Posted in worldbuilding, writing

Exposition

In storytelling, exposition has two meanings. The first is the opening portion of your plot arc. That is, where your story begins. The second is the one I want to touch on today.

The second use of exposition is the information needed for a story to make sense. That second part covers a lot of ground. It includes character backstories, worldbuilding, societal rules, legal definitions and a host of other things that vary from story to story. Exposition is important because it’s what makes characters, plots and settings work properly. It’s all the information going on behind the scenes that helps a story progress logically.

The big problem with exposition is that while your characters might know it, your readers might not. You don’t need to explain your own childhood to yourself, but for some stories, not knowing a character’s history causes bumps in the road. How do you get exposition out of the way?

Explain it. I know it seems obvious and you’re probably about to shout ‘INFO DUMP’ at me but hold on a second. Yes, info dumps are a way of getting information on the page. Arguably both sci-fi and fantasy are awful at this because then tend to rely heavily on worldbuilding, so there’s always a lot of information. It’s a common trope to have a prologue which details the history of the world, or of a particular set of characters, or that recounts some prophecy or the other.

However, you can reasonably explain information that’s relevant to the story by having your characters discuss it, or by having them realize what they’ve believed or known about that information is wrong. When using the dialogue option, you can offer back-and-forth questions to cover the usual who, what, why, when and how as needed. By having an internal realization, you make the exposition an active part of the story, rendering it a vital part of that character’s arc.

Imply it. Just as you’re not likely to think about your entire history without something that triggers a recollection, your characters likely won’t either. They may however, reference their personal histories when interacting with other characters.

An example of this is when dealing with a character that’s been disgraced for some reason. They may refer to a particular portion of time as ‘before’. Those characters that don’t know what happened can then ask ‘before what’ which gives you an opportunity to either relate it, or to tease it out a bit at a time. A bonus to this one: you give your readers more of a reason to invest in a character.

Similarly, when dealing with world or event information, your characters aren’t likely to have textbook perfect recollection of every single event. Could they possibly give you a good summary of what happened in the last war? Maybe, if they paid attention and had the chance and ability to learn about what happened. Or, maybe they know more about what sort of plants are likely to react with negative magical affects than they know about relations between differing duchies.

Exposition in storytelling is a necessary and vital part of understanding the story, but delivering that information shouldn’t get in the way of the story itself. When and where possible, use it to deepen a conflict: think about if your rival characters get into arguments about who’s right about the environmental risks of paper straws. Also consider your characters and their history. It may take time for your characters to open up and explain, letting you drop little hints and hooks through their actions and reactions.  

Posted in Stories, writing

Short Story: The Spinning Wheel Trade

The worst chore for Crystal was undoubtedly spinning yarn. It always made her fingers hurt and more than once, she’d found a spontaneous knot in already carded wool which proved to be a seed or stone or some other item which shouldn’t have been there.

She wasn’t sure which was worse, the way her hands itched and burned, or the fact that there was always something that shouldn’t have been in the wool. Her brothers could card it, comb it and sort it three and four times and Crystal would still have small items to pull out of it.

They’d tried cotton one year. It had been worse. She still had a scar on her palm from the broken knife blade that had somehow been hidden in it.

For the what felt like the hundredth time since starting, Crystal had to pause and reach for the comb to help pluck out whatever she’d discovered. A leaf, she realized. At the least, it looked like a leaf.

Yes, it was a leaf. A little crushed, but a leaf. Hoping no one was around to see, she sniffed it. Mint.

She dropped the leaf in the small basket next to her where it joined the other odds and ends she’d found. By the time she finished her spinning and had enough wool to take down to the old woman, she’d have half-filled the basket.

“Excuse me?”

Timid and soft, the voice drew Crystal’s attention from her yarn. The timidity in the voice matched its owner well. Juniper. The old woman’s apprentice.

She stood there, eyes wide and fearful as she studied Crystal, a basket over her arm. “Yes?” Crystal asked. As always, it seemed her ribbon was falling out.

“I…I brought you some tarts. As a thank you for the blackberries.” A faint smile curled on Juniper’s lips as she spoke and Crystal paused.

Few people thanked her for the things she gave them. All too often she found them whether she wanted to or not. People were used to her handing them odd little things, only for them to be missing items or things they needed for supper, for work, for other endeavors.

“A thank you?” It almost felt foreign to Crystal. People didn’t thank her for the items she gave them.

“It only seemed right,” Juniper said and bent her head. Crystal hated how small she sounded. “You didn’t have to give me the blackberries, so I thought I’d bring you something.”

Slowly, Crystal stood, leaving her spinning as it was and came down the porch steps. She was a little taller than Juniper, she realized and smiled a little as Juniper hesitantly uncovered the basket to reveal the tarts.

Blackberry tarts.

“Thank you,” Crystal said, and Juniper smiled as she lifted the plate out to hand them over.

“I…well, you’re welcome.”

“Do you want to come in?” The words came out of Crystal’s mouth before she could fully think them through. She knew what the house looked like—there were dozens of things on shelves wherever she’d left them, probably dust in the corner because there always seemed to be something. Laundry on the line. There would be at least one rabbit escaped from the hutch.

“Oh, I…I don’t want to impose.”

It was too late to rescind the invitation and Crystal had been taught sharing gifts was polite.

Even if she didn’t usually get a thank-you for the gifts she gave others.

“It’s not. I’m inviting you in. At least have a tart with me.”

Juniper hesitated and then nodded. “All—Alright.”

It was such a tiny smile, but on Juniper’s face, it made almost everything brighter. Crystal held the door for her, but as they walked in, she almost wanted to exclaim some emergency and run away. Shelves full of the odds and ends Crystal had found covered the one wall, trinkets, broken pieces of pottery and other random items.

It wasn’t the pieces themselves that mattered, most of the time they were only little things. Rather, Crystal knew they were still holding into something else. A little magic, which she herself couldn’t do anything with.

She could hold magic, but not use it.

Juniper’s gaze however, traveled up and down the shelf and Crystal found her tongue once again moving.

“They’re just interesting finds. Things from the field.” Or from the yarn she spun, from the bushes she helped trim, from the basket she brought home from market, from who knew where.

“They’re very interesting,” Juniper agreed and reached up to fix her hair, sighing when the ribbon slipped out again. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to apologize for.”

“I did interrupt your spinning,” Juniper said and Crystal smiled.

“That’s always interrupted,” she said. “It takes a while to get anything spun for me.”

“Oh. I—mhmm.” She dropped her head a little and Crystal set the plate down.

“You were going to say something.”

“Oh, it’s just, I’ve always enjoyed spinning. I’d be happy to help or show you some things if you’d like.”

“It’s not that, it’s just the wool and…” she trailed off, not wanting to have to explain she was fairy-blessed, gifted to always find something she could use.

“It’s your blessing, isn’t it?”

The outright question startled Crystal and Juniper dropped her head again. “I’m sorry, that was rude.”

“It just surprised me. Not that many people know about it.”

Juniper smiled. “The old woman, she told me.”

Crystal knew exactly who Juniper meant. And if she’d told Juniper, there had to be a reason behind it.

“Then, would you mind helping with the spinning? I can bring more blackberries, or something else if you need it.”

Juniper’s gaze moved to the shelf. “Actually,” she said and reached out gently to pick up a tiny brass ring. “I need a ring for something I’m working on. I’ll trade you for this.”

Impossibly, Crystal’s heart skipped a beat. “Absolutely,” she said.

“Then let’s have that tart, and then I’ll get the spinning done,” Juniper said and slid the ring into her basket.

The tarts were sweet, and Crystal made tea. The conversation grew easier and she learned more about Juniper. She’d been an apprentice for three years. She had a younger sister, now off to university.

Their tart finished and Juniper began the spinning. Several times as Crystal moved near the door while she worked around the rest of the house, she thought she heard Juniper humming as she worked.

It was evening fall by the time her brothers came in from the fields and both she and Juniper belatedly realized the time.

“Thank you, again,” Juniper said as she tried and failed to tie the ribbon back into her hair. “If you want help with the spinning again just let me know. I’ll—oh, I’m sorry, I’ve got to go!”

“Of course. And thank you for the tarts.”

Juniper waved as she scurried away and Crystal leaned against the doorframe, lips pulled into a smile.

A hand landed on her shoulder and she looked up to see Jasper, grinning at her like a fool. “Help with the spinning?”

Her cheeks tingled a little and she scrunched her nose as she tried to shrug his hand off. “She asked if I wanted any, and it made it easier to get some other things done.”

Jasper barked out a laugh. “Somehow I have a feeling you’re going to need a lot of help with all that spinning.”

Cheeks burning, Crystal turned into the house. Supper needed to be seen to. Although, she had to wonder if this was what Godmother Dawn had been intending when she’d told Juniper about Crystal’s blessing. It almost felt rude to steal a Godmother’s apprentice for a little help with spinning yarn.  


By A.J. Helms

If you enjoyed this short piece, consider checking out my short stories or my books! This piece also connects directly with my short Season of Preparing and is in the same universe as Crimson and Gold.

Posted in writing

A Few Myths Debunked

Asking any writer what their favorite writing myth is and you’ll probably get a few laughs and a couple of swearwords. Like any other profession, misconception and popularized (and sometimes false) media portrayals have lead to some common myths about writing.

Writing is easy. Let’s put this in perspective. Writers keep track of a small theatre troupe of characters; a world full of details; the current events of a single given story and all of the drama and internal thoughts and motivations of their personal theatre troupe. It’s a lot to keep track of. That’s just the writing aspect. That doesn’t count the editing, revision and rewriting that often needs to be done to go from rough draft to publishable piece.

Romance/kid lit/mystery/etc. are easy to write! Please see the paragraph above. That applies across all genres. And if you’re not reading that genre, you are in for a world of hurt.

Writing makes you rich. I’ve heard this in person before and I’ve laughed. I will probably do so again the next time I hear it. Yes, there are wild success stories about people that have earned tens of thousands from their writing. They are the exception. Most of us are pretty pleased when we can afford to buy a fancy new pen with our earnings. Those outliers who become household names are just that: outliers and exceptions. This is especially true when you’re first starting out. If you’re in this for the money, get out while you still can.

Writers are solitary people. No, no we’re not, especially not in this day and age. We have writing groups, beta readers, critique partners to help us out. We have families, pets and friends. Some of us are lucky enough to have agents, editors and cover designers to help us through. Writing by itself may mean spending some time with just your keyboard or a pen and paper, but we don’t live in a vacuum and we’re not hermits. We have lots of people around us.

Writers are alcoholics. I can blame that quote ‘Write Drunk, Edit Sober’ as well as Hollywood portrayals for this. If you are struggling with alcohol addiction, get help. Check Alcoholics Anonymous for resources, but you can also talk to your doctor or speak to a therapist. You’re not a writer just because you’re an alcoholic. You are however, in serious danger of liver damage, heart disease, stroke, cancer and memory problems.

Writers always have perfect grammar. Take your whole salt shaker and upend it when you hear any variation of this. Everyone makes mistakes. Typos slip through, comma splices and run-ons happen. Even if a writer has an amazing editor and a proof reader, we’re only human. As for spell check, it’s only able to do what it’s already been told. Following those suggestions isn’t always the best option.

Great writers are born with a writing talent. No. Full stop. Talent means absolutely nothing if you rely on it and never try to develop it into actual skill. Talent will not magically open doors for you. Putting talented on a resume in other jobs doesn’t fly and it doesn’t work for writing either.

There are a lot of myths about writers and writing. These are only a few of them. What are some of the other myths and fictions you’ve heard about writing?

Posted in blogging, writing

Personal Writing Process

I’m a firm believer that the writing process is different for every writer. While some of us dive headlong into the story with minimal planning, others take days, weeks and even months to plot, research and develop the story and characters before we ever put a word on the page. And many, many of us fall somewhere in the weird spectrum between plotting and discovering.

Thinking on that made me curious: what does the process look like for each writer? What are some of the ways we all differ from one another and what are the techniques that work best for each of us?

To answer that, I wanted to look at my personal process, from rough draft all the way up to a finished piece.

Normally any story for me ‘starts’ when I get an idea. If I’m in the middle of writing another piece, I tend to jot down a couple of notes on it—maybe a line or a word including with any known Characters, Antagonists, Reasonings, Obstacles, Themes or Titles and possibly the Setting. I’ve been using it for years and it works for me to hold onto a possible idea until I can come back to it.

Starting on the story itself is pretty easy. Recently I’ve moved away from rough drafts and into zero drafts—or, rather, what I typically end up titling as a Story Run. Rather than writing full chapters, I limit myself to ten or fifteen minutes to write a scene. Often because I’m racing to get the words down before the timer rings, I don’t have the option to stop and think, which prevents me from getting stuck. And if I do get stuck on a particular scene, I can simply move ahead to the next scene I know about and come back to it on editing later.

Once I have a complete run I typically move off to another story for a while, letting it sit and stew. Usually I like to give at least a month between each phase of any given story. That lets me work on something else and helps give me a better perspective on what the story needs when I come back to it.

From the zero draft I start expanding, working each chunk of writing up into individual chapters. Sometimes I’ve outlined the expansion, especially when I’m missing scenes. Other times I just add more to each scene, bridging it from one to the next to get a complete rough draft.

When I start on the editing itself, I always start with an outline, as well as a list of characters and their goals. This way I can tighten up any loose scenes or expand on flimsy ones as necessary. Usually my outlines include just a sentence or two about what happens in each chapter. Once I’ve finished the second draft it tends to look a little more like an actual story, but still needs a lot of polish. At this point I can send it to an alpha reader, or if I know there are still some problems I want to fix, I can head into the third draft.

I don’t always need another outline between the second and third draft, but occasionally do. At this point I’m usually working in a side-by-side view with both drafts. Because I tend to draft short, it also means I can keep an eye on my wordcount between the two versions and expand places that need a little more detail.

At this point it’s definitely time to get a beta reader if I don’t already have one lined up. Following beta feedback, I can address any remaining structural issues and start focusing on word choice and sentence flow. Once the next draft is finished, it’s time to rinse and repeat—get more feedback, make more updates. Draft six is usually the earliest I’ll start shopping a piece around, but dependent on what my early readers tell me, there may be more drafts. And if I get critiques while trying to find a home for a piece, I may also put it on hold to do another draft and address any valid feedback.

Writing is an ongoing and oftentimes lengthy process, but that’s only my take on it. I’m curious for my fellow writers: What does your process look like?

Posted in Exercises, writing

Plotting a Series

As a writer, it’s entirely possible that at some point you get hit with an idea that is simply too big for one book. That might be because of complex plotlines, multiple points of view, or even because new story ideas keep cropping up that all connect tangentially back to the same thing. You’re looking at a series, and all the fun territory that comes with it.

Series might seem a little more unwieldy than a single standalone novel or even a duo, but they’re manageable. There are dozens of articles out there that will tell you the key to plotting a series is to give it an overarching goal. I’m not here to tell you that.

I’m here to tell you that as a novelist, you probably already have the tools you need to tackle a series.

Don’t laugh just yet. Let’s start at the macro level. In a series, each book is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. Down to the micro level, in a novel, each chapter is the next installment in a longer, overarching story. See the connection?

Series will be a little more detailed than your average chapter, but you can approach them the same way. Each chapter should have a goal and a conflict. So should each book in the series. And like a series, the entire book should have a central conflict.

So, rather than getting stuck on how long that series is and how difficult it seems to plot it, break it down like you would any other chapter.

For me, I like to write out a one-sentence summary of what happens in each chapter. So it might be something like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
  2. Snow White’s stepmother is furious to find the King’s will leaves Snow White the only heir.
  3. Stepmother tries to kill Snow White, who runs away into the woods.
  4. The Dwarves find and rescue Snow White but demand her help in exchange.
  5. Snow White solves a problem for each of the Dwarves.
  6. Stepmother finds out Snow White is still alive and sends a hunter to kill her.
  7. The Dwarves and Snow White flee their home.
  8. Snow White and the Dwarves gather an army of forest creatures.
  9. The army is marched onto the castle of the Stepmother.
  10. Snow White becomes queen and begins rebuilding.

You get the idea. Each chapter help builds and resolve the overall conflict. Now let’s take a look at these as if they were books in a series.

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.

On it’s own, it seems pretty simple, but if we’re assuming that’s the overall conflict, then we know there’s more to it, so it might end up being something more like this:

  1. Snow White’s father remarries an evil queen and dies on his wedding night.
    1. Snow White begs her father not to marry his bride.
    2. Stepmother convinces King Snow is merely grieving her mother.
    3. Snow White discovers proof Stepmother will kill King.
    4. Stepmother blocks Snow White from attending the wedding.
    5. The king is poisoned at supper.
    6. King dies and Stepmother warns Snow White the same can happen to her.
    7. Snow White learns she will be queen when she comes of age and decides to simply wait Stepmother out.

The ending for this one resolves it as a tragedy while still leaving it open for the next story. Snow White will be Queen…if she can avoid angering Stepmother long enough. Likewise, the next book furthers the conflict when Stepmother finally discovers that she’s only Queen until Snow White is old enough to take the throne.

Chapters work the same way. Each one has a smaller conflict in it that must be resolved, but that still feeds into the main plot. First chapters, like first books, open up the main conflict, but still handle their own struggles. Final chapters and books resolve all the conflicts and leave the story with a satisfactory ending.

As an exercise: Take your favorite series and write a one-sentence summary of each book. Then break each book into a one-sentence summary of each chapter.