Bringing Dead Characters to Life

Today we’re talking about bringing dead characters to life and, though it’s the day before Halloween, I don’t mean zombies. I mean characters in a novel who are either dead or otherwise unavailable for development in the present action. How do you flesh them out (again, not talking about zombies but pun fully intended) and make them more real and relevant to your protagonist’s current situation if we never meet them in the present moment?

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‘Tis the season to talk about those dearly departed characters.

“Off Screen” Character Relationships Are Very Important

The idea that character relationships in a novel are important should surprise exactly nobody. Character relationships are crucial. But there’s a fly in the ointment if your character is no longer around, dead, missing, or otherwise unavailable to participate in the story. How do you create a rich and compelling relationship with someone who isn’t there?

The most important first step is to think about this point instead of glossing over it. This post is a nudge in the that direction. A lot of writers, unfortunately, don’t put much thought toward developing their “off screen” characters. After all, a dead Mom or a missing Dad or an incarcerated older sister are pretty familiar tropes. The attitude seems to be, why bother developing past the stereotype(?

A dead Mom is sad and immediately sentimental. All the protagonist has to do is mention their dead mother and this is enough to (try and) manufacture certain feelings in the reader. But don’t let the Dead Mom name-drop simply be an obvious emotional trigger or a cheap trick. You have to go deeper.

Developing Dead Characters

The most powerful tool in your arsenal for creating multi-dimensional “off screen” characters is flashback. This technique often gets a bad rap. So many people ask me whether or not they can even use flashback anymore. I guess it’s out of style. But don’t discount it.

Flashback is the only time when your “off screen” characters can live again. Seeing them in action, dynamically interacting with your protagonist, is going to paint a much clearer picture than any kind of telling about them. We’ll experience them in the flesh, pick up on their physical and character quirks, hear their voice in dialogue.

How do you pick a good flashback scene? Well, it all depends on the kind of relationship your character has with the deceased, and what element you want to bring to the story. Do you need to create longing for a deceased mother? Show a sweet, everyday moment. Maybe they tease one another lightly, maybe they laugh about an inside joke. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, the characters should reveal their quirks and act human, rather than trying to be perfect in order to create a theme-heavy Very Profound Moment, just because one of them is dead and we’re in flashback.

Focus not just on the unavailable character, but also the protagonist’s interaction with them. Was it a time your main character almost said something important, but didn’t–then it was too late? Let the protagonist be an active participating so we get a sense what it was really like to be in the relationship. Just remember, it is your job is to reveal character via showing instead of telling. That’s the only time a flashback is powerful. If you’re writing superficial showing, like, “My mother was so kind and nurturing, I loved that she was the most selfless woman I knew” etc. then you’re not truly fleshing out that character in three dimensions.

How Often to Flash Back and When

Instead of putting all that pressure on one scene, you should use multiple short flashbacks to develop dead characters. Find several moments that reveal various shades of the character and their relationship to your protagonist. Insert them into the manuscript occasionally, and have your character reference them or think about them when we’re in the present.

One rule of thumb about when to include flashback: Develop information only when you’ve had a chance to add some action. Plot and pacing are about the balance of action and information. Some writers get caught in the trap of layering too much backstory, flashback, information, and other static elements, especially at the beginning of a novel. Well, information has a way of stopping plot cold.

So when you’re considering including a flashback to develop a departed character, evaluate the following elements:

  • Do we need information from or about this character by a certain point in the plot? Start building flashbacks in way ahead of time, instead of right before that information is relevant.
  • Are there information-heavy chapters or scenes before or after your flashback? Reconsider another informational moment and add some gas to your engine with plot instead.
  • Thinking about a flashback in the first chapter? Sustain a strong present moment for at least the first three pages before yanking us into any kind of past moment.
  • Is this a solitary flashback or one in a series about this character? Use individual flashbacks and memories to establish different shades of a departed character–make them multi-layered. Don’t just dwell on the same attributes.

Long story short, don’t let “off screen” characters play familiar stock roles. The temptation to do this is incredibly strong. They are often archetypes, even in the best books. Use the tool of flashback to really show them to a reader in all of their nuance. Push yourself to go further.

A well-crafted character is perhaps the most important element of your novel. That doesn’t stop at your protagonist, either. Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll whip the whole cast into shape.

What Is Interiority? An Interiority Definition, and Why It Matters

One of the cornerstones of my writing craft philosophy is the concept of interiority. I always define it as a character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and inner struggles, even in picture books, and even (perhaps especially) in third person. This tool, to me, is the most crucial one in a writer’s arsenal. Unfortunately, its interpretation and application are quite open-ended, which makes it easy to understand but more difficult to define interiority and teach it.

This article will be intended as a comprehensive interiority definition. An introduction to the topic, as well as my reasoning for why I consider this idea so terribly important to both writers and readers. If you sit down and read one Kidlit.com post in your life, I hope it’s this one.

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Interiority is a tool to express your true commitment to seeing events through your character’s perspective.

What Is Interiority?

I define “interiority” as a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, and inner struggles, and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation. That is the interiority definition. The moment in question can be big or small, the reaction can be casual or life-changing.

The important thing is to keep coming back to your character. Remind yourself that they are experiencing the moments you’re choosing for them (via your plot), and that, in real life, we react to stuff all the time. Whether it’s a private joke or a shift in mood, we go through our days very aware of what’s going on. You certainly don’t want to have every little thing elicit a reaction, but more often than not, characters don’t react enough. Keep reminding yourself that your character is in the moment, experiencing it. Is there any reaction warranted that could add some depth to the situation or bring the reader closer to your character’s rich inner life?

Specificity is the Key

Everyone experiences emotions in a different way. My “sad” might look very different from your “sad”, and it might be caused by very different things. Too often, writers name an emotion, eg, “She felt angry” and move on. But simply naming emotions doesn’t give me much to dig into, as a reader. I know what my angry is like, but I don’t care much about me right now. I’m reading to learn about a fleshed-out and compelling character. So I want to know what her “angry” looks like, what thoughts cross her mind, what places she goes when she’s feeling worked up.

Besides, there are a million shades of anger and a million reasons to be angry (or whatever emotion). Imagine this: A father brings home a pony to surprise his daughter, and she’s angry. What? That makes no sense. Why? If the writer simply showed her storming off, we’d get no specificity, and the reader would be left in the dark. But if we were to go into interiority, we’d have access to something like, “He thinks he can just buy my love after what he did?” Ohhh, now it makes a lot more sense. I would much rather have that specific thought on the page instead of the zoomed-out view of her storming off to sulk. Or her heart rate rising. Or her stomping her foot. (All external.) Specificity is a big part of my interiority definition.

Which brings me to my next key point about interiority. There are two ways of discussing emotion, internal and external. Too many writers rely on external only, and this is a huge missed opportunity.

The Limits of Using Physicality to Discuss Emotion

Writers who struggle with interiority tend to render emotions instead via physical sensations, a lot of which tend to be cliché. We have tears falling and hearts thumping and stomachs clenching, but these images are so familiar that they don’t invite the reader to dig deeper.

I often tell my clients, “I don’t care that there are tears. I care about the thought that finally makes them fall.” We are all familiar with this phenomenon. We are on the verge of crying all day long, but it’s not until one thought or idea crosses our minds that we actually go over the edge. I am much more interested in that thought, because it is going to be very specific.

If your manuscript is littered with references to the physical body reacting instead of the mind, there are ways to change your approach. Imagine yourself accessing deeper layers to your character’s experiences. This can be done by asking some very basic questions.

Interiority is Digging Deeper, Asking Questions

Often, I jokingly refer to myself as a character therapist. Because I’m always sitting on my imaginary couch and asking, “And? So? How did that feel?” My notes to clients are littered with these questions.

Remember that your character is not an impartial security camera, recording events. Even in third person. We are going through their story because we want to know what the story is, sure, but because we also want to know how said story affects them. There’s a reason (or at least, there really should be) you chose that particular character to experience that particular story. How does one influence the other? That is what readers will attach to.

You are telling a story because you want readers to experience it. There is no better way to define interiority. It’s to have readers live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist. The deeper, more honest, and more intimate you can make your account of that experience, the closer your reader will feel to the character and the story. This is the core tenet behind pretty much my entire fiction craft teaching philosophy.

Interiority Resources From the Kidlit Blog

I’ve written a lot about interiority over the years, and I honestly hope to write a whole lot more. If you want to dig further, here are some of my favorite articles about it from the archives:

Want to dig deeper into interiority as it applies to your work? Hire me as your developmental editor, and get customized, actionable advice on how to use this powerful tool.

Commit or Omit

This is more of a general writing advice/philosophy type of post, because I haven’t done one of those in a while. I’ve been giving this note a lot to editorial clients lately, and it has me thinking.

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What do you focus in on and what do you let go of when you’re writing?

Picking and Choosing Elements to Include in Your Writing

One of the most difficult decisions you make as a writer is what you include in your novel or picture book. You can’t include everything. I often reference the image of a spotlight operator when I talk about this. It is, after all, your job to direct your reader’s attention to important elements, and downplay or omit those elements which aren’t important, at the end of the day.

For example, you are writing a YA novel set in a quaint beachside town. (For some reason, three of the novels I’ve worked on in October so far are all set in quaint beach towns! Maybe to make me homesick for California!) There is an adorable bed and breakfast in this quaint beach town, and you take great pains to describe its weathered lavender paint, curved gables, blah blah blah. Probably because you spent your honeymoon in an adorable bed and breakfast very much like this one. But we never see the B&B again, nor is it part of the action in any significant way (nobody has the decency to be murdered in it or anything!). It’s just, well, window dressing. So the question becomes, is your page and a half of description necessary?

Another example: you’re writing a picture book that isn’t in rhyme. But you have this totally awesome rhyming phrase that you want to use. Does it fit the manuscript you’re writing? Or is random rhyme in the middle of a non-rhyming story going to seem odd to the reader?

In both of these cases, I’d probably counsel you to remove those elements. These examples are rather clear-cut. But there’s also another consideration. What if you have a necessary element to your story, but you don’t exactly know what to do with it?

When Commitment Fades In and Out

I recently read two manuscripts, back-to-back, actually, where a character was clearly important to the story, but they disappeared for long stretches of time. One of these characters was, essentially, the story’s villain. Another of these characters was more of a symbolic foil to the protagonist who represented a big life change in the main character’s life.

The first character showed up pretty infrequently, and only when the plot had reached a crescendo. The second character only showed up twice–once in the middle, and once at the very, very end, to make sure the reader knew that Something Significant was happening.

In both cases, the mantra “Commit or omit” crossed my mind. Both writers knew this element they’d chosen was important, but neither seemed to know exactly how to integrate those elements.

Obviously the antagonist’s role is to stir up trouble. He’s not going out to coffee with your protagonist or spending a lot of time laying low. However, this character only did the bare minimum in terms of appearances in the plot, and as such, I felt the writer missed out on a lot of opportunities to develop the antagonist further. Remember, we want our villains to be fleshed out characters, too, not just caricatures. It almost seemed like the writer knew she needed an antagonist, so she threw this personality into the mix, but only when strictly necessary. If the villain had more “screen time”, perhaps they would’ve been a more compelling part of the action.

For the character who only came around during Emotionally Significant Moments, that’s an issue of giving him more to do, too. You don’t want someone who is just a walking/talking thematic element or harbinger of change. That character needs to become more real, or maybe the decision is that you don’t need him, and you can get your significance elsewhere. Commit or omit.

The common thread with both of these characters is that they end up in the novel but under-utilized and, as such, they end up feeling one-dimensional.

Checking Out Your Own Novel or Picture Book

The simplest check for any element in your manuscript is this: Does the character, setting, or plot point only play one role? Are you fully committed to developing this element, or are they just there because you feel you need them?

If you have critique partners (and if you don’t, the recent Critique Connection could help!), consider if there are any characters, plot points, settings, or writing choices that they’ve misunderstood or felt underwhelmed by. These might be the very elements you need to either commit to, or omit from the project.

Is something simply not working in your project, but you don’t know what, or you don’t know what to do about it? Invest in an expert set of eyes, and hire me as your freelance editor.

 

Creating Compelling Consequences for Characters

When you’re writing fiction and trying to make your reader care, creating consequences for characters is a part of that puzzle. Consequences for actions and ramifications of decisions are important to stakes and tension, as well. This is one of those areas of the fiction craft where character and plot really intersect. For thoughts on how to tackle it, read on.

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Really give your characters…and readers…something to think about.

How Consequences for Characters Work in Fiction

By “creating consequences in fiction,” I mean giving your character’s actions a reaction. This is crucial for establishing stakes and tension. For example, if your character has a very strict mother, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader that Mother Dearest is strict. Because one of the cornerstones of the fiction discipline is the concept of showing vs. telling.

Instead, a more active and compelling way to demonstrate Mom’s strict side is to give your character consequences. If she’s late for curfew, the hammer comes down. She talks back? She’s grounded. She applies to a college Mom doesn’t approve of? Mom goes so far as to sabotage her on the morning of SATs. This last example is rather extreme, but don’t limit yourself to the usual suspects. Put your characters in real trouble. Unique trouble.

But, most importantly, there has to be trouble. Because without consequences, the reader will become less and less invested in the story. Your stakes will be low. There will be nothing to worry about, so why would the reader end up caring deeply when your character makes a choice or takes a risk?

How to Create Consequences for Characters

When you’re crafting your plot, let your character experience consequences early and often. If your protagonist comes out of the gate strongly insisting that Mom is strict…but we never see it in action… Is she really strict?

This is a very common issue. If my principal sees me, I’m toast… Then the principle ends up treating the character delightfully. If my insomniac Dad catches me… Looks like Papa picked this night to sleep like a log. The threat is never realized, the punishment is never carried out.

What’s behind this common error? Writers like to take it easy on their characters. We can all sit around and agree that trouble and tension are the fuel of the story engine. You can’t get very far without them. But when it comes to actually executing them and letting your character suffer? Many writers are simply too nice.

So build emotional anticipation and establish strong consequences. But don’t stop there. If your character risks an action that triggers those consequences, let them befall him or her. Write that scene. Put that obstacle in your own way. Sure, obstacles are tough for the writer because you have to write around them, too.

The Effect of No or Low Consequences

The simple fact remains, however, that readers aren’t going to care about a story where your character has it too easy. By promising consequences early on and not following through, you are handicapping yourself. Because the reader won’t believe you in the future. All of your threats will start to sound empty. If consequences for characters never materialize, but you need to really make your reader nervous down the road–you’ve taken away your own best weapon to build stakes.

Love the trouble. Write the trouble. Tangle up in the trouble and untangle yourself and your character. Do it early and often. That way, you will have your reader’s attention for when the stakes are truly high.

Having trouble with stakes, tension, and hooking your reader in? Work with me as your developmental novel editor and let’s see what kind of trouble we can get into!

Writing Subplots in a Novel and Other Subplot Ideas

Writing subplots in a novel doesn’t always come intuitively. Writers often have no problem thinking of their primarily plot, or at least the beginning and end of their story (the Muddy Middle trips people up quite a bit, of course). But sometimes a story ends up seeming too linear, so you wonder how many subplots in a novel is a good number. Current events take over and yet, something is missing. This is where the tool of writing a novel subplot comes in.

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Be wary of making your plot too linear. Does your novel need a few turn lanes in its road?

Do You Need to be Writing Subplots Into Your Story?

If your story goes too neatly from A to Z, has too few characters, or focuses almost entirely on one story, and you’re not writing an early reader or chapter book (where straightforward stories tend to thrive for very new readers), you may want to look at adding a subplot.

Same thing if your novel manuscript is on the lean side or drastically below the usual word count guidelines. If you have a 35k word YA novel, for example, or a 15k word and you’re gunning for the middle grade category. If you’re wondering how many subplots in a novel, you need to look at how short your project is. A subplot may add between 5,000 to 10,000 words. Consider the gap you need to close.

Another thing to consider is the number of characters in a novel. If your story focuses almost entirely on the protagonist and isn’t necessarily populated by other personalities, it could be in this category. Secondary characters and antagonists add a lot of texture to a work of fiction. If we’re dealing with a contemporary YA where a girl has to overcome a lot of her lack of confidence to audition for a play, for example, and we really only have the girl, her single mother, and her encouraging drama teacher–the conflicts inherent with some of those relationships–it’s very likely that your character is on a straight and lonely road.

It’s pretty difficult to judge your own work for “thinness”. A critique partner or an outside editor would be most helpful to diagnose this issue. If someone says that your novel needs more meat or substance or something else happening, you can be pretty sure that your plot is too linear. A subplot might just be the thing to address your problem.

Writing a Novel Subplot: Ideas and Pointers

It can be frustrating to try and give advice on using subplots, because subplots can be any number of things:

  • A secondary story for your protagonist (she is a budding actress but is also dealing with her actress inspiration’s recent death, or her grandmother’s illness)
  • The story of a secondary character (her best friend is really struggling at school and wants to drop out)
  • The story of an antagonist (the rival drama girl at school is causing trouble for your main character)
  • Something going on in the world of the novel (the theatre department is set to be closed due to budget cuts, and the beloved drama teacher will be out of a job)

These examples for writing subplots and subplot ideas start close to your character (another storyline for her) and zoom all the way out to a concern in the larger environment. Subplots are like a seasoning. I can’t give you a recipe for how many to use, or what kind. But each one will add flavor.

How Many Subplots In a Novel and Where Do You Use It?

Sometimes one additional subplot is all you need to spice your dish. The addition of a largely internal conflict for your main character will add depth to your madcap plot. Sometimes, though, one or two or all of the ones mentioned above are necessary.

Suddenly, the story has all sorts of layers. It’s about a girl, who has a fraught personal conflict, who starts to see herself as part of a more complicated web. She must save her best friend from making a bad decision (if dropping out happens to be a bad decision in this story), she must battle off the rival girl, and she also feels tremendous responsibility, maybe, for the success of the theatre program. This story isn’t just about her audition now. It’s about fighting for who and what she loves.

The beginning and end of your novel really should be reserved for building out your novel’s primary elements. Establishing the character, starting off strongly (in action) with their primary conflict, layering in some tasteful backstory along the way, then, on the back end, wrapping up the story in a way that’s thematically rich and brings the initial problem full circle.

You can and absolutely should plant the seeds of subplot in the beginning, and resolve the additional plots by the end. For example, she’s driving to school and sees a sign on the school lawn about the budget cuts meeting. By the end, it’s announced that the theatre program is saved. But the place where subplot thrives is the middle. That’s where you will weave it in and develop it.

How do you know exactly where and when?

The Role of Writing Subplots and Your Novel

I advocate for subplot because it’s wonderful for one crucial thing: to raise stakes and tension. If your primary plot is starting to sag–check in with one of your subplots! The drama teacher gathers everyone around to make the sad announcement that there may not even be auditions this year. Boom! That’s enough to get your protagonist in a tizzy and send her off in one direction or another.

Or you can reverse engineer it. Read through your manuscript and pick 4-5 places where even you’re bored of reading it. They are calling out for some tension. Is there a common element? Is there a plot thread that you could create and weave through all of your “problem spots”?

Play around with it. Hopefully the types of subplots listed above have touched off some ideas.

Thin plot? Short novel? Muddy middle? Boring? You may know there’s an issue, but not what to do about it. Check out my freelance editorial website for more about developmental editing services.

How Many Scenes in a Novel and What to Include

It can be very difficult to determine how many scenes in a novel, and choose which scenes to include in your novel. And what is a scene in a novel, anyway? There’s simply so much to write into a story. There’s your plot, your character’s backstory, any world-building you need to do, and then there are the transitions–the moments that link everything together. I have some criteria here that will help you decide what to keep and what to chop.

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What is a scene in a novel? Each component of your book is a tool to help get your reader engaged.

How Many Scenes in a Novel and What Kind to Include

What is a scene in a novel? Well, it answers a crucial question that the reader might have. It achieves something. The best scenes to include in your novel are those that move the needle forward. Now, “the needle” can be one of many things. Here’s a short list:

  • Something that informs character (main or secondary)
  • Something that informs character relationship
  • Something that informs plot
  • Something that informs world-building
  • Something that conveys mood
  • Something that conveys theme/bigger picture meaning
  • Something that informs (information-wise, that is!)

Often, in my editorial work with clients, I find myself asking the question: “Does this earn its keep?” That can refer to a scene or sometimes an entire chapter. More simply, “Does something happen?”

That something doesn’t have to be in the realm of zombies flooding down out of nowhere–in other words, a climactic event. But every scene and chapter needs to have a “something” from the list above. It needs to matter to your story and exist other than just because you felt like writing it.

What Is a Scene in a Novel: The Level of Action or Information In Your Scene

The other important consideration here, other than what the scene does, is what your scene is: Is it action or is it information? I have long contended that all writing is a balance of action and information. The more information you have, the less action you’re going to insert, and vice versa.

In order to keep readers awake during those necessary scenes where you deliver information, you need to have action/plot/external conflict, and a lot of it.  When choosing what scene to include in your novel, I would favor those scenes that contain action. If it’s a scene heavy with talking, information, exposition, backstory, flashback, etc., that might be worth a review right there.

Order is important, too. If you have too my information in chapter after chapter, you are spending all of your “information capital” and going into deep debt (or, likely, boredom). Refill your coffers by including action. That buys you more leeway to do some info-dumping after you work on plot. It also helps you decide how many scenes in a novel and their length.

Look very closely at all of the dense sections of telling/information/backstory in your novel. I have reason to believe you could cut or reorganize these, and make sure to space them apart between plenty of action.

What Is a Scene in a Novel? A Tale of Three Scenes

Please consider these examples and try to guess if I’d suggest you keep them in your novel:

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream to hash out their quarrel about an ex-boyfriend they both share?

That informs character, informs relationship, conveys mood, and sets up some plot (I’d imagine). Best of all, there is tension. They are talking about an emotionally charged subject. It’s obviously a keeper, even though the scene is rather static and passive (they are sitting and talking rather than doing stuff or having stuff done to them). Depending on how well the conversation goes, there could be the potential for fisticuffs, too, so this could translate into a more active scene.

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream to talk about the upcoming Harvest Festival in town?

Well, this one takes all the tension off the table. (Unless it’s a Harvest Festival where the serial killer strikes every year. In which case, carry on…) So the answer becomes less clear-cut. If you are able to make any progress on world-building (setting the scene for this particular place and event) or tension or character relationship, include this scene, but keep it short. But if they’re just chatting excitedly about the festival, we already know about the town and its customs, and there’s nothing else going on, it might be nice, but “nice” ain’t good enough.

A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream and talk about the Harvest Festival they went to yesterday where nobody got serial killed?

Absolutely not. Here, this scene is a bad idea all around. They are sitting around and talking (passive), nothing else is happening, the chitchat is rather pleasant (unless something truly twisted happened at the Harvest Festival), and they are rehashing material that the reader has already read. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Cut it.

How to Handle Transitions in Your Novel

Which brings me to my last salient point: spend less time on transitions. If nothing is happening, you don’t need to labor over it. Get your reader from point A to point B without too much fuss.

Just because we eat breakfast every day and use the restroom every day (one would hope), there’s no need to put it on the page. I’ve worked with some manuscripts recently where writers felt duty-bound to describe every element of a character’s day because, well, that character needed to get out of bed somehow before they could go to the Harvest Festival.

This is a common but misguided urge. Instead of going through an entire school schedule to get to the event that happens at the end of the day, simply stick in a short and sweet transition: “After an ordinary day at school…”

The bottom line? Get the reader to the good stuff quickly. Cut whatever doesn’t move the needle. Trust the reader to fill in the bathroom breaks.

Struggling with plot? We can work on an existing novel, or even your proposed novel outline, together. Hire me as your novel editor today.

How to Hook a Reader and Leave Them Hungry for More

Like any fiction writer, you’re wondering how to hook a reader with your story, especially those all-important first pages. (Heck, this should probably be “first page,” singular, since sometimes that’s all the opportunity you have.) Information plays a key role in how you manipulate an audience. Make no mistake, you’re not just telling a story or getting your character/plot down on paper. You’re trying, with every page, to make the reader care, which is your number one job as a writer.

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Strategic information release is much more effective than information deprivation when you want to string readers along (in a good way).

Ways to Hook a Reader by Creating Suspense

As I’ve written before, confusion is not the same as mystery. You want to leave your reader hungry to continue reading, not flummoxed about what’s going on. Information release is the tool at your disposal to accomplish this.

Sometimes the most dissatisfying manuscripts I read are the ones that trying the hardest to hook a reader. Why? Because a lot of writers think that withholding information is the way to go. That’s the definition of suspense, no? The reader doesn’t know what’s going on. Right? This is what we want!

Unfortunately, it’s a very murky line between suspense and not enough information. If you don’t provide a lot of context for what’s going on, the reader might not care as much as they should. Or, worse, they  might become utterly confused.

How to Combat Confusion

I’m of the school that some context and information about a suspenseful situation is actually desirable.

Let’s say that your character is wandering into an abandoned house. We’ve all seen that scene in a horror movie. Imagine, first, the “maximum confusion” version. The character arrives at the house and walks through the creaky front door. Everything is in shadow. The creepy music swells. The horror element may be just around the corner. The character tries a closet door and…

Scary, right? Well, kinda. There are a few pieces of information missing. The scene overall would be much more “grabby” if we knew any of the following ways to hook a reader:

  • Motivation (Why is the character at this horrible house?)
  • Objective (What do they need to get/see/etc. while there?)
  • Stakes (What could go wrong in this scene and how might it affect the whole?)
  • Antagonist (Who or what has the potential to be hiding in the shadows?)
  • Past (What’s happened to lead the character here?)
  • Future (What do they hope will happen after? What do they worry might happen instead?)

Some of this information will be situational. If you’ve done your plot work correctly, the reader should know why we’re at the house, for example. A lot of this information can be filled in via interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) as the character approaches the house and begins to explore. (A related post would be how to create emotional anticipation.)

With two or three additional pieces of context, the scene takes on more weight in a reader’s mind.

Your Goal is Creating Hungry Readers

Imagine yourself arriving at a cocktail party. If you keep from eating beforehand in anticipation of the event, most likely you’ll end up too hungry, show up, and start diving into whatever hors d’oeuvres you can find until you’ve satisfied that initial hunger. It doesn’t feel good to be that hungry, and you don’t really taste the first few bites.

On the other hand, if you have a little snack at home, then go to the party, you’re not desperate for food, so you’re able to enjoy yourself and taste the offerings. Each one might leave you wanting more, but you’re not starving for the next bite, either.

Think of a reader as this party guest. They satisfy themselves on information and emotion. If you go into a scene with too little of either, you’re making your reader hungry … and not in a good way. Wondering how to hook a reader? You want them craving more, instead of starving for it.

Are you pacing your writing correctly? Is it “grabby” enough? General advice can only go so far. Work with me as your novel editor, and I’ll give you actionable, supportive, hands-on feedback.

Picture Book Writing Style

Many writers get tripped up on picture book writing style: What kind of syntax should you aim for? What type of words to use? Should you worry about reading levels? What the heck is a Lexile score? Learn how to write a children’s picture book that impresses literary agents and publishers.

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I wish for a simpler, clearer picture book voice.

Why Picture Book Writing Style Matters

Children’s books are a unique subset of publishing because you’re dealing with many different age groups and reading levels. When you write a novel for adult readers, you don’t really have to think about this stuff. It’s presumed that most people will be pretty proficient readers, otherwise they’re probably not seeking out your average literary fiction novel.

When you write for young readers, you do have to take reading level into consideration. Not so much when you’re writing young adult, because those readers are already well-developed, but it’s something to think about in every category leading up to YA.

Embracing the Picture Book Writing Style

Unfortunately, I’m not a big proponent for strictly writing to Lexile scores, nor will I provide you with a vocabulary “green light” list for picture books. I’m the wrong resource for that sort of thing. I believe in teaching more open-ended concepts that allow writers to make their own decision.

So to me, this is the heart of the matter: The biggest consideration when it comes to picture book writing style is that your language and syntax are accessible to the audience. These issues are especially important if you’re writing a rhyming picture book.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, most picture book writers could use a reminder of who your audience actually is for the 0-5 age group that typically reads picture books. This is perhaps a misleading question. Because here, your readers are:

  1. Adults who are reading the book aloud to a very antsy toddler-aged child with limited attention span, or, far behind them, in second place,
  2. Kids who are only just beginning to read independently.

Write for Your Audience, or Your Audience’s Audience

“Well, you’ve confirmed it. I’m writing for adults when I write picture books,” you might be thinking. “So what’s the problem with my clunky syntax and advanced word choice and sentences that stretch on for entire paragraphs? Adults can take it.”

Adults might be able to take it. But their antsy audience (with limited attention span) won’t. And even if an adult could take it the first three times, by the seventh reading of the night, they might tire of flat, complicated prose as well.

The biggest sins I see when it comes to picture book writing style are these long, convoluted sentences. Wondering how to write a children’s picture book? KISS! Keep it simple, silly! Big, complex sentences do not belong in writing for the youngest listeners and readers. Believe me when I say that your adult readers, child listeners, or first-time independent readers want short, energetic, snappy prose.

It’s not that young readers/listeners aren’t capable of understanding great complexity. They are. But there’s a difference between complexity of idea or story or emotion, and complexity of sentence. You want the former, not the latter.

How to Address Picture Book Writing Style Issues

In almost all cases, the solution is simple: Read your work aloud. I don’t care if you feel silly doing it. Print out your manuscript and pace around the room and read. Or, better yet, ask someone to read it to you.

Mark where they stumble. (You know your work well, so you’re unlikely to falter. Someone who hasn’t read the actual sentences will be a much better test of rhythm and flow.) Mark where they run out of breath in the middle of a sentence.

Remember that picture books are read aloud more often than not over their target audience’s life cycle. Do not pass “go,” do not dare submit, do not dare go one more day without reading all of your picture book manuscripts out loud for real.

And if you find long-winded, clunky, dry, or otherwise uninspiring syntax? Chop it up. Swap out your business memo words like “caused” and “exited” and “vehicle.” Then read the draft aloud again.

You’re writing for young readers. You’re allowed to be a little more hands on!

Take some of the guesswork out of the writing and revision process. I can be your picture book editor on one or multiple manuscripts!

Children’s Book Manuscript Chapter Length

Curious about how many words in a chapter? When you’re writing fiction, it’s natural to wonder about children’s book manuscript chapter length. I’m afraid this answer won’t be entirely satisfying, but I decided to make a video about it. The transcript appears below.

Writers Are Asking: How Many Words in a Chapter?

Hi, this is Mary Kole and kidlit.com, and you are watching a video response to a question that I received on the blog from Tom. Tom recently asked a wonderful question about read aloud potential in picture books, which I was happy to answer. He had another great question in the same comment. So he was just coming up with good stuff. I am more than happy to answer in this video format. I think it’s so much fun. Tom’s question, actually the answer to Tom’s question is hidden inside of Tom’s question, but the gist of it is, Tom says, “When I’m reading with my kids, I notice that the manuscripts,” or the books in his case, “that have consistent chapter length flow more smoothly. They are more of a joy to read. Can you comment on that?” You know, and as I am reading this, I’m thinking, “You just answered your own question, buddy.” But whatever, I’ll speak to it because I think it’s a very important point.

So children’s book manuscript chapter length is a big question that I’ve received many times about all sorts of children’s books that have chapters. So that usually includes everything from chapter books, to middle grade, to young adult novels. And in that case, people always ask, you know, “How long should my chapters be? How many words in a chapter?” That’s the most common question. Nobody really talks about consistency. So I think this is a really great point to drill into. Now, I am less concerned with how long your chapter needs to be. I’m not a big fan of handing out absolute dictums and saying, you know, “For middle grade, your chapters need to be 2,000 words max and always longer than 1,200 words, and…” you know.

Yeah sure, if pressed, I could come up with some harder numbers, but I don’t like to do that because I believe that every book sort of has its own style. Now, I will say that yeah, a chapter that’s 10,000 words for any category of children’s book is probably crazy. It’s gonna be tedious to read. It’s a lot. So there definitely are ways to answer that question in a more specific way, but I’ll keep being cagey, and I will say consistency, as Tom identified in his comment, is key in any category that you’re writing, middle grade, chapter book, YA.

Click here for a better idea of overall children’s book manuscript length.

Whatever You Do, Keep It Consistent

Children’s book manuscript chapter length consistency is what sort of keeps the engine of your pacing going. And when I’m reading, I definitely notice, you know, with my editorial clients, I have manuscripts in front of me all the time. I definitely notice when a chapter is a lot shorter or a lot longer than sort of what has been established. And one of my favorite things to say to people is a book teaches us how to read it, which is true. So if you start out writing really short chapters which is a great way to sort of keep pacing lively, you’ve sort of set a standard for yourself.

And so if you really start in the middle maybe, writing really long chapters, whoa, your pacing is gonna tank and readers are gonna wonder…they may not be able to put their finger on what’s going on, but they may start to wonder why your chapters suddenly feel longer, or slower, or bulkier. So chapter length can definitely be used to affect pacing and the reader’s perception of how quickly the story is moving which is the definition of pacing.

If you have a lot of long chapters, you really wanna make sure that action flows freely inside those chapters because otherwise they’re just gonna big blocks of information one after the other, and that’s gonna have an exhausting effect on the reader. But the key is that whatever you start doing, keep doing it. (And take some advice on how to write action scenes.) You’ve sort of gotten yourself into that place, and if you notice that all of your chapters are really long, you’re gonna have more of a job ahead of you, maybe chopping some of those chapters in half or reorganizing information.

Another thing that I see a lot is that a person will basically have chapter consistency down for the most part, but then they will have a few outliers. And the more consistent your chapters are, of course, the more those outliers are going to call attention to themselves. So when you’re revising, one very easy thing to look for, especially if you use a software like Scrivener where each chapter is an individual file, which I highly recommend, is seeing, “Okay, which chapters are abnormally short or abnormally long compared to kinda where I come in.” You know, if I’m coming at 1,500 words for a YA novel chapter and I have a chapter that’s 2,500 words, and then another one that follows it that’s 500, I might wanna think about combining them and then chopping that resulting chapter kind of in half, for example. So what’s…what are your outliers? That would be a great place to start in terms of kinda restructuring your chapters.

How Many Words in a Chapter … And How Many Are Working for You?

Another thing to do is to make sure that each chapter earns its keep. This is a huge note that I give to a lotta my editorial clients. This chapter doesn’t earn its keep. And for me, for a chapter to earn its place in a novel, you have to do one of several things. Ideally you’re doing many of these things all at once. The chapter has to pull its weight. Now, it should introduce character, or introduce something about character, or change something about character relationship, so you’re moving something forward in the character department or…ideally. And a chapter has to move plot forward. So something has to happen.

Now this brings us back to the definition of action in a plot sense. If two characters just bicker for a whole chapter, yeah there’s conflict technically, but nothing has actually happened if two characters just sit there going like this. So something needs to happen to move the plot forward. There needs to be action, there needs to be forward momentum in terms of things happening in the physical world that ideally drag your story forward. So we should learn something about character, something should happen in terms of plot, character relationship can change. There’s gotta be meat in each chapter. And a lot of the time, I see short chapters that are just transitions, for example, you have two big scenes and then a little valley in between that’s like 500 words. That’s something I see a lot. Or a chapter where it’s just characters talking, talking heads. Sometimes those really seem to tank pacing.

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When worrying how many words in a chapter, keep a close eye on pacing.

So yeah, I would say that chapter consistency above all is key. Make sure your children’s book manuscript chapter length is consistent, look for outliers, so chapters that are too long or too short based on the length that you set for yourself where you fall most of the time when you’re writing. And then you need to do a test of each chapter to see, does this really have a reason to be in this manuscript? And that’s kind of the trickier revision tactic to do because you’ve written it, of course you don’t wanna kill your darlings.

Each chapter absolutely belongs in there. But when you really get down to it, is there enough forward momentum in that chapter on the character front, on the plot front to really keep it in there? And if not, you may wanna do away with the chapter or you may want to shorten the chapter and tack it on to one of the two chapters either before it or after it. That’s one way to handle kind of a shorter chapter where you wanna keep some of the information but maybe not make it its standalone chapter. Or is it something that can be expanded into a full-fledged chapter in its own right, maybe with some character development or some plot development?

So, hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for why consistency is important when it comes to chapter length, and then if you do have chapters that are inconsistent with your novel and kind of your goals for each chapter in your novel, what to do with those. So I love this question. Thank you so much, Tom, for asking, and thank you for watching.

 

Imagery in Writing to Attract Readers and Deepen Emotion

Recently, I’ve walked a few full novel editing clients through the use of imagery in writing. Why do authors use imagery? I decided to write a post about it because there seems to be some confusion about what imagery in description is, when to use it, and why you’d want to in the first place. Read on!

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Why do authors use imagery? Imagery in writing is what connects the thing you’re describing to the reader’s emotions.

What is Imagery in Writing?

I have an MFA in Creative Writing, and as you can imagine, us Creative Writing MFAs spend a lot of time sitting around in coffee houses, thinking about the building blocks of the fiction craft. (Just kidding! Sort of!) Well, one of those important building blocks is imagery in description.

Why do authors use imagery? An image is a description that is meant to evoke emotion. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Because we all know that the number one thing a fiction writer must do is make the reader care. So authors use imagery to create emotion.

Imagery in writing serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of what’s going on and how to feel about it. The image is a tool. It adds something. It enhances.

A lot of writers believe that an image is necessary for every situation. It isn’t. My preference would be that you use imagery in books more sparingly. That way, your figurative language will mean more.

When to Use Imagery in Writing

So that brings up the question of when to use imagery in description. A big mistake I see in manuscripts is that writers use imagery when it really isn’t necessary.

Here’s a good example of imagery used incorrectly:

He was so hungry that he felt like a swarm of ravenous bees were buzzing around in his stomach.

There’s figurative language in this sentence (the bees). But what does it add? The information is: He was hungry. Does the image of “ravenous bees” and all of this activity in his stomach add anything to our understanding that he’s hungry? No. It’s restating the information and there’s no sense of depth or enhancement.

I’d argue that, here, there is no need for an image. A lot of writers are terrified of doing any kind of telling, and I understand why. And that’s where this overuse of imagery comes into play. But sometimes it’s better to just include information (our friend is hungry) and move on, rather than trying to make it into a Writing With a Capital “W” moment.

Here’s a good example of a situation where imagery works:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a hungry tiger, and he stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?

This is a bit of a melodramatic description, but the image here serves a purpose. It introduces the idea of a specific emotion that’s playing out inside him, and adds the layer of how deeply it affects him. Regret is like a predator, and he feels like prey–vulnerable, exposed.

This is an emotional moment, and the image spins it in a more visceral direction. The alternative would be:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal, feeling regret. He stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?

This has a lot of the same information, but it might be a little dry. Does it have the same resonance? That’s up to you as a writer. But it’s a good example of where an image might be desirable, if you’re the type to add embellishments to your significant and emotional moments.

Using Focused Imagery in Description

Another thing to consider is how much imagery to use. A reasonable description of regret, per the example above, instantly becomes overkill in an instance like this:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a tiger, lashing into him like a thrashing shark, dripping into his veins like acid. He stormed off…

This might look like obvious redundancy to you, but it’s something I see all the time. Once a writer has decided that an occasional calls for imagery, they might decide that “more is more!” That’s actually not true.

Picking one specific and powerful image is going to focus your reader’s attention. Picking multiple related images to try and evoke the same emotional response will actually be counterproductive. Once you’ve identified an occasion that would benefit from imagery in description, pick one image and stick to it.

If you’ve gotten the feedback that your imagery in writing and that it can sometimes slant toward cliché, really think about it and maybe pick the third or fourth image that comes to mind. You want to make sure you’re being evocative and fresh. That’s how you’re going to develop your writer’s voice.

On a lighter note, I hope that I never have to write the ridiculous word “promposal” ever again! 🙂

Struggling with voice, description, and imagery in description? I’m happy to help troubleshoot your manuscript in regards to these important concepts. Hire me as your novel editor, and we’ll dive in together!