Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Who’s S.E. Hinton?

I recently said “Stay gold, Ponyboy” to a gentleman my age who had been an English major. He looked at me like I was crazy.

“Ponyboy. The Outsiders? S.E. Hinton?” I said.

“Who?”

Color me stunned. The Outsiders is the best-selling YA book of all time, and some say first, that came out when I (and he) were kids. It was required reading in High School. It was a MOVIE for goodness sake!

“Who?”

I sent him the link on Amazon and like a true nerd (I say with awe and wonder), he bought it. 😊

The Outsiders was also one of the most banned books in schools, right up there with Catcher in the Rye.

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There are dozens of book covers, but this is the first I remember.

Susan Hinton began writing it when she was 15, completed it at 17, and was published at 19. It’s about rival gangs, includes violence, budding sexuality, and other true-to-teen life stuff. It’s very sad, very, very sad. And while I didn’t like Catcher in the Rye, it’s in that ilk and I enjoyed The Outsiders.

Her publisher recommended going with her initials so her gender wouldn’t hurt sales. She kept using H. E. with Rumblefish and That Was Then, This is Now, and her later books for adults.

It was published in 1967, written in Oklahoma and you can tell. It’s a powerful story largely because it’s written truthfully from a kid’s point of view.

I suspect it was so well received because, let’s face it, teenagers like to read about people worse off than they are.

Susan Hinton became “relevant” again recently when a Twitter comment asked if two of her characters were gay. She responded that no, they weren’t, her characters are straight because she is and can’t write truthfully from a gay perspective. The Internet blew up at her for that. She probably sold a lot of books as a result of the exposure. No publicity is bad publicity, after all.

Let me be up-front, I dislike the term “My Truth” since truth is truth and everything else is perspective, BUT, from a literary perspective, what is your truth—the thing you can write about from the inside? Hinton’s books work for teenagers because it rings true in ways other books, even better-written books, don’t.

Susan Hinton looked around herself in High School and asked what it would be like to see the world from one of the “greaser’s” eyes. Eight million copies sold later, she continues to do so. Whose eyes can you honestly look through?

Outline to Structure Greatness

Story structure is as old as Aristophanes. It maps to expectations in the reader’s brain. The structure map must correspond to your story scenes. If it doesn’t (and don’t worry, there are millions of ways for it to do so), it will be boring, confusing, and incomplete.

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This is NOT the kind of outline we’re talking about.

The map is straight forward:

World-building – Where are we?

Status Quo – What’s normal life for the hero? Is it comfortable, tolerable, wonderful?

The Problem – Something challenges normal.

The Inciting Incident – Something makes normal no longer possible and the problem MUST be solved.

Initial Commitment – The main character commits tentatively.

Commitment Tested – That commitment is tested.

Point of No Return – ONLY the main character can solve the problem, fully committed.

Challenge of Character-Plan-Relationships-Self – Put the main character through every ringer possible

Wins and Losses – Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses; always character is challenged.

Raising the Stakes/Rising Tension – The deeper in, the more dangerous it gets, often in a giant leap. This isn’t restricted to action plots; emotional risk is equally compelling.

Gaining Power – Through all trials and travails, your main character is growing and getting equipped to take on the final challenge.

Reversal – Expectations are confounded, twisted, reversed.

Discovery – The solution presents itself, often only in the character’s mind, not in the words themselves.

Climax – This is it, the final solution played out, the opposition defeated.

New Normal – What’s life look like now? This is the completion of the character arc.

A word about outlines. You can certainly begin with an outline, but expect it to change. If you are an outliner, update your outline as you go. If you’re not, make one after the first draft. Each scene should slot into one of the above structure points. While it’s tempting to say they should always fall in this order, and more or less do in traditional stories, you can climb out of the box, or, like Tarantino, set the box on fire and stomp it out. Nonetheless, each of the elements above are in his stories, just taken out of order.

You might see structures detailed with different words, or some of them combined, but they are all essentially the same.

What happens if a scene doesn’t fall neatly into one of the elements? First, ask yourself if you’re sure it doesn’t fit. If it truly doesn’t fit, ask yourself, “is it necessary?” Can you cut it? Have you by some miracle discovered a new structure element?

Your cutting guide is simple: If I cut it, does the story improve? If I don’t, is it harmed? “Elementless” scenes may be funny, and you can get away with them if they don’t drag down the pace. Is there conflict? Every scene should have some form of conflict. If it doesn’t and it can be cut, cut it. It’s that simple. And that hard.

Unifying Your Narrative Voice

In first-person narrative, your character tells the story. In third-person narrative, an unidentified narrator tells the story.

First or third-person, you need to know your narrator to make sure it’s a unified, consistent voice.

That’s a little easier with first-person because you’re developing that character for us. In all but the unreliable narrator*, your third-person character is whole at the start of the story, just unseen.

Hallmarks of the invisible narrator include:

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Imagine if bruises weren’t invisible.

  • Trustworthiness.
  • Competence.
  • Consistent vocabulary, reading level, rhythm, narrative distance, and word-choice.

Trustworthiness is achieved by accurately telling the story, placing reveals in the proper order (when the reader needs and not after the fact), and not spieling off into irrelevant prose. The trustworthy narrator is concise and complete, but not pedantic or over-explaining. This is also true for the first-person narrator.

The competent narrator understands the subject matter, using appropriate language correctly. In a sci-fi novel, the narrator has to competently handle the concepts and technology of the story. They psychological thriller must have an insightful narrator who can relate complex concepts with an approachable style, but clear understanding of it. For the first-person narrator, competency may begin low and build to competency, which is an effective storytelling device and sometimes may tell you if your narrator should be first- or third-person.

Trust and competence are like butlers; they are noticeable only when a mistake is made. (There’s a story about a director struggling with a supporting character, a butler, who was finding every means to take the spotlight. The director finally asked him, “John, are you playing a good butler?” “Why, I’m playing the best butler!” “Excellent. Great butlers are invisible. Make it so.”)

Use of language is often visible in a tingling kind of way. You never want your prose to pull the reader out of the story, yet you do want the occasional thrill at the back of the reader’s mind. This is done with the occasional, consistent metaphor. “His heart pounded a paradiddle on the snare drum of his chest.” Paradiddle is a musical term, suggesting the narrator should stick with artistic metaphors. She should NOT throw in nautical metaphors unless the story is suddenly in an oceanic setting. That doesn’t mean metaphors must always be musical. No character is a single thing, however, consider that few people are several major things. So your narrator may have other, minor, metaphors and similes, but it would be wise to make most of the metaphors artistic in this case.

Hemmingway kept his word choice to one or two syllables. Ted Geisel was challenged to write a book with only single syllable words, and Dr. Seuss was born. Consider the texture of your words. Crunchy, spikey, edged words should be used as seasoning… not too much; not too little. Sticking to a consistent rhythm makes deviations of the rhythm more powerful. Long sentences and large paragraphs can begin to shorten to increase pace and shave to a punch!

Narrative distance refers to how close to the characters and actions the narrator is. Can the narrator hear the character’s thoughts? If so, relating those thoughts need to be consistent. Is the narrator warm or cold? Warm means close; cold means distant, that is, the descriptions are clinical, not insightful.

A couple caveats:

  • You can use different narrators based on the chapter’s major character as long as it’s the same narrator each time for each character (don’t use more than a couple narrative voices). In shows and movies, certain characters have musical themes that play when they are the focus. Same idea here.
  • Unreliable narrators first appear to be trustworthy and competent before showing their true colors as a liar or incomplete narrator who withholds vital information. With an unreliable narrator, it can be the only narrator (except in rare cases). Writing a good unreliable narrator is difficult to pull off.
  • One of your first editing jobs is to evaluate the consistency of your narrator. Get this right and your story will probably fly.

Think about your favorite stories and examine the narrator. A great narrator will make you fall into the story despite your intent to analyze. Now go find your narrator.

Oh, for More Yesterdays!

This post is about Yesterday, the movie. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT, DO NOT READ FURTHER.

SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * and more SPOILERS *

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And I was never a fan of the Beatles, but I love this movie!

I loved this movie. Jack Mallek awakens in a parallel universe where the Beatles never existed. As a frustrated musician in his own failed career, Jack claims to have written and plays the Beatle’s hits as his own and becomes famous as the greatest singer/songwriter in the world.

Burdened by guilt and oblivious to his best friend’s devotion to him, Jack slowly discovers the differences between the two worlds.

Here’s what the movie did right:

  • Fresh, interesting concept that could be a lot of fun.
  • Jack Mallek is Indian but this is never brought out as a focal point. It just is. Nice example to people with social concerns; don’t make it a thing, just put it out there.
  • It’s clean. No swearing, no nudity, no sex, yet works on multiple levels.
  • Rising tension presented by two people also from his world who know he’s faking it. We know about them for a long time before they confront Jack – and it’s a complete surprise (or at least not what Jack and I expected).
  • The “fun & games” of the movie were Jack’s rise to fame, him trying to remember the lyrics, his guilt, and his dawning realization that he loves Ellie.
  • This is billed as a romantic comedy, yet the romantic build is slow simmer rather than a focal point.
  • The writer/director understood that Jack needed to think the leap was worth it. He did so in a unique and surprising way. The door opened on someone other than I was expecting!
  • To reiterate an important point: Confrontations were telegraphed… we KNEW what was going to happen, yet what took us by surprise wasn’t just a twist, it made more sense than what we were expecting!
  • When the romance aspect came to head the first time, timing wasn’t right. Second time, timing wasn’t right, third time timing was right, but it didn’t matter, it was going to happen. The writer skillfully built two parallel story lines that weaved in and out before coming to a satisfying end.
  • The means of the parallel world switch was never revealed. So much so that many people think time was rewritten rather than Jack being in a whole other world. Had they explained the workings, it:

A) Would no longer have been a romantic comedy, and

B) No sequel would be necessary.

That’s right, the writer gave himself an opening for a sequel. What is that opening? If Jack is in a parallel universe, then he switched places with that world’s Jack, so that world’s Jack is now on our world. What’s happening to him? What’s wonderfully crazy about this sequel opportunity is that it doesn’t have to be the same genre. It could be something else entirely: sci-fi, suspense, psychological thriller or psychological comedy (more likely).

Response to Yesterday is mostly positive, though the critics think it was too simple, lacked depth, lacked gravitas. Translation, it was too clean.

I think the world needs more clean stories, more clean movies, more clean TV shows. I would love more movies like Yesterday.

End Well

The end of your story, that is, the third act, is easy if you’ve done your job in the first and second act. There you’ve set up an ending. Just do something different that fits the clues and your golden!

The greatest problem with an ending is when it’s predictable. But the opposite problem is also detrimental… the ending that comes out of nowhere.

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Cue music, swap out the lens! It’s the living end!

Your third-act job is to give the reader the ending they expect in a different form than they expected. Sometimes that’s just giving the end a twist. In a romance, for example, you might set up that the heroine is going to jilt the guy and marry the fellow next door. Instead, she discovers something she didn’t understand about the first guy that makes her want to keep him.  In a thriller, the bad guy turns out to be someone other than who we thought it was.

Alternatively, as the writer, you hold back a critical piece of information from the reader that skews the expected ending to one more apt.

As important as the conclusion is, it’s always the setup that’s important. When does the end begin? When your character is fully outfitted for the fight. Whatever character flaw is addressed, whatever relationship is mended, whatever weakness – internal or resource – is fixed or acquired. In act one and two, the hero is no hero, by the third act, the hero IS the hero (use the term lightly; your main character may be a creep, but he’s the creep on the right side now).

All the conflict of the second act adds a plate to the hero’s armor, refines character, increases the stakes, offers red herrings and reversals, and narrows the story to its conclusion.

It’s tempting to achieve the ending too fast. Conflict and surprise need to be part of the process, something that puts the reader in doubt of the expected ending, but the last thing that should happen is that the hero’s plan actually works. Plans fall apart; character and improvisation makes it work. Short third acts are common in today’s fiction. Don’t fall prey to the idea that the first and third act should be roughly the same size. Sometimes dropping of the cliff (a short third act) is ideal. It’s only rushed if it feels rushed (my first novel’s ending is a bit rushed. We write, we learn.)

Classically, there are two endings: Comedy, where things end well for the hero, and Tragedy, where things end badly for the hero. (There are also tragedies that end up working out for the hero… he loses the girl, but she’s not what she seemed…) There is a lot of wiggle-room in those classifications. True tragedies are rare today, but they can still work.

After the pay off, we then need to see the cool-down phase after the ending. The sigh of relief, the French story term I can’t remember how to spell that sounds like day-num-wa (I’m so pitiful sometimes). It can be right after, or days or even months/years after. It’s a time of implied reflection, a taste of the new normal.

A final comment in reflection of the Amazon pool of reality and POD: Your story doesn’t have to be 90,000 words. It can be just about any size now (at least 25 pages for POD printing). The terms novella and novel have little meaning anymore. In printing, 200 pages was necessary for a good price-point. Not so anymore. All that to say, end your story when it’s ready to be ended. Is it “too short” but feels satisfying? Then end it. If it doesn’t feel satisfying keep working on it.

Who doesn’t love endings? It’s all downhill and craft at that point. You’re almost done!

Voice – The Topic that Terrifies Writers

We aren’t talking about the reality singing show when we say The Voice, we’re talking about that thing that seems so hard to describe that is a vital element of a successful story.

We can look to a singing icon, though, to better understand Voice. Reba McEntire gave an interview about her early days learning to sing. She learned by doing covers of other people’s songs and sounded just like them. Her comment was insightful, “I had to learn to sing like everybody else so I could eventually sing like myself.”

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Just part your lips and speak… (is that how that goes?)

That’s an excellent description of narrative voice. Voice isn’t something you put on, it’s something you discover. It consists of your cadence, your word choice, your sentence structure, your way of describing, YOU.

When we talk to a friend, we hopefully are relaxed and natural. It’s when we try to pretend to be someone beyond, above, below, or what we think people want to hear that we get tripped up.

Think about an actor’s version of voice. I’ve been enjoying Chris Evans’ filmography, from the independent movies, Fantastic Four movies (he was the only good part), Captain America movies, and other studio movies. Evans has a range of expressions and movements. His body language changes from role to role, but he pulls from a stock of movements that are uniquely Chris Evans.

Impersonators cherry-pick such movements and mannerisms to convey the celebrity of choice. Then they grab their cadence and word choice, their manner of speaking, and away they go.

Once you’ve mastered writing so that it’s effortless, your voice will ring out. Sure, you can put on a persona when you write, but your best stories are the ones you are true to with your own voice. In other words, don’t worry about it. When you’re ready, when you’ve written like other people, you will eventually sound like yourself. That’s Voice.

Exposition Wears Concrete Shoes

We’ve all read the books that are so exposition-heavy that you feel exhausted getting to the end of the chapter… if your read that long.

Yet exposition is necessary. Sometimes you need to know what came before, why a setting is significant, or just explaining how something works or the story doesn’t make sense.

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Ned would read every word of a Tom Clancy novel.

Exposition differs from description in that it’s required information that is apart from the story, but needs to be understood for the sake of the story.

There are several ways to handle exposition, and a few “rules.”

Rule 1: Give it to the reader when they need it and not before.

Rule 2: Give them only what they need to know (be strategic and be concise).

Rule 3: Make sure it IS needed. If Tesla’s intimate love a pigeon isn’t required knowledge to his invention of cell-phone technology, don’t include it in exposition (it may be included at some point for other reasons).

Rule 4: Do NOT include it in dialog unless it’s necessary. Remember, effective dialog between people includes not saying what the other person knows. “As you know, Kit, Shakespeare was a frustrated actor who had a lisp and a hunched back.” If Kit already knows it, the speaker would not be informing him of it. If Kit doesn’t know it, only include it in dialog only if Kit must know it (see below).

Rule 5: Hide it if you can.

The ways to handle exposition:

  • With a spoonful of sugar. Or saccharine. In this method, you break the exposition up into chunks, adorned with comedy or conflict. For example: You have to explain the process of mixing an explosive. Rather than just tell us in a block, your lab assistant assures you (the main character) that he knows how to do this. Problem is, he doesn’t, much to your horror and anger, you must walk him through the process. This can be funny or serious. The attention is on the characters and the process is explained almost by accident.
  • With concrete shoes. Tom Clancy is the master of this. Want to know how to build an atomic bomb? He sets aside characters and just lays it out. Most of us skip over it, engineers eat it with a spoon.
  • With a spoonful of concrete. This is a mixture of the first two. Your main character remembers/reviews/discovers the exposition. Kirk recalled the first time he’d been to this planet and suppressed a roguish grin. Risa was a pleasure planet, and they knew their business. Rita, the famed astrophysicist was a guest… I mistook her for a working girl. Rita had discovered the transwarp signature of the Curator’s race, the ancient beings who had….
    You get the idea.

You need to decide how to handle it by analyzing the pace of your story. Can it handle a block of exposition without grinding the pace to a halt? Can it be embedded and parsed slowly?

How do you handle exposition?