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: Avoiding a Sagging Middle

All right! And we’re back with today’s follow-up to one of our more recent posts! Remember? The one about health?

Okay, I’m actually joking. This isn’t a post about that. But it was too good an opportunity a joke to pass up. Sagging middle … anyway …

No, today is another topic by request, but it’s not about that sagging gut. Well, it’s not about the sag you were just thinking of, but the one you probably thought of when you first saw the title to this BaBW post. You know, the one that you’re worried about finding in the middle of your story.

Yes, that middle.

So, let’s dive right in. We’ll do that by first asking this question for those who may not have heard the term: what is a sagging middle?

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Being a Better Writer: Subplots

This post was originally written and posted March 3rd, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So about a week ago, as I was browsing a social site online, I came across a cry for help. A writer was in the process of putting together their first story—an epic journey adventure across an unknown continent kind of story—and they’d run into a major snag. Once they stepped outside the action scenes, they were finding that everything else about their story fell flat. There just wasn’t anything gripping going on outside of those pivotal plot moments. And they wanted to know what they could do to mitigate this, to make the story more than a clear case of moving from point A to point B to point C.

The answer was that he needed to have stuff to fill in the periods between those points that wasn’t just … padding. Material that was more than filler.

They needed a subplot.

So, we’re going to start with the basics here today: What is a subplot, and why do I need one? Why are they so important? And how do I use one?

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