I get a lot of good information from Girls From Alcyone author Cary Caffrey. He posted this link and it floated across my Facebook feed. It’s a good article and definitely worth the read if you’re a writer who has ever dealt with doubt.
He was angry. She could see it. It frightened her.
His eyes flashed . His dark brows gathered and he seized her by the arm, jerking her from her feet. With a cry she fell. He loomed over her, his jaw clenched so tightly that his lips turned white under the pressure. His long fingers dug into her arm so hard she felt the bones bend under the pressure. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her mouth suddenly dry, her lips parted but no sound save a tiny squeak came out. Like a mouse, she squeaked. She cast about wildly as she struggled against him, looking for some safe place to hide.
There was none.
She wrenched herself free from his grasp and cowered in the corner. She gasped for breath and swallowed the scream that burbled up from deep inside her. With a slow, measured tread, he closed on her.
So what is the difference between the two? One is telling. The other is showing.
The purpose of writing fiction is two-fold. You write to tell a story and you write to evoke emotion in your reader. People read fiction for myriad reasons. Some read to escape. Some read to be entertained. Some read to experience vicariously something outside their norm. The stories that stand the test of time manipulate the reader’s emotions and provide some sort of catharsis in the end.
The ancient Greeks coined the term to describe the emotional release found at the resolution of a story. They believed it provided an emotional purification. Well-told stories, whether in a written or visual form, should provide some sort of fist pump reaction when the main character gets their reward or faces their tragedy at the end. There should be an emotional payoff for taking the journey with the character.
To reach this emotional payoff, the writer must engage the reader in the action of the story in such a way that the reader’s heart beats faster when the main character’s does. The reader laughs when the main character does. In short, the reader must slough off his or her self for a while and slip into the incorporeal body of the point of view character. Before the reader can inhabit the mind and body of the point of view character, the writer must first possess the point of view character and travel the story within his or her consciousness.
From there, it’s only a matter of taking dictation.
What does the character see? Describe it in detail. What does the character smell? Describe it in detail. What does the character hear? Describe it in detail. What does the character taste? Describe it in detail. What does the character feel? Describe it in detail. In short, engage as many of the five senses as possible as filtered through the point of view character. This means including physical reactions to the outside stimuli.
Let’s put that another way. When you open a plastic food container that’s been in the back of the refrigerator for months, you may describe it this way:
I reluctantly opened the container. The smell nauseated me. It looked disgusting. I shook my head and threw it away.
Now you’re saying to yourself that I engaged the senses. What of it?
Try this on for size:
I slowly lifted the lid on the container, holding it away from my face. Unfortunately, my arms weren’t long enough to hold the smell at bay. The rancid odor hit my nose with all the force of a Mack truck. Putrid smells of decaying matter and growing mold twisted my stomach in knots. Bile rose in my throat along with that familiar pre-vomit salty taste. My mouth watered. The first spasm hit me and I gagged. I raced for the trash can, replacing the lid as I went, cutting off the fresh assault on my senses. Shaking my head, I tossed the whole container into the trash. It wasn’t worth trying to salvage that tiny scrap of plastic. It could rot for eternity in a landfill for all I cared…as long as I didn’t have to endure that biohazard any more.
The difference between the two is that you as the reader merely watched the first event. You as the reader experienced the second event.
You cheated! You used first person. Of course the reader experienced the event!
Okay. Change the personal pronouns from “I” and “my” to “she” and “her” and I guarantee the results will be the same. Some writers write the first draft from a first person limited omniscient point of view and change personal pronouns in subsequent drafts. The reason some choose to do this is to serve as a reminder to internalize the reactions within a scene. Only an android drifts through life without a visceral reaction to the things that happen all around on a daily basis.
What techniques do you use to change your telling of a story to showing it?
I caught some flak from a handful of SOVRAN’S PAWN readers about my heroine being too weak. I had the unenviable task of deconstructing her from the kick-ass warrior woman of BARRON’S LAST STAND into the ingénue she was when her story started. Those readers may not realize that THE BLACK WING CHRONICLES is as much about Bo’s evolution from naïve, sheltered young princess to bitter, disillusioned warrior queen as it is about clearing her name.
Good fiction is about change and the growth of the main character. Bo had to start out young and uncertain in order to make her growth into “The Scourge of the Seventh Sector” that much more poignant. THE BLACK WING CHRONICLES is a character driven story, and in character-driven stories, your main character must go through profound changes to find the truth of who he or she really is. When you’re talking a story arc over several books, the changes may not occur quickly enough to suit some readers, but they need to unfold organically or the story will fall flat.
In SOVRAN’S PAWN, Bo is barely twenty years-old. I was inspired by ROMAN HOLIDAY with Audrey Hepburn. It’s a similar principle. Here is a young, privileged woman who finds herself outside her comfort zone and away from the trappings of her title. Despite her training, she’s been insulated from interacting with ordinary people and is at a loss for how to deal with them. For the first time in her life, she is making her own decisions and responsible for no one but herself. In the process, she is learning who she is and what she has to contribute to her society, and she makes mistakes.
Unlike the Hepburn character, people are trying to kill Bo, and she has military training. However, her military training is entirely theoretical, not practical. Her jaded guides on this journey are highly trained special operatives with considerable field experience who, for reasons of their own, are driven to protect her, keeping her out of trouble whenever possible. In their own way, both her Uncle Royce and Blade Devon take it on themselves to fill in the gaps in her training. By the end of SOVRAN’S PAWN, Bo is taking the first real steps towards independence, with her own ship and a romantic interest in Blade, who is a wholly unsuitable partner for her politically.
Roughly two years pass between the end of SOVRAN’S PAWN and the beginning of HERO’S END. In that intervening time, Bo has settled into a routine with a public role as Blade’s Joy Babe Companion and a private role exploring her more larcenous endeavors. In her early twenties, Bo has learned how to be light-hearted and how to have fun. As any young woman her age, she is aware of her responsibilities, but not overly burdened by them, doing the bare minimum to meet them. She prefers to party with her friends and spend time with her boyfriend, the exciting and dangerous Blade Devon, much to the disapproving censure of her uncle. Bo still has some growing up to do. She isn’t always likeable. She isn’t always sympathetic.
HERO’S END is different from SOVRAN’S PAWN in that the plot is exceedingly more complex with more point of view characters and more plot threads woven through it. Where the theme of SOVRAN’S PAWN had more to do with false identities, HERO’S END is about the nature of faith, and not necessarily the religious kind. It’s about optimism and trust versus cynicism and doubt.
Still somewhat of an ingénue from being sheltered and protected by Blade, her uncle, and her brother, Bo has a naïveté about her relationships with the people around her. Over the course of HERO’S END, both Bo’s and Blade’s faith are tested. Bo loses her innocent faith while Blade gains a new faith. Bo embarks on the hero’s journey, gaining the streetwise confidence she’ll need. Blade, on the other hand, must resolve the dichotomy between the lying, ruthless, borderline sociopathic behavior he’s been guilty of, and the paladin hero he plays in holofeatures.
By the time BARRON’S LAST STAND begins, seven years has elapsed from the date of Bo’s trial and escape. She has seen too much and done too much. Her innocence is long gone. Her only faith lies in her own abilities. Tough, dangerous, and street-wise, Bo is no longer the weak ingénue waiting for rescue. She will rescue herself, thank-you-very-much.
Blade, on the other hand, has spent the intervening years doing penance, trying to redeem himself as the real-life version of the hero he played in holofeatures. Their roles reverse and he is the one who ends up being rescued by her more than once.
By the climax of BARRON’S LAST STAND, Bo Barron will be a heroine of epic proportions. She will have been tested and tempered by fire and hardship. THE BLACK WING CHRONICLES are the story of how a young, naïve princess, accused of treason, earns the right to command the precision combat wing whose loyalty and service can tip the balance of power in the Commonwealth from one house to another.
When my daughter, Amanda, was a tween, she asked for my advice on writing. I was on the road with my job, so I sent her the advice via email. She’s grown now and pursuing her career and off on that wonderful adventure called life. This past weekend, I was going over my old computer files (and pictures from those days, because I miss her) and I came across my advice from the road.
As I read over what I’d sent her, I realized it holds true today for her little brothers and sister as well as it had for her. For what it’s worth, here is a mother’s writing advice:
Imagine. Exercise your imagination regularly by playing. Pretend to be someone from a TV show or movie with your friends. If you feel too old for that, shut yourself up in your bedroom and daydream. Wonder what it would be like to be someone else, then pretend you are that person. Wonder what it would be like to do something, then pretend you are doing it. Make up stories in your head and imagine how they would work out.
In your imagination, nothing is impossible. If you wonder what it would be like to have magical powers, then imagine you have them. Go through the day looking for situations in which to use them. How would they work? How would they make problems for you? How would you solve problems with them?
If you wonder what it would be like to live 100 years in the future, then imagine that you do. What would the world be like? How would your life be different? What kinds of problems would you have that you don’t face now? Where would you live? What would the you of the future think of the you of today?
Listen to how others tell stories or describe situations in every day conversations. Some of the best writing is just taking what we hear in conversation and transcribing it into something grammatically palatable.
Read. By reading, you will see firsthand how professionals describe ordinary scenes and actions. By emulating them, you can get a feel for the way words flow together. The more you read, the more familiar you will become with language. Read all kinds of books from different decades. See how writing has changed during the 20th century.
Write. The only way to learn to write is to sit down and do it. It doesn’t have to be good the first time. Even professionals must write and revise for hours… days… months… years even, before they are satisfied that they have expressed themselves adequately.
Rewrite movies, TV shows, and books. Write a story using characters and settings from a movie, or any story that captured your imagination. Add yourself as a character and take a course of action that changes the outcome of the story. Take characters from one movie or show and put them in the setting of another.
Experiment with the language. Don’t be afraid to string words together in new and unusual ways. Always be on the lookout for different ways to say the same thing. Instead of saying that someone works at a gas station, he can be a petroleum distribution specialist. A writer is a word merchant. A dog is a canine companion. A cat is a furry sidekick. Your best friend can be your partner in crime. Your mother is your maternal unit. Your father is your paternal unit.
This advice from the road still holds some truth. Your imagination is a muscle and you must exercise it regularly to keep it strong.
How do YOU exercise your imagination? What advice would you have for Amanda’s now-tween brother?
“It’s good to want things.” – Winona Ryder in Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael
“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.” — Ray Bradbury
A while back, I talked about Two Sentences That Changed My Life and From Frying Pan to Fire: Scene and Sequel. What both of those posts have in common is that they touched on the three vital elements of a story: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC). Without these, you don’t have a story.
Goal – What your character wants
Motivation – Why/How badly your character wants it
Conflict – What stands between your character and his/her goal
If any of these three elements are weak, your story will be weak as well. It doesn’t matter how beautifully you command the language, or how skillfully you wield action verbs, without a well-defined goal, sufficient motivation, or suitable level of conflict, your story will fall flat and you will lose your reader.
Without a clearly-defined goal, your character will wander aimlessly along, smelling the flowers and wondering what he/she is supposed to be doing. You should be able to answer quickly and concisely what your Main Character (MC) wants. In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett wants Ashley Wilkes. Everything she does springs from this want, from befriending Melanie Hamilton to making her home in Atlanta, it’s all done with the intent to stay close to Ashley Wilkes so she can make him love her.
In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby wants Daisy. In The Sting, Hooker wants revenge for the murder of his friend. In The Princess Bride, Westley wants to claim Buttercup.
Let’s take a closer look at The Princess Bride. That’s a good one to start with because the characters’ goals are so clearly defined. Westley wants to claim Buttercup. Inigo wants to find the six-fingered man. Humperdink wants to start a war between Guilder and Florin. At some point, their goals come into conflict with one another through the action in the story. Westley and Inigo are pitted against each other because Inigo was hired to kidnap Buttercup and Westley is following them so he can rescue her.
This is where the motivation behind the goals leads to the level of conflict created. In the famous sword fight scene, Inigo’s heart isn’t really in it. Why not? Because Westley isn’t the six-fingered man therefore, he isn’t sufficiently motivated to kill Westley. Westley, however is strongly motivated to defeat Inigo because he stands in the way of rescuing his dearest love, Buttercup. The motivation behind meeting the primary goal is stronger than the motivation behind the secondary goal, so there is conflict. With each clash of one goal blocking another, tension builds.
The story comes to a head when the characters’ primary goals come into conflict, when Westley, in his pursuit of Buttercup, stands in the way of Humperdink realizing his goal of using Buttercup to start a war. This occurs at the climax. Will Westley’s motivation (love) defeat Humperdink’s motivation (greed)? If Westley didn’t have deep feelings for Buttercup, would he fight so hard to rescue her? If Humperdink weren’t so greedy for power, would he be so single-minded in his purpose to use Buttercup to start a war?
This is why motivation is so important. How high are the stakes for your character? What does your character stand to lose? How will it impact his life if he fails? How far is your character willing to go to attain his goals? What will it take to make your character give up on his goals? When you can answer those questions, look at your answers and figure out how to throw each and every answer into your character’s path. That is how you build conflict.
Conflict is having your character face the very real possibility of being thwarted in achieving his goals. Conflict is blocking your character from his goal. All your character has to do to reach safety is cross a bridge. What do you do? You blow up the bridge. Now what does your character do? Well, your character has to find another way across. He learns of a ferry just upriver, but he has to fight his way through hostile natives to get there. If he doesn’t have adequate or believable motivation for continuing forward, the reader will wonder why he bothers. Why doesn’t he simply go home?
You have to communicate to your reader just how important the goal is, how motivated they are to attain that goal, and how difficult the conflict is to overcome. If any of these fall short, your story will lose tension and consequently your reader won’t care.
So, say to your character “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want…”