Tag Archives: tips for writers

Forcing Your Hero to Act

Forcing your hero to act might sometimes be tough. He may be like one of those inflatable tube men that flop around in the wind – just unable to make a stand. How do you get him to knuckle down, grow a backbone and do something for god’s sake.

First off, don’t despair. We can give that tube man some guts and a skeleton, and force him to be a real man.

Here’s how:

A Relentless Opponent

Make sure your villain is a take-charge type, with plenty of intestinal fortitude – the type that never gives up, is a manipulating bastard, and will hound the hero till he has no choice but to force the issue and take a stand. What can the villain do to do this? Plenty. Threatening the life of someone the hero loves should work unless the hero is completely lily-livered (and in that case, he should not be the her), or the bad guy could spread false rumors, tell lies or poison the hero’s pet puppy.

Bar the Doors – No One is Getting Out

Imprison your protagonist and antagonist in a room – okay, it doesn’t have to be a prison. Use your imagination and figure out how you can get them together. Maybe they’re stuck on a ship, or stranded in an elevator that’s stopped between floors or seatmates on a plane. Whatever. Only, you know as the writer, you’re not letting them leave until there is a confrontation, and your hero is forced to act in some way.

Use a Stop Watch

Literally. Forcing your hero into a time crunch will compel him to act. Just like we are forced to write to a deadline or that horrible lady sends unpleasant emails, coercing your hero or heroine into a deadline will push them to confront their fears and act. Perhaps the iceberg on which they are standing is melting and she has to tell him she loves him before they perish, or he is leaving on a jet-plane, don’t know when he’ll be back again (I know I’m dating myself with this song) and so the time for decision is on her.

 

Using Anger in Your Story

Using anger in your story can do a lot of terrific things for your character … and you know that at some point in your novel, your protagonist is going to get angry.

And that’s good.

Here’s why:

Anger can show a side to your character that no one ever knew he had. It can be righteous anger, or petty anger, or even violence. Maybe he even destroys something precious – great for conflict!

You can use the outburst to set your character off in a new direction. Maybe the eruption is so bad, it makes him regret his behavior and he transforms. Or he can dive down into abusing drugs. Anger can make a person unpredictable.

Anger can also be used as a manipulation tool – a sort of emotional blackmail. Some of us cannot bear ‘the cold shoulder’ and will do anything to avoid it, even confess or apologize for something we’ve never done it. Think of how you can use a situation like that.

But anger is a strong emotion that needs to be portrayed correctly. It is always a reaction to something else, to some problem that has arisen. No one gets angry for no reason

1. What is the motivation behind your character’s anger?

Consider whether she is confused, frustrated, hurt, jealous, embarrassed, powerless, rejected, worried – what else can you think of? All these emotions are motivations for anger and should be integrated in the story.

2. Body language is another great way to show how angry your character is.

Think of how people react when they are super angry. Some rant and rave, and get hysterical. Others close down completely – perhaps all you notice are flared nostrils or a thin line of lip. Make a mental (or physical) note when you see someone get rip-roaring mad, then use those observations next time your character is super angry.

3. Passive or aggressive anger?

We all behave in different ways. Some of us lash out when we get angry. We have to spill – yell and scream and get it all out of our systems. Others are like volcanoes. They let the magma build and build, until it bursts. Then get out of their way. If your character is the latter type, show him turning the other cheek, and withdrawing when he’s angry with someone until she explodes and wow! what a fantastic scene it will be.

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Diagnosing a Problem Story

Diagnosing a problem story can be … well, a problem.

How to Know if you have a Problem Story

If someone asks you this mucho important question, and you are unable to answer it without a lot of “ums,” “ahs,” and a bucketload of background information – then, you have a problem story. It’s time to take a timeout, and figure out what the story is all about. You need to tease the threads apart and decide:

1. Who is your main character? It should always be the most interesting character in the novel; the one with the major problem; and the one who has the most to lose

2. Does your protagonist have a major problem? If she doesn’t, your story will go nowhere. That, my little chickadees, is what your novel is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about the heroine facing a major obstacle, jumping over a buttload of hurdles, and racing to the finish line ahead of the opposition that is doing everything to block her from getting to the end, achieving her goals, and getting to live happily ever after.

3. What is the plot? A plot is the individual events that takes the hero from his inciting incident (which kickstarts the hero’s journey) to the climax (where he achieves his objective and gets what he deserves) and finally to the denouement or satisfactory ending.

4. Conflict is at the center of every good novel. Without it to drive the plot, your story will meander, your characters will be flat, and your story lacklustre. That’s why an inciting incident is so important at the start of your novel. It provides the hero with conflict immediately, and spurs him on, keeps him focused, and motivates him to continue to the end so he can win his prize.

5. If your story has so many sub-plots, twists and turns, that you cannot identify the main thread, then once again, you have a problem.  All sub-plots need to link to the main in some way. If they don’t, ditch them.

Solution

The best way to fix your problem is to let your ego take a hike. Join a critiquing group, or a writing class with an instructor or coach you trust, and be prepared to write, write, and write some more.

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Why do you Write?

Credit: katemcolby.com

Why do you write? I’ts a question I’ve posed to myself, and one I plan on asking my gang of writers (those of you reading this – get your answers ready).

Way back in 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay on this very subject – called appropriately enough Why I Write. In it, he stated the following four reasons:

Sheer Egoism

The desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

Aesthetic Enthusiasm

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

Historical Impulse

The desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Political Purpose

Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

George Orwell’s words still ring true to me. Do you agree?

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Tempt Failure

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If you want to succeed, tempt failure. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. What it really means is that chucking it all, and trying something different may end up being your key ingredient to success.

How to Tempt Failure

Tempt failure by doing what you are terrified of doing. Take a risk. It may not pay off … but it just might.

It reminds me so much of all the people who stay in safe jobs, and absolutely hate what they do. I started my adult life as a secretary – not because that’s what I wanted to do. I actually wanted to go to University, but since there wasn’t enough money for that, my parents signed me up for secretarial school. I loved the people – I hated the job. But when we immigrated to Canada it got me a job that helped pay the bills. During those office years, I met so many people who complained endlessly about how they hated their jobs, but never took any steps to do something about it.

I did. I chucked it all up one day thanks to a very good school friend of mine who made me cry. She told me  – “what are you doing in such a dead-end job? You had so much potential. Go and find yourself.” When I got back home to Montreal, I marched in to my boss’ office and quit. I said I was going back to school to get a degree in journalism. The problem was I hadn’t actually applied! Thank god, I got in!

Years later, I decided to start my new life as a creative writing coach. I was terrified. What would happen if no one signed up? I’m in my fourth year now, and I can truthfully say I have a great gang of writers, and love what I do.

Tempt failure? You betcha.

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Point of View

Credit: theodysseyonline.com

The correct point of view (pov) can make or break your novel. The reader wants to be drawn in and feel like they’re part of the story, and this happens through point of view.

New writers often believe that the omniscient point of view is the one they should write in. That way, the reader can know everything that is happening in the story. Makes sense, doesn’t it? At first glance, it does. Omniscient point of view does have its place, and works very well for certain types of story, but it takes a seasoned writer to do a masterful job of this pov.

Party Stories

When you’re at a party, or meeting a friend, and you tell a story – think about what you do and say. Chances are you’re going to be using first person (I) and, if you’re like me, gesturing a lot and getting extremely animated. Using first person, allows you to bring in this personal aspect into the storytelling. It does force you to tell the story only from that person’s viewpoint, but there are ways around that too.

Chances also are that the person who’s telling the story is also the most important person in the story – otherwise, why is he telling the story? He’s the only one who knows the story intimately and that’s the beauty of this pov – that intimacy will shine through. We are in that person’s world, feeling what he feels, doing what he does, and being crushed when he is. It’s probably the easiest pov to write as well, since we can immerse ourselves into the character’s emotions and thoughts.

Third person point of view works too. Although it does not have the immediacy of first person, it is the pov that works for most novels. It also allows you to use other characters’ voices in the story. Definitely not as limiting as first person, but it’s a good idea to limit your pov’s to two or three people or you’ll end up getting as confused as your reader will be.

What pov do you like to write in?

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Breaking Down a Scene

Your story is made up of multiple scenes. It’s what moves your plot along and takes your character to his/her goal.

Every scene can be broken down into five parts:

1) Point of View Character

If you are writing from a first-person POV – then you have no problem figuring out who your POV character for the scene is. If not, think of which person has the most at stake, emotionally – and bingo, that’s the person whose POV you should write the scene in.

2) Goal

What is the goal that the POV character is pursuing in this scene? It can’t be something vague like ‘oh, he’s going to rescue the girl’. He needs to be more concrete like ‘he’s going to choke her whereabouts out of the villain, after which he will pound them to a pulp’, then go rescue the damsel in distress.

Your goal must be clear, possible and important to the character

3) Conflict

Every scene must have conflict. That doesn’t mean there has to be a fight between characters. All it means is that the other person must have specific goals as well, and they should be at odds with the pov character. We don’t need to know what the other person’s goals are at that time. They just need to be pursuing another agenda.

One of the characters in the scene will achieve his/her objective or goal, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist’s.

4) Setback/Disaster

As I said above, one of the conflict characters will achieve their goal (hopefully not the protoganist because then your story is limited). The protagonist can have some questions answered, some small goal achieved, but always foiled in some way until the end.

5) Scene End

End your scene on a bit of a cliff hanger. Hopefully, not only has your heroine not achieved her goal, but has made her life worse – and your story more interesting.

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Scene Sequels

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Scene sequels are what happens after a particular scene ends.  If you’ve done your scene right and ended on a cliff-hanger, then you need sort of take a breather and forge some kind of emotional connection. In other words, make your reader care about what’s happening to your character right after you leave him hanging on the ledge.

A scene sequel does three things:

1) Gives your POV character a chance to react emotionally to whatever has happened

2) Gives him/her the opportunity to figure out how to proceed as he/she is (if you’ve done your scene correctly) in a bit of a bind – which is good. It makes your reader worry whether he/she will make the right choice

3) Sets up the next scene by making a decision one way or another

In order to write a scene sequel correctly, you have to also make sure it unfolds in the right order, because that’s the way a normal person reacts. We think emotionally, then stop to reason, consider all our options, and then carry out whatever we decide. Your character is human too (well, if he’s not, then you may be able to change this sequence of events).

1) Your character must react emotionally i.e. cry, beat his breast, chop someone’s head off!

2) Stop and review the facts – this doesn’t mean logically like Spock. It just means he tries to figure out what’s going on

3) Figure out different scenarios as in – ‘what if I did this’ or ‘what if I did that’

4) Make a decision

Think about your character discussing some terrible ordeal she’s just been through with a best friend, or perhaps praying out loud in church – going through the steps of what happened, and then coming to some kind of decision as to how to proceed. That, my friend, is a scene sequel.

Each of these steps don’t need to have the same weight each time. Maybe some times, the character is heavy on emotion, other times it’s trying to anticipate what sort of action she has to take. The only thing to remember is that these steps need to be covered.

Time Traps and the Productive Writer

Time trap

Time traps is one of the biggest problems a writer today faces. I know this from experience. Once upon a time I called it procrastination, and as a journalist and then a freelancer I knew it well. I’d spend tons of time doing the laundry, twiddling my thumbs, walking the dog – anything to prevent me from starting my piece. Because I knew that I worked better under pressure, that my thoughts unfurled when my deadline approached.

As a novelist, however, I only have a self-imposed deadline. Now, unfortunately, procrastination has turned into time traps – time traps such as trolling Facebook, getting side-tracked on my daily dose of Trump nonsense, falling down the sinkhole of Google, and playing Words with Friends.

How to Sidestep Time Traps

Yes, it is possible. Going cold turkey and saying you won’t ever go on Facebook is the same as saying you’ll never touch another carb again. It’s just not sustainable. Instead, set aside a half hour to catch up on Facebook. Let’s face it – you don’t really have to ‘like’ and comment on every post you read, and if you’re like me – you don’t actually post a whole lot.

CNN and Trumpian Nonsense

Give yourself fifteen minutes to catch up on Trump’s latest nonsense. He’s not worth much more.

Google

Here, you need some self-restraint. It’s hard not to get distracted from the valid research you are doing. I find the best way to stop myself from going crazy on  links within links is to just not click on anything. Stay focused on the article you are reading and exercise control. You can do it.

Words with Friends

No words of advice here. As those of you I play with know, I have absolutely no self-control whatsoever. The physical game of Scrabble was a family favorite growing up, and Words with Friends is my comfort game. So – time trap or not – I don’t care.

What are your time traps, and how do you deal with them?

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Dreams, Despair and Depression

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I call them the three D’s of a writer’s life – dreams, despair, and depression. First, you have a wonderful dream of writing a novel. Not just any novel – a bestseller. It will be top of the New York Times Bestselling list, will become a hit movie, and of course you will be the next J. K. Rowling aka the richest person in the world.

Hah. Reality sinks in when you start writing your magnificent opus. First draft, then tenth draft and one day you realize you are in total despair. Your characters hate you, and the feeling is reciprocal. You’ve gone through your manuscript so many times that you can’t see what the story is about any more.

That’s when depression sets in. You will never sell the stupid thing, no one will ever want to read it, and you are a total bust.

How to Help Yourself

Here are a couple of ways to help you hang on to your dream, to kick despair out of your life and to tell depression to take a hike – a really long one, far away from you.

Worm your way into a critiquing group. A good critiquing partner is worth his/her weight in not just gold – make that diamonds. He/she will quite often have far better insight into your own work than you do. It’s a weird phenomenon, but true.

The second way is to join a creative writing class or hire a creative writing coach. My gang of writers at Beyond-the-Lamppost have become sharks … and I love it. They’ve learned to glean not only the essential parts of each writer’s characters, plot and conflict, but they also offer suggestions on how to improve the work, cut out extraneous bits, and craft the work into something that stands out in quality and originality.

How do you deal with dreams, despair and depression when writing?

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