of Our Comfort Zones
Some writing mentors have suggested that natural pantsers should try using at least a general outline and see what happens. It could turn out to be a good mixture—pantser writing with plotter planning. (Say that three times fast…) And plotters, at least to get started, should try writing using stream of consciousness in order to tap into creativity energy before all the marching orders are laid out, and let some of the details fall where they may.

Why editors love pantsers: They write with such flair and gusto, and their scenes are imbued with in-the-moment passion!

Why editors love plotters: All the moving parts of their stories line up so very beautifully! And plot holes? What plot holes?

Some references:

Malaprops and Mixed Metaphors

Today I plan to ramble on about malaprops and mixed metaphors, partly because I’m in a silly mood. Malaprops are words or phrases that sound similar to something coherent, but don’t have the meaning intended. They are mistakes to avoid in writing (unless it makes for funny dialog), but they can also be funnier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Mixed metaphors use pieces from two or more familiar clichés.

My mother, who passed away in 2009, was the queen of mixed metaphors. My all-time favorite of hers was: “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

I once used this wonderful phrase at work, and it caught on like wildfire through tumbleweed. Now it’s used regularly in meetings, and I have the satisfying assurance that someone will use it at a get-together, forgetting that it’s not quite the right cliché.

At work we also used a malaprop, which might be from Groucho Marx; at least it sure sounds like him. But it’s great when you really have nothing good to say about someone: “Of all the people I’ve ever met, you are certainly one of them.” People generally react with a slight frown and say, “Thank… you…” because they can’t quite put their finger on what wasn’t right.

One of my mother’s great malaprops was “very close veins,” which arguably describes them. But she mostly mixed metaphors, interchanging pieces and parts like Tinkertoys. Sometimes it wasn’t the zany mixture she came up with that was funny, but the leftovers. She once said, “It’s as plain as the handwriting on the wall,” which doesn’t sound too bad. But my father immediately pointed out the leftovers: “I can see the nose on your face.” And that had us rolling on the floor.

My husband came out with a weird mixed metaphor once, talking about a crazed motorist he’d encountered on the highway: “He was driving from the hip.” That was baffling enough, but I had to point out the leftovers: “He was shooting by the seat of his pants.” Now we’ve got something!

Yogi Berra was probably the king of malaprops and mixed-up metaphors, but here are a few other great ones I ran across while researching this fascinating and time-gobbling topic (most borrowed from

  • “We could stand here and talk until the cows turn blue.”
  • “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.”
  • “I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole.”
  • “He’s not the one with his ass in a noose.”
  • “From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-toothed comb.”
  • “These hemorrhoids are a real pain in the neck.”
  • “He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.”
  • “People are dying like hotcakes.”
  • “We have to get all our ducks on the same page.”
  • “She’s suffering from a deviated rectum.”

Aside from blasting our drinks out of our noses when we read these, we writers need to pay attention to our own metaphors and make sure they make sense. Clichés are bad enough in their own right, but if we mix them together our readers will wonder what on earth is going on. Even when we write something unique, we need to be accurate in our analogies. Here are some funny, not-so-successful analogies written by high school students:

  • “Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.”
  • “The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”
  • “Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.”

And now for an analogy that really works, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson in her novel Housekeeping:

“…the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

May your own sparkling metaphors come to you as easy as falling off a piece of cake.

Scene 2: More about Writing Scenes

Every scene needs a hook

Scenes and Plot
Plot is only as strong as its weakest scenes. Readers may be willing to forgive other writing sins if they can read engaging scenes with tension and emotional roller coasters. So we need to make our scenes count, every one. Every scene needs to be “HIP”: it needs a hook, some level of intensity, and a prompt to read onward.

Four Chords of a Scene
In his book Plot & Structure (which I’m borrowing from heavily in this blog), James Scott Bell includes a good chapter on scenes. In my copy of that book,  Chapter 7 is dog-eared, with many lines highlighted. He talks about the four chords of a scene. The major chords are (1) action and (2) reaction; the minor chords are (3) setup and (4) deepening. The first two tend to dominate, with the minor chords kind of dropping in here and there.

We’ll start with the minor chords. Setup scenes and beats have to occur in order for subsequent scenes to make sense. All stories need some sort of setup. But even setup scenes should contain a problem or some emotional intensity.

Deepening scenes or beats, when freshly done and dropped in strategically, add some spice to the character or setting. Examples would be a character telling a story, or a flashback taking place in a character’s mind (written as a short sub-scene). These minor chords should be used minimally.

Now for the major chords. Action is when a character does something to attain his/her main story objective. But this would be dry without conflict or some sort of barrier, which create the essence of good stories. So, with action plus some conflict or confrontation, we have the fodder for a great scene. Commercial fiction is usually dominated by action.

Reaction is how a main character feels emotionally when something (usually bad) happens. Literary fiction has a lot more reaction scenes or beats because it’s generally more about the inner life of a character. Reaction is usually done in beats rather than an entire scene.

What on earth is a beat?
Beats are small units within a scene: a line or two, or a paragraph. They are bubbles of action, thought, mood, description or setting which contribute something to character or plot during a scene. They usually take the form of slight pauses, especially during dialog, that consist of a short description of what the characters are doing or what’s happening around them as they speak or pause to think. Beats help the reader keep from losing track of what’s going on or who’s talking. They also tie the reader into the characters’ emotions and to the setting.

Beats are especially useful during dialogue. Dialogue that goes on at length can become like a helium balloon, detaching from the physical world and floating away. No one in the real world chats without at least some awareness of their surroundings or the people they’re talking with. Conversations need tie-downs to the setting. A good rule of thumb to avoid the “talking heads” phenomenon is, every fifth line or so of dialog, ground the reader with a small beat, such as how the characters are relating to their environment, or how they’re reacting with body language. In theater, this is done with blocking: what the actors do and where they stand or walk while they’re speaking. Beats during written dialog are also a way to avoid repetitious dialog-attribution tags.

Scene versus summary
This issue keeps coming up for fiction writers. Not everyone understands the difference between scene and summary, so here is another distinction. Summary (or “telling”) explains something to the reader. It offers information, ranging from long-winded histories of the town your character lives in to pat descriptions or rambling explanations of a character’s behavior or why he/she said something. Summary doesn’t engage the senses, and it rarely involves in-the-moment action. I sometimes refer to summary as moving into “documentary” mode, like the voice-over narrator of a TV documentary.

Some examples of summary material:

  • It was a gorgeous afternoon.
  • Sometimes we would spend hours at the creek, soaking our feet and talking. (This can also be called “representational” material, representing a series of similar events, or serving as an example of events over time. It does not take place in the moment.)
  • She felt rested for the first time in days.
  • She didn’t trust him because her brother had left her alone in the house that night, when the electricity went out, and she now also had a fear of the dark.
  • The reason she said that was because, back in her youth, Martha had made her life difficult.

Some examples of scene material:

They were moving quickly now, Wolgast at the wheel, Doyle beside him, thumbing away furiously on his handheld. Calling in to let Sykes know who was in charge.

“No goddamn signal.” Doyle tossed his handheld onto the dash. They were fifteen miles outside of Homer, headed due west; the open fields slid endlessly away under a sky thick with stars.

—from The Passage, an apocalyptic vampire novel by Justin Cronin

Her hands flew through the scalded feathers, plucking each one until a gray snow pile drifted at her feet and began to swirl in the breeze.

Mabel singed the skin with matches, sulfur rising from each filament, an acrid incense. She dragged on a Lucky.

“You dassn’t go saying bad things about the Doctor.” My grandmother’s cigarette bobbed at me, its orange ember blowing like a hazard light.

—from Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, a memoir by Jacki Lyden

Is it ever appropriate to use summary?
Bell says you can get away with using summary for specific reasons:

Condensing time: When you need to transition to a later time (which, by the way, marks the beginning of a new scene), you don’t need to make your characters wait — unless it’s important to plot, character or setting — while you bring the sun down, describing every color change in the sky. To condense time, you can simply write, “Night fell,” or “Six hours passed,” or “A month later.”

Changing or condensing locations: Readers don’t need to see everything your character passes when she travels from one place to another, unless those details serve some purpose. As with condensing time, you can get characters where they’re going quickly: “They ran three miles,” or “The bus took them a hundred miles past Kansas City,” or “They walked back to her apartment.” (Again, remember that a major change in location means starting a new scene.)

Summarizing information previously revealed: Let’s say an event takes place earlier in the narrative in scene form. Later, one of the characters from that scene needs to tell another character what happened. Rather than using dialog to repeat all the action and description, you can summarize: “I told him what happened before the explosion,” or “She filled him on on the argument,” or “She related everything she could remember about that night.”

Always know when to show and when to tell. But be vigilant about summary material. Ask yourself, is this going on too long? Would this be more effectively done in scene? When it’s appropriate to use summary, shorten it, tighten it, and make it sparkle.

Getting the Setting

Riding my horse this past weekend through our wooded trails, I was struck by how immersed I was in my surroundings. Not just with my tactile, visual, auditory and aromatic senses, but the feeling of being in the woods in spring. In April the tall weeds haven’t taken over yet, and wild flowers are everywhere, carpeting the clearings and lanes: buttercups, marsh marigolds, violets, Dutchman’s breeches (isn’t that a wonderful name?) and grape hyacinth. The river snakes alongside the trails, reflecting purples and yellows. And exposed are gnarled fallen logs, huddled in cloaks of moss, poking up like knees and elbows from the low greenery.

In writing about a particular setting, we know how important it can be to get the “essence” of a place. This enhances the story and can reveal a lot about how characters are feeling, without telling or summarizing. If they’re depressed, they’ll view their environment one way, and another way if they’re feeling good. Or maybe their environment changes the way they feel. In some books and especially for certain genres that require world-building, setting is so important it’s almost a “character” in the story. Even in literary fiction, this can be true; I immediately think of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Her descriptions of Idaho mountains and the lake are haunting. Like her, we can also use setting to expose themes.

This doesn’t mean we start each scene with a long description of the setting, because that’s not action, conflict or character, and it can get boring and lose the reader. But if we build the feel of the setting as we go, throwing in little glimpses and sensory details—not all the details, just the right details—as the story moves along, a complete setting takes shape like magic in the reader’s mind. If we do it right, the reader will feel immersed, transported into another world. Setting can evoke tension, suspense, depression, fear, joy, exhilaration… all those things we love to evoke in readers. We can use setting and a character’s response to it instead of saying, “John felt melancholy.”

While in the saddle, I spent time just wandering the woods, immersing myself in it, breathing it in, watching how the shadows played across the forest floor, observing the contours of fallen walnuts and limbs and the way a red squirrel launched itself fifteen feet from the ground into a tree. I thought to myself, how would I describe this? What unique similes and metaphors would work? What strong verb would absolutely nail this?

Good authors of historical fiction, for example, don’t just sit in a library or in front of a computer and do their research. They visit the locations they plan to write about. They walk the ramparts, hike the old Roman roads, spend a night or two in the Arabian Desert, ride an elephant in India. An old saying goes, “Write what you know.” To do that, we have to know and experience our world, so we can borrow from our memories and impressions. We need to sit and meditate in locations, pay attention to how they make us feel, and then use that to the fullest when we create setting.

Making a Scene

This week in my writers’ group we’ll each be sharing a scene. Scenes are the building blocks of stories. We might even continue this topic next month, since it’s so important to fiction writing. Since I was charged with researching reference material, I thought I’d share some of what I found.

What’s a Scene?
A scene is action that occurs in a certain location within linear time (in the moment) that moves the story forward, reveals characters and has an arc to it. Unless the characters are traveling during the scene, the moment we change location or setting, we’ve started a new scene. Also, if we jump in time or skip any time period, we’ve begun a new scene.

Scenes usually dramatize interaction among characters, but they almost always dramatize at least one character in the moment, even if the events are part of a flashback. Scenes tend to include narrative, description and dialogue.

Summary should be minimal. Some say summary, explanation or background material should never be more than 20% of a scene, but unless it’s done so well it sparkles and doesn’t slow things down, less is always better. When writing coaches urge us to “show” rather than “tell,” they mean to write in scene rather than summarizing action or events. If we write good scenes, we won’t have to summarize; readers will draw their own conclusions. And when we write in scene, we pull readers into the narrative, exposing them to the experiences the characters are going through.

Scenes can evoke emotion and reaction, suspense and excitement. They can make us connect with characters. Summarizing can’t. Leave summarizing and explanatory writing mostly to nonfiction writers — in fiction and memoir we’re going for scene.

What Scenes are NOT

  • Scenes are not an opportunity to take your character on a long, leisurely detour into situations or with characters that have nothing to do with the protagonist’s dramatic action goals (that’s a character profile or vignette)
  • Scenes are not passages that explain something or lecture to your reader (that’s a pace killer)
  • Scenes are not long histories of people and places (that’s dull backstory and summary)

What Makes a Good Scene?
It should have real-time momentum. Scenes crackle with energy and rhythms that make readers feel as though they are right beside (or inside) the character as he experiences situations and scenarios. Consider it a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding or an experience. The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose, deepens character, drives the story forward and ends in such a way that he or she just has to know what happens next. Like any good writing, scenes should be heavy on strong verbs and light on adjectives and adverbs.

A Stylized, Sharper Simulacrum…
Sometimes we succumb to the temptation to “go deep” and end up describing the living daylights out of a character, her feelings, or the setting. Instead, think of a scene as a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality. By stylized we mean that nothing in our scene appears by accident; we have crafted every moment, every interaction, and every image. To the reader something may seem benign, but we know nothing is.

By sharper simulacrum we mean the scene offers a heightened, more fulfilling version of real life, with all the boring bits excised. In our bid to create a realistic experience, we don’t list every single action or detail in our scenes, such as the mundane, dull, insignificant moments and boring pleasantries of real life. We include only those that lend themselves to character and plot development and are rich with tension and suspense, those that contribute to the feeling of not knowing if things will play out in the character’s favor or if antagonists will prevail.

Point of View
We should never change point of view during a scene. Stay in one character’s head and see the world through those eyeballs only. If we want to change point of view, we need to start a new scene, or — even better — a new chapter or section.

Each scene creates consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene. This way, scene by scene, we tell a compelling story that has the dramatic power and emotional impact of a great piece of music. Like a piece of music, the rhythm and pace of the prose is important. We need to pay attention to the intensity and dynamics of a scene and where it’s placed in the story. Is this a key scene where tension grows to a fever pitch, or is this a spot for a little break in the intensity? Think of how music expands and ebbs; the softer parts have a purpose, often to create contrast and catch a breath in preparation for the crescendos to come.

There’s much more to the story (so to speak), so more on scenes later…

The Dreaded Data Dump

Only bears, rats and seagulls like dumps…

Supporting the overarching principle of not accidentally pulling readers out of our story, today’s blog is about data dumps. This was another lesson from summer workshop, but also a principle I learned while writing my memoir. Sometimes in fiction and memoir it’s hard to figure out how to give readers background story or provide context as to what’s going on without pulling them out of an active scene. If we spend too long in explanation, which interrupts action, it’s called a data dump, or information overload.

Once in a while we might need a little background to illuminate why a character is behaving the way she is. Or maybe we’re writing science fiction and using otherworldly terms which require orienting the reader or cluing him in. One device is to use an active flashback scene, but many times background story or explanation isn’t enough to merit a separate scene. And we can’t cheat and do it clumsily in dialog, either, because characters would never sit around telling each other what they already know.

It’s so easy for our eyes to slide past information-packed paragraphs written in a neutral, journalistic tone. After a point, we start wondering when we’ll get back to the main story, back to the conflicts and problems and emotions. So how do we approach explanatory narrative?

Explanatory material should:

  • Be super-lean, as short as possible
  • Not feel intrusive
  • Weave into the narrative rather than interrupt it
  • Create an emotional or visceral response if possible
  • Occur during a natural pause or down-time in the narrative, not during high action or fast-moving dialog
  • Never sound contrived
  • Be written in the voice of the story’s narrator

Like active scenes, information should be told in a narrative voice, from your narrator’s point of view. Don’t switch to “documentary mode” in fiction, especially when you’re in-scene, or even between scenes. And one of the easiest ways to lose a reader is to interrupt active dialog with explanation. A common mistake is to have a character refer to something new in dialog and then spend a paragraph or two informing the reader about the background or why he said it. No! That is classic author intrusion. Characters don’t have time to think about that stuff while talking to each other.

An exception is purposefully using a device like separate chapters or scenes that temporarily distance the reader from the story line, such as snippets from newspaper articles or letters. It’s usually done in a different voice during the entire section, and it has to be done effectively. I’ve read good historical fiction with sections that use a wider-angle “camera” that pulls back from the individual characters for a time and gives an overview of what’s happening historically. It can’t last too long, and ultimately it has to circle back around and apply directly to the characters the reader cares about.

The bottom line is, data dumps interrupt the story, and anything that interrupts risks losing the reader. Readers identify with characters, not with information. The best way to give information is to weave it artfully into the narrative so the reader doesn’t notice it.

Point of View

The second big topic we covered during writers’ workshop was point of view, a favorite agenda of David Coe’s. Everyone who has ever taken a writing course is probably aware of the basics of point of view: Your narrator can either speak in first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, or the always-irritating second person.

These days first person and third person limited are the points of view of choice for fiction. Third person omniscient (the narrator can be inside any character’s head at any given time) has gone out of style. Readers want to know which character to identify with, and an omniscient point of view makes them feel more distant and less connected. Writers can shift points of view in novels, but not mid-scene. We can only change after strong scene breaks or chapter breaks, and right out of the gate we have to make the point of view change clear to the reader.

In July’s workshop, though, we explored deeper into point of view, recognizing that we have to be careful only to include what our narrator/character could observe or know. Sometimes we think of storytelling the way it’s done in TV shows or movies, where multiple cameras record multiple points of view. Viewers don’t just observe the scene from the shoulder of the protagonist. Movies and TV are more omniscient in their storytelling than fiction, at least in observation. As a result of that influence, fiction writers can stumble into point of view violations without even realizing it.

For example, in a movie the camera can pull a tight close-up on the protagonist, sweating pores, messy hair and all. We get an immediate visual, by direct observation. But in fiction a first person or a third person limited character/narrator cannot describe himself using the same tools and methods we use to describe others. The writer can’t say, “I looked weary” or “his face went white” because the character can’t see his own face or countenance. (By the way, mirrors are a bad device to do that with.) The point of view character also cannot know what other characters are feeling or thinking. She can only assume, in the same way in real life we try to interpret others’ feelings by observing their mannerisms or facial expressions.

But there are other, more subtle, point of view violations. One of mine was my protagonist Paul observing specifically what his girlfriend was looking at during dinner. Because Paul was sitting right next to her, shoulder to shoulder, he probably couldn’t see exactly where her eyes were resting, he could only maybe judge the general angle of her gaze and hazard a guess. Another issue was he wouldn’t be able to see what his own rear tires were kicking up while driving, only what was spraying up from the cars in front of him. So we writers need to inhabit the character whose point of view reigns in the scene. What could the character actually know? What would he see and experience?

Readers can sense when you’ve hit a point of view violation (“Wait… how could this character know that?”), and it brings them out of the story. We never want to do that. We want them so engaged in the story that they don’t want to put the book down!

Strengthening Dialog

I know, I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. But I’ve been writing! I finished my novel in March, then went through several heavy edits.

This past month I attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop again, and I took my fifth chapter to review. We learned many great things at the workshop, but today I’ll cover only one of them, revealed to us by our facilitator, David Coe, a published author. It’s about strengthening dialog by paying attention to dialog tags, the phrases attributing spoken words to specific characters.

Said Bookisms
This sounds like a strange term, but it refers to using something more pretentious than “he said” or “she asked” in dialog tags. For example: “she hollered.” Although hollered seems like a strong verb, editors consider this telling rather than showing. It’s a shortcut that bypasses action and description to convey how someone said something or who said it. Editors also consider said bookisms to be melodramatic. They’re a common amateur’s mistake and can yank a reader out of the story. So we writers have to avoid the temptation to use tags like exclaimed, murmured, shouted, whimpered, asserted, inquired, demanded, queried, thundered, whispered and muttered. These words make it sound as if we have fallen in love with our thesaurus. Using “said” is much less disruptive to the narrative.

He Said, She Said
And now, in a bit of conflict with the lesson from the last paragraph, another mistake with dialog tags is using “he said” and “she said” too often or too close together. It can get choppy and repetitive. This was the main problem with my chapter reviewed this summer. Don’t hyperventilate, this principle doesn’t mean we have to avoid using “she said” as well, but monotony is always bad. There are other ways to attribute dialog that vary the rhythm and cadence of the writing. Whenever a character speaks, we have the opportunity to attribute the dialog to him/her by adding a little gesture or action within the same paragraph. Here’s a simple example of a repetitious dialog tag improved in this way (for context, the female character was trying to apply lipstick in the car):

Dialog snippet:

“I didn’t know the roads were so bad,” he said.
“They’re always bad!” she said, annoyed. “Now I have to start over.”

Changed to:

“I didn’t know the roads were so bad,” he said.
“They’re always bad!” She snapped her purse shut. “Now I have to start over.”

Now there’s action instead of yet another “she said.” Also, “annoyed” was telling instead of showing. With the change, there’s the implication that she’s annoyed, just by what she says and describing the way she closed her purse.

Dialog attribution becomes more important if there are three or more characters involved. But if only two people are talking, we certainly don’t need to keep writing “he said,” “she said.” The speaker should be clear from the natural exchange of comments and from new paragraphs.

This was a super-valuable exercise in strengthening dialog. Thanks to David and all our workshop members!