Posted in General

Building Tension

One of those constantly talked about pieces of writing advice is tension. Make sure your story has tension. Let the tension ebb and flow. Raise the tension. The big question a lot of advice skirts around is where tension comes from, and how you manage it.

In the short term: tension comes from conflict. By definition it’s the stretched force between two opposing forces. It’s not unlike the rope in a tug-of-war game. Two opposing goals are straining to pull each other over.  

Speaking long term, tension is the long-term driving force behind conflict. If there’s no obstacle to your character getting their goal, there’s no tension. However, if you add in obstacles, then there’s more conflict. That additional obstacle creates tension because it stretches out the space between your character deciding on a goal and achieving it.

When starting out on creating tension, take a look at what obstacles your characters have to go through to get to their goals. What could possibly get in their way? This might be another character’s goals, or a particular requirement such as a law or deadline, or even a physical complication such as a locked dor. Obstacles create tension because your character must solve them in order to get to their goal.

If you need to ramp up the tension, add stakes. This is where your conflicts can go from simple to tense. A character who needs to find a piece of paper has a conflict: they’re missing a piece of paper. It’s a conflict, but what happens when you make that paper the last letter they had from their late sister? That’s personal stakes, ones which create more conflict because it’s a moment of their late sister. Need that tension to be even greater? make it the last letter from their late sister which they need to prove her innocent, posthumously.

Tension and conflict often build of each other, so if you’re feeling a section of your story needs more of a driving force behind it, take a look at the tension. Consider if you have enough obstacles to keep your characters busy, and if their stakes are high enough to keep them invested in solving their conflict.

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.

Posted in writing

Balanced Characters

Characters are at the heart of every story.  Whether it’s high fantasty full-on dragons breathing fire and magic spells or crime fiction with despicable crimes and grieving victims, the one thing readers connect with are characters. A realistic, believable character is easier to connect with than one who only exists as an exaggerated stereotype (the exception here being that satire is rife with well-done examples of how this can be effective to send a message).

One way to create a believable character is to make sure they’re balanced. People have both positive and negative traits, and your characters should too.  There’s a few ways to achieve balance in a character.

Flaws. Everyone has flaws–whether this is our tendency to get impatient with others, poor listening skills, or generally being a little too selfish about some things, everyone has flaws. Characters should have at least a few flaws, but avoid throwing them in as an afterthought.

A common example of poorly developed flaws is the Mary Sue character. She’s pretty, smart, skilled at the one thing that is vital to the story, popular. By all appearances she’s perfect. And the most common ‘flaw’ is that she’s clumsy. Clumsy so of course she trips into the love interest. Clumsy so when it’s important for her to be saved by someone else, she drops something, or stumbles. The afterthought becomes less of a flaw and more of a plot device, making it hard to like and relate to her because inevitably the rest of her perfection saves her somehow.

So, how do you avoid making that flaw an afterthought? Look at her positive traits and turn them against her. She’s pretty, but could it be that she’s pretty because she’s vain and works hard on her appearance? If she’s smart, she could also be arrogant or even entitled because she knows these things. Skill also typically isn’t gained by sudden happenstance, and if it does, there’s going to be a resulting emotional trauma. How does she handle having this newfound power? Is she prone to dramatic overreactions, or to trying to deny it exists? What happens when she discovers she can’t use it on command?

Lack Thereof. If your character excels in certain areas–magic, sports, leadership–then make the areas they lack in things that they need. An inability to clearly communicate can hurt your character when they ask for help. Similarly, someone who’s still learning a necessary skill might feel out of place around others who have already mastered that skill, bringing in self-doubt and opening up places for internal conflict.

This doesn’t just apply to skills either. Characters might also be lacking traits like trustworthiness, loyalty, confidence or a host of other things. Those missing traits can make it harder for other characters to get things done around them. After all, passing information to someone who isn’t trustworthy might mean that information gets into the wrong hands. A character lacking confidence can be deterred by having their qualities attacked, not because the attack is true, but because it plays off the thing they’re missing and feeds into that lack.

Give them problems. Everyone has struggles. It might be a problem with body image, it might be a problem with time management, it might be a problem with mental health. Everyone in the world has problems. Some are personal, and some are clear and public. Perhaps your MC has a problem with a cheating girlfriend and as a result is conflicted over whether or not to confront her. Perhaps your supporting character is struggling with health problems that limit the amount they can, in turn playing into a problem with mental health.

By forcing your characters to struggle with something relatively mundane, you make their imperfections clear. Giving them personal struggles also provides more routes for conflict and subplots. Think, what will make them lose their patience? What would finally turn them against their friends? This gives you opportunities to show where their breaking point is on their ‘positive’ trait and as a result, provides a balance to characters who might otherwise seem ‘too much’ of something.

What are some of your favorite ways to balance your characters?

Posted in General

Working Titles

Titles are either simple to come up with, or they’re difficult. There’s not a lot of in-between about them. I’ve already gone over one of the ways to come up with and generate titles, but those suggestions don’t always feel right at first. Titles can take time, and that’s where the working title comes into play.

A working title isn’t much more than what you call your story while it’s still a work in progress. Dependent on your publishing route, an editor may suggest a title change for marketing purposes, or just based on style. It’s also possible that you’ll go through several titles before finding the one that fits your story.

You don’t need to put much thought in a working title. In the case of very early drafts when you’re still feeling out the rest of the story, you can simply use the first thing that pops to mind–the wizard boy, or the hobbit’s ring or something else to help you denote which story is which. Alternately, you can use the working title as a note to help, a la I Write Sins Not Tragedies.

You might also find it helpful to use the working title as a way to test out your actual title. It can help to put WT at the end so you can avoid attaching to any titles that don’t work for that story.

What are some of your working titles?

Posted in General, writing

On Different Approaches

Last week while speaking with a friend, we ended up on a discussion of worldbuilding and where to start it. In essence, she wanted to write a story, but complained she didn’t have the world for it. My response caused a bit of confusion for us both: Just write the story.

The fact that I did so surprised her, if only because she’s also heard me complain and grump about editing when my story contradicts the world I have for it. She’d thought that I, like her, built the world first and wrote the story second.

I however, had a hard time grasping how you would build a world that you don’t have a story for at all. I tend to write the early draft, and pull out any details from it during editing to build the world as I build the story.

Both techniques work, and there’s something to be said for both of them on where you begin.

Worldbuilding First gives you a solid structure to work from. It provides plenty of places for conflict as well as giving you the details needed to make your story seem real. On the other hand, worldbuilding is a massive undertaking and it could be very easy to get bogged down on trying to figure out everything before you put pen to paper.

Story writing First provides ideas to help spawn details and new features for your world. It can help you populate the world with realistic characters. But, it also leaves you open to contradictions and possible continuity errors.

Whichever approach you choose, choose the one that works best for you. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it.

Where do you start your worldbuilding?