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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Crafting a "Body Language Voice"

So you may have noticed that I didn't put up a new post earlier this week. This is because I'm over at Writers Helping Writers as a writing coach, so instead, I'd like to direct you to their site for this week's tip. 

If you like teasers, here's the beginning to get you started.


You’ve probably heard about “voice”–that elusive quality that so many editors, agents, and readers are drawn to. Years ago, I did a couple of posts about character voice, arguing that it’s made up of what the character says and how she says it. Each character should have a unique voice. Sure, their voice can have similarities with other voices, but when it gets down to it, they are somewhat different. But you know what else is somewhat unique to an individual? Body language.

So today I’m going to talk about what I refer to sometimes as “body language voice.” The reason this can be tricky is because many writers learning the craft are completely unaware of it. Instead, they simply focus on the emotion they are trying to portray to the audience–which is great, because that means they are trying to “show” how someone feels instead of simply “tell,” but one of the problems that can arise is that the writer gives the characters all the same emotional indicators. Whenever a character is annoyed, he or she rolls her eyes. It doesn’t matter who the character is, it’s the same response. Every character shrugs. Every woman puts her hands on her hips.

Write stronger emotions using your character's "Body Language Voice"To take this to the next level, you should develop a “body language voice.”

. . . You can read the rest here.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Appealing to Wonder Powerfully in the Modern Age

You know that emotion we almost never talk about, unless you work in the speculative fiction industries? That awe-inspiring feeling you get when you see something new and cool and intriguing? It's like the way you felt when you first learned about star life cycles and dark matter or dinosaurs and the extinct Tasmanian tiger or studied how dreams and sleep affect our brains and how there are cases of people being hit on the head and mysteriously being able to speak an entirely different language after.

That's wonder.

But the way we perceive and when we feel wonder today isn't the exact same as it was even one or two hundred years ago, which is why I would argue that appealing to wonder powerfully today can be surprisingly different than it was before.

Some critics in the writing world have a problem with fantasy because "anything can happen." For those of us who read fantasy today, we'd probably argue against that statement. If anything can happen, then, of course, there is no tension. Almost always, fantasy needs to stick to its own rules and boundaries.

When discussing magic systems, Brandon Sanderson talks about how there is soft magic--magic that is not explained--and hard magic--magic that has specific rules. He's really great at explaining when and how to use which successfully, and you can read that article here.

Likewise, I would probably say there is soft wonder, and there is what I'll call medium wonder (I don't think I'd call it hard)

Soft wonder is when something wondrous is nearly completely unexplained or not understood. It might be a magical doorway into another world. It might be creatures we've never seen before. When I think of extreme soft wonder, I think of things like Disney's Alice in Wonderland--where things are strange and fantastical, but we have and get very little knowledge for why they are that way, how they came to be, or how they actually work. This extreme soft wonder was exactly the reason why I didn't like the movie as a child. It all just felt weird and had no reason to it. I know other people who still hate it. To be honest, when watching Alice in Wonderland as a child, I didn't actually feel a strong sense of wonder at all.

Earlier this year, I was watching The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen. If you haven't heard of The Men Who Built America, you're missing out, because the series is freaking amazing (learned more significant information from it than my history classes combined. And when I saw Hamilton, I explained it to family members as The Men Who Built America as a musical, although they cover completely different people of U.S. history.) I like the original series better than Frontiersmen, but anyway . . . I was watching Frontiersman when I learned that Americans were afraid to go out West because of what may be out there, and even President Thomas Jefferson believed that mammoths and dinosaurs roamed those areas. In fact, that was actually one of the reasons he sent Lewis and Clark on the expedition, to look for mammoths. Later, he also sent Clark on another expedition strictly to collect "animal bones" (fossils).

Sounds really silly right? The president thought dinosaurs were in the West? But here's the thing. In modern times, we can't really relate to how people felt about traveling west. Today there is almost no frontier we haven't uncovered, and even those we haven't we still have a whole backlog of science and knowledge and a whole buttload of imagined concepts from movies, books, and video games that we've been exposed to. It hasn't always been that way. For most of the world's history, most people weren't even educated, let alone had access to knowledge at their fingertips. Most people couldn't even read.

In Jefferson's time, the concept that an animal could go extinct had only begun to surface. For most of the world's history, most of the feelings of wonder people felt were soft wonder experiences, because so much wasn't understood, and they didn't have the access to the knowledge we have now. Perhaps back in the day, you could write story after story of purely soft magic--of things just happening magically--and it was wondrous because that's how life was.

If you look at the best-selling, most popular fantasy today, I think you'll find that almost none of them are pure soft wonder. They may have soft aspects, but the fantastic elements are understood, somewhat. I'd argue that this is because the way human beings experience wonder today is different than it has been in times past.

A story with things that just are and just happen over and over isn't actually that interesting because it's so removed. Have you seen movie trailers like that? You know the ones. Where as you're watching the movie trailer, you are seeing wondrous thing after wondrous thing all in CGI glory and you can tell within seconds that the blockbuster-budget movie has no depth because all it focuses on is (what's trying to be) wondrous visuals? And it seems to have no great story or takeaway value? I could name a few specifically, but I think I won't.

We have so much access to knowledge, information, even imaginary concepts and ideas--far more than any civilization before us. We've seen aliens imagined twenty different ways. We've seen twelve different magic systems. We've seen 50 different magical worlds. When and how we experience wonder is different than it has been in times past.

So what makes something feel wondrous to the modern audience? Is it simply bombarding the audience with magical setting after setting, magical creature after creature, spell after spell?

No. Powerful wonder today is most likely to happen when audiences understand the magical somewhat.

Some element of wonder will always be the unknown, unexplained, and unexperienced--that's why it's wonder. But we feel wonder most powerfully when we understand something somewhat. Because that's how we usually experience it today. I mean, is there really anything in CGI that could really wow us anymore? Probably not much. (One I would argue for would be Interstellar because it provided the first ever visual example of what a real black hole looks like--but it was wondrous largely because it was based on actual knowledge and science.)

Sometimes when we are working with fantasy, we think the less someone understands about something, the more fantastical. But that's usually not the case. Furthermore, when we don't understand anything, we don't have enough context to feel tension which makes it difficult to become invested in the story.

Think about it. For us, wonder typically happens at this threshold between what we know (either through knowledge, understanding, or experience) and what we don't know. It's the cutting edge or the gateway to the unknown built off the known. It's something we understand that is somehow broken (the theory of relativity) or something we understand to an extent (dark matter).

An alternative is to work backwards. To encounter something we do not understand or relate to at all, but then to discover what it does relate to, how it works, its "rules" and boundaries, its history or how it came to be. That's what's interesting.

The spells in Harry Potter wouldn't be half as interesting if they didn't have boundaries, if they didn't relate to Latin. Middle-earth wouldn't be as meaningful to us if we didn't have its rich history. His Dark Materials wouldn't have been so riveting if its magic wasn't cutting edge. It's medium wonder.

Something entirely new and never seen before, doesn't need to be understood because it's so different than people's experiences--what they were even capable of experiencing, knowing, and imagining. (Previous audiences)


Cool concepts, new concepts, twisted concepts, that we understand somewhat. This gives tension. This makes the subject more wondrous for the modern audience.

You'll notice that in Disney's more recent Alice in Wonderland they incorporated more structure and boundaries--making more sense of what before was nonsense. This better suits the modern audience.

At least that is what I'm considering. Remember, today's generation of Millennials is the most educated generation of all time. How people experience wonder today is vastly different than in times past.


Hi everyone, over the weekend I set up a Wattpad account, so that I can post my writing tips on there. If any of you have an account and would like to follow or be friends, I'd appreciate it so that I don't have zero followers listed. Here it is.


Likewise, I'm trying to revive my Instagram account for my blog, so if you'd like to follow me there, you can.

In any case, thank you so much for reading this post!

Monday, July 30, 2018

What Does it Mean to Be Gifted?

A while ago, I ran into an article about Mozart by Mayo Oshin that was written toward creatives. You may have seen me share it on Facebook. It re-emphasized some of the worldviews that I have. I want to include the opening of that here:

In 1787, one of history’s most prolific and influential music composers had just arrived in Prague for a second time.

Over the next few days, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would oversee the rehearsals of the first performance of his new opera — Don Giovanni.

As the final rehearsals were coming to a close, Mozart and the orchestral conductor —Johann Baptist Kucharz, exchanged words in a brief conversation.

During their conversation, Mozart made a distinct comment:

 “I have spared neither care nor labor to produce something excellent for Prague. Moreover, It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”

The premiere of Don Giovanni – then titled “Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni” took place at the National Theatre — in Prague on October 29 1787.

The opera was extremely well received by the audience — Mozart’s many years of deliberate practice on his craft was finally beginning to pay off.

“Don Giovanni” had such a profound impact — that up till today — this piece of work has been widely regarded as the greatest opera ever composed.

During his rehearsal conversation, Mozart acknowledged that his great work was simply a by-product of diligent and consistent hard-work on his craft for many years. It had taken Mozart more than a decade of developing his creative ‘talent’ to finally create this groundbreaking piece of work.

Yes, I added the bold. The more time that goes on, and the more time I spend in this industry, the more I seem to find true what Mozart said over 200 years ago. It drives me crazy when people act as if genius is simply born. As I've said time and again on this blog: Even Michelangelo had to learn his colors. Maybe some people are more "natural" at things than others, but in the end, what is natural can only get you so far. Everyone has to learn the rules and the techniques. And no one will tell you that becoming a master at anything is easy. 

You probably have some people in your life that are very talented or gifted at something. Have you ever had someone react to them as if they popped out of the womb that way? Has that ever happened to you? It totally devalues all the time and effort and practice and commitment that person put into their work.

One of the reasons I found this bit of Mozart's story interesting is because in over 200 years, human behavior has changed very little. "It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me," Mozart said. "There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied."

What Mozart is saying here is that even after a DECADE of diligence and consistent hard-work, he was still working hard: "I have spared neither care nor labor to produce something excellent."

This reiterates something I've been feeling for a long time. Ultimately it's diligence, patience, and perseverance that leads us to succeed. I don't care how talented you "naturally" are, if you don't exercise and develop those three qualities, your success is going to be vastly limited.

Prolific author Kevin J. Anderson has a saying that I like. Anderson has written over 50 best-sellers and has done novels for Star Wars, StarCraft, The X-Files, and Dune. Whenever people remark how lucky he is in his career, he responds, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Likewise, I've had a scriptural phrase bouncing around in my head lately: "Many are called, but few are chosen." Growing up, this statement didn't make a lot of sense to me. Why call everyone and then only select a few? Is that fair? If everyone is called, why can't everyone be chosen? 

I'm taking the phrase out of context a bit to relate it to the point of this post, but lately, here is what it has been sounding like to me:

Everyone is invited to make something of themselves. 

But only a few are chosen.

Why only a few?

Because the harder you work, the luckier you get. 

If everyone is called, but only a few are chosen, who do you think gets chosen?

Those who actually took advantage of the opportunity, those who acted most on the invitation, those who made something of themselves, the most

It's like an open audition. Everyone is called to try out. But only the most talented, the most capable will be chosen. 

Who gets there? Those who are the most diligent, patient, and persistent. 

How do you become talented enough to be one of the few selected?

One choice at a time.

Writer James Artimus Owen has an amazing lecture called "Drawing out the Dragons," which you can actually listen to here. It was recorded live, so you have to skip to about 49:50. There are a lot of amazing statements in it, but one of my favorites is a story he shares. One time he was looking at book auctions online when he saw his own name listed, claiming the book was his first work. Curious, he clicked on it to see if it was Starchild, a comic which he had self-published in 1990. But when it took him to the new page, he saw it was something much older: an illustrated story he'd written as a child. He'd made several different "books" and had taken them around his neighborhood in a red wagon to sell to neighbors. 

So Owen decided to bid on it. 

But to his surprise, he kept getting outbid by another user. 

In response, he bid a ridiculous amount, thinking no way would anyone pay that much for a child's hand-drawn story book. But just before the countdown, he got outbid, by the same user.

So he messaged the person, explaining he was actually James Artimus Owen himself and that he'd love to have this book.

Turns out the person he was bidding against was actually one of his friends. "If I had known it was you," his friend said, "I wouldn't have outbid you."

"So can I buy it from you?" Owen asked.

His friend hesitated. "Well . . . I would, but now I have a complete collection of James Owen books!"

Owen goes on to explain something: The only reason that handwritten, stapled packet of papers a child wrote was valuable was because of all the choices he'd made after it. 

It was the accumulation of choices--the accumulation of choices that led him to where he is today, living his dream as both a writer and an illustrator.

Similarly, I've heard several people remark how amazing it was that Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to pick up a 800-page biography of Alexander Hamilton to read while on vacation. But that decision in and of itself is really not that amazing. It might seem a bit of an atypical choice for recreational reading, but surely lots of people buy biographies to read. The only reason people are so wowed by that moment is because of all the choices he made after.

The earliest (that I'm aware of) video you can find of what would become the most-nominated musical of all time is a clip of when Miranda sang a song he was working on at the White House--six whole years prior to the musical hitting Broadway. I have kind of a love/hate relationship watching the video, because the audience laughs AT it--including the president. Sure, they are polite and give him good applause, but they still laugh AT it several times (in fact, they literally laugh at parts that people applause at today). Miranda is clearly passionate about what he's working on, and doesn't let it get him.

Compare this to when he returned to the White House post-musical to sing THE SAME SONG. For the same president. No one is laughing anymore.

Is it because the song is magically different? Not really. It's the same song, albeit with a multiple singers now.

Why is the reaction different? Because of the accumulation of choices that Miranda made which led him to where he was six years later, which led Hamilton to what it became--a huge success. Small decision upon small decision. (Thank goodness he had the passion and intuition to stick to his vision regardless of others' reactions--which is another lesson of trusting your vision.) It was his diligence, patience, and perseverance. (The song starts about 9:00 in.)

Every day we make choices. Seemingly insignificant choices. Over time, those choices accumulate to get us where we want to go. 

When Stephen King was asked how he wrote, he answered, "One word at a time."

I bet you can look at where you are now and look back and see choices, some of which were small and made over and over again, that got you here. If you don't like where you are, guess what? You can get somewhere else, one choice at a time.

Furthermore, as Owen (and Anderson) has observed, when you make those choices consistently, others will see what you are doing and will provide help or opportunity when you desperately need it. They will not let you fall.

In a talk I heard recently, it quoted former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, who wrote: “The only preparation for that one profound decision which can change a life, or even a nation, is those hundreds and thousands of half-conscious, self-defining, seemingly insignificant decisions made in private.”

Mozart wrote one of the most revered operas of all time. Behind that performance in Prague was hundreds and thousands of decisions he made in private. 

So what does it mean to be gifted? That you rolled out of bed and wrote Don Giovanni by noon? 

It means making small accumulative choices of hard work, diligence, patience, and perseverance.

Boiled down, that's all you really need to be one of the chosen ones.



Hey everyone! I'm excited to say that a book I did editing work for is now on sale! It was a very fun project to work on, and I love the way Charlie writes. 

Here is the description:

Fablehaven Meets Wizard of Oz

Open the door. We’re off to see the genocidal wizard.

After fires kill thousands all over the world in an instant, the few survivors are left with a symbol scorched into their lives and more questions than answers. Nick falls into the system. Cindy moves in with her godmother. They try move on, to forget.

But then water begins stalking Nick around high school, awakens latent synesthesia, and applies scents to the colors of a magic he didn’t know he had. Cindy, a weaver of fire, knows more, but not enough to prepare them for the appearance of a living portal.

They will cross this threshold to find answers to their parents’ murder, what their gifts mean, and what plans a magical serial killer has for the world. With the help of a feisty sylph and a sentient door, they just might make it, but only if they can survive the angry nixies, bloodthirsty redcaps, bone-crushing trow, and the friendship of a fairy queen who may not want them to succeed.

Check out The Blue Door here!

In other news, for the first time in *ten months,* I have made it through my editing queue! So if you are interested in me doing some editing work for you soon, now would be a great time to follow up on that. You can learn all about my editing at

Monday, July 23, 2018

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Flashbacks!"

At some point in your writing journey, you may have had someone complain about a flashback in your story. Or maybe you were the one complaining about someone else's. Or maybe you axed one simply because you were told to, but you don't understand why.

Want to know one of my not-so-secret secrets? Just as I love great prologues, I love great flashbacks! Every time someone told me they were bad, a little particle of my creativity died, because a number of my all-time favorite stories use flashbacks--and they were sometimes some of my favorite parts! (Isn't that so bad?? ;)

What's the Rule?

Flashbacks are scenes that take place in an earlier time than the story's main timeline.

Advice that is commonly given to writers learning the craft is,

Don't use flashbacks!

Why it's a Rule

Why are flashbacks such an issue?

Let me explain.

A lot of new writers overuse flashbacks and use them at the wrong times and in the wrong ways. I've looked at a lot of unpublished story openings. You might would be shocked how often stories begin in the present and then have a flashback only several paragraphs in. This is a problem for a few reasons, but some particular to this opening are:

- If you flashback too early, it might be a sign that you started the story in the wrong spot

- If you flashback too early, it might be a sign that what's happening in the present doesn't have enough tension or intrigue to hold the audience, and you are trying to make up for it by going backwards

- If you flashback too early, the audience hasn't had time to get grounded into the story and characters. Until they care about the story and the characters, they likely won't care about the flashback.

You may be tempted to have a flashback in the opening of your novel or somewhere in your first five chapters. You probably should almost never do this. The audience needs to care about what's happening in the present first. 

But flashbacks can go wrong at other parts of the story too, not just the opening. It's just that they can be particularly problematic in the opening, and they are surprisingly commonly put in there.

One of the main problems with flashbacks is this:

Because flashbacks happen in the past, they immediately and inherently take immediacy (and therefore tension) out of the story.

What has already happened has already happened, and it can't be changed, and it's in the past, so typically it can't be as interesting as the present. Remember a week ago when I said more tension is created by looking forward, not back?

A lot of times, unpublished writers want to put in whole scenes of flashbacks when a bit of summary or backstory weaved in would work fine. Whatever they are trying to include does not need or deserve its own flashback scene.


What is included in the flashback doesn't usually need its own scene. The information can be weaved into the main timeline

 Uugh, but a great flashback and be so, well . . . great. Let's move along.

When and How to Break the Rule

Remember a few sentences ago when I said that the audience won't care about the flashback until they care about the story and characters? This is why you should almost never have a flashback near the beginning. On some rare occasions you can get away with it if you absolutely have to (in a particular type of story tricky to pull off, they may function as teasers)--but if you use one early, it should be short. After all, in the beginning of the novel, you are still trying to get the audience invested in the story, and killing tension and immediacy is not a great approach.

(Worth noting is that using flashbacks once or a few times in a story is different than having a story that follows two or more different timelines that are weaved together. In that case, you would be showing multiple timelines in the opening of the story and that's fine, though it has its own advantages and disadvantages.)

Flashbacks are typically most powerful when looking back is effective because of what we know or suspect in the present or predict for the future. 

There has to be some kind of value in looking back that's worth the change in time and the lack of immediacy.

The audience doesn't usually care about the flashback until they care about the present story and characters, so, in order to make a flashback most effective, you relate it to what is happening or could happen in the story. This might be done obviously, or it might be done more covertly.

You've probably seen this time and again and may or may not have realized it.

There are really two main reasons to use a flashback.

1. Character Background and Motivation

Flashbacks should not be your automatic go-to for backstory and motivation, but it can be a good reason to have a flashback if having something in the past rendered dramatically adds to our understanding of the character in the present (or in some cases, future).

Not all backgrounds deserve their own flashback, and you want to be careful that in putting this information in a dramatized one that you aren't actually diminishing your character's subtext and intrigue by revealing everything on the page about them or revealing it at the wrong point. Even with the flashback, they should still have some subtext.

Subtext > Flashback

The subtext should always be greater than the flashback. This means the flashback either maintains some subtext or introduces new subtext.

The backstory needs to be interesting enough to sustain the audience despite the lack of immediacy.

These kinds of flashbacks provide insight into why a character is the way he is or how she knows what she knows, or anything like that. But they are probably one of the most overused flashbacks, because writers may care more about the character's past than the audience actually does (which is why it needs to be particularly interesting)

In the movie Split, protagonist Casey is unusual compared to other girls her age, and when she and two others are abducted, Casey understands how her abductor operates better than the others (and how to survive). The audience wonders about her unusual behaviors and demeanor and methods, but in flashbacks it's revealed that like their abductor, she has also had to weather repetitive abuse. Watching the flashbacks play out is more powerful because of how atypical she and her backstory are. They wouldn't have been as emotionally effective if relayed in dialogue or summary.

Once again the flashbacks are powerful because our understanding of the past is important to the present (her character and the fact she's dealing with an abductor) and future (because of her background, she has success getting away.)

One key of writing particularly great flashbacks is to get the audience to wonder, want, and yearn for them before they happen. That way when they do happen, readers are glued to the book.

2. Important Past Events and/or Information

Like character background, key events or information might be important for the audience to understand or appreciate the present (or future of the) story. These things should add depth or significance to the narrative. If they don't do either of these things, you might want to reevaluate if you really need them as a flashback.

For important events, it might not be plausible to fit them into the story in the typical ways. If it happened long before the main story--perhaps even decades--it might not work well at the beginning of the novel. In some cases, you can make it work as a prologue or opening, but only if it carries the right promises and gives the right impression of the main story.

With events and information--these things may not seem important or pertinent to the story at the beginning, in and of themselves. But as the story develops, so does the need for them. Again, this may relate to having the audience hunger for the flashbacks before they are on the page.

Other times, having this important information enter the story at a particular point adds value both to the flashback and the present story. This can be really great for mysteries and undercurrents.

In a flashback at the right point, the audience may put together who the murderer actually is, for example, because looking back at the event from a particular point in the main story gives the flashback a different meaning and context. This may or may not be something that the character puts together, depending on how it's handled and the effect you are going for.

But do you see how handling a flashback in that way may actually make a story more powerful? Not weaker? This is perhaps one of my favorite ways flashbacks are used.

Now that the audience and/or character has realized something from receiving the right flashback and the right time, the future of the story changes.

Therefore the flashback is pertinent to the past, present, AND future of the story.

Now that's a great flashback. (And a lot easier said than done. But it can be done. And hopefully it now makes more sense why I love a good flashback.)

Worth noting is that the flashback itself should have tension or intrigue and/or emotional appeals. Like I said, pacing has to do more with tension, intrigue, and conflict than with cutting or adding something. Similarly, you can help make up for lost tension when looking backwards by making sure the actual flashback scene has that. Keep in mind that sometimes the point and context of the main story may be used to provide that when looking back at the right moment in the book.

How long a flashback can sustain an audience is proportional to how relevant it is to the present and future of the story, and how hungry they are for it. (Perhaps an exception to this would be a flashback that functions as a teaser. In that case, as with all teasers, it should be short.)

Whew! Now let's look at a famous example that embodies ALL these things.


But before I get some flack, I should acknowledge that some people may not actually consider this a flashback because we are getting information the same time as the protagonist and are technically in the protagonist's viewpoint. (J. K. Rowling cleverly gets away with any would-be flashbacks by have the pensieve.) However, I argue that the sequence would have been nearly as effective on the audience, if not just as effective, if it was handled as a typical flashback, as long as Harry still got the same information (maybe he'd get it through dialogue while the audience was treated to a flashback). Anyway, my point is, whether or not this is considered technically a flashback, it still functions as one and hits all the points I've been making. And it is: "The Prince's Tale."

Perhaps one of the most anticipated, pivotal chapters of the entire Harry Potter series (and some would probably argue that it is the most pivotal.)

And guess what? That chapter is essentially 30 freakin' pages of flashbacks. And every. Single. Moment. Was riveting.

How does that work? Because it accomplished everything I outlined here.

1. The audience was not only hungry, but starved for it. And the need for the flashbacks developed as the story did.

From the very first book, Snape has been difficult to discern. By the time we got to "The Prince's Tale" everyone was starving to understand him and his allegiances (some say he's even one of the best characters written of our time). The need to understand grew. What the heck was his story and--

2. Motivation and background were important to know and understand.

Finally we get Snape's backstory. Finally we understand his motivations better than we ever have before. And holy cow, are they important. Not just to his character, but to other characters--Lily, James, Dumbledore, and especially, Harry.

3. Subtext is greater than the flashbacks.

Even though we finally get Snape's backstory and motive, Rowling feeds us an entirely new kind of subtext, which gives us an entirely different interpretation of everything Snape has done in the series. The scenes don't directly tell everything to us. They still allow room for the audience to put things together themselves.

4. Important past events and/or information.

All of the information is important to the overall story--in fact, some of it is absolutely vital.

5. Having this important information enter the story at this particular point adds value both to the flashback and the present story.

If we had received this information at a different part of the series, or throughout the series, it would have had a very different affect on the narrative and on the readers' experiences. When it comes in, adds value. It was important both to the past and the present that the information be revealed at that time.

6. Therefore the flashback is pertinent to the past, present, AND future of the story.

Because of the flashbacks, Harry learns the last thing he needs to do in order to defeat Voldemort. The flashbacks are important to all three time periods and help us predict what will happen next.

7. The flashback itself should have tension or intrigue and/or emotional appeals

Is there really much more intriguing than finally learning Snape's backstory? The tension that begins to build as we begin to understand what Harry must do? The sense of mystery and shock and . . . love?

8. How long a flashback can sustain an audience is proportional to how relevant it is to the present and future of the story.

Because of these things, Rowling was able to easily sustain an audience through about 30 pages of flashbacks.

If that chapter isn't a good example of flashbacks, I don't know what is.

Monday, July 16, 2018

5 Tricks that Help with Hooks

If you have been writing very long, you've probably heard the term "hook"--those sentences or tidbits of information that "hook" the reader and "reel" them into the story. It's important to have a hook in the opening, and years ago, I even did a whole post on coming up with a good first sentence. But today, I want to move beyond just opening lines. Because, really, to keep a reader, you should have more than an opening hook. Ideally, you should have hooks at ends and through middles--whether it's a scene, chapter, or a short story. Here are five things I've learned that can help with hooks, based off my own experience and off helping other writers as an editor. (As with everything in writing, there are exceptions, but here ya go.)

 Look Forward, Not Back

A surprisingly common trait with new writers, is they start a story and then look backwards, sometimes going directly into a flashback or even a summary of what happened before. Looking backwards is often a problem for a few reasons but the main one is that it takes immediacy and tension out of a story--because what's already happened has happened, and it's in the past and can't be changed.

In contrast, looking and thinking forward in a story can create more tension because it hasn't happened yet. Tension is the anticipation of what might happen. Therefore, it pulls the readers in and along and as such relates to crafting hooks. Looking forward is a particularly good hook for ending scenes or chapters--to entice the reader to start the next one.

Often (not always) hooks work by giving the audience something to dread or hope for. That doesn't need to be directly stated, but it can be. It might be straightforward, or it might be implied.

Here are some examples of using this to end a scene or chapter. Keep in mind that the context of what came before lends power behind it (we don't care about what could happen until we know what is happening), so they may not sound as riveting as one-liners here, but they illustrate the point.


To her dread, their alliance only made things worse.


Of course my odds have not been very dependable as of late.

Be More Specific, Not Vague

Tension and suspense comes from what could happen (which is looking forward), and thereby getting the audience to wonder and question the outcome. One way writers try to do this is by writing vaguely, which almost always has the opposite effect. They will think that by not telling what something is, what something can do, what could happen or could be, that they are getting the audience to wonder and question. But most of the time the opposite is true. If it's too vague, the audience has nothing concrete to grasp onto to wonder about. They can't anticipate because they don't know enough about what is going on.

Often the best hooks are more specific, not vague. Sure, they may not lay everything out on the page directly--I get that--but they at least suggest a possible outcome or problem, so that the audience has something, some line of thought or possibility to dread or hope for, for anticipation.

Sometimes I see this sort of problem happen when a POV character is unsure or indecisive about something, and then the writer tries to use that as a hook to get the reader to read on. It's okay to have your character be unsure or indecisive, but keep in mind that because there is no decision or knowledge, there is likely little anticipation. We can't predict what may happen, because we don't have a decision or the information to build off.

Instead, to write a great hook, you might want to have your character sound certain about something, even if the audience is not. In fact, sometimes it's even better that way, because that adds a new layer of tension--the audience is about to witness the character go confidently into uncertainty.

For hooks, it's better to have your character come to a wrong conclusion and look forward, then it is to have them be indecisive and therefore unable to look forward and create tension.

(Again, that's not to say you can't ever have indecisive characters, you can, but if you do, that means there needs to be something bigger and more prominent that is specific and decisive so you can build anticipation, and have their indecision make that bigger thing more dooming.)

I stood on the platform trying to decide whether to run for the water as Haymitch told me or take a chance and grab the bow and arrows near the cornucopia. 


There, resting on a mound of blanket rolls, is a silver sheath of arrows and a bow, already strung, waiting to engage. That's mine, I think. It's meant for me. I'm fast. . . . Haymitch has never seen me run.

The first example isn't wrong, but notice how having Katniss decisive over a wrong decision creates much greater anticipation.

Ambiguity > Vague

Related to the last section, but different. Ambiguity is not the same as vague. In ambiguity there is enough specificity, context, and knowledge that multiple outcomes fit the same setup. Vagueness is when there isn't enough specificity, context, or knowledge to confidently argue a specific outcome. I did a whole post on the difference and when to use each here, so I won't repeat all of it. Ambiguity works because it gives us enough to build off to anticipate outcomes. Readers read to find out which outcome takes place, not because they don't have enough info to predict any outcome.

In Catching Fire, the tributes hear twelve gongs in the arena. One character says, "Twelve, for midnight." Another says, "Or twelve districts." At that point in the story, the reader doesn't know which character (if either) is right, but each suggestion makes sense. The twelve gongs are ambiguous, and you have to keep reading to figure out which it is.

Use Promising Buzzwords

Tension isn't the only way a hook can work, but it's probably the most common, and you always need regular hooks of tension. But you can also add intrigue, or something intellectually stimulating, or make wonderful promises to the reader, or appeal to particular emotions more powerfully.

On a line-by-line basis (which is how hooks typically work), you can build or amplify those by using what I think of as "buzzwords." Sometimes what makes a good hook is the right word choice.

"Secret" is more powerful than "Unknown" for example. "Secret" has an extra buzz to it. We naturally want to know more.

If you think about what your audience picked up your book for, you can use related buzzwords to promise them that. If they picked up your book because it's about vampires, use that word in one of your early hooks. If they're hoping for romance, use words that appeal to a possible romance. If you are writing fantasy, use a hook that has words that foreshadow a sense of wonder.

The problem was, strange things often happened around Harry.

Less is More

Stylistically, hooks are one or a few lines. Brevity often creates more of a punch. You want to leave the audience wanting more. After all, that's the whole point. You want the audience to continue anticipating, thinking, planning, and predicting, not necessarily the character. This means allowing the audience room to ponder and do some of the intellectual work on their own--don't do all the work for them on the page through the POV character. Leave enough room for subtext.

Does this sound contradictory when just a few paragraphs ago I talked about how you need to be specific and not vague?

You need to be more specific and less vague in order to give the audience enough to anticipate what could happen, but in crafting the hook itself, you don't need to spell out every detail on the page directly.

It's like I talked about in this article.

When structuring and actually writing the hook, you don't need to show us the entire cat in the bag all at once, you need to suggest that there is a cat in the bag (see how this relates to anticipation again?). Give the audience enough specificity and info to start down a conclusion on their own, by suggesting a paw or whisker (see how these are specific things?). There isn't tension in the inevitable. There is anticipation in suggestion.

Don't write us a big lengthy hook that gives us all the details and ramifications in 1 - 5 paragraphs. That's not going to feel like a hook. Instead simply say, "The timer began the countdown"--and through what you built up prior, the audience will naturally anticipate the ramifications (the work is happening inside them), and they'll want to continue.

Save length for dramatic moments--which should generally happen at climaxes of one sort or another, not rising actions and build-ups (when you need hooks most). (I talked about dramatic moments when I talked about structural pacing and purple prose.)

I almost fall out of the tree. The voice belongs to Peeta.

All rules and guidelines have exceptions, but these are five things that I've found to be helpful when crafting hooks. I hope they help you with yours. I'll probably talk about hooks some more in the future.

* Some examples came from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, and a few I made up.

Tone Example

At Storymakers I taught a class on tone. And last night I found a good example of how tone can affect everything and how you can control it by choosing the right emotional beats.

You can read an article I did all about tone here.

Here is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone edited into movie trailers that illustrate seven different movie genres.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Writing Extreme Characteristics

A couple of weeks ago, Jurassic World was on t.v., and I watched the starting of it. Now, I like that movie, but from a writing perspective, there are a few things about it that, for me, make it feel like it was written by an intermediate writer rather than a professional, Hollywood screenwriter. One of those things is Claire's characterization. Within the first few minutes, the film shows us (basically back-to-back) multiple instances that illustrate how distant and cold Claire is to other living things. Dinosaurs, people she works with, family members, one-time love interests. She doesn't even understand why it's a problem the I. Rex has no socialization.

Claire isn't just kind of distant and cold.

She's really distant and cold.

Those attributes of her are extreme.

Most human beings aren't that extreme. Sometimes when I'm writing, I have to remind myself that very rarely is someone 100% anything. Instead, it's more like human beings have boundaries. It's the villain who is killing people left and right, but then opens a can of cat food for a stray feline. It's the hero who swears he'll never kill anyone, but when he can't find a way out and wants to protect other innocents, he pulls the trigger. The other day I was researching how Thomas Jefferson owned one of the largest plantations and yet spoke out against slavery.

When you boil behaviors down like these, it feels quite hypocritical or contradictory, but that's because we've cut out the thought processes and details and complexities. The realities are that all of us have characteristics that have conditions or boundaries. As I've said before, smashing contrasts in characters, and then exploring those is how we create complexity. Political opinions aside, let's look at Thomas Jefferson as an example of a real human being like this. Jefferson spoke out against and fought slavery, but he also had a tremendous amount of debt, and didn't think it was helpful to simply release slaves with no place to go or no means of employment. The more you dig into his relationship with slavery--a seeming contradiction--the more you understand his thought process--whether or not you agree (again, just using him as an example of a real person like this).

But once in a while you run into characters who are walking extremes. And they can be very difficult to write, simply because of what I've just talked about. If they don't have boundaries and conditions, and they are extreme, they often don't feel complex. They may feel unreal or flat.

Claire has a character arc, and yet, when I watch her on screen, she still feels rather flat to me. Part of this is because she's so extreme. The other part is that the filmmakers made the mistake of illustrating the same extreme characteristic back-to-back-to-back, moment after moment, scene after scene. It almost feels as if distance and coldness are the only characteristics Claire has.

I've said this a lot lately: hitting the same thing over and over in a story doesn't make it stronger to the audience, it makes it weaker.

Because Claire is so distant and cold, we really only needed one or two (and definitely no more than three) moments that showed us that in the beginning, not 100. We get it.

Something like that might work in an "unreality" story, like a Dr. Seuss book or  Lemony Snicket, where seeing it back-to-back is sorta of tongue-in-cheek or comical or serves a higher purpose in and of itself, beyond the character.

So how do you make an extreme character work?

If you have an extreme character, it's almost always important (as it is with any character) to give them multiple dominating qualities.

(Sorry, not sorry, but I recently saw Hamilton and loved it, so I'll probably be referring to it in some of my posts.)

Hamilton is extreme as well. In fact, I heard his thematic line ("I'm not throwing away my shot!") so many times that I was sick of it before I even gave the musical a chance (now that I'm familiar with the story, it doesn't bother me). It's an important line and characteristic because it relates directly to the theme and his character arc. And he's extreme. Hamilton never says no to an opportunity to move ahead and doesn't consider opportunities and lifestyles that he views as stagnant--he's determined not to throw away his shot, regardless of what others--Burr or Eliza or Angelica or George Washington--say or imply to him.

It's extreme. Like Claire, when we meet him, he's in it 100%.

But it's not his only dominating attribute that we are introduced to.

We get plenty of others. He's "obnoxious, arrogant, loud," a powerful writer, ambitious to the point of being a workaholic, and popular with the ladies ;)

We now have several characteristics to hit and play with through the story, rather than his most extreme.

If you have a main character that has an extreme attribute, it's highly likely it's going to come into play in the character arc (aka how the character grows). If the extreme attribute doesn't relate primarily to the arc, it will probably be secondary to it.

It's hard to have a dominating extreme characteristic through the whole novel without an arc, because it's difficult to sustain. It becomes stagnant. It's not changing or contrasting and it draws so much attention. It's hitting the same thing. As Brandon Sanderson says, what's interesting about Superman is not his extreme, larger-than-life abilities, it's his limitations--it's when his superpowers are undone by kryptonite.

What's interesting about Hermione is when she actually breaks rules, not adheres to them. If she went through the entire series without ever breaking any, it'd be annoying because there is no change.

In Hamilton, it's Hamiltion's own extreme characteristic that brings his undoing. When he's writing the Reynolds Pamphlet, what does the song say? "Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it"--and it gets louder the closer he is to completing the pamphlet. But does he wait for it? No. Because he's extreme, he's at 100%. Not even his own family gets considered before he publishes the thing. But the result and what happens after forces him to change, forces him into a character arc--because it ruins both his public and personal life.

At one point, even when Hamilton is trying to say no to something, literally praying to God to help him to say no something, he still fails--"I do not say no!"

The only way to get him to change is to force him by having him wreck havoc upon himself. The story wouldn't be half as interesting or half as meaningful if he'd stayed at 100% the entire time.

Worth noting, too, is that he's foiled nicely by Burr, who is extreme in the opposite direction. He never takes risks; he never stands for what he truly believes. He waits around and only gets involved when it's safe. But with that attitude, he's not excelling at the rate Hamilton is. But again, Burr doesn't stay the same. He has his own arc. In fact, as foils, Burr and Hamilton intersect and end up on different sides. Hamilton throws away his shot, and Burr takes his too quickly.

Setting up foils like this also helps round out extremes, and again, having contrasts gives the story complexity, because it allows us to explore the differences in the opposing ends. That's what gives us depth. (I've heard people argue that Shakespeare was amazing because he used foils so well.)

Whatever extreme characteristic you are dealing with, it almost always needs some kind of motion. Luckily, Claire does get an arc, but it would have been richer and more powerful if it included other characteristics.

For Hamilton, all his other dominating characteristics feed into the arc of his most extreme:

Because he's such a non-stop workaholic, he refuses to go on vacation, worried he'll lose his job . . . but ultimately ends up losing his whole political career by staying behind.

Because he likes ladies, is good with ladies, and has a reputation for it . . . he makes a great target for a setup with one. And he's more likely to give in, when in a state of weakness and loneliness (from staying behind).

Because he's a loudmouth and always speaks his mind he's sure (maybe to the point of being arrogant) that being honest in the Reynolds Pamphlet will save him from political problems.

Because he's a fantastic writer, he thinks the answer is writing his way to safety.

These don't all have to be direct, but notice how his other qualities fed into what happens.

I was watching Lucy the other day, and I felt bad for Scarlett Johansson, because the character she plays is extreme and has hardly any other dominating characteristics and little motion on the personal level. Time and again it's just Lucy getting smarter and more powerful with little emotional development. Boring. And one of the reasons the movie was a flop.

BBC's Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is another great example of a character with extreme qualities, in fact, several extreme qualities--and they are in motion. Sure, even those that aren't at first glance, like his great deductions, still have moments of limitation and at one point work, like Hamilton, to bring havoc upon himself because Sherlock wants things to be more complicated than they are.

Even if the qualities are universally considered good, they probably need to be in some kind of motion. For example, it's good that Hermione isn't a rule-breaker. But as the series goes on, she becomes more of one, and that's interesting.

However, if you are working with a dominate character that is extreme and yet doesn't change, you have to make up for it by ramping up the costs. For universally good qualities, you do this by following the motto "No good deed goes unpunished"--the cost of adhering to that extreme needs to be huge, but worthwhile. Choosing to be 100% something--it takes a lot. In Les Mis, if Fantine made a decent salary, it'd be easy to send that money to Cosette, and that's a good thing to do. But she doesn't have a decent salary; she has to sell her hair, teeth, and body in order to do a good thing--"No good deed goes unpunished." (Note that while Fantine isn't an "extreme" character, it illustrates my point.)

Here is another one. It's a good idea to rescue people. But what if pushing a child out of the way of a car meant that a renowned doctor would have to live the rest of his life paralyzed? That's a big sacrifice, not only for the doctor doing the rescuing, but for the community he's helping. The cost and sacrifice to be 100% anything is a lot. Life isn't clear-cut. It's messy and complicated.

So when working with extreme characteristics, here are some things to consider:

1. Give them additional dominating qualities (bonus points if they can play into the arc of the extreme in some way)

2. In the opening, don't illustrate the same extreme quality in ten different situations. Trust that the audience will get it with one or two good instances then move on with the story. Remember that hitting the same thing over and over makes it dull and annoying, not stronger and more interesting.

3. The more extreme and dominating the quality, the more likely it needs to be part of the character arc.

4. In any case, put it in some kind of motion or at least explore limitations or how it can be used against them.

5. Set up a foil to help create more depth and complexity in the story.

6. Look at the cost and sacrifice it takes to maintain an extreme and maybe the havoc and pain it brings upon the individual adhering it and those around him or her.