Being a Better Writer: Ambiguous Stories

Today’s topic is going to be a bit of a vague one, I’m afraid. At least initially.

No, that wasn’t a deliberate play on words (okay, maybe a little), but more as a starting admission of my own limited experience with this topic.  Which makes it sound like I’m admitting a lack of knowledge on it. Which isn’t true. It’s just that I (and my posts) tend to have come at this topic with a different approach than what has been asked after for this one.

What am I talking about? Well, the request for this was “Ambiguous characters and plots” IE characters and stories that are “vague” about what’s actually going on. An ambiguous character, for example, is a character where the reader is unsure of their motivations or objectives, or even facts about the character themselves. Likewise, an ambiguous story is one where the reader is unsure about what’s really happening, even as the story is being told, such as a story told by an untrustworthy or unstable narrator being ambiguous because we don’t know for certain if events happened the way that they’ve claimed, or if the narrator is “fictionalizing” their own account.

There can exist a certain bit of charm to these types of stories and characters (which is both why they’re written and why they’ve been asked after as a topic here). A story in which events or even the characters are ambiguous, when written well, can be exciting and teasing at the same time, constantly keeping the reader guessing and striving to put the clues together on their own to separate fact from fiction to discover the real story.

At the same time however, that’s written well. A poorly written ambiguous story or character, by contrast, will confuse and irritate its audience, often to the point that many of them will put the book down and find something else to read.

The trick, then, is being the former and not the latter. But in truth … it’s really hard to be the former. And unfortunately easy to be the latter. Because ambiguity is more than just cutting out certain details so that the audience doesn’t know what’s going on. Sure, you’ll end up with an ambiguous story … but one that’s also a mess of cut content at best, a disaster of confusing elements at the worst. No, crafting an ambiguous story (or an ambiguous character) involves careful cutting and replacing in such a way as to keep things balanced on the edge of a knife.

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Being a Better Writer: Cliffhangers

Afternoon readers! I hope your weekend was exemplary! Mine was actually pretty rough: I twisted my lower back again and got a vertebrae out of position. It’s … not  comfortable, especially as it aggravated a muscle imbalance in my pelvis (which was due to one knee being weaker than the other) and made all those muscles go berserk … Long story short, there was a period on Friday, before I found an exercise video that made these muscles release, where even moving could make me gasp in pain.

Yay! More material for another book!

Anyway, it definitely disrupted my weekend. I spent my days lying on the floor, trying to keep my back as straight as possible to try and even things up. Thanks to a massage therapist, the muscles in my back and pelvis have mostly relaxed, but the vertebrae is still out of position, so I’ve got an appointment with a chiropractor …

Anyway, point being I almost cancelled today’s Being a Better Writer so that I could catch up on things … but that wouldn’t really be fair. Besides, I’ve got some good topics coming up, and really want to get to them. So, without any further talk, let’s get to today’s topic: the cliffhanger.

Cliffhangers are a pretty classic bit of storytelling, as well as pretty self-explanatory. At least, as a concept. A cliffhanger is when you end a chapter or a story with a character hanging from a cliff in some fashion. Not a literal cliff (at least, not always), but in a sense that the protagonist is under an imminent or some sort of danger. And at the most basic, that’s pretty much all you need to know: End a chapter or a story on a moment where your characters are in peril. This ratchets up the tension, and keeps your reader wanting to turn the next page. But is that all there is to it? Well … no. Because like anything else in writing, there are good and bad ways to do this, and other elements such as pacing to take into consideration.

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Being a Better Writer: The Convenient Romantic Subplot

Welcome back, readers! It’s Monday, and you know what that means! Time for Being a Better Writer!

But first, a slight aside. Dave Freer (you may have read something of his) wrote this little blurb that caught my eye from my morning feed on the Mad Genius Club (their name, not mine) about large books. More accurately, on books that dive past the “normal” length of 40,000 to 100,000 words. I found it interesting, both because well, the “normal” length for me is hovering around 325K per story, and because Freer is writing this as someone who doesn’t write such long books and is putting forth his thoughts on both why he doesn’t and where they may fit with readers and the industry.

I found it interesting, especially as it does point out how much of an outlier I am with the breadth and scope of what I do. Those of you who are fans of my work, take a look at his thoughts and see what you think. If you’re so inclined, if you think he nailed something or was way off, leave a comment!

Okay, news aside. Let’s talk writing stuff. Now, today’s topic isn’t a requested one. In fact, it’s not even on my Topic List. No, this is one that came to mind as I was sitting reading through another book last night (a short story collection, in this case, but I hit the library recently, so I’ve been mowing through a literal stack of books). I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately—more than the norm—and naturally, I was noticing a lot of trends as I read through. One of the most common, which I’m sure many of you readers, movie-watchers, and the like also notice, is the sometimes dreaded romantic subplot.

Naturally, I started thinking about it. Why we use it. Why it’s become so blasted common and cliche, and yet still sticks around despite that. Why so many feel the need to stick a romantic subplot into an otherwise good story (this, by the way, is often called a romantic plot tumor when it doesn’t belong). Why so many dislike it, and yet it constantly shows up, again and again. Personally, I felt it was worth talking about. Because I guarantee you, a number of readers of this site have sat down to write out their story, and almost immediately thrown a romance subplot in without even knowing why.

Now, I do want to make a caveat here: I am not talking about the romance genre. I’m talking about romantic subplots. You know, a side plot to the main story. Not a story where the romance is the story, but a story where the romance is something happening alongside the main story, but not the crux of the plot. The protagonist has a journey, a foe to face, a mountain to climb, an alien planet to explore .. whatever. And along the way they fall for someone.

All right, with that catch explained, let’s talk about romantic subplots.

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Being a Better Writer: Red Herrings

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday again, and you know what that means. But first, some news.

For starters, Shadow of an Empire continues to do well both in sales and in reviews. It’s a Fantasy-Western, so it doesn’t quite appeal to everyone, but those who have picked it up have loved it, and it’s sitting nicely on Amazon with a 4.7 Star rating out of 5. It’s success has also given a bit of a boost to Colony as well, which has matched its sales almost one for one this month. Even better, Shadow of an Empire‘s footprint continues to grow! This is one that I think will end up very fondly remembered.

Second bit of news? Oh, nothing much … just 18,000 words of fiction written between Friday and Saturday! That’s right, the next writing project has begun, and once I put my fingers to the keyboard, it was like a dam had burst inside my head. Writing again, after so many months of editing; how I missed it!

Point being, while this pace probably isn’t sustainable (I still have the part-time because I have to worry about rent or bills that my royalties don’t fully cover yet), it is moving along quite rapidly now that I can finally work on it. A month or two, and I could be done, if that pace keeps up!

And in other news … actually, there isn’t any other news. I’m ready to get to today’s post now. And then onto working on Hunter/Hunted!

Right, so, red herrings. If you’ve missed the two posts prior to this one, on Chekhov’s Guns and Chekhov’s Armory, this post is definitely one that builds off of those two. With those, we discussed … well, Chekhov’s Guns and their usage. The whole idea that if you present the audience with a “gun” that’s hung on the mantle, they expect (and a good author will deliver) that at some point it will come down and be “fired.”

Really quick, this doesn’t have to be a literal “gun.” It’s a metaphor. Read the last two Being a Better Writer posts if you’re out of the loop.

But building off of that, this week I want to talk about the inverse of the Chekhov’s Gun (well, sort of). We’re going to talk about the “Red Herring.”

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Being a Better Writer: Going Vertical

I’m back! No longer diseased! Well, not fully. And still with a recovering knee injury, but those things take time, or so I’m told by the doctors. But I am well enough to write write write at last! My mind is clear! And so after a long, unwelcome delay, we’re finally getting back to a follow-up post I alluded to some time ago.

That’s right, remember that post I wrote on Horizontal and Vertical storytelling a few weeks back? Because today’s post was originally, before I came down with disease that made me cough my lungs into a bowl, going to be the follow-up. Lousy timing, but what it means for readers today is that I suggest going back and reading that first post if you don’t remember the details behind it. Because I’ll give a quick, one-sentence recap related to today’s topic at hand, but after that I’m diving right into the thick of things, so if you’re not caught up on what horizontal and vertical storytelling are, you’ll want to read that link up above first, and then come back for this post.

Right, the preamble is out of the way, so let’s dive into it. Let’s go vertical and give our stories some depth!

Now, what some of you are probably thinking at this point, or were even thinking after that post a few weeks ago, is why I wanted to do a post on exactly this topic. After all, explaining to someone what horizontal writing is and how to do it? That’s pretty straightforward, since almost every story we’ve even been exposed to growing up (especially Hollywood action-blockbuster style stories) are horizontal focused. Point A to point D. Action beat to action beat.

We’re familiar with this kind of approach, and it’s what most think of when discussing stories. Hit the point, move to the next point, then the next, and so on and so forth. While not technically correct to call it such, for many this is essentially how they think of storytelling. Again, it’s not correct, but for a layman it’s pretty accurate.

My point is, explaining horizontal storytelling to someone is fairly easy and straightforward because most people understand how to tell a horizontal story. It’s familiar and easy to grasp. Vertical storytelling, on the other hand, is something that a lot of people aren’t familiar with up front. It’s not nearly as often talked about, nor as often recognized, though it can be present in many entertainment items you may have enjoyed.

So, with that as our backing, how does one go about building a story that has vertical elements?

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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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Being a Better Writer: Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling

Welcome back readers! I apologize for the lateness of this post, but I had a physical therapy appointment this morning, and that took up the early part of the day when I normally would have been writing this post.

Physical therapy? Yup, you read that right. Those of you who’ve been keeping tabs on all my posts will know that several months ago I twisted my knee at work and tore my meniscus. Since then, it’s been a slow recovery (aided only with gnashing of teeth by my employer, who let me sit for 30 days without medical treatment or work, one day short of the maximum allowed by law) that has been greatly aided by physical therapy. My knee isn’t back to full ability yet, though it’s definitely getting better (thankfully, as knee injuries suck). And physical therapy will wreck you! Or at least, it’s wrecking me. I am sore afterwards. But, like I said, getting better. It’s a good sore.

Good thing, too, because the amount of money my employer is spending to avoid spending money on medical care is, quite frankly, insane. Later this week I have to go back to a different doctor for another check-up. Now, physical therapy is under the guidance of a doctor. Why are they sending me to another doctor? For independent confirmation that I need physical therapy and am still injured.

That’s right. They’re so suspicious of doctors that they’re paying other doctors to confirm that the first and second doctors aren’t trying to cheat them. Personally, I think that says more about the company than it does about the doctors, but that’s just me.

Anyway,  you’re not here to read about that, so let’s get things moving. Starting with the announcement that this is the first topic off Topic List X! The big 1-0! We’re here at last! And I’m glad, because there are some good topics ahead!

Starting with today’s. Today, we’re going to discuss horizontal and vertical storytelling: what they are, what they mean, how they work, how they differ, and of course most importantly how you can use them in your work.

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