Backstory

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Alex wrote into ask the following question:

In your webinar you briefly hinted that you weren’t against the idea of using flashbacks but I have listened to lots of other tutorials (through Writers Digest and others) that suggest flashbacks are a big no-no. What is your view? If they manage to still keep the forward momentum of the book, then could they still work?

The reason that flashbacks have a bad rep is that they’re often overused or used without much skill. That’s why so many people have been recommending that writers avoid them: because we’re sick of seeing this technique butchered.

But a well-written flashback at the appropriate time in a manuscript can tactfully weave in backstory to flesh out the present moment without bogging you down in an info-dump and stalling action.

Remember, most fiction is a balance of action and information. When you use flashback, you are taking us out of the present moment to introduce information. Pacing stops. Action stops. You have to keep that very much in mind and, first and foremost, keep flashbacks short.

Second, they should be pertinent to the action at hand. If your character is having a fight with their father, you may want to include a flashback that flies counter to the present moment in order to enrich our understanding of the daughter-father relationship. But don’t then go off on a tangent and string together five memories plus a memory about the mother, to boot. That’s excessive. So not only does the length and style of flashback count, the information contained therein is important. It really needs to add something to our understanding of the present moment, or our sympathy for the character, or our understanding of the world which you’re building (for books with fantasy elements) or a historical period (like a flashback for the sake of contrast to the excess of the Roaring 20s if your character is now suffering through the Depression).

Third, you don’t want to keep yanking the reader out of the present moment for too many flashbacks. You should use a light touch, to the point where the reader may not realize how many flashbacks you’ve employed as you take them through the story. Pick only the most important information to go into flashback and you should be fine.

Finally, you want to be especially careful about flashback at the beginning of a story. I’d avoid them in the first chapter, if possible, because you want to hit the ground running with a really strong sense of the present moment in a novel. If your present moment is constantly being interrupted by flashbacks, the reader (who is brand new to your story) may not get an adequate foothold in your narrative and get as involved as they should be.

Use a light touch and keep them relevant, and flashbacks can be your friends!

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As I say, I’ve been doing a lot of Writer’s Digest webinar critiques lately, and so a lot of posts have been inspired by things I’m seeing and notes I’m giving. While there are lots of personalized notes that I give on each manuscript (which are specific to the work), there is a handful of notes that I cut and paste from a master Word document (5 pages long!) because I have to give them over and over and over again, as they apply across dozens of manuscripts. No blog post is about a single critique that I’ve given. If I’m writing about it here, that means I’m seeing it a lot. One webinar student, Barbara, wrote back to react to a note that I’d given her. This is the note:

If you have to go into a flashback or two in the first 500 words, my guess is that you haven’t found your beginning yet. A strong opening scene is one you want to stick to for a few pages without yanking the reader away.

Barbara’s was personalized slightly for the manuscript at hand, but that is the heart of the comment. I give this note when a writer establishes a present moment with their novel opening, but then they either go into a flashback or cut the scene short and dash off to another scene within the first 2 pages (or 500 words, which is also the limit for critique submissions for the novel webinars).

And this was Barbara’s reaction to it:

Just a quick note to thank you so much for your critique. I have been struggling for a long time now on my opening pages, not quite understanding why they weren’t working. Your observation that maybe I haven’t found my real beginning yet was eye-opening. I am now filled with ideas for a new first chapter, and so relieved that I can take all the pressure off my current first chapter!

I wanted to share this with you because I think it’s a very common issue that a lot of writers struggle with. Beginnings are hard. You have to accomplish a lot with them (there’s a checklist in my upcoming book that I thought long and hard about). You almost never know everything your beginning will have to do until you finish the book, and it’s often the section that you’ll have to go back to over and over again to make sure it works and pulls the reader in while introducing your character and world without too much heavy telling or backstory. Whew!

As such, most writers don’t land on their real beginning until much later in the revision process. Some don’t even land there until their book is sold and they’re deep into editing it on a more professional level. The point is, do the best you can with the beginning, learn as much as you can about how to make a good beginning work (while you’re waiting for my book, check out HOOKED by Les Edgerton, out from Writer’s Digest, and discussed on this blog already here), and then give it your best shot.

If you lock yourself (mentally) into a beginning that isn’t working, it will hurt you in the submission pile, since that’s what you’re showing off to agents and editors. Stay as open-minded and as flexible with your novel opening, and make sure you write one that you will want to sustain for a scene or two without slipping into flashback or making a scene transition. That’s one easy way to know when a writer is in their opening mojo–they grab on to a beginning and they run with it for a while. Thanks to Barbara for letting me pass on this reminder, and keep my note in mind for your own writing.

Should you want a chance to get a critique from me, I’m giving another Writer’s Digest webinar on May 10th. This is a general market overview, which I’ve given once in September 2010 and which I often give at conferences. If you haven’t taken a webinar from me before, or haven’t heard me speak, this is a great opportunity to hear a talk that I’m phasing out of my repertoire.

It covers the picture book, middle grade, and young adult marketplace and some bigger picture craft issues. Every writer will get a personalized critique of their picture book (up to 300 words), or the opening of their MG or YA novel (up to 500 words). It all happens on May 10th at 1 p.m. Eastern, but you don’t have to be present (if that time doesn’t work for you) to get the critique. Just register as a student anyway and you’ll get a recording of the webinar after the fact. You’ll also get to submit questions which are guaranteed an answer, either live or in a PDF that arrives in your inbox, and your work for some personalized feedback from me. Register here!

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This is something that I’ve started saying at each conference I attend. For those of you who’ve heard it in person or during a critique, I apologize for being redundant. But listen to it anyway because it’s important:

I believe that all writing is a balance of action and information.

Imagine scales in your head. On one end is action: what keeps plot driving forward and teaches us about character as our fictional people advance through the present moments of the story. On the other end is information: what gives us context about the fictional world and also fleshes out the characters we’ve created with need-to-know tidbits that exist outside the present moment.

Both are necessary. Both need to be in balance so that a story can continue. The biggest place where this matters is in a novel’s beginning. Imagine you are trying to read a dystopian that’s in a completely other world–you open the book and it’s strange, you don’t know much about it. Worse, your main character has been whacked in the head before the start of the story and is just groggily waking up. She doesn’t remember who she is or where she is. When she does come to, she realizes she’s in an underground maze, being chased by…something. Whatever it is, it has sharp teeth, it reeks of death, and it’s after her. She doesn’t have anything to defend herself with, so she must start running.

We open immediately to action. It’s great. There’s danger, the stakes are high, her life hangs in the balance. But is this a compelling beginning for fiction? I’d argue that it isn’t, really. Because we have action, but that’s all we have. We don’t know anything about this world in which people get clubbed on the head and maze monsters seem to be just a regular part of life. We don’t know anything about this character because she’s recently suffered a head injury and doesn’t know enough to tell us herself. The stakes here are high, yes, but generic “life and death” versus specific. Since we don’t know the world or the character, we don’t know exactly what’s at risk (other than some random broad’s life) or why we should care. This beginning has too much action and not enough information so it fails to ground the reader and provide a foothold for us to access the story.

On the other end of the scale is information. It’s great to have because, once we know stuff (and, ideally, we pick it up through showing, not telling), we care. It’s not enough to know that there are millions of children starving in the world. Those charity commercials tug at our heartstrings because they show us one child, tell us one story, and they make the problem concrete enough and specific enough that we start to care. But you can go overboard on information, too. Let’s say I open another book. It’s a character who is sitting in their room the night before the first day of school, thinking about his crappy life. He has no friends, his parents are too strict (and definitely uncool) and his sister is a brat. He looks over at his closet, where he’s hidden his skateboard — it causes him even more pain that he hurt his knee over the summer and hasn’t been able to get to the skate park, further alienating himself. He looks around at his clothes, hoping they’re cool enough, and at the rock posters on the walls, grumbling that his favorite bands never come through to tour in his small, miserable town. He thinks for a while about how much he loves his dog, and maybe about the girl that he has a crush on that he’s never spoken to.

What’s wrong with this picture? Let me ask you, instead: What has happened so far? Nothing. A kid is sitting and thinking. It’s a completely static beginning with no action. Sure, we learn a lot about his life, but it is all telling, no showing. We care less about the girl he loves because we’ve never seen her reject him in scene. We know he is upset about skateboarding but we are not emotionally invested until we see him limp out of the half-pipe after a failed trick. And do we really need to know about the family pet or the sister right now? I’m guessing not.

You have all this great information in your head about your character or your world, but you can never dump it all on your reader (an “info-dump”) at once, especially at the beginning. Information must emerge organically, usually in the context of action. When we meet the dream girl, it’s okay to have him think about how long he’s been in love with her. That’s information. But then, Home Skillet must march on over there and get his heart crushed. That’s action. Like this, the two work very well together. Too much of either one, and your pacing gets all off, characterization starts to feel flat, and your reader’s emotional investment in the story starts to drag.

This doesn’t just happen in the beginning of your work, either. The balance of action and information is something you must always be vigilant about. I love this additional way of thinking about the fiction craft and I hope you do, too.

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A great, big “thank you!” goes out to my readers who were able to attend the webinar yesterday afternoon. (Some have been asking technical questions about it. Since Writer’s Digest operates the webinar, they’d be your most helpful resource. Contact them using the information in your registration packet, please.) I got a lot of great questions during the webinar, that I’ll be addressing in the future, and I also got a lot of great questions from Wednesday’s post. If you asked me a question there and there’s enough of an answer to post about, do keep an eye out for the answer on the blog soon!

This question comes from reader Valeria via email, and it deals with setting, which I don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about:

Most books I have read so far describe a specific setting. Like a certain city or state. I know setting and the way it is developed is very important for a story but can there be such thing as a nameless setting? I am asking because I live abroad but I don’t want to set my story in my country. The problem is, I’m not familiar with other cities. I have been describing my story’s setting as a dark and gray city, but not a specific city. In fact, I would like to keep a mystery of where exactly this gloomy city is located. I’d like for my readers to think this can happen in any city, but is this really a good idea? Should I research my setting a bit more and name it?

I love it when readers answer their own question. But I did want to talk a bit more about this particular one. Setting is important. So important, in fact, that some readers and writers and editors and agents say that setting should become like another character in the story, as well-defined as any of the people that populate it.

While I think that some writers focus entirely too much on the particulars of their setting and too little on their people (for example, high fantasy writers or hard sci-fi writers who spend countless pages describing the world or spaceship they’ve created, complete with maps and another language, and too little time on the characters), I think that specificity and attention to the setting is essential in a story.

If you don’t want to give the setting a real name, invent one. Turn up the fantasy element of the setting. You’ll give your created world instant flavor, and its people a place to identify with. As human beings, we can’t help wanting to identify with a place and calling it home…we need somewhere to belong. Kids and teens are always talking about where they live, their favorite places, or the places they want to escape. Listen to the first questions that a little kid will ask you when they’re getting to know you: What’s your name? How old are you? What’s your favorite color? Where do you live? Then they will proudly identify themselves, ie: “I live on Cherry Street!” That’s why a name is important, too. It gives people something easy and immediate to identify with. When I meet people in New York, the little kid rule is still true. One of the first questions they ask is what neighborhood I live in, by name.

Place is very important to the human mind. And fleshing out your setting is just part of the novel writing craft. If you’re not comfortable really writing a brand new setting for your story, at least give it a name and characteristics and details. Paragraph descriptions of setting on every page are clunky and dull and won’t engage the reader as much as action will, but you still need to give your story a sense of place with as many specific details as possible. In Valeria’s example, just “dark and gray” for a city isn’t going to be enough. Readers need more details to bring what’s in their mind’s eye to life as they’re reading. If that includes creating a fantasy version of your own city and calling it something else or doing careful research on other cities, then that’s what it will take.

I’m familiar with the urge to make a place universal enough that the reader will think it’s their own town or city. This notion is why a lot of medieval literature and plays featured a character called Everyman. This Everyman character was supposed to stand in for the reader and symbolize the universal significance of the action and how it applied to a generic character who, literally, could be anyone and everyone.

However, that’s a very cheap way of making a reader relate to your story. You might as well call your city Your Town and have that do all the work for you. I’m here to say that the opposite of the Everyman idea is true. Instead of finding really vague and generic things relatable, readers relate to the specific. Which of the following two will make you think that the character is like you?

She ate a sandwich.

She bit into her turkey sandwich, only to have a slice of red onion escape and fall on the floor. Five second rule, she thought, glancing around to see if anyone was looking. Using a fake cough as an excuse to bend over, she peeled the onion off the cafeteria linoleum and popped it in her mouth.

By giving us specific details in the second example, I’ve created a character who is relatable, and I’ve also taught the reader something about her as a person. Not only do we feel like, yeah, we’ve been there, we’ve dropped that food and picked it up off the floor before, but that she’s like us, and she’s a little embarrassed about grabbing that onion, but she does it anyway.

The same will be true about your city. If you give us specific details — “Hey!” the reader thinks. “There are soda cans in the rain gutter in MY city, too!” — they will actually be more relatable than generalities.

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Before I post this first workshop submission, I want to say something about respect and trust. My blog readers are some of the smartest, handsomest, most awesome people on the Internet, obviously. I don’t want to offend their intelligence by stating the obvious, but I will:

Writing is an intensely personal thing that people do. Getting up the courage to send in your work and your writing is a huge struggle for most people. Reading the work of others involves a lot of trust and I take a writer’s willingness to share their work with me very seriously. Sure, sometimes the slush is funny. Sure, sometimes writing needs work. But snark is the lowest common denominator and it helps nobody, so I never resort to it. Not on this blog. Not about a person’s writing skill. Not for me, thanks. Sometimes I’ll use humor or a joke to illustrate a point, but I am never poking fun at a writer or at the writing itself. That’s an important distinction to make.

For this exercise, I specifically asked for writing samples that need work, in the writer’s opinion. I asked for writers who didn’t mind receiving constructive criticism and feedback on the blog. These writers are coming here to get a little tough love and a little workshopping. They are putting themselves out there and saying, “Help, please.”

It is a brave thing to stand in front of people with your writing exposed.

As a result, I am going to be watching comments very carefully. Any needless snark, criticism, or flaming will be removed. There was some disagreement about one of my contest winners last week, and that’s fine. But if someone takes it upon themselves to snark or insult or judge or be oh-so-clever, I will have no qualms about shutting them down. Don’t make these writers regret reaching out to share their work.

Again, I am dead serious about this. I’d hate to police people like they’re preschoolers but the Internet is full of trolls and other unpleasant types. If it turns into a problem, I will turn off comments and participation will be ruined for everyone. We’re here to help each other. We’re all on a journey. Writing is a craft that develops with time. Be humble, generous, and kind with these entries.

And that’s the end of that unpleasant rant!

Here’s my first selection, from Shawna Weeks’ CHASING FOREVER. The writer says:

My main concern is: would you keep reading? I want to know if it is enough to make you turn the page and start the first chapter?

And now for the sample:

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Preface

Ah, our first problem! Just kidding. Sort of. I think, in a lot of instances, a preface or a prologue is a crutch. It’s the author’s way of showing the reader something gripping in the hopes that the reader will then read through some less exciting backstory or chapters before eventually circling back to the exciting part. It gets the action started right away and then… after a flashy opening… the tension drops to comatose levels in 99% of cases. Ask yourself: are you just using your premise as a trick? A teaser? Try to construct a real beginning without using this technique. Is that harder? Nobody said writing a novel was easy, mind you. But I don’t want to make this an entry about prologues, so I’ll move on.

Glimpses of my life flashed before me as I awaited death. I could hear the sounds of my brother, Matthew and I as we splashed at our favorite swimming hole just the day before the car accident as if it were happening now.

The “life flashing before my eyes” thing is a cliche. I see it a lot. And since we don’t know the character or her brother, the swimming hole memory seems pretty generic, too. Also, swimming holes evoke early childhood to me… not really a great first image for what I’m assuming is an older YA paranormal romance, but that might just be my own connotation or bias about swimmin’ holes.

I saw myself with tears on my cheeks, clinging to my mother’s hand the first day of grade school, begging her to take me back home. I felt that moment when I realized my love for Jaxen was bigger than anything I had ever felt. All of these memories seemed unimportant, yet vital to my existence as I lay bleeding.

By giving us a lot of high emotions, the writer might hope that we, too, will emote and feel these things along with the character. Gripping the mother’s hand is the most specific image here, and wanting to go home is a powerful feeling, especially now. However, then we go back to vague again. We haven’t met Jaxen yet, so he’s meaningless to us. And “bigger than anything I had ever felt” is very vague. There’s a contradiction with “all of these memories seemed unimportant, yet vital to my existence” that’s annoying, because for all the words spent on it, this really does negate itself and end up saying nothing. All of these words — “vital” and “bigger than anything” especially — are vague. What’s “bigger than anything” or “vital” to one person isn’t the same to another. I haven’t learned anything about the character yet, either. She… has a family… and she loves someone. The same could be said about almost anyone.

Sunlight filtered through the web of branches above me, blinding me momentarily. Wind rustled through the trees, blowing the odious scent of the creature across my face and I gagged.

Beginnings should ground the reader in the when and where. I had no idea they were in woods or in daylight, frankly. I want to know why she’s bleeding, but the “creature” mention totally seems to come out of left field. We’re talking about her family at one moment, then there’s a smelly creature. “Sunlight filtered” is also a tranquil image, while “web of branches” and “blinding me” aren’t. “Wind rustled” is tranquil again, but “I gagged” isn’t. That kind of vacillation in the imagery is jarring to read. Finally, “odious scent” seems like a very specific and elevated way of speaking…. not really what a teenager might be thinking or saying, unless they’re using it for comic effect. That strikes me as a bit off in terms of voice.

I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen, but I couldn’t let him go without me. This was definintely not how I would have planned my death, but does anyone really plan for that?

Good interiority on “I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen,” now we finally know what she was doing. Then this slips into implied second person direct address (where you seem to be talking to the reader or “breaking the fourth wall” of the narrative without using the word “you”) and we seem to be pausing for a moment to contemplate the nature of death and dying. Why? Lots of characters do this and it never works. Don’t have your characters sit around musing… especially if they also happen to be bleeding! (Also, it’s “definitely.” Proofreading is very important and typos or spelling errors are almost impossible to catch. I copied and pasted this, so it’s not a typo on my end.)

I didn’t like that look in his black eyes when I found him that morning by the barn. I struggled not to run into his open arms, but the fear on his face held me back. “I love you, Sophie,” Jaxen said and I froze. “I have to go.” That was it. He was gone.

Notice how we haven’t really gotten a clear foothold in the present moment. We have trees, a swimming hole (I know the writer did this to try and give us some backstory and to make the character sympathetic), death, blood, a creature, wind, Jaxon… a lot going on. And before we’re fully grounded in what’s going on in the present moment of her lying there and smelling a creature, we’re swept away to that morning. There’s a barn now? And he’s afraid? This also makes it sound like some time has passed. If he left “this morning” and she followed him… when are we? How long has she been in the woods (if there even are woods?) since then? Etc.

Without a word I let him walk away. I watched until his tall form became nothing but heat waves on the horizon. My heart shattered with each step he took. I wanted to scream, beg him to come back to me…but I let him go.

Writing is such a specific art. If you look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph, it’s “He was gone.” And now, we jump the chronology yet again, to the moment of him walking away… even though the writer already said he was gone (which has a feeling of finality to it). So we’re in the present moment (bleeding), then we go back to that morning (saying goodbye), then we go to him already having disappeared (“He was gone”), to the moment of him leaving (“I let him walk away. I watched his tall form…”). But we do get our most specific image yet: “His tall form became nothing but heat waves on the horizon.” I like that. But I don’t feel her heartache yet because I don’t know these people, either of them.

That’s why prologues don’t work for me most of the time. I’m thrown into the MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT EVER, a MOMENT OF DRAMA AND HIGH EMOTION, between two people who I have no idea about. It really is like watching a foreign-language soap opera 99% of the time… I don’t get what’s going on, who the people are or why they’re all so upset.

***

Does this seem nitpicky? Yes. It is. Extremely nitpicky.

But there are a lot of elements in play here. I’d say my overall assessment is that there’s too much going on. Focus in on ONE moment and really work to connect us to the main character instead of scrambling us around. Once we know her, we can connect her to another person — Jaxon? Her family? — and then center ourselves in some action. I’d try some more linear storytelling, also, and try it without the quick cuts.

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Mmm… sizzlin’ steaks… Oh! Hello! What? Were we talking about something? (A great example of low tension, BTW.)

Tension and stakes are two absolutely important elements to a novel if you want your readers to keep turning the pages. A lot of stories flounder simply because the author hasn’t thought of adequate stakes for their characters or infused their story with enough tension. Let me quickly define both terms for you. Tension is a feeling of unease, of something unresolved, that usually bubbles under the surface of the story. Sure, there is more overt tension that is contributed by plot — like the gang of roving vampires out for your sweet, sweet blood — but there also has to be tension in every paragraph, on every page, in every scene and chapter. The greater dramatic arc keeps readers engaged on a book-length level but the smaller tensions of characters and relationships are what connect the dots between larger plot points. Stakes are very closely tied to tension. We want to feel like our characters matter, like their choices are important, like they are always on the edge of danger. Stakes — what will or will not happen in a plot, for a character, in a moment — are key to keeping tension high. Without stakes, there is usually low tension. Without tension, there are usually low stakes. Let’s explore both a little more.

Stakes

We’ve all heard of stakes, but where do they come from? What makes for compelling ones? Read on:

  1. Personal Motivation: When a person wants something, they need to have enough motivation behind it to make it compelling. In other words, they have to really want what they want. If they do, it becomes important to the reader, too. And when the character gets thwarted (as they should, nobody wants to read a story about a person who gets everything they want whenever they want it), that setback will ache for the reader. We’ll start to care. We’ll start to want to see the character succeed. We’ll want to avenge them and smite their enemies! High stakes.
  2. Choices… and Consequences: We want to read about characters who make choices. Maybe not always good choices. But the thing that makes choices seem important, that makes moments seem important, is the fear of consequence. All choices in your story should have consequences. Not After School Special consequences, mind you, like Little Abby taking one sip of a wine cooler and ending up pregnant, in jail and pumping gas (all at the same time, somehow) but real consequences. Characters can’t take their choices lightly because they know they might burn bridges, get punished, break the law, ruin friendships, screw up in front of the cute boy, etc. They might make some good choices, sure, but they should make a bad one at least once. They should lose something important at least once. Each choice, then, gets a gravitas to it. High stakes.
  3. Relationships: Relationships between people are never static. This is almost a repeat of the above, but characters do derive stakes in a situation from their relationships with others. When we add friendships, relationships, families, rivalries, enemies, etc. to the mix, involving people who want different things in different moments, the stakes should automatically get higher. So think of all the ways that you can find conflict in a relationship, in people’s wants and needs, in a scene. Whenever two people come together, the stakes should be pretty high. A group of great gal pals getting along swimmingly really doesn’t make for compelling fiction. Not even in picture books.

Tension

Now that you have a slightly better understanding of stakes (I hope), let’s move on to what stakes play into: tension. Here are the biggest sources of tension and areas where tension needs to be high:

  1. Beginnings: As we discussed in my post on beginnings, beginnings are usually best when they start in the middle of action. Each of your chapters (and especially your novel’s actual beginning) should start in a way that puts us in a scene or situation so that the reader hits the ground running. A lot of people begin with description, character sketches, backstory and other “throat clearing” (as it’s usually called in the industry). There’s not a lot of tension in straight telling. Make sure your beginnings have impact and action, then layer in necessary information as the chapter and story continues.
  2. Scenes: Scenes are full of people and people are full of complicated wants, needs, goals, desires and notions. They rub against each other and, more often than not, cause static. Or they should, if you want to keep tension high. I’m not saying you should have a book full of catfight scenes, unnecessary drama, people bitching each other out and otherwise shrilling at the top of their lungs. That’s exhausting to read. But every time you have two or more complex and fleshed out characters in a place together, they’re going to find ways to disagree or pursue different things. And this is where tension is most often subtle. An offhand remark, a gesture, an action that shows a reader which side a character is really on, how they actually feel. The best dialogue has subtext worked into it — the stuff and deeper meaning that runs below the surface — and is truly an art form. If you read a scene in your mss. and feel this nice, complacent pleasantness afterward, then your scene isn’t doing the work it needs to be doing.
  3. Endings: Each chapter has to have at least one thing happen in it that further the plot, shows us something new about our characters or otherwise leaves us in a different place and with a different understanding of the story than we had when that chapter began. That’s why endings are so important, too. You’ve given the reader a great chapter/scene/paragraph and now there’s a natural pause. They could easily stick the bookmark in, wander off to make tea, turn on the TV… and never come back to your story. Life could get in the way. Chapter endings are the worst, because they’re a natural stopping place. So don’t let your reader stop. It’s a careful balance. You don’t want to end each chapter on an insane cliffhanger and give your reader a heart attack every 10 pages, but you have to leave the chapter on such a note that they must turn the page and start another chapter. Does a character get thwarted? Does a plot complication arise? Does a surprise happen? Does a scene get heated? Does the tension simmering underneath the surface finally break wide open? Work your chapter endings, or “buttons” as I call them, until even you, who knows exactly what happens next, want to read on.

So here’s tension. As you can see, it is a perfect mix of how character and plot come together and interact. When you’re revising, you have to keep all of these three things in mind because they are very closely tied together. On Monday, I will tackle a book’s ending. That will then wrap up our main building blocks of the story — plot, character, tension, from beginning to end — and then I’ll start in on other writing mechanics like dialogue, description, showing vs. telling, all that good stuff. If you have any revision questions for me in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask!

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Here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over revisions and trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.

(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)

You should probably cut it from your manuscript if:

  1. It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
  2. It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
  3. It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
  4. It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.

This is a very reductive view of revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.

And what happens after you trim all the unnecessary fat from your manuscript?

What’s that?

You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?

Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.

Trust me. Now go: chop, chop, chop.

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Every once in a while, I stumble upon a dead scene. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing witty banter.

In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scenes. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.

Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

When you find large places in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.

I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”

Authors usually either write long conversation scenes to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.

Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”

The answer is: you layer it. Introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to world-build and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all at once. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.

The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.

As you can see, the answer to both situations is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.

Are you worried about this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.

Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”

Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.

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I was reading a manuscript the other week in which the characters relied on each other’s names too much in dialogue. That is, believe it or not, a common problem, as is this other, slightly related one: characters who know each other well giving us background information in dialogue… producing language that real, breathing humans would never say!

Here’s an example:

“My darling husband Danny, can you please pass the mashed potatoes?” the wife asked.
“Why, of course, my dear Laurie. How was your day as board member of the Greensboro Museum Society?”
“Just lovely. After I shuttled the kids, Jake and Emily, off to preschool and first grade, I went right over there.”
“Just what I like to hear, Laurie, darling.”
“Now, Danny, just what are you going to do about your problems down in the engineering department of the power company? Your boss has been making you livid for weeks!”

Okay. So, obviously an exaggeration. But here’s are two quick tips:

  1. Never use dialogue to introduce large swaths of character details that don’t belong in a scene between two people.
  2. Don’t over-rely on names, especially in a scene with only two characters. Real people don’t talk like that. Try and remember the last time you said your best friend’s or your significant others’ name to them in casual conversation.

I’ll be writing up some thoughts on dialogue tagging very soon. For me, endless name-dropping is a sign that the writer doesn’t trust their reader to follow the dialogue. That fear may be founded — if the author is doing crazy things like putting two indented lines of dialogue from the same character one right after the other — but in 95% of cases, your reader is following you. They know who’s talking.

I’ve said it once, twice, and I’m sure I’ll say it a zillion more times: trust your reader.

The only times I use more names than usual is when there are multiple characters in a scene and I get tired of dialogue tags. You can’t rely on dialogue tags alone. My current WIP has a section where five characters go on an adventure. To tell you the truth, orchestrating this many people in one scene makes me want to crawl back into bed. It’s the only time I’ll let the occasional name slip into dialogue.

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