For the past week, I’ve struggled with a single scene in my novel. It was a fun scene– I got to sink a ship (see meter in sidebar). My voracious fish species got to eat things. All was right in the world. Except… I started the scene, then restarted, then restarted. I went on vacation for three days, then restarted. And restarted. And finally finished it.
It was a scene I knew I had to write. Tensions were escalating, and this scene would instigate another sequence of scenes that would be even cooler. I couldn’t just scrap it because it wasn’t working– it wouldn’t make sense. I toyed with different viewpoints and styles, once only mentioning the scene offhand in a conversation. None of it worked.
Someone wise once said in slightly different words that every scene must do three things: forward plot, develop character, and entertain. I had the entertainment and plot down pretty well– it was a necessary action scene. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the character down. So I added an angle. Conflict here, conflict there, conflict in as many places as I could get. Foreshadowing a character reveal. I added character to a scene that already had plot and entertainment.
That phase of rewriting the scene over and over– that’s what they call writer’s block. At least, one style of it. (There are many.) According to several pieces of advice, I should take a walk, write something else, stop editing myself as I go (that was one I heard today)… There are many styles of advice for overcoming writer’s block. None of it would have worked. Outlining the scene beforehand? Perhaps, but it might have just turned out describing how the ship sinks, and that wouldn’t help with the character aspect. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam, Head Phil on April 15, 2014
I’ve had the opportunity to see many creative people at work recently. I’ve begun to see a pattern: they all go through the same stages to achieve their success. These people are writers, composers, and artists, people who create for a living. When they first begin, they go through the same mindsets and cycles as everyone else– the same cycles as I am still going through. This isn’t a road map to success, but it gave me an idea of what I need to work on and how much work I still need to do.
The original idea that drives anyone to create anything is the thought that they can write, or compose, or paint, as well as everyone else– in fact, since they’re unique, their works will be unique as well. The world needs more originality. Thus, beginners start out wanting to create original stuff; they want to write, draw, or compose in a way completely separate from everything anyone has ever seen. They throw all their big ideas, the ones that Tolkien unbelievably missed, into their work. They’ll have fun with it.
I wrote my first two novels with this in mind. Wise was medieval fantasy, but it had brilliant characters– fourteen protagonists and no antagonist. Fathoming Egression had an original world, with talking rocks and assassin ducks and plenty of fun stuff. I had fun with both. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam, Head Phil on April 9, 2014
By the way you make your descriptions poetic or factual, you can manipulate reader reactions. By giving the facts of a gruesome scene, you can inspire disgust or horror. By glossing over those facts, you can inspire a more abstract emotion having to do with the way the scene impacts the character– such as sadness, fear, or more tension. Factual representation gives you an emotional response to those facts, very real and certain. Abstract representation gives you an emotional response to what this means to the character. (I covered all this with examples and pitfalls in my post Writing with Style.)
What does this mean for a character death? In fantasy and science fiction, people die all the time, but the description of that death varies in style. Sometimes it’s poetic, only showing the gun firing and the character’s battleaxe clattering to the floor as if in slow motion. Other times it’s very matter-of-fact, showing the gun shooting the character and then moving on. It isn’t that the factual representation isn’t glossed over– it just isn’t poeticized, shot in slow motion with a tint on the camera and never showing the blood. It can be gone over in gory detail, or it can be stated and passed over. All of these styles create a different reaction from the reader. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam, Head Phil on April 6, 2014
In a recent episode of Writing Excuses, the podcasters spoke about three prongs of engaging characters: capability, proactivity, and sympathy. I’ve spoken about Brandon Sanderson’s way of making capable characters. I haven’t spoken about proactivity much (but try-fail cycles have a lot to do with that– I’ll post about it sometime soon). Sympathy, though– I think the ‘casters really glossed over this aspect. Their point was, sympathetic characters are usually assumed, but you can make a character engaging without that sympathy by driving up the character’s capability and proactivity (think Sherlock Holmes or any antihero).
One thing Brandon Sanderson said, however, really struck me. While speaking of fixing a character problem, he said making the character feel the same thing as the reader drives up sympathy. Earlier in the episode, he defined sympathy as just how nice the character is– but I don’t think that covers it. Perhaps he’s done another podcast on this topic, but I haven’t listened to it. I started thinking about it and promptly launched a two hour impromptu speech on character emotions.
I had never really thought about sympathy before. I thought sympathy meant making the reader care for the character, but that’s only one side of it. The real definition is literal; sympathy means (and here I bring out my limited Greek experience) “common feelings”, from syn+pathos. If that’s the case, sympathy with the character means the reader having the same reactions to things as the character does– but it also goes the other way. Characters must have the same reactions as the reader would in that situation. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam, Head Phil on April 4, 2014
I realized something a few days ago: whatever statement ends a chapter, that statement is a promise.
It’s not an exact rule, but in modern literature, the end of a chapter is interpreted as a promise (which I have explained here). I’ve written many times about the importance of ending chapters with plot twists, but not all chapters have to end with plot twists– they end with promises. You can choose what those promises are. (Note: not all promises made in a book are at the ends of chapters. You can make promises elsewhere as well.)
Think about it. A chapter ends with the nation of bubble gum attacking. If, in the next chapter, there was no mention of the bubble gum nation, nor was there any explanation about the freak attack, you wouldn’t be satisfied. The chapter cut you off from the action, intentionally– what happened when the bubble gum nation attacked? These are the same symptoms experienced when a promise is thrown aside without being fulfilled. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam, Head Phil on March 23, 2014
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what I want out of my writing style. It’s subjective– some people like florid prose (and manage to do it badly or well, depending on their skill), and some people like utilitarian prose (which also can turn out badly or well). I don’t know who said it first, but I heard it from Brandon Sanderson: prose is like a window. It can be transparent, allowing the reader to see the story clearly, or it can be decorative, calling attention to itself and away from the story. Sanderson’s prose is very transparent; he wants us to see all his plot twists and characters without the distraction of poetry. Laini Taylor’s prose is decorative; the story is mediocre, but the way it’s told is phenomenal. Patrick Rothfuss’s prose is hailed as poetic and his story as brilliant. He writes evenly, leaving the window clear enough to admire the story, yet decorating it enough to admire the prose. There’s nothing wrong with any of these three writers– they’ve just picked their strengths carefully. Occasionally, however, writers waver between a clear window and a decorative one.
What’s the problem with that? There’s always going to be some variation. Sometimes Rothfuss intentionally obscured some of the story in brilliant storytelling, and in other places intentionally hid the storytelling to make way for some brilliant story. Neither prose nor story can be considered the epitome of literary art, and variation is natural. However, blatant variation, allowing the great storytelling’s presence to suddenly contrast with its absence, is a problem. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam, Head Phil on March 21, 2014
Many middle grade books have a fundamental problem with their main characters. Someone who is supposed to be sixteen seems twelve– someone who seems twelve seems sixteen. The latter occurred in Brandon Mull’s The Beyonders trilogy; the former occurred in Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart and The Rithmatist. Perhaps this problem only plagues those named Brandon. It would make sense, except I encountered the same problem in my own writing.
In my scene, I had a character who was supposed to be twelve. Unfortunately, he seemed six. His brother, supposed to be sixteen, seemed twelve. Of course, my method was not ideal– since the scene was just a prologue and the rest of the story would happen five years later, I scrapped the idea altogether. If you’re writing middle grade and have this problem, don’t do what I did.
However, while I was struggling with the scene, I realized a few things. Number one, this problem can be pinpointed. Number two, it can be fixed. (Hey, that’s pretty much the way it is with all story problems.)
This problem has annoyed me in many books, long before I ever encountered it. When I did encounter it, I knew what was happening, and I was able to trace it back to dialogue. Everything the two characters said made them seem younger than they should have. They didn’t seem real. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam, Head Phil on March 18, 2014
I love the concept of contrast in stories. A happy scene next to a sad scene, or a plot twist right after a joke– that sort of thing makes things surprising. It keeps the audience on their toes. More than that, setting up a happy scene next to a sad scene makes the sad scene more powerful. It might not have been originally, but by comparison, it seems enormous and shocking, just the kind of emotion you want as a writer.
However, it doesn’t only work that way. Happy to sad is great because it gives the sadness more punch, but what about sadness to happiness? Actually, what about weakness to strength?
Seeing an apparent victory suddenly turn into defeat is powerful. After this emotional high of success, the character is shown his true incompetence, and he plummets into despair. I adore that sort of plot twist. It works wonders, and I’m not saying that it’s a bad style, or unworthy of your consideration. I’m simply introducing another option. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam, Head Phil on March 6, 2014