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Monday, August 19, 2019

Reeling Readers in via Curiosity

A few weeks ago, I did a post on stakes, which also related to hooks. And this year, I've been talking on and off again about pulling the reader into the story by getting them to look forward to what could happen, which is often done by getting the reader to fear or to hope something may happen (and then they have to turn pages to find out if it does). But there is a third way to do this. You make the reader curious.

You make the reader feel like they need more information. You make them want more information.

But this can easily go wrong if you handle it wrong. For example, a lot of beginning writers try to shock their audience, subconsciously thinking that it will be so shocking, the readers have to keep reading. It's like when there is a car accident on the side of the road, and you don't want to see it, but you can't take your eyes off it--that mentality. So you can find a lot of unpublished stories with openings that are unnecessarily graphic, overly sexual, or over-the-top vulgar. These beginning writers are trying to reel the audience in by making them feel like they need more information or they need to see if this continues to be shocking.

It almost never works. And it can even make readers want to stop reading.

That's not to say there are never reasons to open a story with such content, but more often than not, the writer is opening that way without legitimate reasons.

Hooks are so tricky to master largely because most people don't actually understand them, therefore they don't know how to do them consciously and intentionally. And most of the advice on them is seriously lacking (in my opinion). Often when I search for advice on hooks, all I get is something like, "Come up with a line that makes the reader want to read more." Well, I know that already, that's why I know to google hooks in the first place. I want some specific ideas of how to do that, exactly. Hopefully dissecting how hope and fear over what could happen has been as helpful to you as it has been to me.

So today, I want to talk about how to actually do the third one: spark curiosity.

Because sometimes we are reeled in because we are intrigued, and we are looking forward to reading more to get more information.

So how do we create that effect exactly?

Well, here are some specifics.

Pair Contradictions

I talk a lot about utilizing contrasts and contradictions on my blog, so hopefully you guys aren't sick of it, but it's so dang effective and almost no one ever talks about it! But this is exactly one of the ways to get the audience to want to know more. It might even be the most effective.

In my story structure series, I talked about how Into the Spider-verse largely uses contrasts and contradictions as hooks in the opening of the story.

When two opposing things are smashed together, we naturally thirst for more information, an explanation.

Here is an example I made up for another post:

Mom handed me my birthday present, and my stomach dropped.

Birthdays and birthday presents are usually something to be happy and excited about. So, when the protagonist feels negatively about one, we want to know why. It seems like a contradiction.

For years, I've loved this line Dashiell Hammet wrote in The Maltese Falcon.

[Samuel Spade] looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

"Pleasant" and "Satan" seem to contradict each other. And the "blond" is just specific enough to make me more curious. So now I want to read to learn how someone can look "pleasantly" like "a blond satan." And I want to learn more about this Samuel Spade.

Contradictions and contrasts are important because they help create specificity (sometimes even in a more literal, philosophical sense than I want to get into for this blog post), and as I've talked about before, the audience needs enough specificity to become invested in the story--to want to read more. Therefore, enough specificity is important for hooks and for reeling the audience in. Contradictions and contrasts create specificity by creating a boundary. For example, Samuel Spade fits somewhere between pleasant and Satan.

The line wouldn't be half as interesting if it was less specific.

Samuel Spade looked like a satan.

Sure, that can still be interesting. And it can still work effectively if the context of how we understand him seems to already contrast that line. But the line and concept in and of itself isn't as interesting anymore.

A lot of times we think we reel the audience in by being vague, but that can actually do the opposite. We need to be specific enough. Writers sometimes try to spark a reader's curiosity by not really saying anything, hoping it will make them want to learn more so they understand. Yes, if done right, this can work well in certain places, like teasers, but being more specific with contrasts is often more effective.

Look at this approach:

Samuel Spade looked pleasant yet unusual, in a strange way. 

Even though it technically still has some contrast (pleasant vs. unusual), it's quite vague. Honestly, it doesn't really hook me. I don't feel the need to learn more.

How about this?

Samuel Spade was blond and looked pleasant. 

This has no contrast and is therefore not as interesting. I mean, you will of course write sentences like this, but when you want to hook a reader and get them invested this doesn't work.

When you pair contrasts and contradictions, the audience will want to know how and why those things go together. Just make sure to deliver on that to some extent so the reader doesn't feel like this is a cheap trick.

Stretch Just Beyond What is Known

A year ago I did a post on how to create a sense of wonder in the modern audience, which I argue is quite different than it was even one hundred years ago. Audiences today often feel wonder most powerfully when they are exposed to something just beyond their understanding, that builds off something they already understand somewhat, as opposed to something that doesn't connect to anything. So you can have whole movies that spend a ton of money on making the film and setting feel magical when the audience is yawning. Or you can have hits like The Martian or Interstellar that stretches us just beyond what we know.

A sense of wonder makes us curious. I mean, that's why it's wonder.

But this can work on a smaller scale to draw audiences in too. You just want to touch beyond what is already known. Naturally, the audience will be curious to want to know more. This can work with speculative fiction, or really, just about any kind of fiction.

In His Dark Materials, everyone has a daemon of the opposite sex. So the protagonist, a girl named Lyra, has a male daemon named Pantalaimon. Daemons are part of a person's soul that lives on the outside of their body and assumes the shape of an animal. So everyone has their daemon from birth. But at one point, we get this line:

Bernie was a kindly, solitary man, one of those rare people whose daemon was the same sex as himself.

Okay, well, that's something just beyond our established understanding of daemons. So now I'm curious to learn more about Bernie. Why is his daemon the same sex as himself? And what does that mean?

But this can happen with a more realistic story as well. You just need to brush beyond what is already known or established as normal. It can happen with setting, character, or even plot.

Peach Days happened every year faithfully, except in 1998.

Okay, well, guess what I'm wondering now? Why not in 1998? I need to read on.

Here is another.

The Big Bang theory has long been accepted by scientists, but today a star was discovered to be older than the Big Bang itself.

This was a real discovery in the news recently. So what did you think I did? I read the article.

In some ways, you could argue this is just another form of contrasting, since we are contrasting something normal or known with something unknown, but I feel that the approach here is a little different, so I think it helps to have the different categories.

Share Something Surprising

When something surprising happens, we want more information. Even if it's a surprise birthday party, after the "Surprise!" everyone wants to talk about how they got to that point. There is the person that talks about almost accidentally giving the surprise away. Or the person that talks about trying to get the birthday person out of the house. Or the birthday person recounting their suspicions. After a surprise, we want a second to take it in and understand it.

In writing, sometimes the surprise is an unexpected response, something unusual that happens, or it may even be an interesting fact or statistic.

It might be Hagrid revealing to Harry that he's a wizard and that his parents didn't die in a car crash (how can you not want more information?). It might be the old guy, the Duke of Weselton, who wants to dance with Elsa in Frozen. It might be a nice meet cute in a romance.

Sometimes it's an interesting statement.

Squirrels are behind most power outages in the U.S.

Well . . . tell me more. I'm curious.

I've never read Gone Girl, but I love its opening line:

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.

Um . . . what? Not only is that surprising, but it implies something pretty sinister.

Like all hooks, just make sure you don't use the surprise approach as a cheap trick. If anyone is interested, I have a post on surprises in general, here.

Use "Negative Description"

"Negative description" in my terms means when you describe what something is not. When someone tells us what something is not, we almost always want to know soon after what that something is. In other words, it makes us curious. It makes us want to keeping reading or listening for more information.

Tolkien does this in The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat.

Okay, well, now I'm wondering what kind of hole it is.

Sometimes this is something simple:

Jessica wasn't like other girls her age.

Why not? And how not?

Just make sure you almost always follow up with what that something is, and it almost always needs to be interesting.

Jessica wasn't like other girls her age. The only craft she liked doing was taxidermy.

 Tell me more.

Make a Bold Statement

Bold statements sort of relate to surprises. When someone says something bold, we need more information.

Every man in Toonesbrook was a liar.

Or what about from The Raven Boys:

If Blue was to kiss her true love, he would die. 

That one also plays off the idea of fear.


I've never liked chocolate. 

Now that is bold. ;)

To be bold, often the statement is unusual or broad-sweeping. "I never liked chocolate," that's unusual. "Every man in Toonesbrook was a liar," that's far reaching. Something that goes against a generally accepted belief or experience is bold.

Employ Non-linear Timelines

Some people may consider this a no-no. After all, we are taught so much to stay in the present. But sometimes jumping around in time briefly, makes us want to know more. We want to know more about how one point in time connected to another. Or we want to know what happened in between.

When I met Sam Bywater, I was unimpressed, but that encounter would go on to haunt me for ten years. 


Peach Days happened faithfully every year, except last, but this year they had better security.


I wasn't excited about another boring dentist appointment, but looking back, I'd rather I'd gone and gotten my teeth cleaned--at least then I would have been safe.

Subtext can also be key to writing great hooks and/or reeling audiences in. The second example in this sections suggests something bad happened last year that led to needing more security. "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head" suggests the possibility of murder. So lines like that can make us want to learn more.

In some ways, you can argue that sparking curiosity is just another way we are getting the audience to hope for something. We are getting them to hope for more information. But still, I think it's a little different. When I talked about hope and fear before, I mainly talked about it in relation to the actual story. In these kinds of lines, that may not be the case. Your book may have almost nothing to do with Peach Days, for example. But the line still reels readers in.

Keep in mind that with all hooks, you don't want to throw them everywhere as a cheap trick. You still need to deliver on them most of the time (some would say you need to do it all the time, but I'd argue that point. That's another subject though.). And curiosity hooks alone will only keep an audience for so long, sort of like how a teaser can only sustain an audience for a few pages tops. There needs to be more. Nonetheless, they are an excellent way to draw your readers in.

Monday, August 12, 2019


Hey everyone! Today we are going to talk about a writing mistake that I see from time to time that I don't believe has an official name, but best-selling author David Farland calls it "fluttering." That sounds about right to me. So I was going to write a whole blog post on this, and then remembered that Dave already did, so I asked permission to share it here, so really, he's the one who's going to talk to us about it today:

Have you ever watched a butterfly in flight and tried to figure out where it will go next? The butterfly will soar three feet in the air, veer left, drop, veer right. It will look as if it’s heading for a flower, then land on a rock.

Of course, it is biologically programmed to do that. It makes it hard for a predator to catch the butterfly when the predator can’t figure out where it is going.

However, some writers “flutter,” too, moving so fast from topic to topic that the reader can’t quite follow the tale. For example, I may find a story where the author says, “It was windy outside. Lola sat down in a chair. At the bar, a customer staggered up from his stool. A rocket blasted off from the spaceport.”

Do you see the problem? Nothing has been created, and the reader’s attention is directed from place to place seemingly at random. What’s even worse is I know that usually such an author will continue to flit about, never describing anything in full.

So when I start a story, I immediately choose to focus. Let’s say that you are trying to create a setting. “It was windy outside” might be a fine way to start, but outside of where? Readers don’t know. We seem to be in a bar a moment later, but the author hasn’t created a bar. How many people are in it? What’s the décor? What does it smell like? What time of day is it? How do we know that it’s windy outside—by the sound of howling wind, by wind blasting through an opened door? There are a dozen questions that need to be answered here before we can go on.

Then “Lola sat down in a chair.” Who is Lola? What does she look, smell, and sound like? What’s her demeanor? How is she dressed? A dozen questions arise before I can really imagined her as a character.

What does the patron getting up from the bar have to do with anything? Is he important to the tale, or just window-dressing?

“A rocket blasted off from the spaceport.” Again, how does the viewpoint character know? Does he feel the ground shaking? Does he see a bright light through the window? Does the roof of the bar rumble as the rocket shoots overhead? We really don’t know because the author here has just narrated the tale, not really used the senses in order to “create” the setting.

So when you begin to describe something, realize that you need to go all in. You need to slow down and focus.

For example, if you’re going to describe a setting, perhaps you could start by letting us see what is in the “near ground”—what’s near at hand for your point of view character. For example, “Nila grasped her knife firmly and sliced some venison from the spit above the campfire, squinting against the bitter smoke.”

You might want to add more details about Nila or what is close at hand, but you could also move to the mid-ground. “The shadows were dark beneath the pines that crowded at the edge of the wood, and in the distance a chorus of wolves began to howl.”

Now, you could spend more time on the woods, describing its scent or the temperature, or you might go into the deep background: “Overhead, a silver crescent moon shimmered among blowing clouds.”

That is the way that I do it, typically. I try to give a setting in a few broad strokes, knowing that I need to fill in details in a page or two, but I get the basics down.

Only when you’ve created a bit of a setting might you start now describing Nila—her clothing, voice, physical description, history, hopes, fears, and so on. But with her, too, I might create her in bits and pieces, giving a general sense at first, then adding details as the story grows.

The important point here is that as an author, you need to think of yourself as something of a movie director. You need to figure out where you are going to point the camera, bring in the sound, and have your characters act. Do it in stages. In other words, you direct the reader’s attention.

Monday, July 29, 2019

How to Use a Dash—in Fiction Writing

I've been getting more requests to do posts on proper punctuation, and one that a few people have mentioned is the em dash. I actually think this one is a little trickier to use than the semicolon (which I argue is actually one of the easiest), just because the rules surrounding it are more lax. However, like the semicolon, you can pretty much get away with almost never using it.

But a great em dash can be really effective, and sometimes it's just the punctuation mark you're looking for. It's worth noting that em dashes feel more informal. They make the text more casual, which may or may not be what you are looking for.

With that said, let's get started.

For Interruptions

As an editor, one of the most common (but understandable) problems I see with dashes is that the writer uses an ellipsis (. . .) to indicate an interruption instead of a dash. An ellipsis in dialogue means that the speaker sort of just trailed off:

"I don't know. Maybe it's something . . ." she trailed off.

But an em dash means they are cut off.

"I don't know. Maybe it's something--"
"Like an animal? Maybe a bear?" Callie interrupted. 

Interruptions may not always be from another speaker. They can be a sound in the environment:

"If only--"
A police siren suddenly went off. We looked at each other, and then ran pell-mell down the alley.

They can be an action in the environment:

"Now I just need peaches, grapes, apples and--"
A shopping cart crashed into mine.

Sometimes you can even get away with the character's own thoughts interrupting their dialogue if they have a sudden realization.

"I don't know! Maybe it's something like--"
A jaguar, she suddenly realized. Yes, that fit perfectly!

Basically when a character is cut off in dialogue (or in some cases, even thoughts), you should indicate that with an em dash. 

If action interrupts a complete sentence of dialogue, you set it off by em dashes:

"You said"--she wrenched open the car door--"that she would be safe!"

"You said that she would be safe" is a complete sentence, but "she wrenched open the car door" is an action, not a dialogue tag, so technically it should be set off like that example.

For a Sudden Change of Thought

Similarly, your character may sort of "interrupt" themselves in that they may have a sudden change of thought. In that case, use an em dash.

"If only--hey, want to go to dinner?" I asked.

This can sometimes happen out of dialogue if you are in deep viewpoint.

I slowly put down my bag. If only--maybe she'd want to go to dinner.

As a Counterpoint to Parentheses

Em dashes can also function like parentheses . . . but different.

Parentheses imply a sort of aside. I personally think of parentheses as the "whisper" equivalent of writing. It's additional information that is read "quieter," like having a friend whisper something to you when you are at a lecture.

Dashes can set information aside too, but rather than "whisper" it, it's being highlighted. It carries a little more intensity and tends to be read at a faster pace than parentheses. (Even though it may be additional, side information.)

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--and piled them into his shopping basket.

Notice how this has a slightly slower, less intense feel when in parentheses:

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see (root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta) and piled them into his shopping basket.

Dashes are also a little different in that if you use a dash to set off the beginning or end part of a sentence, you don't need a second one. You only need two when you're setting off something in the middle of a sentence.

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta. He piled them into his shopping basket.


Root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--he grabbed every kind of soda he could see. He piled them into his shopping basket.

With parentheses, you always need to close them.

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see (root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta). He piled them into his shopping basket.

And you typically don't start a sentence with parentheses, unless the entire sentence is in parentheses.

For Quick Emphasis

Similar to the last section, you can also use em dashes for quick impact.

You can use a dash to highlight or emphasize a single word.

There was only one place he dreamed of being--Hawaii

This can also work in places where parentheses typically won't (which is why I'm putting this in its own section).

Hawaii--it was the only place he dreamed of being.

Of course, you can do this with more than one word.

Joshua had two loves in life--Lucy and tater tots. 

To Help Readability

Dashes can also be used to help make a sentence easier to read. This is usually done when a phrase set off by commas has a lot of its own commas within it.

When the medicine arrived, about two months, three stomach aches, five headaches, and six sleepless nights later, she felt so sick, she didn't know if she could keep the pills down, so she begged to be taken back to the hospital. 


When the medicine arrived--about two months, three stomach aches, five headaches, and six sleepless nights later--she felt so sick, she didn't know if she could keep the pills down, so she begged to be taken back to the hospital.

Like a lot of things in writing, you can argue that some of these sections overlap (because can't this dashed part just be put in parentheses? Or be considered an interruption?).

For Missing Text

This is sort of outdated and not something I recommend using except in special circumstances.

Sometimes the em dash is used to show that certain text has been left out. If you read some older books, like some of the classics, you may notice em dashes are used to avoid giving specific dates or names.

For example, in Jane Eyre, you will find text like this:

Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield, near Millcote, ----shire.

Which is meant to say the place is called something shire.

Or you may find dates like this:


So the story avoids giving a specific year.

Fiction today doesn't usually do that.

The em dash can also be used this way when the text is unknown. The only way I can see this working in fiction today, is if your character found a paper or something that was damaged so they could not make out the words properly. You might would write the note like this:

My dear ------,
Please come to m---- at t---- and bring ------

When used this way, two em dashes denote part of a missing word and three em dashes denote a whole word is missing.

It's completely possible to go through your whole writing career and never need to use em dashes this way.

Hyphens vs. En Dashes vs. Em Dashes

When people talk about "dashes," they are almost always talking about the em dash, which is what this whole article has been about, but there is also the en dash and the hyphen. En dashes are shorter than em dashes and hyphens are shorter than en dashes.

Hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—)

An en dash is about as long as the letter "n" and an em dash is about as long as the letter "m" (which is where they get their names).

The differences between the hyphen and the en dash can get a little fuzzy in the industry, so I'm going to pull from the The Chicago Manual of Style (which is what fiction uses) website and let them explain it.

The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related, usually words that function together as a single concept or work together as a joint modifier (e.g., tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds).

The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance, as in the May–September issue of a magazine; it’s not a May-September issue, because June, July, and August are also ostensibly included in this range. And in fact en dashes specify any kind of range, which is why they properly appear in indexes when a range of pages is cited (e.g., 147–48). En dashes are also used to connect a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II.

You probably don't need to worry too much about the differences between a hyphen and an en dash, so I don't recommend stressing about it. Just know they are different, and you can look them up if you really need to. And definitely don't go walking around like you are smarter than everyone because you can tell the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

How to Properly Write an Em Dash

You may notice now that you don't actually have an em dash key on your keyboard. You have a hyphen. This often gets used as both a hyphen and an en dash. To denote an em dash, you hit that key twice (--); today, most word processors will automatically turn that into an em dash (—).

In the traditional, standard manuscript format, em dashes are written as --. This is in part because SMF uses a Courier font, where every character is the same width, so technically a hyphen is going to look the same as an em dash, so you need to use two hyphens to indicate an em dash. You can also use two hyphens to indicate an em dash when automatic reformatting is unavailable. You've probably noticed on my blog that I usually use -- for my em dashes. My blogging platform does not reformat them to em dashes, and I have much better things to do than copy and paste them all in. Besides, there is nothing "wrong" with using --, technically speaking. It's just if something is going to be professionally printed, you should use —.

In fiction, there should be no spaces before or after the em dash.


He grabbed every kind of soda he could see — root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta — and piled them into his shopping basket.


He grabbed every kind of soda he could see—root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta—and piled them into his shopping basket.

Also Fine:

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--and piled them into his shopping basket.

(But reformat for professional printing)

And that's about all you need to know about em dashes for fiction writing.

Monday, July 22, 2019

6 Skills Fiction Writing Will Give You

Pursuing writing long-term changes you. In fact, pursuing any skill long-term will change you. At least in some way. Whether that's self-discipline or physical dexterity. Often the life benefits of writing are far from tangible, so they can be hard to measure. But on days where writing and editing feel like the worst, it's helpful to look at how they can lead to valuable skills. Heck, it's helpful to look at that even when writing feels like the best!

So today I want to share six skills that can develop from fiction writing. (Though I'm by no means a psychologist. These are just my personal opinions.)

1. You Can Come Up with New Ideas

A lot of writing is brainstorming. A lot. The older I get, the more I realize that our minds really are similar to muscles. The way we think, and how often we think that way, strengthens that thought process, and from there we develop thought patterns. They've done studies, and people who complain a lot literally change their neural pathways, and if they do it long enough, it creates a figurative "rut," making it more difficult to stop complaining. (BTW, the opposite is true--those who think more grateful thoughts have more grateful thought patterns.) How and what you think matters.

Now turn this another direction. When you are a writer, you have to come up with lots of ideas. Over time, you may gain certain insights about the process of doing that, like how the first ideas that come to mind are usually the most cliche (that's why they come first), and how you have to ask and address a lot of questions to hone a usable concept. As you brainstorm over and over, through hours, days, months--years--you may learn (if only subconsciously) to consider things no one else in your circle has even thought of. You may come up with ideas and perspectives that may sound brand new.

I'm not saying that all of us become magically innovative and that it's quick and easy--brainstorming new ideas can still be rather difficult (because they are new ideas!) and definitely can feel like work. But if given the time you need (almost every first idea is a cliche), you can probably come up with new ideas.

2. You Can Ask Questions No One Else Thinks Of

Part of writing a story is asking and addressing a lot of questions. This happens in the brainstorming process, it happens in the writing process, it happens in the editing process, and it happens in the beta-reader process. Some of the most important key elements of brainstorming are to ask, "How?", "Why?", "What if?", and "So what?" This bleeds into the writing processes. How does this magic actually work? Why does that character act that way? What if X event happened? Why do we care about this goal (so what?)? Not only do you need to ask and address questions for content, but then you have to ask and address questions the audience is going to have, based on how you tell the story. You have to consider the different thought processes that different types of readers will have, and subtly speak to those.

Beyond that, you also have to consider what I think of as "negative" questions. Instead of asking how your magic works, you also have to ask how it doesn't work, and why. What are the limitations? What if this character doesn't behave how most people would? What if that villain wasn't actually evil? What if the protagonist doesn't get what she wants? Then what?

You have to consider and ask a lot of questions (even if some of them happen subconsciously). And then solve or find answers for them.

Outside of writing, this skill can help you become more insightful. When you ask questions no one else thinks of, you find answers and information that no one else realized they needed. You might be able to solve or prevent problems others didn't foresee. Or you may come to realizations, connections, and epiphanies that were inaccessible before. All in all, you will probably become sharper than you were before pursuing writing.

3. You Can Bring Specificity to Vagueness (Something Highly Undervalued but Extremely Important)

When you first get an idea for a story, the idea is usually vague. It might be a small concept or insight, or a notion, or even just a general aesthetic. And guess what? From that point to the point you finish writing the book, you are essentially taking vague concepts and notions and trying to make them specific and concrete. The warm, fuzzy, love feeling you got when you had the flash of inspiration that your protagonist should fall in love? Yeah, you actually have to write that into language. That is specific. AND concrete. Because that's the only way the reader is going to experience that same warm, fuzzy, love feeling about your protagonist falling in love. It isn't always easy, but that is essentially what you are doing over and over and over again, day in and day out. (And one of the reasons why some say you should stay true to the vision you have of the story, not necessarily all your initial concepts of it.)

Guess what? In the real world there is a lot of vagueness. Because it is vagueness, it's hard to explain. But what's weird is that I've found that often vagueness relates directly to language. Think about it. When you experience something vague and try to explain it to another person, the reason it often feels vague is because you can't find the right words to communicate the experience. This could get deep into the trenches of linguistics and philosophy, like how how we think is influenced by the language we speak, creating a kind of circuitry; and how we are all limited by the imperfections and figurative "ceilings" of our own chosen tongue. But let's leave that for the college classrooms. Suffice it to say that writing helps you learn how to take vague things and translate them into something more specific.

Other than being equipped with the power of words, this is also done by asking questions. When we encounter something vague, we ask questions to find its boundaries and limitations so we can categorize it. For example, if you saw a new animal you've never seen before, you'd look at the boundaries of it--how many legs does it have? What kind of skin does it have? You'll ask questions until you can categorize it into something more specific. Mammal -- herbivore -- some kind of primate. This is an accessible example to illustrate the point.

Why does this matter? The less vague we are, the better we communicate. The more specific we are, the better we can discern subtle nuances and variations, allowing us to come to better insights, conclusions, and innovations. Imagine a world where all of our emotions were categorized as either positive or negative. Our whole life experiences would be different. There is no concept of "mad" or "sad" or "hurt," only "negative," and there is no concept of "happy," "peaceful," and "energetic," only "positive." It would impact everything of our human existence--how we interact, problem solve, communicate. We would not be able to fully discern all the nuances, like the differences between "happy" and "thrilled." If we cannot discern the nuances, the differences, the boundaries, we cannot progress in our understanding concerning that topic.

This is one reason why I'm slightly annoyed with the new thought process concerning Adam and Eve having to experience everything to be able to tell the difference between good and evil; today, people say, "That's a dumb idea, because the taste of broccoli doesn't change the taste of chocolate." But that's not the point! The point is that until we can grasp differences, boundaries, nuances, specifics--we cannot know new things. And if we cannot know new things, we cannot discern, and if we cannot discern we cannot grow and increase in intelligence and we cannot govern appropriately. (Sorry, tangent.)

It kind of makes you wonder about all the things we don't now know because we lack the necessary specifics to discern. . . . Anyway, that went deep quick. See what I mean about these skills not being tangible? One thing worth mentioning in this category is that you'll also be able to help put specific words and concepts to things others can't explain, which can be really validating and a relief to them.

4. You Can Listen and Communicate Better

On the surface, you wouldn't think this relates to the last section, but it does. A lot. (Notice how much all these things actually relate?) Writing helps you understand language better--that might not be a process you are conscious of, but it will eventually happen. Different words carry different meanings: "happy" vs. "thrilled." They're different. As you pursue writing, you'll become more aware of specific word choice. As a result, when people speak to you, you'll hear the specific word choice, the nuances, the connotations, the implications, because the difference between someone using the word "broken" over "damaged" is very real to you. And you probably won't even have to consciously think about it. You'll be able to hear the difference between "annoyed" and "resentful," and as a result, you'll also have better recall for exactly what someone said--because the specificity meant something to you.

Likewise, you'll be able to use that understanding of specificity to communicate better to others. But it's more than that. When writing a story, it's not just about communicating with words. It's also about communicating through characters' body language and action. It's about what's not being said and the way it's not as much as what's on the page. So you'll probably become more aware of body language and when people are holding back something. Again, it may not be something you are fully conscious of, but it will probably happen.

On the other hand, functioning this way can be a problem and annoying. People may tell me something, and because I hear specificity automatically, I may hear something more than they intend. I once had a brief argument with a family member who said the grill was "broken," when in actuality, it turned on and worked all right, it just didn't get very hot. To that person, that meant "broken." To me "broken" means the grill doesn't work hardly at all and you can't cook anything on it. Once we realized this, we started laughing. But the reverse happens. I'll say something as specific as possible to someone else, but later get annoyed that they "misheard" me--in reality it's ridiculous for me to expect others to hear the exact same things I hear in words (at the time, I didn't realize this is what was happening, but now that I know, things are better). So, specificity is very important and helpful, but on the other hand, you have to keep in mind that most of the world isn't so specific when communicating.

5. You'll Be Able to Find and Predict Intangible Patterns and Outcomes Quicker

Much of storytelling deals with cause and effect, choices and outcomes, events and results, rising action, climax, and consequences. As the famous example goes, "The king died, and then the queen died," isn't a story, but "The king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart" is. Outcomes and consequences make story. As writers, we look at these relationships a lot: Why is this character doing this? (I need to go back and consider what caused this motivation). What if the love interest dies? (What are the outcomes of that?) When the antagonist is defeated, how will that change the world? (Consequences.) What is the origin of my protagonist's fears? (Cause.) Even within writing a scene, we may mentally be jumping to the past, considering the characters' or world's history, the future, what needs to happen to get to the climax, or even sideways, what is happening off page at the same time and how that will affect things. But we may only really be writing directly about the "present." As a result (see what I did there?), we are used to zooming out to look at the big picture within minutes of zooming in to look at the smallest picture. We look at cause and effect and how that result will go on and on into the future.

In the real world, that would seem to result in us being able to do the same thing more easily or quickly. Maybe we don't predict the stock market or weather, but we can probably pick up on cause and effect patterns on more human or societal levels. We might be able to predict more easily how someone is going to respond because it's easier for us to look at their choices and outcomes of the past. Sometimes it might seem like we just know. Factor into this the abilities to consider questions others may not, to listen better, and to bring vague things into specifics, and this can be an incredible and helpful asset.

This can happen on the small scale, like noticing a pattern in your child's behavior that gives you insight on how to parent them. Or it can happen on a much larger scale, like how public events and societal choices funnel into a new zeitgeist (or I guess the term I hear people use today is our societal "climate," which is essentially what "zeitgeist" means). After all, when we are creating our story's theme, we are essentially simulating the same thing.

6. You'll Become More Empathetic and Tolerant

Studies show that those who read are more empathetic. Isn't that great? And it makes complete sense. Literature is pretty much the only medium where you actually put on another person's "mind" and "body."

Now look at the writing process. You are essentially doing that twofold. Writers often have to know more things about their characters than the audience. In some stories, they may have to know their protagonist more personally than they know other people. And their antagonist often has to view themselves as the hero of their own story. Every time a writer is sitting down to write, they have to filter the story through a viewpoint character, they have to take on the thoughts, worldviews, body, and experiences of someone else, whether that person is a hero, villain, antihero, male, female, black, white, biracial, gay, straight, child, parent, thief, scapegoat, priest, drug addict, whatever. Even if the writer fails to convey that perspective exactly right, they are still actively engaging in the activity more often than most non-writers. If you are sincerely, genuinely trying to see the world from other people's perspectives over and over again, what's going to happen? You'll probably become more empathetic and tolerant.

Empathy is like a superpower. How many times do you hear people say some rendition of, "I wish someone understood me"? I hear it all the time. Empathy satisfies that. Empathy enables you to connect with and love all kinds of people as they are on a personal level. And when you are at that level, you can see better how to help others and what their needs are, whether that's with an understanding ear or offering sincere advice. But most of all, you can see better how to be genuinely kind to them. Empathy of course has its place and limitations, but this is one attribute that can for sure change the world. And when you share what you write, you will be helping others develop more empathy.

Like empathy, everything I've touched on here has its limitations, and these are all generalities (and concepts I'm trying to put words to). And I worry that in talking about the non-writing benefits of writing, that I've inspired arrogance. Rest assured that you are special . . . like everyone else. Really, like I said at the beginning, any skill you pursue at long-term will change you, even your thought patterns. So if this post makes you feel more confident, great! But you don't need to go marching around like you are better than non-writers. (Give me a break. The last thing we need in this industry is more elitism.) But my point is, pursuing writing will change you! As a side effect, it may give you skills you weren't even looking for. And that, my friends, is a wonderful thing--whether you publish or not.

There are of course loads of other benefits as well, such as developing perseverance, patience, self-discipline, precision . . . but I wanted to focus on skills related more closely to writing. It does help develop all those, but so do many, many other pursuits. And of course, there are negative effects that can happen as you pursue this, but that's for another day.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Story Shape that Permeates Just About Everything

I've been working on a scene this last week for my next book, and it's been giving me some grief, so last Thursday I decided to sit down and focus on figuring out why I was having such a difficult time getting it on the page. (The starting of the scene came fine, but then I got to a section that was not coming together.) Some of the reasons I knew right away. The magic system in and of itself is innately difficult to write about, because of the subject matter I chose it to be about (and the lack of vocabulary we have about said subject within the English language doesn't help). I had certain plot restrictions and subtext I needed to get on the page with a careful hand, which can be really tricky if I don't want it to be annoying or blatant. And finally, I realized this section, of perhaps a half-dozen paragraphs, needed a Freytag Pyramid to work right.

You see, we often talk about the Freytag Pyramid as an overall story structure. Sure, we can talk about plot point, midpoints, and more advanced forms of story structure, but at the bare bones, a story needs to follow Freytag's Pyramid (you've heard me talk about this before). Rising action, climax, falling action. Don't underestimate the basics people! I run into writers once in a while that mock Freytag's Pyramid today, because of its simplicity. But just about every successful story structure today fits within that bare bone structure.

The longer I work in this industry, the more I realize that this structure doesn't just fit overall story structure. It fits just about everywhere in smaller sizes. As I wrote about in another post, it fits into almost every single scene. Right now I'm watching Stranger Things, and guess what? Basically every scene follows that same shape in some way: setup, rising action, climax, falling action. It's just shorter.

What's crazy is that this isn't limited to writing. Freytag's Pyramid is all over the place. You can find it in dance performances: setup, rising action, climax, falling action. You can find it in music: setup rising action, climax, falling action. You can find it . . . elsewhere ;) (hey, if I didn't acknowledge it, I knew someone would be stuck thinking it). You can find it within relationships. You can find it in storms. You can find it when you are getting groceries in the grocery store. It seems to permeate just about everything in the universe, even our sun's life cycle.

I know what you are thinking: AGAIN?! But just hang with me and read the article.

In writing, it happens over and over again. Sometimes even within paragraphs, which was exactly what my scene needed. Heck, it can even happen within sentences. Freytag's Pyramid has motion. And sometimes when I feel a scene or a part of a scene starting to go stagnant, it's because it doesn't have that shape.

Now, does Freytag's Pyramid literally need to be in everything? Of course not. There are always exceptions.

But it can happen on a very small scale.

It can happen within dialogue of a scene:


SHERLOCK: Molly, please, without asking why, just say these words.

MOLLY: What words?

SHERLOCK: I love you.

MOLLY: Leave me alone.

Rising Action

SHERLOCK: Molly, no, please, no, don’t hang up! Do not hang up!

MOLLY: Why are you doing this to me? Why are you making fun of me?

SHERLOCK: Please, I swear, you just have to listen to me.

SHERLOCK: Molly, this is for a case. It’s ... it’s a sort of experiment.

MOLLY: I’m not an experiment, Sherlock.

SHERLOCK: No, I know you’re not an experiment. You’re my friend. We’re friends. But ... please. Just ... say those words for me.

MOLLY: Please don’t do this. Just ... just ... don’t do it.

SHERLOCK: It’s very important. I can’t say why, but I promise you it is.

MOLLY: I can’t say that. I can’t ... I can’t say that to you.

SHERLOCK: Of course you can. Why can’t you?

MOLLY: You know why.

SHERLOCK: No, I don’t know why.

MOLLY: Of course you do.

SHERLOCK: Please, just say it.

MOLLY: I can’t. Not to you.


MOLLY: Because ... because it’s true.

MOLLY: Because ... it’s ... true, Sherlock.

MOLLY: It’s always been true.

SHERLOCK: Well, if it’s true, just say it anyway.

MOLLY: You b------

SHERLOCK: Say it anyway.

MOLLY: You say it. Go on. You say it first.


MOLLY: Say it. Say it like you mean it.


SHERLOCK: I love you.

SHERLOCK: I love you.


SHERLOCK: Molly, please.


MOLLY: I love you.

Falling Action

(Both John and Mycroft heave out noisy sighs of relief. Sherlock also sighs and buries his head in both hands. In her kitchen, Molly closes her eyes. She puts the phone down and raises both hands to her mouth.)

It can happen within an action:

(I'm using a poem for this one. Brackets mine. Also, FYI, you aren't actually supposed to pause at the end of each line when reading poetry, unless it has a natural pause there.)

Kissing a Horse [Also, in a lot of poems, the setup happens in the title.]
By Robert Wrigley

Of the two spoiled, barn-sour geldings
we owned that year, it was Red—
skittish and prone to explode
even at fourteen years—who’d let me
hold to my face his own [<--setup][rising action-->]: the massive labyrinthine
caverns of the nostrils, the broad plain
up the head to the eyes. He’d let me stroke
his coarse chin whiskers and take
his soft meaty underlip
in my hands, [<--the description, the detail, leads up to the moment] press my man’s carnivorous
kiss to his grass-nipping upper half of one [<-- climax] [falling action -->], just
so that I could smell
the long way his breath had come from the rain
and the sun, the lungs and the heart,
from a world that meant no harm.

I consider that section the falling action, because it shows the consequences and changes from the climax.

It can happen with a single brief subject in a paragraph:

(This is a prose poem I wrote for my poetry class in college years ago. Poems are easy to grab as small-scale examples.)

Considering the Pointe Shoes
By September C. Fawkes

Whoever called them slippers, never put them on. Those boxes of cloth and glue, cage your toes and stink of fabric scraps and string bits. The ribbons snake around your ankles. The shanks jab into your soles as you, with duck feet, waddle to the wings, a hollow clunk, clunk, clunk. I once smiled when I jammed my feet inside—it was something revered, wearing Pointe shoes; something I have done more than once, more than twice, more than three years. I pressed my silk sneakers into the floor, held my breath as my insides fluttered, and, tensing my muscles, elevated to my toes, lifted one foot, and balanced in passé while my palm hovered over the ballet barre. One time at a theatre I watched a ballerina glide across the stage and leap into the air. The Pointe shoes curved in crescents, molding to her feet like leather. For a moment we all soared with her: the audience, the usher, the technician in the control box; our chins lifted, our eyes shining, our lips slightly parted. Everything silent and serene, like the flight of a falcon bathed in sunlight.

I feel kind of weird talking about my own work to you guys, but hopefully this illustrates the point. The title sets us up for the subject matter of the paragraph. The paragraph starts with sort of "first experiences" or "beginning" experiences with Pointe shoes. It then rises from walking around in Pointe shoes to actually practicing them at a ballet barre, then the climax happens when we see a professional ballerina in them on stage.

When talking about processes or working within descriptions a nice trick to use is an extended metaphor that is introduced, then rises, then climaxes. In here, I tried to use bird and bird-like terms that way:

cage your toes
you, with duck feet, waddle
held my breath as my insides fluttered
my palm hovered
I watched a ballerina glide
For a moment, we all soared
like the flight of a falcon

So we move from being caged, to walking around with duck feet, to fluttering, to hovering, to gliding, to soaring, to flying like a falcon.

But on a smaller scale, there are other rising actions. Notice the progression within a single sentence.

I once smiled when I jammed my feet inside—it was something revered, wearing Pointe shoes; something I have done more than once, more than twice, more than three years.

When working on the small scale, you can also create Freytag's Pyramid within beats and rhythm.

Here is another poem I wrote for that same class that is essentially nothing more than a description of a candy shop. (Remember you don't pause at the end of the lines, unless it naturally happens. If you do, it will change the rhythm and may not illustrate my point.)

By September C. Fawkes

Where the door jingles open
with a greeting and shuts with a creaking,
an assortment of jelly beans—
yellow, blue, green, red, purple,
striped, swirled, speckled,
very cherry, French vanilla, tutti fruitti,
lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper
—burst from jars,

suckers, Congo squares, saltwater
taffy spill out of baskets,
and the heavy scent of cocoa
hangs in the air.

Where saliva thickens and greedy
customers grasp handfuls
of licorice and lollipops,

wrappers wrinkle, crinkle and twist,
glisten like linoleum, and are peeled
away like wax.

Where English toffees crunch, cementing
teeth shut, and truffles melt
across the tongue like dark velvet—
so rich it make your mouth tingle,

where bags and boxes are bunched together,
where the tinkling of glass containers permeate the room,

where sticky fingers dig
into pockets, seek change for chews,
chocolates, brownies, bon-bons, butter
cups, caramels, candied apples, coated nuts,
and haystacks,

sits a man. With white hair, creases in his face,
bifocals on the bridge of his nose, and donning
a sugar-stained apron.

This is a little trickier to talk about (especially since I'm not musical), because its the beats. Hopefully (if college me did a good enough job), you can hear a kind of crescendo. Particularly at the climax:

where sticky fingers dig
into pockets, seek change for chews,
chocolates, brownies, bon-bons, butter
cups, caramels, candied apples, coated nuts,
and haystacks,

sits a man.

And then the falling action sounds much calmer (calmer than any other stanza):

sits a man. With white hair, creases in his face,
bifocals on the bridge of his nose, and donning
a sugar-stained apron.

But still, you could break this process down further and look at smaller pieces, like within just the first stanza, which is actually not even a full sentence:

Where the door jingles open
with a greeting and shuts with a creaking,
an assortment of jelly beans—
yellow, blue, green, red, purple,
striped, swirled, speckled,
very cherry, French vanilla, tutti fruitti,
lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper
—burst from jars,

Notice the rhythm before the first comma seems rather calm. When we get to describing the actual jelly beans, it becomes more intense; this is in part because of the names, but it's also in part because it's such a long list. We aren't used to lists going on that long in creative writing, so it carries a kind of tension (when is it going to end?). It also moves from general to specific: yellow, blue --> tutti fruitti, lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper. General words often carry less . . . weight? (Not sure on the word.) Than specific words. General words are more . . . invisible, than specific words, so they pack less punch.

When writing a book, you can create similar effects, increasing the intensity in beat and rhythm as a sort of "rising action" before you hit the musical climax.

Anyway, needless to say, once I realized my paragraphs weren't working in part because they needed Freytag's Pyramid shaped within them (in my case, these paragraphs are describing an important, significant process so I couldn't skimp out on it), things got better from there. I mostly have that figured out now.

Do you really need to be this detailed and intense? Not necessarily. I just sat back and wrote down what wasn't working in order to figure out how to make it better. And in that situation, that was one of the things I needed. But I certainly think it's helpful to be aware of how Freytag's Pyramid works on the small scale and can be something we can utilize.

Unfortunately, neither of my poems that I shared today were ever picked up by any magazines when I sent them out years ago, but I'm still happy with how they turned out (even if I do see some potential flaws in them), so it was nice to finally share them with someone outside my college's English department.

P.S. Another way to look at this might be tension --> release, tension --> release, if that works for your brain more. But for me, that's too linear and not specific enough. Tension and release isn't enough to make the story work. You need to build up the tension. And often you need to set the stage. So I like setup, rising action, climax, falling action. Although in some cases, the falling action may be cut off.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Creating Fictional Languages (Conlangs)

I wish I could say I'm an amazing linguist and could give you my take on creating languages for fiction, but I'm not and I can't. 

So seems kind of strange I'm doing this post, right?

Well, recently I spent a good deal of time researching how to actually make a constructed language (the term for a constructed language is "conlang," by the way), so I could create one for a manuscript. It was easier than I was expecting (and yet more complex than I was expecting at the same time), and super fascinating! So I wanted to do a recap/review of my experience for anyone else out there looking to do this from scratch. If I can do it, chances are so can you! (For the record, I don't speak any other languages.)

I used a couple of resources, but I found this guide to be my favorite.

As Always, Start with the Basics

The idea of creating a language can seem really daunting, especially when you look at conlangs like Tolkien's Elvish or Star Trek's Klingon--which are essentially full "complete" languages. But like just about everything, you don't need to start with a huge complicated language, you need to start with the bare basics, and you know what's amazing about the basics? Everything else builds off them!

And as an added bonus, for books, you don't actually need a complete language, you just need to give the impression of one. (However, if you are the type of person who really gets into this, you might have so much fun that you don't stop and that's cool!)

At this point, some of you may be wondering if it's really necessary to even create a language--that depends on the project, the effect you want, and your personal opinion. Because I want to expand my conlang to other projects, I decided to create one--even if I only needed 4 - 6 sentences for my current WIP. 😂🙈

The Very Basics

If you're like me, when you think of creating a language, you think of coming up with words and sentences. But guess what? Those aren't the very basics! Sounds are.

So if you are going to create a language from scratch, it will go in this order:

Sounds --> Syllables --> Words --> Sentences

Roughly. You might have already made up a few words, and that's okay. You can break what you have down to syllables and sounds, and when you identify those, build from there.

Selecting Sounds

Each of the three sources I used (including a linguist briefly), said to start with sound. If you aren't really sure how to do that, I'll get you going in this section.

So, there is this thing called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and it includes every sound of every language (even has clicks!). If you've looked up words in the dictionary, you've probably noticed symbols like this:

That's how to pronounce the word using IPA symbols.

You can go to and click on the symbols to hear the sounds. The chart is also organized based on where in the mouth (and how) a sound is made.

But if you want to give the impression of a real language, you shouldn't just jump in and pick a bunch randomly, because there are natural reasons certain sounds occur together and others don't.

You think I know all the ins-and-outs of those rules? No way! But this video will help guide you.

Some of the common sounds in languages include: p, t, k, s, h, m, n

Some sounds are voiced, some are not (compare how you say the "p" sound with the "b" sound--they are essentially the same, but "b" requires your vocal chords). If a language has the voiced version of an obstruent consonant (ex. "b"), it will also have the voiceless version ("p"), but not necessarily vice versa. Most languages have at least one nasal (such as "m" or "n") and one (what's called) liquid (such as "r," "l," or "w")

Most languages have five vowels, but every language has at least two.

Most languages have 20-30 sounds. But if you want a distinct language with more "character," it might be smart to go with fewer.

Making Syllables

I thought I had a good understanding of what a syllable was. After all, I remember clapping words out like "ap-ple" and "bas-ket-ball" when I was in elementary school. And as a native English speaker, that was good enough for me.

What I didn't know was that in other languages, there are actual rules for syllables!

That's when I realized my understanding of syllables was rather narrow.

But don't worry, it's still not too crazy.

You can handle it.

In general, a syllable is made up of these components: the onset, the nucleus (hey, bet you didn't know we had sciency terms), and the coda.

So in the syllable "bas" (for "basketball"), "b" is the onset, "a" is the nucleus, and "s" is the coda. Bas. Ket. The "k" is the onset, "e" is the nucleus, and "t" is the coda.

Every syllable has a nucleus (almost always a vowel), but not every syllable has an onset or a coda (for example "ap" in "apple" doesn't have an onset, and the "za" in "pizza" doesn't have a coda).

Some languages have rules for codas.

Hawaiian is what's called an "open syllable" language. That means none of their syllables have a coda. They all end on the vowel. Have you noticed? Ho-no-lu-lu. A-lo-ha. O-ha-na.

Other languages have codas, but only certain sounds can be a coda.

Mandarin has set codas. Only "n," "ng," and "r" can be codas. So every Mandarin syllable will end in "n," "ng," "r," or a vowel (nucleus) as an open syllable.

Crazy, right?

One thing I've learned from this process is that the English language is super crazy. For example, we sometimes have syllables with up to five codas! "Angsts."

Along with syllables, you'll want to consider stress. Some languages have very specific rules for stress. For example, in Finnish, stress always falls on the first syllable of a word. In Armenian, it's always the last syllable. Some have systems like "always the second-to-last syllable unless the last syllable is open." Then you have languages like English that is kinda haywire, but the stress can also change the meaning of the word, like in "present": PREsent or preSENT.

I've learned I'm kind of terrible with stress! (Luckily my language will be written more than spoken).

Hawaiian is an open syllable language. Every syllable ends in a vowel.

Creating Words

Now you can get to creating words.

First you want to create some simple root words. String together your sounds into syllables, and your syllables into words (make sure you follow any rules you set). Root words are words that can't be divided down further. Often these have simple concepts.

There is more you can go into here, like creating (believable) prefixes and suffixes, compound words, articles, plurals. If you want to make this realistic, you can check out Biblaridion's videos. He explains things like how prepositions often come from either nouns or adjectives.

Structuring Sentences

Once you have a few words, you can start making some simple sentences. First you'll need to decide the basic word order. In English, we structure basic sentences as subject, verb, object.

Here are your options:

Subject, verb, object -- I hug her.
Subject, object, verb -- I her hug.
Object, subject, verb -- Her I hug.
Object, verb, subject -- Her hug I.
Verb, subject, object -- Hug I her.
Verb, object, subject -- Hug her I.
(Note: some languages can actually go in any order, but the words have to be modified)

Then you will be able to start constructing simple sentences with your words.

Beyond that, you have adjectives, which describe nouns.

Adjectives are primarily derived from either nouns or verbs.

Derived from nouns: I hunt tall thing animal.
Derived from verbs: I hunt animal [that] is talling.

English adjectives primarily come from nouns. If your adjectives are primarily from nouns, they will go before the noun. If your adjectives come from verbs, they will go after the noun they are describing.

Similarly, prepositions originate from nouns or verbs. Likewise, if your prepositions come from nouns, they will go before the noun. If they come from verbs, they will go after (and technically be called "postpositions")

Then you have possessors ("the man's food"). Most of the time, languages will order the possessor like an adjective, so it will go where your adjectives go. Either "man's food" or "food of man."

After this basic word order, you will need to consider tenses--if your language has them. Some of them don't.

Yoda talks in a different word order than typical of English.

Language Evolution

All languages evolve and change over time. If you are trying to give the impression of a real language, yours should probably "evolve" as well. I'll be honest, some of this stuff was a little over my head, but I think if I were to go over it several times, I'd get it.

Why didn't I simulate this?

Well, luckily, my fake language is meant to be very ancient, so it wouldn't have evolved much, so I didn't stress about this part.

Here is a video on how to evolve your language phonetically.

And here is a video on how to evolve your language grammatically.

Once you have established (and written down!) all your language's sounds, structures, and grammar, you are set to create whatever sentences you need as you need them. You can "grow" your language from there, and it will stay consistent, giving the impression of a real language. Just don't forget to record all your made-up words in a dictionary. And when making new words, check to see if you can make them out of words you've already made up.

How cool is all that?

One more thing, your language may need a writing system. With that said, not all languages have had writing systems. This video will guide you through different types of writing systems, how they develop, and how they evolve. It's just as fascinating.

If you do need a language, I highly suggest Biblaridion's playlist, which will guide you through the whole process.

Until next time . . .

Vol shēla hla

(P.S. If anyone who knows more about languages than me would like to chime in, feel free to comment!)

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Passive Value Heroine

Probably the majority of us have brainstormed or written her at some point, but if we haven't done that, we have encountered her, even if we didn't realized it. She's a reoccurring character type with a long history, and as a trope, she probably has a name, but I don't know what it is.

So I call her the passive value heroine.

She's a protagonist, a main viewpoint character, or a side character. Actually, she pretty much can be in any role.

But she's a female character that is valued based on what she is, rather than what she does.

Thus, her value is based on a passive trait. Not something she chose. Not something she harnessed and worked at. Something she just is.

In contrast, the passive value hero almost never appears (at least from my experience--I mean, right now, I can't think of a single one). Rarely, it seems, are males only valued solely based on what they are.

The passive value heroine can be problematic for obvious reasons.

But she's not always bad and can be balanced out or handled in successful ways.

She still appears in successful stories.

So don't feel like you have to scratch her out completely. But it's helpful to be aware of her.

But why does she keep appearing all over the place and in our writing? Even when more than ever, we are pushing for active female characters? Even when we are trying to write pro-feminist heroines, she's there. Even when she's meant to be a "strong female" lead, it's actually her, in disguise.

If you've written her, you aren't crazy. You aren't a woman-hater. And you aren't a jerk.

The reality is, she's been prevalent in storytelling for so long, that a lot of us just grab her without realizing who she is. It's subconscious.

The passive value heroine goes way back in history. I know for a fact she goes clear back to the King Arthur legends, but I'm sure she probably goes back even further than that.

The passive value heroine goes back to the King Arthur legends, and is probably even older.

You see, back in the day, in most dominating societies, female characters were valued based on passive traits. Usually these traits were things like virginity, innocence, and beauty.

Knights and male leads would revere her, go to battle, even die for her, to protect and uphold her. 

Look at those traits though. They are all passive. Virginity isn't even necessarily the exact same as being chaste. A woman could be taken advantage of, losing her virginity against her will, but still be chaste in spirit. (Okay, this could go on a historical tangent, so let's move on.) Innocence is just something someone is--it's based on a lack of experience of the world. Likewise, beauty is the same. Sure, in today's day and age, we can enhance our appearance and look more beautiful, but traditionally (and some would still argue this today) beauty is just something some people have.

Likewise, a lot of these sorts of traits are qualities that encourage inaction and inexperience. Obviously a virgin is someone who doesn't have sexual experience. Someone who is naive and innocent lacks experience of the world. And often the enemy of beauty is aging--which just comes with the experience of time.

It's kinda crazy, but in one sense, by having stories where males are willing to fight and die for their women who exemplify these qualities, we are a shaping a thought process, an ideology, that states that a passive woman is a most valuable woman, which is also a great way to keep women from progressing and being active in society.

But this idea has been perpetuated through centuries, even through the millennia.

Even today, when we try to write "strong female protagonists," a lot of us try to do it by giving the heroine a super powerful ability that she just has or is just born with.

She just is the strongest hero.

She just is the best shield.

She just is the key to saving the world.

She just is crazy talented at X.

She just is the best fighter.

In some cases, the value may be something she does obtain, but the choice for her to become or obtain said attribute, is made by other people, not her.

Someone else made her the most powerful superhero, without her consent.

Someone else did something that made her crazy talented at X.

Someone else marked her as the chosen one.

Now this doesn't mean that every female character like this is horrible and we're bad writers and this is the end of the world. But it's something we should be aware of and check in with from time to time.

Don't go overboard and run to the other extreme . . . with a similar result.

On the flip side, I don't necessarily think we all need to go write stories about heroines who aren't virgins; have so much worldly experience, they are cynical; or that are super ugly (spoiler: "ugly" is arguably still a passive trait).

Sometimes by trying to fix what we perceive to be "weak" or "passive" heroines, we go overboard to the other extremes. And (kind of hilariously) end up on just another passive value, like ugliness. (Or, instead of being weak and powerless, she's incredibly strong and powerful, and yet it's still manifested as a passive trait because of how it is handled in the story.)

Instead, we might need to write more heroines who have active value. They have value because of what they choose to do, because of talent they've worked to develop, because of experience they've made a point to gain.

A lot of times, these things may come from unexpected or unobvious areas. But at least some of her value to the story, to the other characters, to herself, and to her society, needs to come from what she actively chooses to do and be. Not what she just is or has done to her.

Sometimes I wonder if in our quest to write more "strong female heroines," we've in a strange way become afraid of rendering true active traits. Active traits don't just happen. They require personal decisions. Even sacrifices. They require actual work. And often the most rewarding active traits come from hard work, which means moments of vulnerability and struggle. Not un-ending invincibility. In fact, sometimes being vulnerable is one of the strongest things a heroine can do in a moment. And in order for a struggle to actually be a struggle, it shouldn't be something she can easily do or obtain the first time.

In our quest to write "strong female heroines" don't be afraid to let her have weaknesses, be vulnerable, and legitimately struggle. We want to avoid extremes (usually). We may not want her weak and passive about everything. But we may not want her to be powerful and invincible with everything either. (In most stories anyway. There are absolutely exceptions, and stories where that is the point. I'm using this as a generality.)

Okay, so what do you do if you have a largely passive value heroine? Are you an awful person who needs to delete the whole story? Can you never have a passive value heroine?

Of course not.

Passive value heroines can be hecka interesting in their own way.

After all, passive values actually exist. There are people who are just amazingly naturally talented at something. There are people who are just naturally drop-dead gorgeous. There are people who are so naturally goodhearted, that you may want to take on an army to keep them from being eaten alive by the world.


You (often) need to balance that passive value out with some active values. Even if it's not always obvious.

She needs to be making her own significant decisions.

She needs to be working to develop something.

She needs to be gaining some of her own experience.

You can also find ways for a heroine to develop, enhance, or take advantage of her passive values intentionally, to be more active. Maybe she is weirdly, crazy good at playing the piano. Well, so what? What does she choose to do with that? How can she actively use that to contribute to the plot? And affect other characters?

Is she naturally drop-dead gorgeous? What can she choose to do with that? What sort of choices would someone like that make? What struggles will she be confronted with that she'll have to find ways to actively overcome? Life ain't always easy for the beautiful woman.

Vanya is largely a passive value heroine

If you've been online or around, you're probably aware that The Umbrella Academy on Netflix is making waves. And guess what? One of the main characters is largely a passive value heroine. If you haven't seen it and plan to, I definitely recommend you don't read the rest of this paragraph and skip the next one. But if you have, let's talk about some things. Who is the strongest superhero in the show? Vanya. Guess what? She's full of passive value. Not only does she have a power she was just born with (like all the others), but it's the most powerful ability, and it's the most uncontrolled ability. That's a passive value heroine. To make matters worse, she believes she's normal and doesn't have any ability--why? Because someone else made the decision for her (cue entry of the patriarchy, if you want to go that direction, analytically), that she needed to believe she was normal and take medication. Forever. Through her life, she has things done to her.

But she at least has some active outlet she works on. Her violin. And she works hard at it. But then her boyfriend enters the story, and she starts discovering her powers. But guess what? It's the boyfriend making the decisions. It's the boyfriend "giving" her the ability back (patriarchy strikes again). And yet, with all that said, we see her make some of her own decisions. There is her violin, yes, but she makes her own relationship decisions. She writes her own book. She ultimately chooses to use and control her power. So she's not all passive value. She's a good example of a passive value heroine that I feel works.

So, it can be pulled off and successful.

But ultimately we need to be careful that not all her value is passive.

And we should seek out and create moments that illustrate her active value just as well.