The Inner Dialogue: A Method for Figuring Out Your Stories

So if you didn’t hear, a novel I’ve been working on since college is getting published, and I’ve been working with a professional editor to make sure that the story is the best it can be before publication. During the revision process, we agreed that the number of flashbacks in the story were actually getting in the way of the story, so I should nix them. Unfortunately, that meant a third of the book went out the window, and another third that relied on that first third had to go as well.

Yeah, that got me depressed for a little while, and it took a lot for me to climb out of that funk. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m actually here to talk about what happened with my story. Because you see, now that essentially the majority of the novel had been chucked out, I had to figure out where to go with the story. I couldn’t go the original direction of the story, because the flashbacks I’d tossed out were so essential to that direction.

Luckily, I was able to come up with a new direction for the story using a method that I’d never used before, which I call the inner dialogue. I can’t remember where I picked this method up,* but it’s stayed in the back of my mind for years, and I figured this was as good a situation as any to use it.

The inner dialogue is where you simulate a conversation with your inner writer (we all have one) when you’re struggling with what to do with a story. This could be trying to overcome writer’s block, figuring out why what a character is doing in the story feels wrong to you, having to rewrite a majority of the story, or any other issue you may be having during the writing/editing process of a story.

Here’s what you have to do:

Get a notebook and pen, or a typewriter and paper, or open up your preferred writing program on your computer. Imagine that you’re sitting down with your inner writer at a cafe, in your favorite writing spot, in a dark basement underneath a seedy dive bar, wherever you feel most comfortable talking to your inner writer. And have an honest conversation with them, writing down what you say and writing down what your inner writer says back. Think of it like texting, only you’re texting with a part of your mind you use for storytelling.

Bounce ideas off them, talk about the criticisms people have with the story, discuss what about the story is bugging you. Something about this method, writing out the problems and some possible situations to remedy this, allows your mind to open up and see new possibilities and solutions.

It might also make people wonder if you’re channeling spirits and doing automatic writing and/or if you’re having some sort of psychological crisis. But I think that’s a risk worth taking for finding what you need to make a story as good as it possibly can be.

Here’s an example conversation of me and my inner writer (who I’ve found to be very sassy during our conversations) discussing a hypothetical book idea I’ve been working on. My dialogue is written normally, while my inner writer uses bold letters:

So we’re doing this again, are we?

Yes, we are. Alright, let’s talk about my idea for a novel I’ve been working on. It centers on a group of cheerleaders.

I’m sure it does, you naughty dog.

Ha ha, very funny. Anyway, we’ve gone over what would happen to them once they arrive at the main setting of the story. But why does it happen? There’s always a catalyst that sets things up. Even if we don’t see it until the end of the story, there’s always something that starts the horror off.

Not always, baby boy. Remember The Haunting of Hill House? That really didn’t have a–no wait, that’s not right. The catalyst was that they entered the house for the investigation, and one of the subjects is mentally still very much a child, which puts her the most at risk to the house’s charms.

Yeah, catalysts in stories can be debatable or hard to pin down sometimes. But what could be a catalyst for this story. Why does this happen to these characters?

You were playing around with the idea of the setting being an illusion, weren’t you? Something created by the characters and the dark secrets in their minds. Can we do anything with that still? Maybe a variation?

You see where this is going, right? But it is very effective. I got ideas for this hypothetical novel just from doing an inner dialogue here in this blog post. And if doing it as a demonstration in this blog post can give me ideas for a novel, imagine what it can do for your work at home.

With that in mind, I just want to leave you with a couple of tips for doing this. You don’t have to use them, but I find them useful:

  • Be honest and write down everything. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll find it helpful to write down everything in these dialogues. Especially if you want to go back and see what you’ve come up with. Any thought, any idea, could prove useful, so write them down, even if your thoughts are kind of weird (mine certainly are).
  • Give your inner writer a voice. Like in your stories, the inner writer is also a character, even if they only exist inside you. That being said, you’ll want to give them a voice, motivations, everything you’d give a normal character. That way, they can speak to you just like any other character, and make the dialogue that much more effective.
    It also helps to give the inner writer’s dialogue some distinguishing characteristic, so it doesn’t get jumbled up with your own. A different font, italics, as long as it helps you differentiate, it’s all good.
  • Mark the dates and times of the dialogues. Often these dialogues can last a while. Mine lasted two weeks while I was trying to find a new direction. So mark the date and times you had these dialogues in the document you’re using. You’ll find it very helpful for later.

Nobody wants to find out a story is flawed or that they can’t figure out how to fix its problems. But there are a variety of methods to overcome these issues. Perhaps the inner dialogue is a good one for you, and will help you write, edit and publish your best work. You just have to sit down, and commit to talking to yourself for a little while. You never know what you’ll unlock.

*For some reason I think it might have something to do with Stephen King, but I think I’d remember if I came across this method in a King novel. If you have any idea where it came from, let me know in the comments. I’d like to give a proper acknowledgement to whoever or wherever I got the inner dialogue.

Only You Can Write Your Story

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I was listening to a song that was sung by someone other than the original artist, and I went through my music library because I wanted to hear the song sung by the original artist. Why? Because there was a certain “edge” in the way the original artist sang the song that the other person couldn’t get right. It’s the same song, but the artist brought their own style to it that makes me like the song a lot more.

Then I started thinking of how important our writing voice is. Writers, just like musicians, have their own style that they bring to the story that no other writer can do. This is what makes us unique. It makes us different. This is why I think it’s crucial for writers to embrace their creativity. Creativity is what helps writers explore their voice. It’s the natural flow of the story. It’s all in “how” things are worded. The “how” is key.

This is why I’m not a fan of critique groups. When critique groups come in, they often kill the writer’s voice because they impose their own voice into the story. I know that using critique groups is a safer way to go, but I think it can end up ruining what makes a writer unique.

The reason a certain reader is going to be attracted to your story is because you wrote it. A readers becomes a fan of a certain writer based on how strongly the writer’s voice has connected with the reader. There’s a reason why some readers put you on their “auto-buy” list. You bring something to the table no other writer can. You bring your own way of telling the story. You are using words in a way that no one writer can do.

This is why one person will like a book by one author but hate a book by another author. Sure, there can something to do with the content in the book itself. Some readers, for example, love strong heroines while others prefer them to be softer. That speaks more of the reader than it does the writer. You can’t worry over stuff like that. The reader’s preference is out of our control. If you try to write for every reader out there, you’ll end up with mediocre stories. (I know because I’ve tried this, and looking back, I wish I had done a couple of stories differently.)

Being true to your voice is going to require some risk. You’ll have to go into the story knowing that not everyone in this world will like your book. You won’t even please everyone who likes the genre you’re writing in. But, you will find some people who will fall in love with your stories because of the way you tell the story. They will seek you out. They will want your other books. They will prefer your books over another writer’s because of your voice.

It’s like the singer I was listening to. This singer doesn’t appeal to everyone. My husband, for instance, hates this particular artist because of the way she “sounds”. But I love her because of the way she sounds. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to producing a song any more than there is to producing a book. The more you write, the more you will discover your voice. The more you embrace your voice, the more authentic you’ll be to your ideal reader. So don’t fret over elements out of your control (like “why” someone won’t like your book). Instead of focus on elements you can control, like the way you tell a story. You’re the only one who can tell a story in your style. There will be someone out there who will love it.

The Beauty of Point of View

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The other day, a friend and I were reading the same blog comments left by two people with distinct points of view. One argued in favor of something, and another argued against it. I was surprised when my friend said the people were being a bit mean and condescending. When I read those comments, I didn’t think that at all. To me, it seemed like both were steadfast in their beliefs and presented them in a rather neutral tone.

As I was thinking on how differently she and I interpreted the exact same comments, it occurred to me that she and I are looking at these comments through our own perceptions. We are taking our background, our personalities, and our biases in making a judgment about the “tone” these commenters were using while presenting their case.

And that is what makes people “real”. For all I know, we could both be wrong on our interpretation. The two commenters could be friends and having a fun discussion. Neither she nor I picked out that they were having “fun”, but they might have been. You see, these commenters have their own backgrounds, personalities, and biases, too. Too many times we look at things and think we know exactly what’s going on when in reality, we might be wrong.

That is the beauty of point of view. When we’re writing our stories, point of view is what characters “real”. It makes them come alive. It makes them three-dimensional. They have their own backgrounds, their own personalities, and their own biases. All of that impacts their point of view. It is the lens they will at things that happen to them in the course of the story.

The more I study point of view, the more I’m fascinated by it. Every character has a point of view. No two characters in a story should see things the exact same way. They might agree on something, but it should be for different reasons, even if those reasons only vary slightly.

For example, if both characters don’t like the villain, they agree the villain is a jerk. BUT Character 1 may say the villain is a jerk because the villain stole something from her. Character 2 may say the villain is a jerk because the villain killed her sister. Both characters can have the same focus/goal, which would be to defeat the villain. They’re going at it from different angles (for different reasons). It’s possible the villain could have killed both of their sisters. This would be especially true if Character 1 & 2 are sisters. But even then, there could be a slight variation in perception. Character 1 could be the personality type that is quick to act, and this will affect her point of view. (She’d be the one that would want to jump at the villain right away.) Character 2, however, might be more cautious. (She’d want to make a plan to take down the villain before acting.) That would impact how they both perceive the situation they’re in, and it would lead to some conflict between the sisters while maintaining the conflict these sisters have with the villain.

The example above could be worked out a lot of ways. The characters’ point of view will determine the way the story plays out. That means every writer reading this could take that scenario, and each writer would have a different story. The writer creates the characters, so the writer is bringing his/her own point of view into the story. The writer already has it set on what kind of story this setup will be. It could be a short story, novella, a novel, or even a series. The writer could then break it down according to genre and sub-genre. So even at the writing level, we have the beauty of point of view. But then the writer creates the characters and the world, and from there the characters bring their own points of view to the table. That’s why even with the same set up, no two stories will be alike. There might be some similarities, but they will be distinct because they will all play out differently.

And this is good. It means there are many ways that stories can be told. It allows for creative freedom. Point of view is a wonderful tool at our disposal. Instead of trying to be like another writer, I think we should embrace the writer we already are. We can use our characters to explore new ways of looking at the world that we never even considered. We should allow the characters to be true to themselves instead of telling them who they are. We, as writers, set the initial stage for the stories. The characters are the ones who take the main set up and run to tell the actual tale.

I never know what my characters will say and do until I’m writing in their point of view. I go into the story thinking I know what will happen, but I’m rarely ever right. I’d say 95% of the time, I’m wrong. The characters take the reins, and they end up telling me what they’re going to say and do. All I do is sit back and record everything down as it plays out like a movie in my mind. The best way to do is by getting deep into the character’s point of view. I don’t agree with everything my characters do. I wouldn’t do things the same way some of my characters do it. But I’m writing the characters’ stories, not my own. So I let them lead the way. There are times when I think the characters are taking the entire story off course, but I have learned to trust the process because every single time, they end up making a better story than I would have.

This is a huge reason why I can’t plot ahead of writing a book. When I tried, the characters ripped up my outline, threw it away, and did their own thing. If I forced them to stick to my outline, the story fell apart, and I hit a dead end. Now, I know some writers plot and do it well. I’m not one of them. This post might be primarily for those writers who are pansters. The reason I say this is because I can’t know my characters until I’m writing in their point of view. I can imagine what they’d do all day long, but none of makes any difference until I’m writing.

My way,  obviously, isn’t for everyone, but I thought I’d share it because I was excited to learn something new about point of view I hadn’t really thought about before. But I’m also bringing my own point of view to this topic. Take what you can use and toss the rest out. Only you can write a character’s point of view according to your own unique style.

Lengthening Your Story

I know it’s about three months too late to say this, but Happy New Year, everyone!

Now, to the main topic: has anyone ever told you your story, one which you might have worked months on and is already tens of thousands of words long, is good, but needs to be longer? I have: back in my senior year of college, I had written a novel called Rose for my senior thesis. Near the end of my last semester, I met with my thesis advisor to discuss the novel one more time (at that point in its second draft). We talked about a number of qualities with the novel, its strengths and weaknesses, and where I could go with  the next draft. One of the most memorable suggestions? Make it twice as long as it was already.*

At that time, the novel was about forty-thousand words long, so doubling it seemed like an impossible task. However, two years later I did somehow manage to add about that many words, and it actually did help the story. How did I accomplish this feat? Well, here are some of the steps I took to lengthen my story, which might be of some help to you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

1. Figure out if the story really does need lengthening. Every story, like every person, is unique. And some are meant to be shorter. If your story works at about seven-thousand words, don’t expand it to twenty-five thousand because you feel it won’t do well that short or to fit an anthology’s needs. Instead, think long and hard about whether the story itself would be better if longer. And if you’re not sure, ask for a second or third opinion. It wasn’t just my thesis advisor, but two other early readers from Ohio State who told me to make it longer, so that’s what I did. See if anyone in your writing circle can give you an objective opinion on the story and if it needs to be longer.

If you get a positive on that question, then here are some strategies you can try.

2. Try expanding a scene.  In two instances in Rose, there were parts where the protagonists remembers episodes in her life that had a lasting impact on her. In between the second and third draft, I felt that those scenes should have more happening in them in order to maximize their effectiveness. Sure enough, those scenes were made more powerful by going deeper into them and expanding the action.

And speaking of expanding:

3. Add a new chapter. This one, I’d treat as a sort of last resort. In Rose, it was necessary: I needed to reveal a ton of information to the reader, and couldn’t put that info into a previously-established chapter. A new chapter was necessary. So only write a new chapter if it is absolutely necessary, and if adding the new scenes or information can’t be done in any previous chapter.

4. Go deeper into a character’s character. Some characters might benefit from going deeper into their personalities or histories. Perhaps you can expand on what a character is thinking in a certain situation, showing us what thoughts lead to their actions. Or maybe you’ll want to go into why another character is very passionate about something, and relate it to something in their past. In Needful Things by Stephen King, one character is passionately against gambling. This is partly due to religious reasons, but later it’s revealed his father was an alcoholic gambler who abandoned the character’s family several times due to drinking and gambling debts. It’s an interesting reveal, and added depth to an otherwise stock character as well as a few more words.

5. Add a new character/expand a minor character’s role.  In the first and second drafts of Rose, I mentioned two characters who had a big impact on the antagonist. However, they’re only mentioned by other characters and never actually seen. In the third draft, I not only added scenes featuring these two characters, but created a third character who also had a big impact on the antagonist. Doing so added a new level of depth to the antagonist, which my beta readers loved.

6. Add a new element or two to the story. I did not do this with Rose, but it’s still a legitimate strategy. For example, in 2007 an anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aired in Japan and later was released internationally.  It was twenty-four episodes, and part of the reason an anime based on a two-hour play was able to be that long is because they set the anime in a fantasy universe complete with flying horses, a rebel army, and magic trees (I haven’t seen it yet, so I have no idea if that works, but apparently a lot of people like it, so I guess it worked for some people).

You can do something similar with your own stories, though it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as changing the entire setting and genre of the story. What would happen if you added drag racing to your story about lovers from different social classes? Or what if your protagonist is given a disability that they must overcome along with whatever obstacle faces them in the story? The only limits are your imagination, and you can create some interesting new scenarios when you add new elements to the story.

 

Not all stories need to be longer than they already are. But in the event that they need to be, there are several ways to go about doing that. As long as you do it well and it’s not shoehorned in awkwardly, anything you add can only add to the story. Both in word count and in story quality.

What tips do you have for expanding a story? Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did it work out?

*At least, I think that’s what he said. It may have actually been add another ten or twenty thousand words, but I’m pretty sure he said double it. Not that it really matters, in the end.

How to Write an Interlude

Have you ever been in the middle of a novel, and it’s been told almost entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, and then in one chapter it’s suddenly told from the POV of a character who may work in an office dealing with the fallout of the events of the novel, or of a love interest left at home waiting for the protagonist to come home, or from the villain who is slowly losing their mind as they see the price they are paying for their power? If you have, then you have come across an interlude, a break from the main narrative of a fictional story in order to receive the viewpoint of another character or characters, often to further the story or to give us an expanded perception of the story.

Interludes occur a lot in fiction. The Harry Potter novels had quite a few of them (the very first chapter of the series was an interlude, focusing on the lives of the Dursleys and the effect of Voldemort’s death on the Wizarding World rather than on Harry himself). The Help had one in the novel, written like a news article reporting on the events of the Christmas charity ball and the attendees’ individual thoughts. And my own work features interludes, including in my WIP Rose.

But how do you write a good interlude? I have some tips in this article that might prove useful in answering that very question.

But first, let’s ask ourselves this: why write an interlude at all? Don’t we want to stay focused on the main story? Well, not always. Sometimes changing POVs can help fill in information the reader may need without being expository or awkward as it might be in the main narrative. For example, in the first chapter of The Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister,” explains to the reader, from both the Muggle and the Wizarding point of view, how much Britain has been affected since Voldemort’s return. Now I’m sure JK Rowling could have told us that very well from Harry’s POV, but seeing it from both the Muggle Prime Minister and from the Ministry’s upper echelons’ POV adds a new dimension to the story that we might not have gotten from just Harry’s POV.

The interlude in The Help does something similar: in its interlude chapter, which isn’t told from the POVs of any of the main characters, we get the interactions between several characters at once, major and minor, as well as their thoughts and feelings. You couldn’t get that if the author had stayed in the POV of one of the protagonists.

So an interlude gives us, the reader, important information that we can’t get through the normal narrative.

But how do we write an interlude? Well, we should be careful about how we do it. If a reader is used to one particular POV, the sudden shift to another with just a turn of the page could be very jarring and ruin the illusion of the story. Thus the author must alert the reader immediately that an interlude has begun. This should be done in the very first sentence. Let’s take our Half-Blood Prince example:

It was nearing midnight, and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

See how Harry’s not mentioned at all? See how it sets up who we’re focusing on, what their location is, and what they’re doing? That’s a great way to start an interlude and alert a reader to the change of POV so they’re not thrown off course.

Another way to alert readers in the first sentence is by changing more than just the POV. In my WIP Rose, there’s a chapter in the latter half of the book where the POV changes from the protagonist to the father of one of the other characters. At the same time as this change, the narration changes from a narrow, first-person POV to a semi-omniscient,  third-person POV.  A change like that is a very good way to alert the reader of the change, though it does have its risks, and can cause readers to do a double or even a triple take.

This actually extends to more than just what person the narration is in: in The Help‘s interlude, the shift to a reporting style changes not just the POV and how the story is told, but in the book the margins are increased to make it seem like you’re actually reading a column in a newspaper. That is a very effective tool in alerting readers to how different that chapter is.

A third way to alert the reader to an interlude is to alert them before the chapter even begins. In Rose, I start my interlude chapter by naming it An Aside. Because that’s what it is, an aside to see things from this other character’s POV, as well as to further the story.  It’s as simple as that.

And after you alert the reader to the change in perspective, it’s as simple as writing a regular chapter. Tell the part of the story that needs to be told in this chapter, and as long as you tell it well, then you’ve written a good interlude. At least, that’s always been my experience.

Even if you don’t ever find yourself writing an interlude (plenty of authors simply don’t), it’s always handy to know how to do it. And knowing what an interlude is meant to do, as well as how to alert the reader to the interlude, is essential to knowing how to do it. And if you can master those, you can make any interlude part of a great story.

Do you write interludes in your fiction or find them in the books you read? What tips do you have to writing them?

 

Just a quick note: as 2017 is winding down, and this may be our last post for the year, we here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors would like to thank you for reading our posts. You are the reason we do what we do, and we always appreciate you coming back over and over and letting us know that what we put out there is helpful to you in your careers.

From all of us to you, Happy Holidays and a good New Year. We look forward to sharing wisdom back and forth between ourselves again in 2018.

Letting Your Characters be Who They Are (A Deeper Look Into Point of View)

Point of view is one of those tricky subjects we often struggle with as writers.  I know I’ve been trying to get a solid understanding on this since I started seriously writing back in late 2007.  Just the other day while I was reading one of my children’s newsletters from school, I came across something that gave me an “a-ha!” moment.

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(You know you’re a writer when you read something totally unrelated to writing and make it relevant to writing.) 😀

So anyway, this tidbit in the newsletter was about student behavior.  Here’s the gist of it…

An event happens.  The event in itself is neutral.  BUT it is the person’s perception of the event that influences their behavior.

And that’s when the lightbulb lit up above my head.  So what did I do?  I did the first thing any writer trying to come up with a blog post topic would do.  I made notes on what I wanted to write for this post.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a good friend (and fellow writer) who was getting stuck in her story.  Her character wasn’t doing or saying the things she would say and do.  That being the case, she didn’t know how to proceed with the scene.

That got me thinking.  How many times do we impose our own mentalities onto our characters instead of letting the characters be who they really are?  Our job as writers is to tell the character’s story.  It is their story, not ours.  If we want to tell our own story, we need to write an autobiography.  If we want to do fiction, we need to let the character tell his or her own story in the way they want.

So when we’re writing, I think we’d be better off putting ourselves in the character’s shoes.  See things through the character’s eyes.  Take into consideration the character’s background, religious (or lack of) convictions, prejudices (we all have them), hopes, and goals.  When an event in the story happens, we need to perceive that event through the character’s point of view.

Your job as the writer is to step aside and let the character believe what they want about the event, regardless of whether or not they are right.  Misunderstandings about something can be a great way of opening conflict in a story.  How often have you heard one side of the story and then learned the other side?  How often would you say two opposing viewpoints both had valid points after you listened to each person tell you what they think?

It’s no different with characters.  One character might see an event in a very positive light while another might think it’s the worst thing that has ever happened.  That is fine.  Go with it.  Let the character with the point of view have that perception. And when that character has perceived it in a certain way, have him react to it based on his personality.

blog post on character and point of view
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When I was in high school, I was in a play, and to this day, I remember the director (aka drama teacher) saying, “Good acting is reacting.” In the same way, good writing is allowing the character to react in a way that makes sense for him, given his history, baggage, prejudices, etc, to react.  The character might change eventually or might not.  But either way, that character has a right to react to an event that makes the best sense to that character.

For example, a character who has spent his childhood hiding from bullies isn’t likely to react bravely to someone who threatens him.  He will need to build himself up and overcome that tendency to run off before his is ready to confront the person threatening him.  It won’t happen overnight.  That’s where personal growth and struggle can come in for the character.

Even if you, as the author, face challenges head on and tackle them right away, your character might not be the same way.  It’s okay for your character to be different from you.  In fact, I think it’s great if you experiment with different personality types when you’re writing.  Too many times we try to impose who we are on the characters, and this can be very limiting.

Think about it.  If you write the same type of characters all the time, how different will your stories really be?  There are only so many plots available.  It’s how the characters react to the events (aka plots) that make the story unique.

You might get feedback from a reader who says, “I hated that character.  I never would have done (fill in the blank).”  The reader has every right to hate the character because the character didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations (based on the reader’s background, personality type, etc).  But does that mean the character was wrong to do what the character did?  Absolutely not.  The character has his own way of looking at the world, and this particular way of looking at the world just happens to be at odds with the reader’s way of looking at the world.

Remember: you will NEVER please EVERYONE.  So don’t even waste your time trying.  It’s okay to have haters on your book.  It doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a writer.  It just means your book isn’t that reader’s cup of tea.  Books, just like points of view, are subjective.

Back to the post:

Think about real life.  We all have our own point of view on everything that happens around us.  We react to these events based on our point of view.  Another person we know will have a different point of view and react differently than we do.  It’s normal.  Life would be boring if we were all the same.

So embrace these differences when you’re writing.  Give your character the freedom to be his own person.  Even if that character is different from you, let him react to things that are appropriate for him.  I think it will help you develop more well-rounded and meaningful characters if you embrace differences instead of trying to fight them.

Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

Stages of Writing a Book: Post #1 (Coming Up With Ideas)

(This series of posts turned out to be longer than five videos.  It turned into seven.)

In this video, Janet Syas Nitsick and I discuss coming up with ideas for writing your next book.  Janet shares a couple of real life events that have inspired some things in her stories, such as a man dressing up as Santa Claus and getting stuck in the chimney or a man’s devotion to his wife. Sometimes something someone says or does can lead to something you can use in your book.  But what you do is make your own spin (or twist) off of it, so then it becomes your own idea in your story.  Make it fresh and unique. Other sources of ideas can be movies and other books.  Think of how things could have gone differently.  How would things have played out if the hero/heroine had made a different decision at some point?  Would the outcome have been different?   Usually, it would have.  The fun part is deciding how, and this could launch you into a fresh new idea for a book. Sources of information can come from many things.  You can even take people you know in real life and embellish them/change them so that they become unique characters.  Maybe you take a certain physical trait they have (such as hair color) or maybe you pick out a personality trait (such as their enthusiasm for life) and make that the launching pad for the character.  Often you will start out with a character patterned off someone you know, but then as the story progresses, the character will take on a life of their own and become different. The key to getting ideas is to watch people, listen to what is going on around you, ask a lot of “what if” questions, and be open to exploring new possibilities.

How Do You Know When To Add (Or Delete) A Scene?

We recently had an excellent question. The question was, “Do you have to put a sex scene into a book?” What this person is really asking is, “How do you know when to add a scene to a book (or even delete it)?”

It really all comes down to the character. The main character (or characters as the case may be) is the key to the entire story. Everything needs to revolve around him. Everything you use in a scene, whether it’s in the setting or in dialogue or action, needs to advance the character’s journey. The journey starts when the character has a desire for something. The journey is complicated with conflict, and there can be a couple conflicts that pop up along the way. The journey isn’t complete until the character either receives his desire, which makes for a happy ending, or comes to realize he’ll never get what he wants, which makes for a sad ending.

So keep this in mind when you’re thinking about what to add or take out while you’re writing your book.

In the case of sex, does the character learn something new about himself or the person he’s with during the act of sex? In that case, put the scene in because this is where something new is added that will advance the character towards his goal. In the case of romance, sex is usually the stage where the hero and heroine are able to be vulnerable but also safe, and this can add very well to the advancement of the romance. The romance doesn’t have to be the main plot of the book. If you’re writing a fantasy and have a romantic subplot where the two realize they are falling in love during sex, this can work.

Sometimes we get so hung up on sex, we don’t think of other elements to add or not add in a book, such as violence. Let’s say you’re writing a thriller. The killer is a brutal man who shows no mercy. Well, how do you best show it? You have him do something like have our villain break some bones and cut out another person’s tongue. This is showing how bad our “bad guy” really is. That way, you’re showing it. This also advances the plot because the detective will want to stop this.

So when thinking about what to do with a scene, always keep in mind that the scene has to move the character one step forward–or somehow hinder–their goal. If the scene doesn’t do any of that, I would say it’s not necessary.

The Emotionally Engaging Character: The Key to Telling a Compelling Story

A compelling story is one which grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.  It makes it difficult for the reader to put down so they can do something else, and when the reader does put it down, the reader is often thinking about the story and anxious to get back to it.  These are books that readers remember long after they read the book.  The reason for this is because they connected with the characters in the book on an emotional level.  The character’s journey became their journey.

Telling a story is one thing.  The basic structure involves normal life, a desire for something, a conflict that prevents the character from getting it, a climax, and a resolution.  The bare bones of every story isn’t exciting.  What makes the story exciting is the character who embarks on this journey from where they were in the beginning to where they’ll be at the end.

If the character is emotionally engaging, the reader will experience everything the character does.  If the character is anxious, the reader will get anxious.  If the character is laughing, the reader should at least be smiling.  The reader is going to forget they’re reading the book and become so engulfed in the story that they become the character.  When this happens, the story is compelling.

So how does someone create an emotionally engaging character?

1.  Let the character guide the story.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, the character can lead you as you write your story.  This is where you let the character tell you where to go instead of telling the character what he is going to do.  If you feel like the story is going in a different way than what you expected, let it.  This is a cue the character is letting you know the character wants something else.

2.  If the story stalls, chances are likely the story is going in a direction that isn’t right for the character.

I used to think when my writing stalled, I needed to press through it because I was bored of the story or simply tired.  After several times of pushing through and realizing about 10-15,000 words later I had messed up the story, I’ve learned the reason the story stalled was because I was forcing it to go in a way the character didn’t want.

Sometimes you have to take a break from the story and work on something else.  When you stall, that’s the best way I’ve found to deal with it.  Forcing it seems to only make things worse.  But when I work on something else, it frees my subconscious mind to work through whatever issue was making my story go in the wrong direction.  Then, one day when I’m not expecting it, the answer will come to me.  This is when the character is back in the driver’s seat, and I’ve gotten back on board again.

3.  Focus only on the characters whose point of view you’re giving.

I don’t recommend doing more than a couple characters’ points of view.  Pick the main ones and only do those, unless you’re only sticking in one point of view through the entire book.  Trying to cram in too many points of view will dilute the power of your story.  I typically do two points of view, though I have done up to four.  I do three or four sparingly, though.  For your reader to best connect with a character, they need to spend most of their time in that character’s point of view.  So pick the main one or two you need and make the story revolve around them.  If you do another point of view, do is sparingly and only when you need it to be the most effective.

4.  Be open to a wide range of emotions.

In order for your character to be emotionally engaging, you have to feel emotions–and feel them deeply.  Don’t be afraid of them.  A writer needs to be intimately connected to their feelings if they are going to create characters the reader can get engaged in.   The best characters are the ones that make the readers feel.  You can’t create those kind of characters if you don’t engage with your own feelings.

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A compelling story is one that will be remembered because of how it made the reader feel.  And along this line of thought, I want to close with this quote by Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”  So when you write, make your reader feel something they’ll remember long after they finish the book.