In The Beginning…

I love writing the beginning of a novel. I must, I have half a dozen in my “to write” folder that are still waiting for a middle and end to be written.See the source image

The beginning, or Act One, of a book is where the magic kicks off. You’re creating new characters, their world, their hopes and desires (aka, their motivations), your planting seeds of what is to come. The dramatic question is set up and asked, and you’re teeing up the football that is the inciting incident.

There’s a lot going on here!

Let’s define some terms here:

  • Worldbuilding – This isn’t just for Science Fiction. Your setting may be in the here and now, but your main character’s world needs to be established. What’s our hero’s normal? In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s world is a working farm, where she isn’t raised by her parents but her Aunt and Uncle. It’s the past, Kansas, and she feels in the way. She’s a burden on her Aunt and Uncle, she gets in the way of the farmhands, and a nasty neighbor has it out for her. Her best friend is a dog.
  • Character Building. We meet and get to know Dorothy, a young reckless teen, but scratch the surface and her insecurities come boilingng out. In the movie, we meet the farmhands and their chief character trait, who become the main players in the story (albeit in different forms).
  • Character Arc: Your hero is flawed, and in the course of the story, your character will be changed by the circumstances encountered.
  • Dramatic Question: This typically encompasses the hero’s character arc. Will Dorothy find her way home? Will Luke become a Jedi? These aren’t difficult questions, but the dramatic question becomes the spine of your story. Things that don’t relate to the question can be trimmed away.
  • Inciting Incident: That’s the no-going-back point. It is NOT when Dorothy runs away, it is when she opens the door on Oz.

There are many methods to start the first page. Your best bet is to start with Action, something that typifies the hero’s normal. In my book Me and the Maniac in Outer Space, Hud is contemplating the hell that is middle school in the boy’s locker room, where he is frequently assaulted by the school bully. That beating is interrupted by his best friend the Maniac.

My novel Do Angels Still Fall? began in France during the plague as the angel Donel conducted his charge to the afterlife who asked the title question, something the angel had never considered before. This established Donel’s world of flesh, spirit, and time displacement, and ushered him to this new normal of mentoring a child of today.

Another tried and true method is to drop right into the midst of Act Two action, then either jumping back to Act One (as in cold openings of TV shows… 3 day earlier…) or using flashbacks to bring us up to speed.

Framing devices are also possible, in which the “frame” is someone else telling the story, or the hero’s older self looking back.

The key is to start as late in the story as you can without losing critical detail.

From there, creatively establish whatever else is required of world, relations, motivations, and drive to that inciting incident that disrupts the old normal and forces the hero to move forward to the new normal.

Then it’s. On to Act Two. Tomorrow…

How Sayeth You?

Dialog is the bane of some writers, and some don’t know it. Nothing brings down a novel faster than poor dialog.

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An important word to know is verisimilitude. It means the appearance of being real or true.

Because story is a crafted structure, your people can’t speak “like real people do.” Their dialog should be crafted to be concise, paced, differentiated, and sharp, yet appear like people really speak.

When coaches say you need to develop an ear for dialog, what you’re listening for is meter, accent, regionalism, and word choice. The fact is that real people speak badly, almost as if we’re making it up as we go along (because we are). We speak with fluff, fail to drive to a point, interrupt ourselves and each other, get distracted, and pause, stumble, or misspeak a lot. Listeners often don’t even hear the misspeaks as they listen for meaning (only us weirdos listen to each word).

Things to do and avoid:

  • Get rid of small talk. Enter scenes after small talk is over, or just skip over it. This is especially true with telephone calls. Get straight to the point.
  • Be strategic. Use dialog sparingly, only when it’s needed. Ask yourself if there’s a better way to convey the points. If not, dialog is fine.
  • Properly tag dialog. We have to know who’s speaking. Not every line needs to be attributed, but we know who it is. “said” is your go-to tag. Use word choice to convey how a line is said, not tags. “He grated” “she quavered” “he grunted” “she bleated” comes after the line (or should, it feels stilted at the beginning of the line), so the reader either has to re-read the line or think about it. We don’t think about “she said” because no image comes to mind. It just tags the speaker, which is the goal.
  • If swearing is necessary, include it rarely: “But people talk that way.” Um, I don’t. My friends don’t. Your character may, but if it’s done so much that it becomes invisible, then you don’t need it. Use it for impact. Part of the reason not to is because the reader puts emphasis on it when the character probably wouldn’t. It screws up the meter of the dialog, putting a stress where it doesn’t belong.
  • Get to the point. Dialog should have a purpose; get to it.
  • Watch your word choice. Word choice is powerful. It indicates your character’s intelligence, their region, their creativity, and their strata of society. Word choice differentiates your characters and brings humor or terror to a conversation. How well does your character use language? How bad? A character who butchers English tells us a lot about himself.
  • Dialog tag placement. “Harry, what do you think?” vs. “What do you think, Harry?” have different meaning. If a name is used at the beginning, the speaker wants a response; it’s an invitation. If it’s used at the end, it shuts down the named person; it’s a threat.
  • Not everyone is clever. I love wordplay. Quick wit is in every novel I write, but not everyone is created equal when it comes to wit and being clever. Unless you’re writing a humor novel, but even then, you need your straight people, or it comes off as a sit-com.
  • Everyone has a cadence. We each have a personal rhythm. Find your character’s cadence. Do they like long sentences? Short sentences? Incomplete sentences? Long or short words?
  • Don’t get carried away! Dialog can be fun, but a novel isn’t a screenplay. Long runs of dialog are hard to follow and draining. The rule is: Is it necessary? Is there a better way?

Edit your dialog ruthlessly! After a while of this, you’ll become a master of dialog and it will flow from your fingers!


Character Building and Building Characters

Characters, like people, are flawed and broken. Unlike people, who hide it well and have a lot of other stuff going on, characters are “sculpted.” Even deeply-layered characters aren’t the contradiction that people are. We tend to be messy; characters are tidy messes. Everything we know about a character has to be of use.

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And a Writing Day.

If you establish Bonnie is a birder, then Bonnie better be putting that talent to use in the story.

Because I’ve had a great upbringing, my tendency is to make nice characters. I’ve been surrounded by nice broken people, so it makes sense my characters are nice. I have to resist that tendency. Characters should have flaws, often big ones, that they don’t hide well.

Imagine your characterscape as a chess game. Every piece has an opponent. Your own guys can’t always move the way you can. They have different motives and this may make them untrustworthy. Batman fights crime because his parents were murdered in front of him; Superman fights crime because his rural, moral upbringing says the strong should look out for the weak. Batman uses tactics that Superman would disapprove of; Batman thinks Superman is naïve.

Characters are motivated by what they want; what they want is based on what they believe; what they believe can be wrong.

As the grandmaster, you are creating characters who generate conflict with one another. In Angels, the boy is ignorant; the angel is wise. Their conflict is not remotely violent, but it is a mental tug-of-war. In Maniac, Hud’s family life is drastically different than Jack’s, so while Hud wants a little adventure, Jack wants to escape. This creates a widening gap between best friends.

In fiction, you rarely want equal partnerships in character or motivation. Think marriage. Motives – different; outlook-different; physicality-different; conflict-guaranteed.

The kinds of character:

Main Characters: You get in their heads, you know more about them than anyone else, you root for them. These characters will change throughout the story. Also called the Protagonist.

Secondary Characters: These characters serve a purpose. They may be in the entire story or just part of it. We care about them to a degree. They should not overwhelm the main character (it’s easy to let them steal the show, for me at least. As an actor I’m always the secondary character, so I love to write them. I just have to be careful or the story becomes his).

Incidental Characters: They fulfill an immediate purpose and then they’re gone.

Meaningless Characters: You shouldn’t have any of these.

The Bad Guy: The main character’s opposition. We may not get in their head (but, then again, we might), we typically don’t root for them, and this character doesn’t have to change. It’s important to note that the “bad guy” may not be a villain, they may just be oppositely motivated. The key here is that this character INSTIGATES THE MAIN CHARACTER’S CHANGE. Also called the Antagonist. In spiritual fiction, God is typically an antagonist because his power, mercy, love, kindness is naturally opposed to the main character’s fallen nature.

Normally, you want a tight cast of characters. Small families, small teams, and a small extended cast. Unless you’re writing epic fiction, in which character discipline is even more important.

Strongly differentiate your characters in motives, humor, intelligence, physicality, and language. Imagine Lord of the Rings with only human characters; it would be a nightmare to keep them all separate. That’s an epic; make non-epic fiction manageable.

Questions always welcome!

The Metrology of Story

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Prose has meter, too.

Unit of measure is common to almost everything. In distance, the base unit is a meter. In electricity, an ohm. In sound, the decibel. In weight the pound. What are the units of measure for a story?

Starting from the biggest to the smallest, a novel is:

  • Book – Act – Sequence – Chapter – Sub-Sections – Beat

In a stage play, screenplay, teleplay it is:

  • Play – Act – Sequence – Scene – French Scene – Beat

Play and book are self-explanatory, they are the complete work. Act refers to the beginning, middle, and end.  A sequence are the scenes/chapters that make up an act. Chapters might be broken down into sub-sections, but don’t have to be. A French Scene is a character level issue; when a character comes on and goes off, that is his French Scene.

The beat. This is the base unit of measure for story. It is a binary unit and is composed of a single choice leading to an action. That choice is binary, either action or reaction. There are thousands of beats in a story, and some of them are critical, but all of them should be sharp. Events don’t change on a dime, they change on a decision. A bomb explodes, the character’s beat is reaction. What does she do?

Betrayal is a beat. Reversals are a beat.

A writer takes control of the narrative by taking control of beats. Every beat must be motivated. When a tried-and-true friend turns on you, there’s a reason. For some reason (motivation), the betrayal is at the beat level.

Most writers manage beats intuitively. They don’t think in terms of beats, but they do write in them. To be able to break behavior down to a decision level, you can diagnose problems with simple questions: Why did x do that, and why then?

This is critical to actors because we see blurred beats. A beat has a micro-beginning, middle, and end. Blurring a beat means the actor has begun the next beat before the last beat is complete. You may not always be able to articulate why one actor is better than another, but clear, crisp beats mark a pro, soft muddled beats mark an amateur.

You can’t blur a beat in writing, but you can muddle them. Make sure your beats are properly fueled with motivation.


Questions are always welcome.


Conflict is Essential

Fiction or non-fiction, conflict is essential to a manuscript. Without it, nothing moves forward.

When Star Trek: Next Generation came out, Gene Roddenberry insisted there would be no conflict aboard the Enterprise because by then, humanity will have evolved beyond it (as if). The writers tied themselves in knots trying to obey the command.

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Conflict GOOD!

Motivation is caused by what a character wants. Action is caused when one character’s wants conflict with another character’s wants.

Superman wants Truth, Justice, and The American Way. Luthor wants to rule the world. Conflict.

Batman wants order, Joker wants chaos. Conflict.

Conservatives want less government, Liberals want more. Conflict.

Your character wants something, another character opposes it. Conflict.

Every scene should have some conflict, if only internal conflict. When a story is bogged down, and you feel like you’re going in circles, the likely culprit is you don’t know what your characters want, or you do and haven’t figured out how to put conflict into the story.

A common method is creating partner characters who conflict in manner, method, or outlook, and of course, the opposing force has conflicting goals. Avoid creating characters simply to create conflict; they must have an integral purpose to the story, contributing something to the resolution.

In non-fiction, the author must be at cross-purposes to the status quo and must challenge it. The health food writer wants you to give up tasty foods that are bad for you. You, the reader, don’t want to give up hot fudge sundaes. The writer must oppose that want and re-engineer the reader’s desires.

Non-fiction is, in essence, a polite argument.

In your story, where’s the conflict? Identify it in each scene, and spice it up to quicken the pace.

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