Whether at critique group or as a contest judge, I find myself tempted to make macros of the following tidbits I’ve learned over the years. A lot of it is familiar from other writers, and agents, editors, writing gurus and your aunt Petunia. Some of it goes back to Aristotle. You could say that’s because we’re all brainwashed by the orthodoxy of traditional publishing or we can’t think outside the box or writing has become cookie cutter.
You could say that. But I’m still going to keep holding the line because this is what works for me to stay interested in a story.
1. Whose head are we in? Whose viewpoint is this?
I find viewpoint problems are almost always story problems in disguise and the reason these questions are so important is because they’re really these questions:
Whose story is this?
What is your story?
You would think someone paying money to submit an entry to a writing contest would have this worked out. But if pages have gone by and a reader still can’t tell? You’ve got a big problem. Practicing the elevator pitch is a good exercise. Boil your story down to two lines. You must name your main characters and the basic set-up. If you don’t, your head will explode. Go.
(Note: I’ve received a lot of flak over the years from literary fiction snobs and anti-pop culture snobs, er … sorry–aficionados because they say this makes for shallow novels. But name me one good book, of any genre, where these questions are not answered, even if all the other rules of easily readable fiction are broken. I’m not saying the protagonist and the storyline have to be simple or dumbed down or common–the book can be about Deep Philosophical Issues. I’m saying what the book is about and who it’s about have to be clear. And don’t bring up Proust’s In Search of Lost Time unless you’ve read all seven or nine volumes, word for word. Go do that; I’ll be waiting here, eating madeleines.)
2. Avoid the omniscient view unless you really know what you’re doing. I have so much to rant about on this subject that I’m going to make it a separate post. In the meantime, trust me. What you’re almost certainly going to end up writing, and what you should end up writing, is a Multiple Third Person Close viewpoint. So just do that instead.
If there’s one aspect of story that needs to be built well, it’s scenecraft. 3. What’s at stake in this scene? Try titling your scene. Is the title, “Wherein we meet the main characters and learn where they live?”
Yeah, you don’t have this scene. Scenes need a beginning, a middle and an end, just like novels and days and story songs.
4. In media res; start the scene as late into the action as possible. If the spine of this scene is about a fight over a will, don’t start with the lawyer’s secretary booking the room for the reading of the will. Start with the lawyer announcing the entire estate is to go to the San Diego Zoo and then have the reactions be the meat.
Do your teen boy and your elderly grandma talk the same? Why would they do that?
Do your characters speak in information dumps? Why would they do that?
Do your people spit everything out at the drop of a hat, even the teen boys? Why etc etc.
Here’s a thought from Rob Thomas, the talented creator of Veronica Mars:
5. “Dialogue as alibi.” Make your characters say as little as possible about what’s really going on, just like people do when they’re in relationships, or fights, or they’re flirting.
6. What’s the inciting incident or plot catalyst? What happens that makes the rest of the book possible, or at all interesting?
7. Starting your story. A lot of people begin their story in the wrong place and it’s often too far back in time. If your book is about a girl who starts her period and finds out she’s secretly a dragon, don’t start with what her parents were wearing on their first date.
Of course, there are numerous examples of published, successful books that violate these guidelines all the time. But I would posit the writing itself is strong enough to overcome these weaknesses. Is your writing strong enough? Are you sure? Do you feel lucky, punk?
Because most people aren’t that lucky and their writing and their potential readership would benefit from some basic, straightforward guidelines.
How about you–anything that gripes your cookies?
Next up on Devlin’s blog: The Omniscient Viewpoint and Why It’s Probably All Wrong For Your Story