BY NANCY KAY CLARK, CommuterLit editor
Write from Inside your Characters
The notion of writing your story from inside your protagonist’s head looking out came up frequently during CL‘s last ReWrite Workshop. It is central to my own writing process. Let me explain:
1. We all start from the outside
Even those of us who write detailed character sketches and a plot outline beforehand don’t really know the people we’re writing about when we start the first line. We only get to know them by the time we’ve finished the first draft. So when you begin to write the second draft — go into the process inside the head of your protagonist (and all your other characters). If anything seems false, because your protagonist wouldn’t say that, wouldn’t use those words, wouldn’t do that, change it. Even descriptions of settings or body language will differ depending on whose head you’re in.
2. This is true regardless of point of view
On the face of it, getting into your protagonist’s head should be easier if you write in the first person — and often it is However, sometimes first-person narrators start sounding like Barry Exposition from the Austin Power films — commenting about setting, backstory or plot points in much more detail than they ever would if they were real people living through the story.
Other times, because of the story you are trying to tell, third person restricted works the best. And that’s fine, you can still get deep into your protagonist’s head in third person.
3. Beware the walls you’ve built
It’s emotionally draining and traumatic to write about characters who do terrible things or suffer through terrible things. And, as I think we all take bits and pieces from our own lives and weave them with our imaginations, writing about trauma can also make us feel exposed. So consciously or unconsciously, we try to distance ourselves from what we are writing about — by using third person omniscient, or writing in a style or genre that is divorced from real life events, or by placing a story within a story within a story, or by being too arch, too poetic & too clever. But those defenses sometimes stop us from writing an effective story that will grab people emotionally. If you aren’t close to your characters — your readers won’t be either. You have to live through your story alongside your characters.
If, after I write a scene, I begin to tear up, or laugh out loud or get enraged, I’ve know I’ve managed to tear down the barriers and get inside my protagonist’s head.
To increase pace, tension and suspense, try these structural techniques:
• eliminate as much backstory as possible — remember backstory slows the pace
• jump cut back and forth from different points of view or scenes (a shot of the oncoming train, a shot of the damsel tied to the tracks, back to the train now closer, back to the hero trying to free the damsel)
• keep scenes and/or chapters short
• let readers know something your protagonist doesn’t
• prolong outcomes for your characters by continually putting obstacles in their way
• and craft cliffhanger chapter endings.
How to write action scenes
Trying to write a do-or-die action sequence that leaves your readers breathless, shocked and wanting more? To increase pace, tension and suspense use:
• short paragraphs and sentences (or fragments)
• the active voice
• concrete words and onomatopoeia
• crisp and punchy verbs
• harsh consonant sounds
• and pared down speech;
• dialogue attributions
• descriptions (except for the most telling details)
• prepositional phrases
• and linking verbs.
You can also increase pace and tension through structural choices — which I’ll cover next time.
Imagine your story as a movie
Often when reading through the first draft of a novel or story I am critiquing — or indeed writing — I find it helpful to imagine the characters and action up on screen. If I can’t picture the scene, the characters or the dialogue making the final cut, I know something has to change.
It’s amazing how we get so caught up in writing about our characters, who they are, and where they come from that whole scenes or chapters go by without anything actually happening, or the pace is so slow that before we know it half our audience has left.
I ask myself these questions when writing a scene:
1. Have I written a scene or a character sketch? Do the main characters in the scene have motivations and goals throughout?
2. How much exposition have I put in and how much can I eliminate without confusing my readers? Many editors and writing coaches will tell you to eliminate all exposition, but I find different genres have different standards.
3. Does the descriptions add to the scene or merely slow the pace down? What can I cut, and what can I keep as a telling detail? Telling details are like close ups on the screen: those few descriptive words that sum up the entire setting, or character or subtly foreshadow what’s going to happen next.
4. Does the dialogue further the plot, narrative arc or understanding of the characters? Has the same information been conveyed to the readers more than once? If I have a character who is recounting to another character what she did in the previous chapter, it will be repetitive to readers and will merely slow the pace. Dialogue that does not further the plot or character development should be cut.
5. Does the action in the scene serve the plot or character development? If not, I cut the scene. If it does, I ask myself, how important is the action? How much space within the story should it take up? Sometimes I have a big scene in which a character goes to a meeting to find out something that he could have found out through a phone call, email or text. Instead of taking a page and half, the scene could have taken three sentences. In contrast, sometimes I have cut the scene too quickly and I need to expand it.
And always when I think of my story as a movie, I can see more clearly the giant holes in my plot and the characters who are out of focus and perhaps unnecessary.
A trend in literary writing circles is to go very plain Jane with your dialogue attributions, i.e. Mary whispered, He shouted, Marvin demanded, etc… Many editors will not tolerate anything but “he/she said” and think that it’s redundant if you put “he/she asked” when you’ve already punctuated the line with a question mark. You will be pegged as a novice writer, if you end a line of dialogue in quotation marks with “he smiled” or “she laughed.”
And I see their point. A person says — not smiles — a line of dialogue. Better, I think, to change the attribution to “he said with a smile” or “she said and then laughed.”
As well as seeing a lot of “he smiled” and “she laughed” in submissions to CommuterLit, I encounter many “he continued,” “she interrupted,” “she shrugged.” Often these lines can be rejigged — “he said, continuing his story,” “she said, interrupting him,” “she said with a shrug” — or, if you think about it more, gotten rid of altogether.
I’m not as rigid as some other editors on this point. I can accept that a person can whisper a line of dialogue, can scream a line of dialogue or call out something to someone. Beyond that though, weird attributions will jar me and I will edit them.
Fiction writing, like anything else in this world, is prone to fads and trends. And here I’m talking about writing styles and conventions, not subject matter.
For instance, creative writing mavens will frown in disapproval if you use too many adverbs — believing that you should ditch adverbs in favour of more precise verbs to convey action and character. It’s an interesting exercise to rewrite something you wrote a while back without the adverbs, using the verbs alone to describe the action. Try it, learn from it, but recognize that the “no adverbs” style is a trend in fiction writing. Many beloved and classic 19th century novels are full to the brim with adverbs.
So should you use adverbs or not? That will depend on the piece that you’re writing. If you feel strongly that adverbs are essential then by all means go for it. I would not stick so strictly to a trend, but I wouldn’t disregard the trend entirely. What appealed to the 19th century reader will not necessarily appeal to the 21st century reader or more importantly to today’s publishing gatekeepers — the editors, literary agents and publishing houses.
How to write a query letter
A number of contributors have recently asked me to take a look at their query letters before they send them off to literary agents and publishers. So I thought I would jot down a few thoughts on the subject here.
If you would like me to comment specifically on a draft of your query letter, you can submit your letter through our Query Letter Critique service. The cost is a nominal $15 (including all applicable taxes).
Very basic stuff
The first thing to do, of course, is to decide which literary agent or publisher would be the most suitable for you and your work. If you’ve written a sci fi novel, there’s no point in submitting it to a publisher or literary agent who only deals with literary novels. Do your homework.
The second thing to do is to read carefully the publisher’s or agent’s query/submission guidelines. Many differ in terms of the amount of manuscript (none, first three chapters, the whole manuscript, etc…) they want you to submit with your initial query letter. As well, the guidelines usually tell you what specific bits of information they want you to put in your letter, i.e. length of manuscript, genre of book, age group (adult, young adult, children).
Stuff you probably already know, but I thought I’d mention anyway…
Keep your query letter to one page. Publishers and agents get a lot of these things — assume that none of them will read past the first page.
Have someone proof your letter. Proof it yourself, of course, but fresh eyes will catch more mistakes. No one will take you seriously if you spell the name of the company wrong or have trouble punctuating. And I know what you’re going to say. Yes, despite all my best intentions and proofing, there is an occasional typo on CommuterLit. No one is perfect, but you need to try to be. And be sure to tell me when you catch a mistake on CommuterLit. I’ll fix it.
Query letters in three paragraphs
The classic query letter has three paragraphs:
1. Your Hook. Your first paragraph should be a hook to get the reader interested in your manuscript. It’s one or two sentences — basically your story’s tagline. Think of it as the back jacket promotional blurb: “Conned into selling the family cow for a handful of magic beans, Jack is ridiculed by his mother, but plants the seeds anyway. When a gigantic beanstalk grows from the seeds, Jack climbs it to find a world of riches, danger and one really angry giant.”
2. The Synopsis. In your second paragraph mention the title of your story, the word count, the genre, and age group. Then summarize, in a little more depth then the first paragraph, your protagonist, the main plot and the main theme of your story. Do not leave the ending out to intrigue the reader of the letter; clearly state how your story concludes. The tricky part is to keep this as succinct as possible.
3. Your bio. The third paragraph is where you boast about yourself — mention your writing credits, any writing awards you might have won, your education, if you have mentored with a well-known writer, if you come with a recommendation from a writer the agent or publisher would know. If your manuscript is based on your real life experience, for instance as a crocodile hunter in Tahiti, mention it. If your education or experience is not particularly relevant to your story, don’t mention it.
If you want to delve into the subject more, a simple Internet search for “How to write Query Letters” will lead you to numerous sources.