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Every Good Book Contains One Simple Core Conflict

Writing a novel is no small feat. It takes a lot of time and energy. A novel is an investment, and like all investments, we hope for a payoff. This isn’t always a monetary value. Sometimes, we just want people to enjoy, absorb, and remember what we’ve written.7630486140_5b0503051d_k

Like with all good books, there is a singular, simple core issue that the entire novel is centered around. Maybe it’s having to save your grandmother from the evil troll. Maybe it’s having to get your pregnant girlfriend to the hospital. Or maybe it’s having to quit drinking because of liver damage.

This simple core problem is the main plot. There can be numerous subplots, but everything in the book links back to the main plot.

However, it’s easy, especially for new writers, to write a novel without a central issue. This may not seem like something that could happen. After all, to write a book you have to choose something to write about. So, how does not having a core problem occur?

Instead of focusing on the core issue, we focus on insane surprises and twists, witty banter, over-the-top description, and shocking moments. We end up creating enormously lavish worlds that are missing the key component, so that if we’re asked what’s the story about, we can’t explain it.

This is a problem, because a book without a core issue is fatally flawed.

I critique novels that are works in progress. This means that I read novels that are either being written or revised and provide feedback. One such book I’m about half way through and I’ve been struggling with it. There are parts of the novel that are fantastic and exciting and move the plot along, but more often are the sections that don’t do anything to move the plot forward. They seem contrived, and I’d been grappling with pinning down the underlying issue… I finally discovered it: the core conflict has been lost.

Yikes!

The overall comments for this author were challenging to write, because I had to tell this person that their novel was fatally flawed, without using that phrase.

I finally settled on saying:

  1. You mistake melodrama for drama. Melodrama does not move the plot forward. It injects arguments and fights into the book that come out of nowhere or escalates absurdly fast. They’re injected into the story for the sake of something happening.

How do you fix this?

Consider each character’s baggage. The baggage is the essential subtext that prevents characters from solving the core conflict. It’s the road bumps in the story. Baggage naturally causes conflict. Without it, conflict must be forced onto the characters and scenes, and readers will notice the difference.

  1. You lose sight of the core conflict, or never had one to begin with. Before writing your novel make sure that you can identify the core problem in one concise sentence. Then, keep this core issue in the forefront of your mind. The core problem helps keep the story conflict genuine. Without conflict your story devolves into complicated.

There’s a difference between conflict and complicated?

Yes. Conflict evolves from a single, simple problem that needs solving. Complicated is attempting to throw so much at readers that they don’t realize you can’t explain why the events in your story are occurring.

Regarding the novel from earlier, many of the arguments seemed shoved into the story just to complicate people’s lives, and sometimes there were so many characters that it was difficult to understand what was going on. I was bogged down by confusion and found myself rolling my eyes because the characters were acting like petulant children. I wanted to yell at them, “You’ve got a much bigger issue to worry about. Why are you fighting over this? It doesn’t matter!”

You don’t want readers to have that reaction. They will stop reading.

In the end, take an honest look at your story and characters. Keep what moves the plot along and axe the rest. It won’t be easy, and it’s an excellent idea to have someone who knows how to critique look at your work. It’s too easy for you to miss the mistakes and/or weaknesses in your story.

What’s been your experience with core conflict issues? Got any intriguing tales?

(Picture courtesy of DVIDSHUB.)

 

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Why Conversational Writing is the Hot Trend

 

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For the past number of years, I’ve seen commercial writing shift from third person point of view to first person. At first, I couldn’t stand first person. It seemed somehow less than third. Perhaps this was because in some ways first person is more limiting than third person.

Third person point of view allows readers to see more of the world. They’re not trapped in one person’s mind. However, first person allows for an in-depth view of that individual. Plus, readers get to experience every facet of that individual’s personality.

Riding along with first person point of view was a more conversational tone. The writing was less formal; instead opting for writing that sounded the way people would speak. This meant stretching or breaking some grammar rules, which for a person who spent much of school studying Romanticism and learning about various style guides from APA and AMA to MLA was more than an irritation. This breaking of the rules would chuck me headfirst out of a book.

But, somewhere along the way, I began to enjoy the more conversational writing style. I discovered that I enjoyed breaking the rules—if there was a specific, vital reason—on occasion in my writing.

I found that conversational writing has some enormous advantages.

  • It’s easier to comprehend. While I’ve read and enjoyed many dense and literary books, I often find I develop a headache while reading them. My mind has to constantly work to understand the subtle messages buried in layers beneath the overt descriptions and statements. A conversational writing style foregoes this. Instead, it conveys the message directly to readers. Readers are able to more readily enjoy the book, and in today’s world, where fast reads are popular, conversational style is key.
  • It creates an instant relationship with readers. Since conversational writing often occurs with first person, readers feel like the protagonist is talking directly to them. They feel that they can relate to the protagonist as an actual person. With so many people stating that they read to escape reality, being able to relate quickly to a character is vital in drawing readers into a story. Plus, readers are much less likely to put down a book, if they feel they share commonalities with the protagonist.
  • Readers see it as more credible. A conversational style is almost like the protagonist is talking to a close friend. The protagonist is confiding all her thoughts and emotions to readers. Oftentimes, what the protagonist thinks is also what readers see on paper. Readers become an integral part of the story. They’re connected through the protagonist’s natural, authentic voice.

One of the best ways to create a conversational writing style is to speak aloud what you’re writing. If the words feel awkward on your tongue, then they’re going to be even more blatant on paper. However, one word of caution is to watch out for being too conversational. Many times in conversation people jump around from topic to topic. We’d probably all experienced having a conversation with a friend, where we’d talked for an hour or so, and then have no idea how we got onto the topic we finished the conversation with.

In writing, there has to be a clear line connecting bits of conversation. When readers become confused, they’re pulled out the story. Each time a person is jolted from the story, she is likely to put the book down, instead of continuing reading.

What are your thoughts on conversational writing?

(Photo courtesy of aj-clicks.)

Making Sure Your Protagonist Beats Out Others

The protagonist is one of the most important attributes of a story. If someone doesn’t like your protagonist, for whatever reason, it’s highly unlikely that person will finish your story.

We all can probably conjure up a few short stories or novels we haven’t finished because of our dislike for a protagonist. The most immediate one that comes to my mind is from a young adult science fiction novel, where the protagonist consistently made the opposite of intelligent decisions and yet somehow survived and was lauded as a hero. It didn’t matter how many times other people were injured, captured, or died because of the protagonist’s terrible decision making skills, or how many times the protagonist had to be saved by others, the protagonist was still considered this fabulous, fantastic person, instead of the fool.

Other times, while the plot and backstory may have holes in it, the story can be immensely enjoyable because of the protagonist. One book I read was a young adult dystopian novel where the backstory was horrendous. There were too many inconsistencies to count, however I liked the book because of the protagonist. I found the protagonist funny and relatable. I couldn’t put the book down.

So, how do you create a protagonist that isn’t a flat cliché or someone that people would like to shove off a cliff?

One way is to make sure that the protagonist is integral to the story. That sounds obvious, right? But many times I’ve seen the protagonist being dragged by the story, instead of forging it ahead. While having a reluctant protagonist is one thing, the protagonist must have something else that makes him stand out from all the other potential protagonists for your story.

There’s a reason the protagonist is the protagonist. The story is best told from his point of view. In fact, the story couldn’t be told from any other person’s point of view without diminishing the story in some way. A few years ago, I read a book where one of the secondary characters stole the spotlight from the protagonist. I didn’t care about the protagonist; I wanted to know what was happening to that secondary character. The author might have been better suited using that secondary character as the protagonist.

Another way is to have the protagonist be more than the standard hero-type. When the protagonist takes on the role of hero and goes on a quest to fulfill his hero nature, the writing can turn shallow. It’s fine for a character to be the hero. The vast majority of protagonists end up saving someone or something. However, by avoiding using terms like “hero” and “quest,” you give yourself room to explore your protagonist more in-depth. There’s always more to a character, and every hero is not perfect. People have flaws, goals, dreams, problems…they’re a mixture of virtuous and selfish and driven and condescending and a whole bunch of other stuff that makes them this extraordinary puzzle to piece together.

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Have you ever heard a person in real life state that they’re going on a quest? I’m not talking about children playing make-believe. I’m talking about individuals that are firmly grounded in reality.

It’s rare to hear someone declare they’re going on a quest or that they’re going to be the hero. Most often, people become heroes because a situation demands it. There’s a quote from the TV series Lost Girl. It’s when Kenzi is talking about her personality. She states, “General cowardice with moments of crazy bravery.” This quote holds a lot of meaning because Kenzi sacrifices herself for Bo, the series’ protagonist, on multiple occasions. Kenzi is an incredibly caring and giving individual, but she’s also sarcastic, dramatic, a bit selfish, and a thief. She’s complex, and in the end, she’s also a hero. One that people can relate to.

Having a phenomenal protagonist means delving into the core of human emotion. It doesn’t matter if your story is based in the ABC Galaxy that was discovered in 2206 and was colonized in 2447, and you’re protagonist is a dog-bee-human hybrid. Human emotion and strife and success is essential to a protagonist. The common ground that readers and fictional characters connect on is what makes readers respond to characters.

(Photo courtesy of Courtney Wright.)

Showing Vs. Telling

Show don’t tell is a piece of advice most writers have heard of. But what does this mean in practical terms?

First off, exposition is useful in your writing, as long as you don’t over-indulge.

Fiction is about creating an emotional link between the author’s story and the reader. As the author, we want to help readers create a “suspension of disbelief,” meaning the readers move past the fact that our stories are fabrications.

To do this, we make fiction as plausible as possible and go for the readers’ emotions over their intellect.

One of the top ways to accomplish these two acts is to show the reader what’s happening, instead of telling them.

Telling catalogs emotions and actions. Showing makes the reader feel like they’re in the story. It activates the fives senses, or at least some of them. It’s what the characters do and say that convinces the reader.

Work with immediate physical and emotional actions: wind whipped her cheeks, his face went ashen, a fist curled in her gut.

Use verbs to carry the description. There are so many verbs out there that it’s wrong to ignore them.

Maria walked down the hallway. VS. Maria slinked down the hallway.

The second sentence gives the reader a clearer image of Maria and her mood.

As different verbs can drastically alter the way a reader interprets a scene, sentences can too. Be wary of telling readers how to feel in a sentence. Don’t tell the reader to be surprised, shock the reader with your words.

Think of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. With the line, “The tiny insect-crawl of the second hand was the last thing she saw before the lights went out,” Harris focuses our attention before causing something to happen that makes us jump. Harris shows us something unexpected instead of telling us it’s unexpected.

Showing results in more writing than telling does. But that helps to relieve ambiguity. If we say that the house looked old, the reader is left wondering what “old” looks like in this context.

Saying that the house is choked with vines, its paint flaking, a few of its support beams peeking through the cracks, and its heavy, velvet curtains moth-ridden gives a much stronger image.

Dialogue is also a useful tool in showing, not telling. It can suggest a character’s background, self-image, intelligence, personality, etc.

For example, Jace Wayland’s character in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones:

  • “And next time you’re planning to injure yourself to get my attention, just remember that a little sweet talk works wonders.”
  • Clary: “Don’t. I’m not really in the mood right now.” Jace: “That’s got to be the first time a girl’s ever said that to me.”

These two examples show Jace’s arrogance and charisma, and that he’s a bit self-centered.

However, there are a few arguments for telling instead of showing. One is briefness. As stated earlier, showing shoots up word count. If an event in your novel is relatively unimportant, it might be better to tell it. Two is recounting events. If your character is retelling an event that readers are already familiar with, don’t spend a ton of time on it. Gloss over it and get to the next big surprise.

For the most part, stick with showing, not telling. Vivid writing grabs readers’ attention. It draws them into the story.

Showing is a vital component of creating vivid stories that suck the reader into your world. So, remember these points when writing:

  • Don’t tell readers how to feel, evoke their emotions
  • Use strong and specific verbs
  • Use expressive dialogue that shows off characters’ attitudes and emotions
  • Use well-placed details to activate the senses

One last thing: If there’s a moment in your story or a story you’re reading where you don’t feel convinced, those are moments that are being told instead of shown.

Any specific novels that come to mind that tell instead of show? How about show instead of tell?

There Are No Rules

There are a countless number of books, websites, and classes designed to teach people how to write, including the rules associated with writing. Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty, Rum Punch, Glitz, etc., has ten rules for good writing. However, W. Somerset Maugham, author of The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Elmore Leonard’s rules include:

  • Never open a book with weather.
  1. Rule: Weather is usually used as a conversational opening, when there’s not something better to talk about.
  2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Though weather is continued for the next paragraph, the main character is introduced after the opening line.
  3. The Rapture by Liz Jensen: “That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperature was merciless: ninety-eight, ninety-nine, then a hundred in the shade. It was heat to die, go nuts or spawn in…Asphyxiated, you longer for rain. It didn’t come.”
  • Avoid prologues.
  1. Prologues tend to be used improperly as massive information dumps, are too long, have nothing to do with the main story, can be folded into the main story, or are used to set the mood (which should be done in chapter one anyway).
  2. Prologues can be good, if used correctly: used for a critical element in the backstory or used to resolve a time gap with critical information
  3. i.e.: Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Lirael novels both contain prologues that resolve a time gap and include important background information.
  • Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  1. There are plenty of published and successful books that use more than “said.”
  2. i.e. – Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, “‘She is not my friend,’ snaps Lynn.’”
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  1. Again, there are lots of successful novels that break this rule.
  2. i.e. – Delirium by Lauren Oliver: “‘Hi, Carol,’ Hana says breathlessly, catching up to us.”
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  1. Rule: When overused, an exclamation loses its meaning.
  2. i.e. – In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants five exclamation points are used within the prologue.
  • Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  1. i.e. – Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants: “‘Oh Jesus,’ I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’”
  2. i.e. – Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories: “Funeral, he said suddenly. Going to my brother’s funeral.”
  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  1. Rule: Convey the feel of speech through expressions and phrasing, not misspellings, etc.
  2. i.e. – The Color Purple by Alice Walker: “My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I’m big. I can’t move fast enough. By time I git back from the well, the water be warm. By time I git the tray ready the food be cold. By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time. He don’t say nothing. He set there by the bed holding her hand an cryin, talking about don’t leave me, don’t go.”
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  1. This is subjective. Some readers like description of characters, other do not.
  2. i.e. – In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, three men are described in one paragraph: “Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners…His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien…”
  3. i.e. – In Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, it takes multiple paragraphs to describe Kennan: “…he did nothing but smile. / And he was devastating when he did. He glowed faintly all the time, as if hot coals burned inside him. His collar-length hair shimmered like strands of copper…tan and too beautiful to touch, walking with a swagger that said he knew exactly how attractive he was…he was almost average in size, only a head taller than she was. / Whenever he came near, she could smell wildflowers, could hear the rustle of willow branches…a taste of midsummer in the start of the frigid fall.”
  • Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  1. Rule: Too much description and the story’s action comes to a standstill.
  2. i.e. – John Crowley’s Four Freedoms: A Novel has long, detailed descriptions of objects and places sometimes extending for over a page.
  3. i.e. – James Joyce’s The Dubliners: The Dead: “The middle of the room was occupied by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop bitters.”
  • Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
  1. Rule: Readers skip thick paragraphs of prose, but not dialogue.
  2. This is another subjective rule. For instance, I’m not an erotica fan. I once bought a book thinking it was a fantasy adventure. It turned out that the book was more erotica than anything else. I didn’t finish that book, but gave it to a friend, who devoured it. So, where I found the sexual descriptions repetitive and rather boring, she was engrossed.

As you can see from the examples I’ve provided above, Maugham may be right. Leonard’s list of ten rules can be counted more as suggestions, observations, and helpful points than as strict letters of the law. If they were, these rules wouldn’t be contradicted.

With writing, it isn’t a linear process. There are no definite steps to follow. You move forward and backward. You write something brilliant one day and then the next you have no idea why what you wrote the previous day was so good. Eventually, if you stick with it, you finish writing a story.

Fiction writing holds no absolutes. There’s no right or wrong way to write your novel. There are suggestions and insights from successful authors. But, the only true measure of what kind of shape your novel is in is by how well it’s received by you and your readers.

Do you lean more toward Maugham or Leonard’s belief about rules for writing?

[Elmore Leonard’s rules from The New York Times “Writers on Writing; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”]

That Pesky Opening

A novel’s beginning is sometimes one of the most difficult aspects a writer faces. It gives the first impression, and, as we learn growing up, first impressions are very important.

The writer must grab a reader’s attention from the first sentence and continue to keep it. (And I’m not just talking about once a book is published. Many agents won’t read past the first line – the first paragraph – of a submitted novel if it doesn’t grab their attention.)

As much as writers hope that readers would give more than the first page or so of a novel a chance, for the most part that’s not the case. Hooking readers from the get-go is necessary to keep them reading.

Some examples of attention-grabbing opening lines:

  • “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty three since the scientists perfected a cure.” – Delirium by Lauren Oliver
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984 by George Orwell
  • “I felt her fear before I heard her screams.” – Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone.” – Gone by Michael Grant
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Once that opening line or two is written, the rest of the page needs to continue to draw the reader in.

There are many ways to catch and keep a reader’s interest. Here are some more common ways:

  1. Start in the right place. Begin at the start of a conflict and build momentum from that first moment. If you start the novel by discussing something interesting that happened before the novel began, think about including that interesting event instead of simply talking about it (showing vs. telling). Likewise, including long, winding descriptions or a flashback before the story has moved forward at all isn’t all that compelling.
    1. In Susan Dennard’s Something Strange and Deadly, the author begins with the main character getting caught in the rush at the post office when one of the dead comes down the street. (Opening line: “‘Dead!’ a woman screamed. ‘It’s the Dead!’”)
  2. Include action. This does not mean throwing in a random car or plane crash. Every action needs to have context. Without meaning behind it, action becomes pointless. Action doesn’t have to be huge, it can simply be the character standing at a street corner and turning left instead of right like she has done every day for the past three years.
  3. Don’t jump ahead of your readers. Two points here. One: have your readers care about your characters before you put your characters in jeopardy. Two: don’t make the beginning confusing, even if the opening ends up making sense later. If readers don’t care or if they’re confused, they will most likely stop reading.
  4. Ground your characters. Set the scene. You can have great dialogue, but if the reader has no idea where the conversation is happening, it takes away from the novel. You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, include paragraphs of background at the beginning. But including a couple of lines depicting laughter, the clanking of glasses, the thudding of feet against concrete, the screech of a bird, or the rich smell of hazelnut coffee will help readers to visualize where the conversation is occurring.
  5. Don’t forget the momentum. The opening should show off the character’s distinctive voice. It should show the audience the point of view the story is being told from, as well as introducing readers to the plot.
    1. The Giver by Lois Lowry quickly introduces the main character and his voice: “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.”

If an opening is done well, readers will feel that internal tug to keep reading. They may ask themselves why the grandmother felt the need to burn those letters, how a group of people could allow someone to be chosen at random to be sacrificed, where a girl’s brother disappeared to all those years ago, or the identity of a shadow following a young mother in a picture that was taken the night she was murdered.

Have any suggestions on ways to write a great opening?

Executing That Idea (Without Hacking An Arm Off)

Novels start with an idea. You could be sitting in a classroom, out on a run, or at the grocery store. Often I’ll be in bed, attempting to sleep, when an idea pops into my head.

The question is, what to do once you get that idea.

Most writers have many more ideas than they do time to write novels. (I do.) But in order to get and keep readers, you have to create a world large enough to sustain an entire novel- often several novels. You need characters that are strong and full. Ones that readers can identify with. (This takes a lot of work.)

So, a good place to start is with the characters. Building strong, in-depth characters with backstory (even if you don’t include all the backstory in your novel) helps you to formulate a more detailed storyline.

The same concept applies for creating a world. If your novel takes place somewhere other than Earth, or in some secret place on Earth no one knows about, creating a history is very useful. For myself, I draw a detailed map of the land and write pages on the different towns and landscapes. Most of this never reaches my revised versions, but having the background allows me to create a more realistic feel.

Believability is key. Let the readers escape their reality and plunge into your world. Some of the best novels I’ve read have made me forget what time it is or where I am. I get so involved that the characters seem real to me. I can see them, feel them, and I feel for them.

Your world has to be consistent and well thought out. The storyline needs tension, depth, and conflict. There’s got to be a sense that at any moment everything can blow up in the protagonist’s face. That threat of catastrophe is very important. If the stakes aren’t high enough, readers lose interest.

Building up to the climax, giving readers that sense of anticipation, incorporating a climax that blows them away, and then having a satisfying release are essential.

And, if you are working on a series, make sure to leave some threads unanswered. It’s never too early to think about what’s going into a sequel or the third novel in a trilogy. That way you can set up future story lines and keep readers wanting more.

How do you bring your ideas to the page?