Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My thought for the day

There is nothing quite so satisfying as determining the perfect word to express your intentions.

Back to the cave with me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Giving your characters intimate moments

I have a tendency as a storyteller to focus on the story and not the characters. Sometimes this works out fine, because the characters are so clear to me that I don't really have to think about their backstory. It just kind of exists, and influences their behaviors without me analyzing it too much.

Oh to be so easy, right?

Well, that's not the case with my current WIP. The story is there, the action and twists and turns are all coming together quite nicely. And the characterization is there, but it's not always solid. My MC is the victim of the story, carried along by what she needs to do instead of what she would do. As my crit partner put it, "I can clearly see her now, but I can't see her how she was before this story started."

Part of this comes from having too much action without enough quiet moments. Quiet moments allow a reader to get familiar with a character outside of the story. Readers aren't distracted from learning new info or following action, they're just hanging out in a private moment with your character. And as we all know from our shower conversations with ourselves, private moments bring about unguarded actions that reveal us more than anything else.

Sometimes this comes in the form of quirks. Maybe your character talks to himself when he's alone, or sings show tunes, or cries when there's no one around to see him in a moment of weakness. Sometimes it's an action or behavior so ingrained they're not conscious of it, but it speaks volumes to the reader.

For example, the MC in my current WIP is an archer. In one scene, she's stuck between a rock and a hard place (literally) and needs a moment to plan. As she debates her decision, she strokes the fletching on her arrow. This services the scene on two levels: on the most immediate level, we see her nervousness in the habit. And the action speaks more about her nerves and internal prep than me as the author just saying "she was nervous and preparing for the next step."

But on the higher level, the reader sees it as a habit. It's a reminder: she's done this before. She knows to check the fletching for breaks, it's an action ingrained in her since she first learned how to shoot. She's probably done it hundreds of times before, in moments just like these, and suddenly we have an insight into her past. If she's been around arrows enough to pick this up as a nervous habit, then archery must be important to her life. It must have served a large role in her childhood, which naturally leads to more questions. Why? For how long? What else did it influence? And so on.

The moral of the story here is to give your character intimate moments with the reader. When you find those quiet scenes between actions, use them to build up the rapport between your character and your reader. These moments are insight into the MC's true personality, and allow you to share back story through their actions without info dumping on your reader.

How do you like to use your character's personal moments?

Monday, February 6, 2012

The benefits of spilling your secrets

I like to tell people I would do great in a zombie apocalypse because I have the hoarding mentality of the Great Depression. Maybe it's the fact I grew up poor, maybe it's the fact that I'm only slightly less selfish than a 2 year old with a My Little Pony collection, or maybe it's just part and parcel of my personality. I save new clothes for months before wearing them, I hide sugar packets in my desk in case we run out at work, and I hide my favorite foods in the cupboard so the partner-in-crime doesn't get to them before I do.

As a writer, this has translated to hoarding secrets. At first I thought I was saving the conflict for the climax. You know, Pedro can't find out Martha is really his daughter until 250 pages in. That big of a secret, you need to hoard it, right? Because if you give up all your good secrets at the beginning, you'll have no story left to end the damn thing.

What I really found out was that I was being lazy and protecting myself from actually having to work for something. Keeping that secret for 17 chapters meant nothing happened. People ate dinner, walked from one room to the other, but nothing really momentous occurred because I was waiting. As a result, my middles dragged and my climaxes were obvious from a dozen chapters off.

So this go round, I issued myself a challenge. When you have a secret, share it. Anytime something occurred to me - Martha is Pedro's DAUGHTER - I had to reveal it. Maybe not to the characters themselves, but to the reader. Because tension lies in the divide between the reader's knowledge and the character's knowledge. If the reader knows Martha is Pedro's daughter, but Pedro doesn't know it, we have tension.

And in the end, books are just secrets we're waiting to reveal. All stories are a string of revealed secrets, and we as the reader keep reading to find out what they are. What will happen when Pedro finds out? What does Martha want? Why didn't Pedro know Martha was his daughter in the first place? Secrets.

So my challenge to you: when you have a secret, spill it. You might be scared that you'll run out of secrets like I was, but what you'll find instead is that more secrets rise up through the cracks to answer the questions behind the secret you revealed before. And the climax you end up with is so much greater than what you started with, because you had to think harder to top yourself. And that's entertainment, my friends.