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Monday, May 21, 2018

Preach vs. Teach




In the writing industry, you might have heard the advice that you should never preach to your readers, but I feel like no one actually breaks down how preaching is different than teaching. So that's what I'll be doing today.

How Preaching Works and Why We do it

Preaching often comes from handling a theme or story's "lesson" too heavy-handedly. It's the author trying to make the reader see or adopt a particular viewpoint or way of life. Obviously the author thinks that viewpoint or way of life is right (and that readers should follow it).

We all have ideas we feel strongly about, and those are often themes we should write about.

But preaching them is usually more of a turn-off, and as I'll talk about, it's also sort of a shortcut/cheat that can blow up in your face.

So let's talk about the characteristics of preaching and how it happens.

Characteristics

Focuses on Answers - One of the ways preaching can manifest is when the author is focusing too much on the answers to thematic, moral, or ethical questions. I know that sounds backwards, so let me explain.

You know how stories have a plotline?

Well, in my opinion, great stories have a thematic line, and I argue they look awfully similar at the most basic level.



With themes and morals, there needs to be a struggle before the answers come.

Themes and morals can go bad when the author starts swinging around the answers straight out the gate or at the wrong point in the story.

See, when we want to teach something to our readers, it's easy and naturally tempting to simply start swinging the idea around, because we want the reader to get and understand whatever point we are making.

But like the plot's climax, the statement doesn't have power until we've struggled (rising action) for the answer.

If the moral of my story is that mercy is more powerful than justice, and I start the story stating and restating that, it has no power because it has nowhere to grow, and it has no power because there was no struggle.

The audience has to see a need for the answer, first.  A.k.a. the struggle. The struggle comes through the characters--so having characters that already believe and live the answer isn't going to work.

As you show the characters struggle with a moral or ethical or philosophical question, the audience becomes more invested. If the audience isn't invested in the story, they can't really be changed by it.

If you focus too much on getting across answers to the audience, the story will become preachy.


Close-mindedness, Bias, and Simplification - Writing can turn preachy when the author doesn't actually consider or genuinely explore viewpoints that are contrary to what they want to teach. For example, if you want to write about how mercy is more powerful than justice, you might run into this problem if you make everyone who enforces justice demonic or other; you also may run into it if you don't consider the real-life complexity that justice is.

But usually I see this problem with more political statements. And few come quicker to mind than environmentalism. If I have to watch one more show about how humans have to leave Earth because we polluted it, I think my mind might die from the cliche. (I can respect the concept, but it's so overused and can be so heavy-handed these days). In stories like this, often the situation is overly simplified, those who don't support something that is supposedly pro-environment are demonized. And it's usually very obvious what the writer believes.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying we shouldn't have stories about these subjects. But unless you are employing stereotypes for humor, you probably need to at least genuinely consider what you view to as the opposing side.

I have a friend from when I was a teenager, and as adults, she came out as lesbian. When gay marriage became legal she said, "Just because people don't believe in gay marriage doesn't mean they are bigots or homophobes. Some people just don't believe in it because of their religion. Others because of their worldview. Some feel that it is just not morally the right or natural." In other words, she did not oversimplify the situation or name-call the other side.

I will argue that some themes and stories are more black and white, and for younger audiences, you may write more simplistically. Some evil behaviors are so evil that probably no one will have a problem if they are demonized (like mass extermination). But if your story is too preachy, it might be because you aren't opening your mind enough to genuinely consider the opposing side.

In most stories, even the villain should offer us some level of understanding and sympathy.

Some writers may be afraid to make those of opposing views sympathetic or understandable because they feel that doing such promotes that viewpoint. You don't need to fear that, and that approach actually causes other problems that I'll talk about in the teaching section. 


Tells more than Shows - Preaching can happen when you are telling the moral of the story or the answers to the theme more than showing them.

It might be a long drawn out conversation with a character about the thematic answer . . . paired with a plot that didn't illustrate it enough. See, the plot or the character arc should ideally illustrate the argument you are making (remember the struggle?)

Preaching might happen when you are simply telling the audience what to think and how to live their lives. Again, until you've illustrated a need for that (through plot or character arc), the audience probably won't care about the information.

It's not wrong to say answers and thematic lines straight out:


But like with writing the actual story, it needs to be shown more than told. Things can sound preachy when there is more telling than showing. And if you tell far more than the audience "needs" then it can be annoying. 


Usually as writers we turn preachy because of one of these reasons. And as you look over these characteristics, you might notice that they are all sort of shortcuts to doing the actual work. Surely it takes more work to actually show a struggle and illustrate a need for an answer than it is to just give it. It's way easier to simplify arguments and demonize opposing views than it is to take the time to understand them and add depth on some level. And obviously, as most writers will know, it's way easier to tell than to show. So preaching is a shortcut . . . that doesn't work.

Another reason preaching is a problem is because it almost never transforms or expands the reader's understanding. If it does anything, it simply validates what the audience already thinks or creates polarization if they think differently. Great stories transform or expand readers' understanding, even if ultimately it doesn't change their core beliefs, and that's okay. Studies have shown that people who read fiction are more empathetic than people who don't, and heaven knows we all need more love and understanding in the world.

How Teaching Works and How to Do it


Teaching is different than preaching. It's sort of the difference between having a conversation and being talk at.

With storytelling, instead of trying to force the reader what to think and do, we show events (causes and effects) and then suggest how they be viewed via the narrator or characters. Again, this doesn't mean we can't make direct statements (like the Dumbledore one above), but we aren't hitting the reader over the head repeatedly. Remember what Dale Carnegie taught? Ideas or best taken to heart when the other person comes to the conclusion on their own.

How do they come to that conclusion? You illustrate a need.

Characteristics

Explores Questions First - Do you remember sitting in school and having a peer raise his or her hand and ask, "When are we ever going to use this?" I do. (Sadly, I honestly don't use most of what I learned in all my years of math.) We usually learn better, quicker, and change more powerfully when we see a need.

Going back to my earlier example, if we want to talk about how mercy is more powerful than justice, we need to first explore those two topics, and this is usually most effectively done by posing questions about them, that are illustrated through struggles. Sometimes you can pose those questions directly. Other times the questions aren't directly on the page, but instead the story sets up situations and struggles that suggest the questions and the need for answers. Almost always these come from the character arc, but they can also come from side characters.

By doing this, the writer is teaching about the whole subject instead of just a simplified shortcut of it. The audience becomes more invested in the story--the plot and the characters--and yearns for a conclusion--an answer. It's only in this state that the audience can experience a form of transformation. The climax of the theme or moral. The part that will actually stick with them long after the story ends and that they will take with them into their lives.

Considers Other Sides or Explains Them in a Way We Can Understand or Sympathize - No one really wants to be Voldemort. But we understand his perspective and through his backstory, maybe even sympathize with him in some way. He literally doesn't have the capacity to love others.

If you are working with Absolute Truths, you may be working more with Voldemort situations--where the point is to help the reader understand or sympathize on some level why that person is that way, even if no one agrees with them. If you are working with worldly truths, where things aren't so black and white, you'll probably need to genuinely consider and illustrate opposing sides without demonizing people.

And in most stories you are going to be doing some of both.

After all, we also understand many of the Death Eaters and their perspective, even if we don't agree with them.

In the musical Les Mis, we sympathize and understand (and even on some level, respect) Javert, even if his inability to accept mercy as a more powerful force drives him to death (an action which in and of itself illustrates that ultimately, mercy has the upper hand, and even shows tragically how in the end, Javert could not even show mercy toward himself).

Give depth to characters who have and illustrate views contrary to the lesson of the story. Les Mis wouldn't be half as powerful if we didn't understand and spend time with Javert.

If you have controversial or political statements, please remember that there is a reason there are people on both sides of the argument--and it's not because everyone on the other side is a bigot or ignorant or blind. Actually spend some time with the opposing thought process. It will make your story more powerful and help human beings empathize with one another. Even if we don't agree with someone, learning their perspective can greatly enrich our own.

And if you have readers that have the opposing viewpoints, they'll appreciate you and listen and consider your story and viewpoint more. People don't care what you know until they know you care.

Show the Lesson more than Tell it - The story itself should illustrate what you are trying to teach through plot and character. Usually, statements told should validate or put words to what the audience is witnessing.

Lord of the Rings is a story that's clearly about good overcoming evil. But that lesson wouldn't really be there if we didn't witness it happening with the characters firsthand. It doesn't mean as much if we don't actually see evil being really evil. If we don't actually see the Ring thrown into the Crack of Doom.

Same can be true of the Dumbledore statement above. It doesn't really mean much if we don't see it illustrated--Harry and Voldemort actually have a lot of similarities in their backgrounds, but it's their choices that show who they really are, not the fact they both speak parseltongue.

Showing the lesson cements it to the reader. Actually doing a science experiment is more meaningful and sticks with you longer than reading about someone doing one in a book. Experience trumps telling. In stories, experience relates to showing.


In the end, we show and illustrate the lesson, and ultimately it's the reader who decides what he or she thinks about it. We can't force the reader to believe anything. All we can do is provide opportunity and perspective and let the reader exercise his or her own agency about it. And even if the audience comes to a different conclusion, if you did this stuff well, their views will have been expanded in some way, and hopefully, so will their empathy. Ultimately, that's all we can really ask for.

So I hope that helps clarify the difference between preaching and teaching. It's worth noting, however, that not all stories exist to intentionally teach something. Some stories simply explore topics and viewpoints, without necessarily coming to a clear conclusion--or offering several. Some stories simply aim to take an "as is" approach--not trying to persuade anything, but simply show what is. In the end, however, all stories are teaching something, even if it's unintentional or subtle. And if you look at most classics, they are timeless usually because of the takeaway value.

Come back next week to learn more about how to infuse theme into your writing.

Monday, May 14, 2018

How to Write Exceptional Endings




In some ways, endings can be the easiest part of a story to write because they simply connect and resolve one conflict after another after another until all the loose ends are tied up. Often the writer has thought about the ending for months. But other times, coming up with a satisfying ending is dreadful. Not all endings are equal. Here are six key points that will help you write a satisfying and exceptional ending.


"Always Keep Your Promises if You Want to Keep Your Friends"

In the Christmas movie Jingle all the Way, Turboman, a fictional superhero has a maxim: Always keep your promises if you want to keep your friends. Since this movie is sort of a ongoing joke between me and one of my siblings, we say this to the other to get a laugh. But it's true for writing great endings: Always keep your promises if you want to keep your readers.

When we start our story, we make promises about what kind of story this is going to be. If there is a meet cute in the opening (where a potentially romantic couple meet in a cute way), you are promising that there will be a level of romance in the story. If you open with a character called on a quest to defeat a dragon, you are promising a dragon by the end. If you open with an unsolved murder, you are promising it will be solved. Promises not only happen at the beginning of a story, but they happen throughout too, and they can happen on a small scale.

Some people in the industry advise that you should never break a promise--I actually think you can, but you have to do it right (sorry Turboman), but as a rule in general, it works fine. Unless you absolutely know what you are doing and know how to break promises right, to write a great ending, you need to keep your promises to the audience. The meet cute couple confesses they love each other. The dragon is confronted. The murder mystery is solved. If you promised there was going to be magic in this story, we need to see it present in the end.

As I said in the very beginning, the ending is where you really start connecting loose ends and resolving the story's conflicts. So in order to write a good ending, those things need to be addressed, not bypassed. Bonus points if some of them are seemingly unresolvable and can be resolved in a surprising/unforeseen way.

Deliver MORE than You Promised (Exceed Expectations)

Keeping promises is vital to writing a satisfying ending. But if you want to write an exceptional ending, you really need to deliver more than what you promise and exceed expectations. You've set up expectations as you've made promises throughout the story, now you need to push beyond those. Maybe the protagonist prepared and planned for fighting a dragon during the entire book, but when he arrives, he discovers there are actually two. Maybe your heroine confesses her love to the hero--and finds out he's actually a prince in disguise. The detective solves the murder--and it turns out the murderer is her husband.

You can exceed expectations a little bit, or you can exceed them by a lot. Just remember that it needs to fit the story and the story's context. For some surprises, this means you need to foreshadow. For example, in the prince scenario, chances are you need to foreshadow something about a prince during the story (but you don't want to foreshadow too much, otherwise it will be expected). For the dragon example, I don't think you need to foreshadow that there are two.

When you exceed expectations, you include an element of surprise. Keep in mind this very important point: If you deliver something different than expected, it needs to be just as good as what is expected or better. Ideally, you deliver some of what is expected and some that is unexpected, but whatever the case, you don't want to deliver anything anti-climactic or anything that undercuts what you've been building throughout the story.

Twists also relate to surprises and exceeding expectations. A lot of great stories shift the context of what we and the characters know at the end so that there is a twist.

Learn about the five different kinds of surprises (including exceeding expectations and twists) and how they work in this post on them.

Escalate Risks (aka Stakes) and Costs

Any decent ending has risks and costs. After all, this is the moment the whole book has been building toward. There should be more at risk now than there has been through the entire book. Costs should probably also be at their highest point.

Risks are what are "at stake" in the story. In The Hunger Games, Katniss's life is what is at stake, and the emotional (and physical) health of her sister. If Katniss doesn't win The Hunger Games, she'll die and Prim will be devastated. The costs are what the character has to do or give up to reach a goal and/or save those stakes. So in The Hunger Games, it cost Katniss some of her identity. At the very end of the book, she grows more and more confused over what part of her is real and what part was her just trying to survive. (Not to mention the physical costs of everything she went through)

Sometimes in some stories, stakes and costs seem to overlap or be the same, depending on what angle you are looking at. But the point is, they need to be there. And to really take your ending to the next level, you need to escalate them.

So at the starting of the story, we thought we just needed to defeat a dragon. But by the climax we learn that this is no ordinary dragon, but essentially a god of the dragons who has the capacity to not only take over the country as it has, but bring destruction to all of civilization, and it will if threatened. So now all human civilization is at stake.

Our protagonist was training to defeat one ordinary dragon--he's done it before. But now that there are two, and both of them are basically "gods" of the dragon race, there's a good chance it will cost him his life to save all of humanity.

See how those stakes and costs were escalated?

To escalate costs and risks, you either add more, deepen what you already have, or vastly change the odds against your character. (And ideally, you do all three if you can)

These examples are a bit epic and extreme, but in a more personal story, risks and costs will be more personal. In a typical 90's movie, a workaholic dad is at risk of losing his family relationships, but to save those relationships, it costs giving up his job. That's a more personal set-up.

Whatever kind of story you are telling, escalate risks and costs so that they are the highest they have ever been. This also means you are greatly increasing the protagonist's struggle.

Choose the Right Ending Model

I've been taught that there are really three ways a story can end in a satisfying way:

- Happily Ever After: Everything is tied up nicely and everyone is happy and whole. Risks and costs were escalated, but in the end, everything panned out, the costs won't hurt for long, and the future looks great. Example: think of Disney's movies aimed at children.

- Much is Lost, but Much is Gained: Some of those costs? They really happened. People died. Relationships were lost. A central character may be scarred for life. But it was worth it. Loved ones and important people were saved, maybe even all of humanity. Even though it took a lot of sacrifice and heartache, ultimately, it was worth it. (Usually on a personal scale, there are a lot of sacrifices, but on the large scale, much is won) Example: think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and many epics and blockbuster movies.

- Sadder but Wiser: A lot of the big things were lost, maybe even the protagonist's goals weren't met. But oh my word, they learned so much from the process and they are a changed person because of it. They are a better person because of the course of the story. They may be wiser, or love more deeply, or gained knowledge. (Usually the large scale things aren't won, but something internal and personal is gained) Example: think The Fault in Our Stars, and many literary works.

Usually certain genres lean toward one type of ending, as you can see from my examples. There might be some that sort of waver. For example, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas the Grinch doesn't meet his planned goals (he couldn't stop Christmas), but the journey leaves him wiser and a changed person. However, ultimately the story ends on a Happily Ever After note.

Choose the ending that fits your story best, and work with it to make it powerful, not against it. This will make the ending more satisfying. 

Cross Opposites

Essentially no one talks about this in the writing world (I'm the only one I know of), but crossing opposites and using contrast is really powerful in writing. When it comes to the ending, this is often done by crossing the biggest, broadest conflict with the deepest, most personal one (which usually relates to the theme). You've seen it before, but might not realize it.

There is an overarching story plot, but then there is a personal one. The personal one often relates to an internal struggle the protagonist is having to try to overcome something, which is almost always the character arc. To write a great ending, try to get the broad conflict to cross with the personal conflict. Sometimes you can get these resolutions right on top of one another, so that the broad conflict and the personal conflict are dealt with in the exact same moment--which is so cool! But most often, the personal conflict is overcome, which then enables the protagonist to face and deal with the big one. Other times, it can go the other way.

Here, let me write this out:

- The broadest conflict and most intimate conflict are overcome at the same time.

- The most intimate conflict is overcome, which leads to the broadest conflict being overcome (probably the most common structure)

- The broadest conflict is overcome, which leads to the most intimate conflict being resolved.

But whatever the case, often the closer you can get these to relate and coincide, the more powerful the ending. Because overcoming and resolving something big, and also something personal, are both significant in and of themselves.

But crossing opposites doesn't have to start and stop there. See if you can cross other opposites in powerful ways.

The movie Interstellar is pro at this. If you look at the movie, it's crossing opposites everywhere. The biggest, broadest, most unknowable possible problem (being thrown into a black hole in the process of trying to save all of humanity) directly crosses with the deepest, most personal, most relatable problem (struggling in a parent-child relationship). Even the settings are opposites. The black hole literally crosses with a child's room. At the end, each conflict works off the other--reaching through time and space--to be solved.

It's the breadth, of being pulled from end of the spectrum to the other that infuses the story with high, sharp, power.

So, see where you can cross opposites and where you can cross conflicts (most stories have more than one conflict after all, see if you can cross two or more of them at the end)

Validate, Validate, Validate

You may have heard the three rules for writing middles: Escalate! Escalate! Escalate! For endings, there are also three important rule: Validate! Validate! Validate!

This is more of the denouement than the climax (though validation can happen in the climax). Validate what has been lost, defeated, gained, or won, by showing the audience. With a romance conflict, validate that love was found. Depending on the story and if this is a primary, secondary, tertiary or lower plot line, this might mean the couple gets married, gets engaged, is shown spending time together, kissing, or finally confessing they love each other. In my dragon example, this might mean showing that civilization is at peace, maybe even celebrating, and if the process did cost the hero's life, showing how he will be honored and remembered for centuries to come, and how grateful people are for his sacrifice. In the murder mystery, this might mean showing the murderer locked up or being sentenced. If it was the protagonist's husband, it might show her coping with now living alone. If the Grinch's heart grew by two sizes, we see him celebrating Christmas more than anyone.

Powerful validation, especially one after another, is what can often bring an audience to tears. It can also cement the story into their hearts.

Keep in mind, however, that if you are writing a series, your denouement may be a little different. For example, not everything will be resolved, and not everything may be validated if there are more books still. Instead, it may be important to build anticipation in the audience for what is to come. However, for most series books, there should be at least some validation for the characters' arcs and major conflicts that were resolved in the book.

There is a saying in the writing community, that comes from crime novelist Mickey Spillane: "The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book."

This is true for any book, series or not. If it's a series, it sells the next installment. If it's not, it leaves people wanting to buy the next book you write.

For more on climaxes and denouements (and all the other basic story parts), check out this post on outlining.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Convey an Established Relationship Quickly + Storymakers + Update



Hi everyone! Things have been crazy for me lately and life has been incredibly busy, but I have somehow survived to May 8th, 2018. 

First off, I have a writing tip up this week at WritersHelpingWriters.net, so instead of reading this week's tip here, I'll direct you there (if you are new to my blog, you should know that this is atypical), but here is a teaser if you are into that stuff and are trying to decide if you really want to follow that link. ;)

How to Convey an Established Relationship Quickly

I was recently reading two story openings that were frankly amazing at conveying an established relationship in a matter of pages or even paragraphs. While many stories revolve around the protagonist meeting new people, such as in a typical hero’s journey plot, perhaps even more stories revolve around relationships that are established before the novel begins.

Many new writers have a difficult time conveying such relationships quickly, and to be honest, it can even be tricky for more experienced writers to figure out sometimes, especially if the relationship is very significant.

Whether you are working with best friends, significant others, parents and children, schoolmates, rivals, or downright enemies, here are several methods that can help.

Communicate what’s normal.

Every established relationship has been . . . well . . . established, meaning it has behaviors and attitudes that are typical in it. In one of the story openings I recently read, the protagonist had to deal with two, mean, cruel older sisters. First the meanness was rendered and then validated through narration. In the second one, what was normal of two brothers was simply conveyed through the way they talked to one another. In both cases, I immediately had context for what was typical.

Refer to or imply an off-page history.

Every established relationship has a history: how the characters met, what events have taken place between them, and how they got to where they are now. In some cases, they may have a “reoccurring history.”


. . . You can read the whole post here

And I actually got to meet Becca Puglisi in real life over the weekend and thank her (and Angela) for all the opportunities and support they have given me and my blog over the years. I love being a part of Writers Helping Writers, and their books are amazing resources for writers. If you don't have The Emotion Thesaurus, you need it.

Storymakers

This last week I attended the Storymakers Conference, which is definitely still my favorite writing conference I've ever been to. Here are a few quick reasons why:

- TONS of amazing information about writing and working in the industry from professionals

- Awesome events: every year the conference has a first chapter contest, pitch sessions, and get-togethers

- Food. It might seem simple, but I love that Storymakers takes care of attendees' meals and that they are included in the ticket prices, so we don't have to worry about what to eat or if we will go hungry.

- Friendly and amazing people. Storymakers is probably my favorite conference to meet new people. Attendees and faculty are so friendly and easy to talk to but it's not so over-the-top that it leaves me feeling suspicious or that people have an ulterior motive. (I'm sometimes suspicious of too much friendliness, to be honest!)

- The faculty and organizers are amazing! I love that they fly in amazing authors, agents, and editors from all over (including New York) and also accommodate and cherish those in this part of the states.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that I always feel well taken care of, the conference has never been a disappointment, and it has always felt simultaneously very professional and very fun (not to mention the prices for all that it entails are amazing).

This year was a very special year in particular because I actually got to teach a class! And I also had a vendor table ^_^ 

Storymakers was the first writing conference I ever attended, back in 2010, and so being on the other side--the faculty side--was really special to me. 

I will admit I was nervous to teach and have a table. Sure, I've taught before, but not at this conference. However human beings can do hard things, and it all turned out fine :) Thanks to everyone who came or stopped by my table and all the fun people I got to meet in real life. Somehow I ended up with the vendor table that got the most traffic--I'm still not sure how that happened, but I am definitely not complaining! 

I wanted to bring back a few signed books--like one of Shannon Hale's or The Emotion Theasaurus--to give away on here, but I wasn't thinking and of course by the time I made it to the bookstore, they were all sold out. 

If you are thinking of going to a writing conference, I highly recommend Storymakers.You only need to take a scroll through the special guest list and faculty list to get an idea for how amazing it is. 

Thank you to everyone who made the conference amazing!


Funny Story

Real quick I did want to share something funny that happened at the conference. I decided to make some stickers that I could hand out to people. Even though five writerly people checked my material for typos . . . there somehow still was one 🤦

And the worst part?

It made the sentence completely scandalous. 

Can you spot it?


It's says "I'd be easier" instead of "It'd be easier."

😂 🤣 😂

Yup, and that's how I started my conference experience. Since I couldn't fix it, I decided to roll with the punches and just say, "I'd be easy for a Weasley."

But it gets better.

I had four different stickers (as you can see at the top of this post), and I gave away more scandalous stickers than any other one 😂 (and I made sure to point out the typo so people were aware).

And it's the only sticker I ran completely out of. 

(Though I did tell people it was limited edition because it won't be back next year!)

So it all worked out and ended up even being a good thing. 



Update

Other than the conference, life has still been keeping me really busy. Fawkes Editing is going really well, and since I started freelancing seven months ago, I've never not had work! (How is it May already?)

I'm planning on attending Salt Lake Comic Con again this fall, and I'll also be teaching at the LDSPMA conference in early November. 

And of course, I'll be back next week with a new writing tip. You can check out all my writing tips in the index

Have a great week!


Me with fellow writers Charlie Pulsipher, Helen Boswell, and Shallee McArthur (in case you were wondering, this isn't typical of writing conferences, but one of the vendors had a fun photo shoot area with costumes!)



Monday, April 30, 2018

How to Dump Info without Info-Dumping




For a while I've been wanting to post an article on info-dumps, because they are so easy to do and so awful for a story. An info-dump is what it sounds like. A big ol' chunk of info that a writer splats out into the middle of a scene. They can bring the pacing of a story to a grinding halt while the audience has to sift through more information than they care to know about X, Y, or Z.

Info-dumps can literally be about information and facts, other times they are whole backgrounds and backstories about characters, or the entire history of a setting or object. Often this happens because the writer is convinced the audience needs all of the information in order to fully "get" and appreciate the story and characters, sometimes it happens because the writer simply loves the information on a personal level, other times the writer "discovers" the information when writing a first draft and hasn't bothered to fix it, and finally, it happens when the writer is a beginner and simply doesn't know better.

Science fiction author Shallee McArthur wrote a nice article on info-dumps and also taught a class on it at a writing conference. So today I asked permission to share it here:

I am a nerd. As a kid, I spent my summers doing science experiments in my giant white science book. For fun. And to this day, I get excited about things like sea slugs that absorb plant DNA and become photosynthetic. I get weepy about the space shuttle's last flight. It's why I write sci fi-- because I'm a nerd, and I love all that science stuff.

Here's the thing about writing sci fi: there's a lot of science in it. Which means there tends to be a lot of necessity for explanation, which leads to a lot of potential info-dumps. This isn't unique to sci fi, of course. Most authors have a lot of information to convey, and sometimes we have no choice but to reveal large bits of it at a time, potentially boring our readers just so they understand what the heck we're talking about.


I had some trouble with info-dumps in one of my novels, and it took me lots of revisions to get it right. And some of the biggest lessons I learned were actually from the movie Inception. There's a LOT of information they have to convey, but the movie never lags in its pacing. Here are the things I learned to apply in my writing. (Warning-- there are a few small spoilers if you haven't seen it before!)

1. Early in the story, weave as little information as possible to keep your reader engaged.

Inception doesn't start with Leo DiCaprio's character Cobb explaining the ins and outs of shared dreaming. We start with tension--he's trying to convince Saito that he needs to train his mind to not be vulnerable to idea theft. Here's the thing. We learn, in a few brief sentences of dialogue, that someone can steal your secrets through shared dreaming. And THAT'S IT. We don't know how it works, or who can do it, or the history behind why it was developed in the first place.

We know just enough that when we learn everything we're watching IS a dream, we get it. Maybe we don't understand why Cobb gets dumped in the tub to wake him up, but we get it enough to be invested and intrigued. It's the technique of weaving small bits of information into a scene so we get small bits instead of large chunks. And especially for the first 30-50 pages of a novel, that may be as much as you need.

2. Have a character who doesn't understand what's going on so someone can explain things to them-- and the reader.

Enter Juno--er, Ariadne. She's new to the team. She doesn't understand any of the history or the hows and whys of dream sharing. The team teaches her all the ins and outs, and as she learns, so do we. This neatly evades the "maid and butler" dialogue of "As you know, your subconscious is represented by all these people," and "Yes, Cobb, and they will attack us if they sense something is wrong in the dream." It's natural for Ariadne to be learning it, so it's natural for us to learn it too.

3. Don't explain everything at once--use small chunks in addition to weaving.

The first time Cobb takes Ariadne into the dream, we don't get all the information about how dream sharing works. We get small bits. We understand that the dream can be changed by the people sharing it, sometimes in fantastic ways, and that the subconscious of the person dreaming can become aggressive when it's messed with too much. And, very briefly, we see again Cobb's projection of his terrifying wife. We don't learn much about the other parts of shared dreaming, such as the use of chemists, or about what on earth is wrong with Cobb's deranged wife. These things are woven in later as scenes.

Which brings us to another point.

4. Information should always be revealed as part of a scene.

A.k.a, NEVER SIMPLY TELL THE READER. Paragraphs that say, "and this is the history of x, and this is how y works," are the exact definition of bad info-dumps. In Inception, every single bit of information is worked in as part of a scene. In other words, it is not just giving you information. It's developing character, deepening mystery, and furthering plot at the same time. It brings tension around the very information we're receiving, and we're so engaged, we don't even recognize it as an info-dump.

For example, the scene where Cobb risks going behind enemy lines to find Eames, we learn about how inception is possible, and we learn about the idea of a chemist and using dreams within dreams. All around this information is the tension of Cobb being potentially caught by people who want him dead. And then, when we have just enough information, we get some action as Cobb is chased through the streets of Mombasa. We are kept engaged because it's a scene in a story, not an aside of information.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Wordiness


A while ago I did a post on purple prose, and today I want to talk about one if its relatives: wordiness. 

They can overlap, but they are different. Purple prose may include wordiness, and wordiness may turn into purple prose, but it is possible to have one without the other. 

Wordiness is taking more words than necessary to say whatever it is you are trying to say. 

And like purple prose, it's also a phase of writing that I think writers naturally go through at some point. It could be in middle school or high school, or it could be in your 50's, but most of us have likely courted wordiness at one time or another. 

(Remember in school when you were trying to fill up a 5-page essay with a 2-page topic. Yup.)



So let's go through the characteristics of wordiness with some examples to help us discern it and understand why it's a problem.

Now, to me, wordiness is usually a sum of issues, instead of just one thing here and there. Not all of these characteristics are inherently bad, but it's usually the combination of them or the way they are used that's the problem. Contrary to the meme at the very beginning, you don't have to go through and literally cut every. Single. Excess. Word. --Though some people may tell you to. Believe it or not, I think there are times where "unnecessary words" are exactly what you need, and I started a post on that once . . . I really should finish it and publish it on here. Anyway . . . 

Redundancy


Redundancy comes about for a couple of main reasons:

1 - the writer doesn't trust the reader to get it the first time.

It was April 6th, and today was Cindy's birthday. She'd been looking forward to this day for weeks, because it likewise happened to be her cousin Mimi's birthday, and they were going to celebrate all day together. Both Cindy and Mimi were born on April 6th; they shared the same birthday. 

Here the writer (my alter ego ;) Maybe I should make up a persona for my bad writing) is worried that the reader isn't going to pick up on the fact that Cindy and Mimi share the same birthday, which is pretty miraculous (at least the writer thinks so), so they write it multiple ways within a matter of sentences.

Look, the first mention of it was pretty straightforward. You need to trust that the reader has the ability to make obvious logical connections. We don't need to be told same exact information within a matter of sentences. The only time this might be okay is if you are trying to explain something very complicated or unfamiliar to the reader. Here, we know what a birthday is. We get it the first time.

2 - the writer doesn't trust implication

Some of the most powerful writing comes from implying. Big things can be implied, but more importantly, little things don't need to be said.

Once Kip sat to the right of her, Alice took her hand out of her jacket pocket and took his hand with hers, with his left hand in her right hand. 

The audience really doesn't need this much specificity and detail to understand what is going on. Just say, "Once Kip sat to her right, Alice took his hand." Where her hand was before probably isn't important. "Took" implies she used her hand, so we don't even need to say it. He's sitting right of her, so it's assumed by default that his left is in her right. 


Long Multi-Syllable Words and/or Uncommon Words


There is a phase that most writers go through where they think that the fancier the word is, the more sophisticated of a writer they are. They might grab the thesaurus and find the most complicated word to say the simplest thing. Dictionary.com's "word of the day" feature is great at doing this sort of thing, which sometimes drives me nuts. Don't pick overly complicated words that no one is familiar with to say something that can be said more simply. 

Sure, some of these words are great for academic papers, but not for storytelling. 

The field that Steve stumbled upon was prodigiously verdigris with anthophilia circumnavigating every inflorescence.

Overusing multi-syllable words and uncommon words makes the writing more complicated than it needs to be, and the tone becomes too pedantic. You can break this rule in special circumstances, but usually . . . not.

Filler Phrases and Unnecessary Words


This one can be a little tricky because a lot of times we aren't aware we are even using them. 

In my personal opinion, during that period of time, the stone had turned orange in color and sparkly in appearance.

All opinions are personal, so you can delete that word. Also, depending on the scene and character, you may not even need to say "opinion"--that can be implied. "Period" suggests time, so you can delete "of time." Orange is a color, so you can delete "in color." "Sparkly" refers to appearance, so you can delete "in appearance."

Style by Joseph M. Williams gives some good examples of these phrases to watch out for. Here are just a few:

Free gift (all gifts are free)
Each individual
Future plans
True facts

And also:

Due to the fact --> Because
Despite the fact --> Though
Concerning the matter of --> About


Passive Voice


I'm a big believer that passive voice isn't always wrong. However it should almost never be your go-to. If you aren't familiar with passive voice, rather than explain it all over, just read about it at Purdue OWL.

Passive voice naturally takes more words to say something than active voice does. And if you are using passive voice regularly, there's probably a problem. It also adds all those to-be words, which can relate to wordiness too.

The door was kicked down by me, swiftly without many motions, but a whole lot of decisiveness was used by me, that was apparent to everybody. 


Bonus:

Watch out for words being unintentionally repeated too close together. That can contribute to wordiness.



Wordiness can come from trying to be too dramatic, which is often where it veers into purple prose, which is the wrong way to render a dramatic moment.

It can also come from a writer thinking the more words he can use to describe something, the better. Again, like purple prose, that's not how it actually works.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Minor Viewpoint Errors




I've covered point of view and viewpoint penetration before on my blog, but I wanted to do a simple post about common viewpoint errors because they are something I see a lot from new writers.

Let's build from the ground up.

The common "rule" these days (or decades) is that you should really only be in one viewpoint character's head at a time. This means that if I'm writing from Rosie's viewpoint in the opening scene, that I stay in her viewpoint for the entire scene, chapter, or in many cases, book. She is the viewpoint character, and therefore, everything we see and experience should be what she sees and experiences, and if it deviates, it's considered a viewpoint error.

Here is an example.

Rosie scraped frost from her windshield in the freezing winter air. She felt as if her very eyeballs would freeze. Can't wait for spring, she thought. She should have come out sooner and started her car, melt all the frost off so she wouldn't be late.

"Hey Rosie!" It was Ms. Trumble, Rosie's talkative neighbor.

Rosie pretended not to hear.

Ms. Trumble came closer, pulling her coat tight around her. She could feel the icy wind against her neck and hoped she wouldn't catch a cold like Rosie had last month.

"Hey," Rosie said halfheartedly. She continued to scrape.

Yup, there it is. A line about what Ms. Trumble is thinking and feeling. If we are truly in Rosie's viewpoint, we shouldn't know exactly what Ms. Trumble is thinking and feeling, because Rosie doesn't. Everything should be from Rosie's point of view.

So the error?

Ms. Trumble came closer, pulling her coat tight around her. She could feel the icy wind against her neck and hoped she wouldn't catch a cold like Rosie had last month.

(Note: It is possible to have the viewpoint character interpret or guess at another character's feelings and thoughts based on body language and how well they know that person, which is slightly different than this example.)

Viewpoint errors can be sneakier than this. Remember how I talked about blocking a few weeks ago? If the viewpoint character can't see something visually from the angle he is standing and looking, it can't be on the page. So here is another error.

Mack sat in his cubicle. He hated working customer service, but he'd needed a quick job, so here he was, listening to stupid people day after day, phone call after phone call.

"Mack!" Stephanie popped her head around his cubicle wall.

Mack's heart skipped a beat.

Stephanie had worked adjacent to him for weeks, but they hardly talked.

Her phone went off. She looked back at her desk where her phone vibrated next to her mouse.


If Mack is sitting in his cubicle, and Stephanie's is right next to him, he can't see her desk to know that her phone is next to the mouse. It's a viewpoint error.

But perhaps the most common viewpoint error I see has to do with how the writer references the actual viewpoint character. For example:

When done scraping enough frost off, Rosie put her hands in her pockets. Her blue eyes looked into Ms. Trumble's brown ones.

Rosie can't see her own eyes. So using "blue" is considered a viewpoint error. You have to figure out how to get that information to the reader in a different way. At least weave it in a way where it would be natural that Rosie would have a passing thought about the color of her eyes.

But it can get even sneakier.

"That Michael fellow ask you to marry him yet?" Ms. Trumble asked.

Rosie reddened.

Rosie can't see herself blush. So that's a viewpoint error.

She can, however, feel herself flush.

"That Michael fellow ask you to marry him yet?" Ms. Trumble asked.

Rosie's cheeks went warm.

See? Because we are in the scene as if we are Rosie, we can feel what she feels, but we can't see our own face (Rosie's).

If you think this sounds too nit-picky, trust me, it's real, and professionals are aware of it.

Must you always write that consciously? Well, yes . . . if you want to write professionally. . . . and even if you want to break the rule, you need to be conscious enough to know where and why you are breaking it.

Minor viewpoint errors can be difficult to learn how to see, after all, nothing is grammatically wrong with the sentences. But once you learn them, you can't unsee them.

If you are new to this concept, you might be wondering what the point is and if it really matters that we said "Rosie reddened." The idea is that we want the audience to be fully immersed in the story, to feel as if they are the main character and that they identify with the main character. Viewpoint errors take away from that. Other than that, they are simply considered amateur.

I'm not as stingy about this stuff as some others are, but the reality is, if you aren't following this rule, I need to be able to see why. If you are serious about writing, this is something that needs to be mastered if you are writing in first-person or third-person.

If you are writing in straight-up omniscient, where the narrator is taking us into people's thoughts and minds left and right in a scene, that's different. But again, it's so unpopular in the modern day and age that many people will still chastise you for it. I'm not against omniscient, but just be aware that if you are going to write that way, it needs to be intentional, and you will probably get flack for it even when you do it right. If that's the way you feel you need to write a story, personally, I'm open to that.

But if you are writing in first-person or third-person, most of the time, you should be in one viewpoint at a time.

These days, many people argue that you can only switch viewpoint characters at the start of a new scene or chapter. I don't necessarily agree with that. I think it's possible to switch mid-scene and be fine, as long as you are smart about it, and remember to only be in one viewpoint at a time. Unless you really know what you are doing and have established it at the beginning of the story, 99% of the time you shouldn't be head-hopping--jumping from one viewpoint to another to another and back again. One viewpoint character at a time.

I hope this short post cleared some things up for you, if you've ever been criticized of viewpoint errors. Otherwise, I hope it was a nice refresher, or reference to send others to.