Classic Being a Better Writer: The Art of Misdirection

Euugh. Today was supposed to be a catch-up day for writing. As well as a day when I got up and put up this post first thing in the morning. And then … I woke up at around eleven with a fuzzy head and light sore throat … and then I feel back asleep and woke up at 1 … and then I actually crawled out of bed at 3 a few minutes ago … We’ll see if I get any writing done, but from prior experience of forcing myself to write when my brain is like this and then deleting it all the moment my mind comes back and I realize it’s really bad … Well … crap. Saturday may just end up a sick day.

Which sucks, because I really wanted to do a few thousand words on Hunter/Hunted and then do some editing on A Game of Stakes, but if I can’t trust my brain, well …

Anyway, I can do as promised and link a Classic Being a Better Writer post. Which today will be one of the more popular ones I’ve ever written: The Art of Misdirection. You can read a teaser here, then hit the jump for the full thing.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to figure out what to do for my sickday.

EDIT: I almost forgot! One Drink is free this weekend, 100% off from its normal price of 99 cents. Sure, it’s nothing groundbreaking or incredible, like some of my later books, but it’s still a fun, quick read.


Have you ever read a book called The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn?

If not, you’re missing out. It’s a science-fiction mystery and an engaging read, with a fun universe, a clever story, and an compelling mystery. But one of my favorite things about it is how the mystery is handled. See, most mysteries usually do one of two things: they either withhold evidence from the reader in order to keep them from solving it (sign of a weak story) or they give you all the pieces, but in such a way that you don’t put the pieces together in the right order (or don’t realize it’s a piece to begin with). The Icarus Hunt is a great example of the latter, a story that gives you all the pieces, but because the way it presents them, keeps all but the most astute readers from catching it. In fact, the clue that blows the whole mystery wide open is given less than a third of the way into the book. But in the context and scene, it’s presented so smoothly that, like the main character, the reader just lets it slide by.

Keep reading The Art of Misdirection here!

Classic Being a Better Writer: A Beginner’s Guide to Fights

Welcome, readers, to a returning feature: Being a Better Writer- Classic Edition!

Yep, that’s right. Given that there are over five years of BaBW posts that have come by, it only makes sense to dig back into the past from time to time to revisit the wisdom of old. Today we’re looking at fights! You want combat? Broken bones? Riveting fight scenes? Here’s how to get started!


 

Anyway, let’s dive right into today’s topic, since my brain is definitely drawing a blank for welcoming chatter. Today I want to talk about fights. Because this is a popular topic posed by beginning writers just about anywhere. You search the forums of a writing site such as this one? Questions about fights. You go to a creative writing class? Questions about fights. Even a writing convention like LTUE … odds are, if there isn’t a panel about fights—and sometimes even if there is—this is a question that will pop up with regularity.

Because as both readers and writers, we enjoy fights. Fights are fun. They’re exciting! They’re a chance for the protagonist to show off their skills and talents, a chance for the reader to be tugged along by a rapid, dangerous, and exciting narrative. They’re a moment of tension, a moment that can thrill both the author and reader. And writers—even the new ones—understand this. For some of them, this may have been why they wanted to be a writer in the first place. They had some idea, some concept for some really cool scene, and they wanted to let the rest of the world experience it. Then they say down at a keyboard and discovered that writing is hard.

But, never one to give up, they push forward, and before they realize it, they’re sitting in a forum somewhere, their hand raised in the air, waiting to ask the question “How do I write a fight?”

Well, today, I’m going to do my best to answer that. Today, we’re looking at the act of writing and figuring out fights for beginners. If you’ve never written a fight scene before, or have and have felt/realized that it could be better, or even if you’re just looking for a constant reminder of the basics of what you should know for a fight scene—this is the post for you.

Continue reading 

Classic Being a Better Writer: Beginner’s Worldbuilding

Hello readers! Welcome back to another Classic Being a Better Writer Post!

For those of you unfamiliar with what these posts are, I’ll explain thusly: With over four years worth of Being a Better Writer posts going up nearly every week, there’s a lot of backlog to sort through for a new arrival. Hence, Classic posts! Once the vehicle from moving over and cleaning up posts from where I originally wrote them, now a method of collecting a nice trio of old posts on a topic you might be interested in!

This week? Worldbuilding for Beginners! Advice and ideas to help jump start your creative mind!

But first … It’s Christmas, guys! And that means it’s gift-giving season. And what’s a better gift for a reader in your life than a book?

Just as luck would have it, I have a whole selection of books that you can gift to that special reader in your life! You can check them out here, pick up a few, and have them delivered right to your recipients e-mail inbox! And it helps me out as well!

Right, plug over. On to the classics!


Worldbuilding Part 1—
Alright, so how can you play the same sort of cards in your work? How can you go from the generic #48,923 fantasy world of dwarves and elves you have now  to a world that stands out?

Well, first, you’re going to need to make a decision. Are you going to be a writer of complex worlds or minimalism worlds?

Now, most of you are probably thinking “Hey sweet, I have options,” at this point, but I’m afraid it’s not what you think. Now, in part 2 of this feature we’re going to go more in depth on the difference here as well as how to write them, but for now we’re just going to make do with the condensed summary: These are how you present the world you’ve built, not how detailed your own work actually is. Complex worldbuilding is works such as The Wheel of Time, in which you’re going to not only know that there is a city there, but you’re going to find out what the main trade is, why the city was built there, and who is in charge. And all of this will probably be relevant in some way later (even if it’s in a small way).


Worldbuilding Part 2—
By this point you’ve sat down and brainstormed up most of the details for your world. You know how the magic/science works. You know who the characters are. You know what the plot is and possibly have a decent idea of how to get from point A to point B. But now comes the real question: how much of this world that you’ve created do you want to share with your reader?

Now, your immediate reaction might be “all of it.” Which, if it is, means you’re definitely going to fall on the detailed end of things. I mentioned last week that when you sit down to write your story, all of your worldbuilding presentation is going to fall on a sliding scale that bounces between two points: minimalism and complex, You can probably infer what each of those entails, but let’s have a quick recap, just in case.


Is it Original, or Copying?—
So, you’ve just finished your first manuscript. You’re excited, maybe even a little ecstatic, because at long last, you’ve finished the darn thing! You pass it off to someone to read, probably a friend or family member, and then they say a phrase that strikes terror down on your heart.

“Oh,” they say, staring at your work. “I get it. This is like The Lord of the Rings, isn’t it?”

It doesn’t have to be The Lord of the Rings. Nor do the words they speak need to be “Oh, it’s like this.” They might say “This reminds me of the stuff from Star Wars.” Or start talking about the similarities between your work and another author they read recently.

Regardless, you’re probably hearing and thinking only one thing: That this person is saying your work isn’t your own at all, but someone else’s. And now the panic is starting to set in. Maybe they’re right. Maybe your work is nothing more than a cheap rewrite of someone else’s. How could you not see it before? After all, your main character is an orphan boy who is taken to a strange place to learn magic, and that’s totally the plot of Harry Potter! You’re a fraud! All your work has been for nothing!

Or has it?


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Classic Being a Better Writer: Character Odds and Ends

New here? Confused by what a Classic Being a Better Writer post is? No worries!

Classic posts dig into a four-year archive of weekly BaBW articles to dig up a couple that are relevant to one another, forming a quick and easy to browse sampling of some of the site’s various writing articles.

Today? A few odds and ends, from character versus plot (and what that means) to language!

No beating around the bush here. Let’s get going!


Character Versus Plot—
We’ll start with the underlying concept behind these two options: All stories are driven by something. Now, when I say that a story is driven by something, I don’t mean the antagonist, or the inciting incident, or even the growth of the character. What I’m referring to by driven is the events or actions by which the story is pulled forward.

Bilbo leaving Frodo the ring, for example, is something that pulls the story forward. Harry receiving a letter from Hogwarts. Vin being noticed by Kelsier. A story is, in it’s purest, simplified form, a collection of events. But something inside the story must happen in order for these events to occur. Cause and effect.

What I’m discussing today is the method by which the story moves forward. Is it character-derived, or plot-derived?


Common Problems with Character Emotion—
More specifically, we’re going to look how writers handle giving their characters emotions, and where a lot of the common pitfalls occur.

So right from the start, I’m going to assume we’re all on the same page here. We wantour characters to have emotion. We want them to be well-rounded, well developed … real, in other words. We want characters who are complex, with multiple facets to their character who remind us of real people. We want a character who seems real. We do not want a flat character.

But the challenge is that writing such a character is quite difficult, and many authors fall into pitfalls along the way. And I’m not speaking of just novice writers out there either, plenty of long-term authors can still be guilty of making any number of these mistakes, falling into traps by either cutting corners or not realizing what they’ve done. And for it, their work suffers. Characters become “props” in a story, interchangeable parts that simply drop into scenes or events to fulfill a purpose.


Language—
If you’ve never considered how the language of different characters and scenes can affect your writing, well, it’s definitely worth thinking about.

But today, I’m going to talk about a different kind of language.

Foul language.

Some of you might not recognize the term (as it isn’t as widely used anymore), so I’ll get a little more specific. Swearing. Cursing. Derogatory words. Words and phrases that are generally considered impolite. The “F” word. D**n. Stuff like that. And yes, I’m censoring them for this blog. Family friendly.

You got that? All right. Are you ready for one of the biggest shocks of your life?

You shouldn’t be using them. At least, not nearly as often as you do.


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Classic Being a Better Writer: Breathing Life into Characters

Welcome back to another Classic Being a Better Writer post! Really quickly, a quick update for Patreon Supporters: Still playing catch up for last month, but look for something (hopefully) this weekend. That’s all.

So, Classic BaBW post? That’s right. If you’re new here, Classic posts dig into a four-year archive of weekly BaBW articles to dig up a couple that are relevant to one another, delivering a triple or sometimes quadruple whammy of writing advice! Great for those who haven’t yet had a chance to archive binge or that are looking for help on a particular topic!

Today’s selection? A series of posts on ways to help our characters become more alive for the reader and feel more tangible. So sit back, grab a snack, and hit up those links!


Showing Character Through Dialogue—
Now let’s put this in a scene. We have a grizzled FBI man, undercover on a train, sitting in his seat and pretending to be a newspaper. His passenger, a woman who has no idea who he is, turns towards him and asks “Would you like some gum?”

Now, let’s look at his response. The grammatically correct response is “No, thanks.” However, what differences does this imply about his character over “No thanks,” without any pause? One is timely, implies a pause and perhaps some thought. The other is brusque, pre-determined, almost dismissive, and can be more so based on what action he couples with his statement.

Whoa. Did we really just read all that out based on whether or not a single comma was present in the dialogue?


Body Language—
How important are these social cues? Incredibly important. We can build entire opinions of individuals before they even open their mouths to speak, based simply on things like stance, hand and arm position, and facial cues. Much of our interaction with those around us is as much physical as it is spoken, based off of these cues. To give you an idea of how much, look at animated features—especially modern, CG animations over the last ten years. I recently came across a group of animators and dedicated animation fans discussing the movie Zootopia‘s use of facial animation compared to prior CG films, and they were talking about the close attention to detail the film provided. It was all little things, small stuff like character’s noses or ears twitching (these are anthropomorphic animal characters, after all) or tiny, subtle movements of their eyes or lips. But the point of this comparing to earlier films by even the same studio (Disney) and pointing out how these very small social cues made for a much better experience: Despite being anthropomorphic animal characters, the cast from Zootopia felt more human than ever … in part because of the ability to animate all these small social cues that we’ve come to expect in the real world. It made the characters feel more human.

And yet … despite how important these cues are, despite how valuable body language is to many of us on an hourly basis … many young writers miss it entirely. They fall into the trap of simple presentation, of telling a reader rather than showing them.


Giving Characters a Leitmotif—
Well, perhaps I should start out explaining what a leitmotif is, for those of you who don’t know, just so that we’re all on the same page. A leitmotif is, essentially, a recurring musical theme in a piece of music that is associated with an idea, emotion, or—more often—a character or a situation. Which to some of you probably sounds like nonsense unless I point out some of the more well-known leitmotifs out there: Those in film. Specifically, leitmotifs found in films like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings. Sit back for a moment, if you will, and picture one of those films. Now picture a character or a scene from them and see if your mind calls a bit of fanfare forward.

Which is pretty cool, to be honest. But it probably doesn’t answer the question most of you have on your minds now that we’ve discussed all this; likely some form of “What does this have to do with writing?” Again, as I already said, we don’t havemusical cues in literature. At least, not yet. Outside of a few experimental online pieces, music does not feature prominently (or really, at all) inside fiction. So, what am I talking about?

Actually, I’m talking about cues that make your character recognizable.


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Classic Being a Better Writer: Plot Problems

Hey hey! I’m almost back to full health, and it’s been far too long since a Classic Being a Better Writer post went up on the site!

New? Unsure what those words meant? Let me clarify! Being a Better Writer is a writing feature that’s been running for almost four years now, posting every Monday. These posts cover a wide, vast assortment of topics, from subplots to mystery to dialogue, all with the goal of helping writers young and old improve their craft.

Of course, with almost four years of weekly posts collected here, the simple act of an archive binge suddenly becomes quite daunting … hence the Classic posts. Classic posts collect a few older posts on a related topic and offer a brief look at them as well as a link to each for nice, easily accessibly bingeing.

This week? We’re looking at plot problems with larger narratives, and how you can catch them early or fix them! So dive in! Click those links! And if you like what you’re reading, don’t neglect that Patreon button on the side!


Playing Out Your Puzzle Pieces—
As a new writer, nothing is more daunting than looking at someone else’s book with all it’s intersecting plot threads and carefully doled out clues and thinking “How on earth do I do that?” To a new writer, it seems like an almost insurmountable task: There are all these different parts of the story, and all of it seems to be fitting together just so the guide to reader to figure things out or move along with the story at the same pace as the characters … And once you stand back and look at it, that’s quite a bit of work!

And, to be fair, the average English class that many are going to have gone through in their high-school years has very low odds of touching on this, which only compounds the problem. For new writers, it just seems like something that writers do, but no one is explaining how. Again, this is why I encourage taking creative writing classes if they’re available to you—they’ll teach this kind of stuff and more.


Character Versus Plot—
Effectively—and understand that I am for the purposes of today’s concept, grossly simplifying—every story out there, written, told, or seen, rides a sliding scale into one of two categories: They’re either a character-driven piece or a plot-driven piece. That’s it. These are your options, and understanding which your story is going to be, as well as more importantly, how to achieve this, will play a part in determining the success of your work.


Avoiding a Sagging Middle—
Well, let’s take a look at an old principle of storytelling, one that most, if not all of you, should be familiar with: The concept of rising action. We’ve spoken about this before, actually, when discussing pacing (twice, actually). But the core idea is that you want to give your readers and ebb and flow to the tension of the story. As time goes on, the tension rises, the reader gets sucked in, we have a climactic moment of some kind, and then the story eases off for a bit and lets the reader relax.


The Meandering Story—
All right, before we go any further, we need to clear something up by determining exactly what a meandering story is. It’s not a story that stars a lot of twist and turns, no. Rather, a meandering story is one that loses sight of its end goal.

Now, when I say this, I don’t mean that the characters lose sight of the end goal (or maybe don’t know what that goal is). No, that’s fine. Characters can lose sight of things all you want. That’s just part of the story.

Instead, what I’m talking about is a story where the plot has lost sight of the end of the story. It’s forgotten where it’s going, or is confused about its ultimate objective, but rather than stop and try and figure things out, it just keeps going, like an energizer bunny, despite the fact that it has no idea where it’s headed. It wanders from plot point to plot point, searching for some vague sense of purpose to drive itself forward. Or maybe it has an idea of where it wants to go (like “X needs to defeat Y”) but has no idea how to get to that point, and so bounces across every possible solution, one after another, until it finally clicks.

 

 

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Some of the Small Things

It’s time for another Classic Being a Better Writer post! Rejoice, newcomers and old fans alike, and get ready to travel back in time to an older day, a day wherein writing topics were discussed!

Which really doesn’t make this post that different from what currently goes up the site, except that the BaBW posts you’re about to see here are old rather than new. Because Classic posts are all about returning to some of the posts of old in order to introduce newer readers to the admittedly bogglingly-large archive of BaBW posts. At four years with a new post almost every week … it is a bit of an archive dump.

This week? We take an in-depth look at some small but surprisingly vital elements of character design and writing in your works,  things that may seem unimportant, but can really provide that extra polish to make your story shine. In other words, some of the small things.


Underpowered and Overpowered Characters—
The real question that they want to ask, I feel, is this: how do I create a character with enough skills and talent to overcome what I place in his path without giving them too many skills and talents?

Because you see, that’s the real challenge that these writers are worried about. They want to create characters that can survive everything that the plot is going to throw at them, but they don’t want their character to just magically have the skills to survive everything. And of course, they don’t want a character who survives off of dumb-luck either. Both of these approaches will—while they work at first—gradually eat away at the reader’s enjoyment of the story. They may not ruin it (after all, there are plenty of other moving parts to enjoy), but they certainly will lower the expectations.


Showing Character Through Dialogue—
So, to start off this week’s writing guide, I have a question for all of you. What’s the difference between these two sentences?

“No thanks,” he said.

and

“No, thanks,” he said.

At first glance, any editor can tell you what the problem is. The first sentence is grammatically incorrect, while the second is grammatically correct.

Except therein lies our problem. Because while the second is grammatically correct, contextually, it’s incorrect.


Worldbuilding Colloquialisms—
See, the thing is, colloquialisms and slang are one of those things that we don’t often think about unless it’s pointed out to us, because by definition a colloquialism is not something formally recognized (except in title) nor literately correct. A colloquialism is just a quirk of day-to-day dialogue, an odd phrase or word that has taken on a new—and often temporary—meaning. They’re rooted in culture. Deeply rooted in it, in fact. So deeply rooted that most of the time, we don’t even think of them. We just use them, lose them, and pick up new ones.


 

 

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