The Devil is in the Details: more is better

People start new stories a myriad of different ways. Sometimes it’s a flash of a scene they see in their mind’s eye or the lyrics to a song that sparks some dialogue. A specific smell might trigger it or the way someone is dressed.

I don’t know if it’s true of everyone but I like to believe that writers have a stronger connection to certain parts of a story than others so when inspiration strikes, that strength comes to the foreground.

For instance, you could be thumbing through a magazine and see a beautiful cursive type font and suddenly you see a young woman from Jane Austen’s world penning a letter over a scarred and ink-stained desk, a tendril of copper hair escaping her severe bun. Or you can hear the distant refrain from some classical Russian Ballet soundtrack and then you’re meandering down cobblestone streets, carrying a basket of fruit and bread down an alleyway to take home for dinner and you look up to admire the cloudless day in between the white washed buildings.

One is character driven inspiration and one is world driven.

When I write, I tend to be more character driven. I love the process of picking out names and giving the blank slate mannequins different personalities. I used to be really bad at creating believable characters. I would pour into them sugar, spice and everything nice on top of all my personal hopes and dreams. Guitar playing? Yep, since childhood. Knows several languages? Bein sûr! Can run 5k marathons and hike Mount Everest–without oxygen? Cake walk! And that’s just the main character.

Yeah I know >< We all start somewhere. (Keep that in mind when you’re writing!)

I’ve since learned to spread those qualities out among the entire cast. I’ve also learned that they really do need annoying habits and quirks to make them believable. I created a character that pretty much hates everything except music and death. He’s my first anti-hero and probably the most extreme character I’ve ever created. I’ve also made a character that sacrifices so much of herself for other people that she never figured out what she wanted out of life and has to journey to figure it out. Another extreme.

It was some big personal growth for me realizing how one-note my cast was and fixing it, adding to it and balancing them appropriately. I was pretty proud! I could re-read my drafts now and nod approvingly. Yes, these could be real people walking down the street. Yay me! Gold star on my forehead!

I still have more growth that needs to happen though, naturally. I realized this as I was trying to go back to writing one of my NaNoWriMo stories, “Hourglass”. In a nut shell, I abhor details.

Lemme explain.

I had my three main characters set up in this story. They had names and personalities that played off each other. They had importance in the story and provided plenty of conflict. All seemed well until I came to a flash back. Ahh crap. This means I need to provide BACKGROUND. And here, my friends, is where my downfall is while creating my characters.

Background. History. Family. Childhood.

Now these things don’t seem like they’re important in most stories. Unless you’re writing a biography or writing a lot about the character’s history, you’ll only ever really write about key events from their past to explain their current behaviors. Minimal effort put into the background may seem sufficient. Plus, this is a lot of extra work, writing down background stuff that may never end up in the story at all.

BUT MAYBE IT WILL.

I had an instance where my character basically had to go back and visit her husband in the past. She had to get answers from him that would determine her future actions. It is a rather pivotal scene that I’ve been stuck on for a long while because I never gave her enough history to augment this dialogue.

Creating history for your cast or characters can only benefit you in the long run. And the beauty of it is that you can make it as detailed or as simple as you like. If you don’t know how to start, there are tons of questionnaires out there on the internet. You can google it and come up with hundreds of results. There’s no shame in using them! There’s also no shame in changing details when you need to. Great aunt Mildred can become Great Aunt Tessie. Daddy could have died of leukemia instead of sickle-cell anemia. Favorite childhood snack could be popcorn instead of brownies.

The point of it is, to have the information on hand when it’s needed. Or even when it’s not needed. Often writers will have secrets about their characters that no one else is supposed to know, not even the readers, but sometimes they slip in anyway. Go for it! Details like that make them seem more alive and personable.

Plus, creating a character background allows you to be on-on-one with your cast. You can really get to know them, ask them questions and get answers. You’ll be able to know exactly how he/she will react in any given situation because you know them so well. They won’t act out of character when a bomb blows up their car or they’re passionately kissed by a stranger because you, as a writer, took the time to familiarize yourself with their personalities.

Yes. This is more work on top of everything else a writer is “supposed” to do but think of it as building a foundation. These details will build your stories brick by brick until you’ve created a mansion for readers to frolick through and enjoy.

Put in the work, reap the rewards!

To Infinity…and Beyond!

Here’s an exercise for ya if you have writer’s block. Or if you’re just bored with your writing. Flip to a random page in your current WIP manuscript, take a chunk out of it, and turn it into a short story. You’ll have to add in a bit more back story to it flesh out for readers and possibly even change the ending for it to make sense as a completed story. When you do finish though, re-read it as a solitary story. Forget that you know what comes before and after the segment.

Waiiiiit for itttttt…………………..

Whoooaaaaaa! Coooool right??!

I did this recently as entry #3 for The Mother Project. Part of it was out of panic since I didn’t have anything prepped to post that day but also I’d been re-reading a lot of my WIP notes and I thought that the particular segment I chose really highlighted my main character while being an entertaining read. I got a double lesson out of this little experiment.

“Silver sun” (my longest on-going WIP at 15 years) had started out as one book until I realized I was writing a manuscript that would eventually grow to have “War and Peace”/ dictionary thickness if I didn’t break it up into a few books. This caused a bit of confusion at first since my beginnings and endings for each book were now all wonky and I had to add in more meat into the story to give it some curves. (Can’t go wrong with curves, eh?) This also made it hard to remember characters and personalities and presence within the new arrangements. So I created a whole other file folder on my computer that’s labeled “Silver sun bits and pieces” and I used a kind of flash fiction method of writing to put the characters in a situation that may not be in my story.

Not only is this wish-fulfillment and extremely satisfying but it helps to cultivate a better relationship with your character. You may uncover things about them you didn’t know before or that absolutely make sense now that you’ve seen them in a different light. Put them in a car crash scenario with their best friend. Do they try to protect their friend or themselves from the crash? Do they faint at the sight of blood? Do the calmly remove the shrapnel from their skin and pull their friend out of the burning car? Make your main character gay for a minute. Are they the butch kind of gay? Are they  a Flamboyant, no-holds-bar kind of gay? Quiet and introverted and unassuming gay? Ot for an even funner brain teaser, take two characters from two different stories and ‘ship them together.

Yeaahhh buddy! You know you want to. Go on. You’re allowed. Just make sure to return to your original purpose!

Have fun! It’s a really great exercise to stretch your creative muscles. It allows you have freedom within your current WIP without distracting you from it. Unless the flash fiction gives you plot bunnies. In which case, I’m sorry/not sorry. (In my experience, plot bunnies become potential stories for the future and who am I to turn my nose up at inspiration when it strikes randomly??) Using this method also allows you to practice writing your characters in any kind of scenario flawlessly without changing them to suit their surroundings. It forces YOU to write the scenario around THEM. . It sounds easy but trust me, it’s harder than you think when you’re first starting out.

I have a character, Ciel, who is an anti-hero and is absolutely despicable and selfish. He ends up going into a kind of psychic seizure and the main character has to delve inside his mind to bring him out of it. When I first wrote the scene, Ciel was grateful and gentle with the MC after coming out of his fit. It wasn’t right for his personality at all though and I realized that after reading through the scene again. I was forcing him to have an intimate moment with the MC to “show a different side of Ciel”. Ha. (He didn’t thank for that one. He haunted me until I did it right. Bastard.) I’ve gotten more used to having his personality in my writing now though because I’ve gotten to know Ciel’s nuances better thanks to the flash fiction scenes I’ve written about him. It became easier to incorporate his personality into any situation seamlessly. It’s really important to stay true to your character when you write and pay attention to their transitions. You don’t want them to soften or harden before their time. Then you get weird cookies.

Bonus, for doing all this extra fun writing exercises, it can double as a sample you can show beta readers or editors or potential bosses to get their opinion about your writing style and voice. You can literally portfolio these things and whip them out whenever you have need of them. They’re 8 and a half by 11 business cards! So write a plethora of them and file them away! You never know if when they’ll come in handy. And hey, if you write enough of them, you can even turn them into a book of short stories 😉

So I suppose if there were any direction this blog entry was supposed to go in, I guess it would be to scratch beyond the surface of your stories. Really get to know them. Dive into your characters and let them tell you more than you ever wanted to know. Inevitably, these little things you’ve discovered about them will slip into your writing and your readers will thank you for making them more realistic. Create scenes for your stories that will never be published and carry that secret around with you, like the “deleted scenes” option from movies. Go BEYOND. Swim in the words you create, wallow in your writer’s block and sprint after your characters as they take you on a wild ride you never saw coming.

BE the story. WRITE the story. And good luck.

“So I says to Mabel, I says–“

Haayyyloooooo futures followers and present followers! How’s it going? Are you well? Getting over those nasty winter colds? I sure hope so. I have an annoying residual cough that deprives me of any dairy based foods or liquids. One TINY bite or sip and I’m hacking for the whole day. Yeahhh it’s kinda gross. But don’t worry! I’m not contagious! I did cry watching that movie “La La Land” though and got soooo plugged up… What?! You haven’t heard about it! Oh my GAWD go see it!… Go NOW!… YESSS go NOW you need to watch it! (Seriously. It really is worth watching at least once…)

…Do you have any hints yet about what this blog will be about yet? Well, let me tell you right now that it’s not about me having a cold xD Or going to watch an awesome movie. Today I want to talk about how writers are a little bit schizophrenic.

HA!

No, really. Schizo-esque!

Okay, not CLINICALLY. I’m not being medically correct and I absolutely mean no disrespect. (I’m just not sure what else to call it.) But writers DO have voices in their heads and sleepless nights often enough. Plus, if you’re any writer worth your salt, you often speak aloud to your characters and write down their responses (or vice versa).

Ah-ha! Now you get it don’t you? Today I’m talking about conversations. DIALOGUE.

Every critic and writer will have their own opinions about what drives a story. Some will say plot. Others say it’s characters. Let me ask you something. When you turn the page of a fiction novel and you see a whole page of nothing but blocky descriptive paragraphs, do your eyes not move automatically to those quotation marks and steal a peek at what’s to be said? You DO! ADMIT IT! Because your eyes yearn for action, something your brain can “hear”. Conversation moves the story forward as much or more than plot or characters in my opinion.

Rebel, rebel. Heh.

Phase One of Schizo- esque writer brain: Dialogue says so much  in a story. Pun intended. When the character speaks you can determine whether the person speaking is a man, a woman, a boy, or a girl. You can tell perhaps that they have an accent. (An excellent example of this is in a book by Sir Terry Pratchett called “The Wee Free Men”, my current reading project). You can tell what kind of upbringing they’ve had by the words or slang they use, if they cuss a lot, or if they use words you have to look up in the dictionary. You can tell the mood of a character with their choice of verbs or punctuation. All these things can be determined in one line of words in between a set of quotation marks. IF the writer isn’t rubbish at dialogue.

Well, all writers are rubbish at dialogue at first. We’re pretty bad at just about everything when it comes to writing novels. But it can all be remedied with practice! (And a helluva good editor).

How do you practice dialogue Jess?

Come now! Can you think of no ways? Do you talk on the phone? Do you type text messages? Do you have conversations with strangers on the bus? Do you talk to your boss every week? Do you sit in a coffee shop and listen to the droning conversations around you while waiting for your caramel frapp with whip? Yes to all. Except maybe the last one. Am I the only one that does that? Eh. whatever. If you don’t do it you SHOULD. Your characters are no different from those people sitting at the coffee shop. They are, essentially, real people. They are in your head and you’re writing their stories down on paper. You want them to sound real and you want the readers to believe they’re real. You do that by injecting them with realism.

Phase two schizo-esque writer brain: Dialogue should be the easiest thing in the WORLD for writers to write because we use it every day in our own lives! We just have to learn to be quiet and listen. Really. When you’re a writer, eavesdropping is absolutely okay (as long as no one catches you at it!) It’s the only way you’ll be able to develop a rich repertoire of voices and accents and words. So you’ve got a character that is business savvy and shrewd but you yourself, are not. What do you do? Find out where the business-y types eat lunch and go order a salad. Bring a pad of paper and a pen. Listen and write.

Got a character who is foreign, fresh off the boat and scared out of their minds to be in America? Where would they go to be comfortable? Be a detective! China town, Korea town, Little Mexico, British Tea shop, Bob’s Famous BBQ…bring your pen and paper. (Eat some Kimchi while you’re at it. It’s… an experience.) Or, better yet, HAVE AN ACTUAL CONVERSATION WITH THESE PEOPLE.

GASP! Noooo Jess! Writer and Hermit are synonymous terms!

Yes. Yes I know. Be brave. You need this to succeed. (Besides, you never know who you might bump into. Could be an awesome literary agent or a famous author in disguise, an A-lister of the writing world!)

Here’s a piece of advice for you hermits: I don’t really recommend watching movies as a reliable source for dialogue (with a few exceptions). A lot of it is cliché and you, as a new budding writer, want to have a fresh and believable spin for your characters. Break the meta! I mean, you CAN I guess. But if I hear even ONE “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” in your writing, I’ll give you twenty lashes with a wet noodle. Vingt coup avec la nouille mouille! Unless it’s relevant and makes sense to the story.

Okay, so you’ve done some research for your character. You have a description, a background, a personality and now they have a voice. Good job! I’ll even forgive you for ignoring my advice and watching everything Hulu had in their movie section relevant to your novel. Now it’s time to put it together and put it on paper. Obviously you need to ignore the first draft. Just pound it out and get to the editing phase. The best way for you to edit dialogue is to read it.

Well duh! Of COURSE read it.

Read it OUT LOUD I mean. This is phase three of the Schizo- esque writer brain that is essential to our success.

Often times your brain will catch mistakes when spoken out loud than by simply reading the words. It’s why English teachers stress reading out-loud to be a better reader. Your ears can tell when something sounds off because they’re so used to hearing normal conversation every day. Pretty darn cool. Hooray for brains!

The BEST way to determine if your dialogue is genuine however, is to conscript a brave soul to have a read through the pages with you. Yes, I know. You’re cringing. So I am. But I promise it’s the best way. You WANT to do this! You want to be a good writer! If you read aloud with someone, you’ll be able to tell what’s wrong or right about the sentence and make adjustments as needed. You will hear if the dialogue sounds smooth and whether the transitions between characters speaking sound natural. You can also get rid of dead filler and excessive adverbs. We don’t want to turn this into an episode of the Waltons going to bed, right?

“Good night Jim Bob!” shouted Elizabeth.

“Good night Mary Ann!” said Billy excitedly, wanting to join in the fun.

“Good night Elizabeth,” Pa mumble, half-asleep.

“Good night ma,” Mary Ann said shyly, hesitant as always to join in.

“Good night Pa,” Jim Bob called with his deep voice. 

So there you have it! My summary for successful dialogue in your stories. Kind of. Carry on my wayward readers! And don’t forget to tell Mabel what you said! 😉 With minimal adverbs and proper syntax.