We don’t pay a lot of attention to tense when we talk. It feels natural and easy to slot our words into past, present or future. In writing it can be more complicated. If we are writing in past tense, the past is our ‘present’ in the story. To write something in the past we may need something different than simple past.
To start out, there are four kinds of verb tense, each in past, present and future.
The clowns chased me.
The clowns chase me.
The clowns will chase me.
The clowns were chasing me when I ran into you.
The clowns are chasing me.
The clowns will be chasing me before you get here.
The clowns had chased me out of town before you came.
The clowns have chased me all over town.
The clowns will have chased me away by the time you get here.
The clowns had been chasing me all day before you saved me.
The clowns have been chasing me all day.
The clowns will have been chasing me all day by the time you arrive.
When we read through the chart it is easy to see the subtle differences in meaning.
Simple indicates an action in past, present or future. There are more nuances than that, but for the moment that will do.
Continuous, as its name suggests indicates ongoing action. In the Past, it shows an action which is interrupted by another action, or an ongoing action. Many writers have a habit of using Continuous more than Simple which has two effects. The first is the writing feels static as Continuous suggests something which doesn’t change. The other is the confusion when they want to show interrupted action, and it looks the same as everything else.
Perfect, is for completed action. In Past Perfect the action has started and stopped before another action. In some cases, the second action can be unwritten. Flashbacks are Past Perfect, though one doesn’t need to write the entire scene Past Perfect. Introducing the flashback in Past Perfect, then using Simple Past for the rest makes it easier to read.
Perfect Continuous is for an action which started in the past and continues to a specific time. The important difference between Continuous and Perfect Continuous is the emphasis on that specific time in Continuous.
There are many charts on the internet with more examples and greater detail about the nuances of the verb tenses. It is important to keep the basics of tense clear so in our writing the reader is clear about the nature and time of the action.
There are a couple of other things which can confuse us in our use of tense. One is Passive versus Active Voice. In some ways it may look like a tense issue:
Bob tied the donkey to the fence. Active Voice.
The donkey was tied to the fence. Passive Voice.
Note both sentences are in simple past. The verb is ‘tied’. ‘Was’ here acts to indicate an action performed on the subject of the sentence. The uses and abuse of voice is the subject for another article.
The other confusion is the Conditional. As the name suggests, the Conditional tells us about actions which may occur if the conditions are right. Bob could have tied the donkey if he’d had some rope.
Or actions which didn’t happen but ought to have. Bob should have tied the donkey to the fence. The important information being that Bob didn’t in fact tie the donkey.
The last is about intent. Bob would have tied the donkey if he’d had rope. The difference between this and the first example, is this sentence shows Bob wanted to tie the donkey, but something prevented him. The first example makes no indication of Bob’s intent.
Like Voice, the Conditional is not about tense. One can use both Voice and Conditional in any of the tenses, but it is easy to mistake it for tense. It is important to use Conditional properly and not to overdo it. Again, a subject for another article.
This will get you started thinking about tense in your writing, but a few final notes to consider. Whether you write in Past or Present, you need to stay consistent in your use of tense. Moving from Past to Present and back is confusing for the reader. There are a couple of exceptions. If you are writing in Past tense, dialog and direct thought are written in present tense. The reason is the characters are moving through their present, so they talk and think in the present tense. We need to be careful with our policing of tense we don’t unintentionally muddy the water.
The other exception is esoteric and I’ve only seen it done well a couple of times. This is where the narrator has been describing past action, then the story arrives at the point in time at which the narrator dwells in the story. So, say a narrator is tell us about a murder mystery, and most of the story is about how the narrator arrived at a specific time. Maybe stuck under the ice in a river. When we get to the point where we’re stuck under the ice, the story become present tense because we are now in the same time frame as the narrator. What has happened is most of the book is a flashback bringing the reader to this moment in time.
So, there we are, you can relax and work more comfortably with tenses. If you have questions, or things to add etc. please comment.
Writing may be a hobby, but if you’re publishing your books or stories, you have a responsibility to produce a quality story. I’ve got lots of articles on how to do that. What I want to address today is what to do when a story is awful.
I’m not talking normal first draft awful, but awful in the way that makes you stare at the screen and wonder What am I writing?
Now I know most authors go through this point somewhere in their story, mostly in what I call the swamp. That’s the hardest part of the book to write. No flashy battles, no introduction of interesting characters. The swamp is about the character flailing around in the final efforts to chase the LIE before they give in to the truth.
So how do you know if you’re stuck in the swamp or your story is awful?
I ask myself a few questions.
First and foremost – is the concept solid? The idea of basing a story on La Traviata featuring telepathic aliens and vampires might have looked great when you started. But can it carry an entire story or is it an extended gimmick? The easiest way to check is imagine your story without the characters being aliens or vampires. Will it still work? If it does, you’re writing a gimmick not a story. The way to fix this, if you want to is to make sure that being alien or vampire is essential to the plot, not in a side show way, but as it is involved in a major plot point way.
Second – Maybe you’re working the wrong character. The sidekick is a lot more interesting than the MC. You sigh every time you bring the MC on stage. Maybe you’re secretly rooting for the villain. Examine your protagonist. Are they really the right person for the job?
Third – do you have all the pieces of the plot in place? I’ve seen authors miss the inciting incident, or have it right at the beginning. Plot points out of order or missing entirely. Outline your story, just hitting the major points. Even ending the story before the mid-point. Have you covered each point? Have you made the scene do the right work? Again, KM Weiland talks about structure in great detail, so if you haven’t bookmarked her blog, you might want to.
Lastly – are you writing only one story? This might seem to be a strange question, but I’ve seen it happen. The author was creating two perfectly fine stories, but tried to cram them into one book. Not all melodies work together, and if your story is feeling like two bands playing different tunes. Look at your structure again. Have you doubled up on any of the parts of the structure? There should be only one inciting incident. The fix is to go through the story and separate them. Put one aside, work on the other, then go back. Let each breathe on its own. It can be a lot of work, but in the end, you have two books not one.
I’m going to give you a case study. I’m working on a short story where the main character is a troll. It also needs to show him as fair, generous, and kind. It was fun to write, but the further I got into the story, the worse it got. I was changing scenes so much I had trouble remembering everyone’s place. Then I got stuck and had no idea what had gone wrong.
The concept still intrigued me. Part of the story told of the troll’s coming to understand himself and his place in the world. Making him the antithesis of trolldom worked, and was necessary for the story to work. He’d learn and move toward a more complete view of the people around him. Particularly compassion for the trolls.
The troll needed to be the main character, it was the entire point of the story. But I had two other characters I really liked with very cool backstories. Their interaction got in the way of showing the troll’s character. I needed to move away from them. This is a short story, not a novel, there’s no room for two more strong characters and their story.
I outlined the story, refocusing on the troll as the one who acted at each of the plot points. The other characters had their part, but I’d severely cut them back. I expect they will show up in another story, or the short will become a novel and I’ll have time to develop them the way they deserve.
I ended up renaming the first version with Deep Six in the file name, and rewrote the story following the outline and keeping a laser focus on the main character. I’ve arrived at the point where I’d given up in the first run. I’d thrown the MC off a cliff. But the reason this time moved the story forward and it became a turning point in the story. More importantly, it no longer functioned as just a fun thing to do to my character.
The second run at the story is flowing much better and I know how I’m going to get from where I am to where I need to be for the finale. The story has been rescued from the drawer and given new life.
In summary, a story may be truly awful, but only if you go through these three steps, and it’s still awful, should you give up on it entirely. Even then, don’t delete, you never know when some chunk of that awfulness will be exactly what you need in a new setting.
I never throw anything out. Words don’t take up a lot of space on your hard-drive, and there is no worse feeling than wanting that snippet and finding you no longer have it.
Foundational issues: Plot, character, tone, structure, world building
Prose, sentences, paragraphs, pacing. Word use and over use.
Grammar and spelling
Foundational Self Edit
Using an outline as an editing tool.
Lots of people will talk about writing with an outline, but they can be great tools for editing. If you aren’t sure about your structure and arcs, putting the bones down in an outline will help you check things, and balance the space between major points.
How technical with story structure do you need to get?
If you are an outliner, you’ll want to mark the major points of your plot arc and character arcs so you have that going from the start.
Don’t get focused on structure to the detriment of your story. I’ve seen people warp their story trying to make it fit a structure they’ve read about. The story needs to come first. If you work on telling the story well, most of the structure will take care of itself.
Another popular tool for writers is character sheets where we fill out their favourite colour and what they like in their coffee. The problem is once we have that information, we want to include it all. What is important is what makes your characters human. Does your hero make mistakes, get angry, hurt people? Why not? Perfect characters are boring. Ones who struggle internally as well as externally will hold the reader’s attention. The same is true of villains. Too many times the villain is all bad, which makes it easy to cheer for their downfall, but doesn’t add much tension to the narrative. Make your villain a hero with an opposing goal to the MC’s and you have a gripping story.
Does everyone have sufficient motivation for their actions?
I say everyone, but most important is the villain’s motivation. Why are they opposing the hero? What will they get out of it? I read somewhere there are several classes of villain. The greedy villain, the power-hungry villain, the insane villain, and the scariest, the saintly villain.
Knowing the motivation doesn’t mean explaining it, but letting it come out in action and dialogue.
Copy Self Edit
Does each scene have its own internal structure?
Just as stories have a three act structure, your scenes should begin somewhere, move through some conflict to a resolution.
Control F is one of your best friends. It will help you find out that you’ve used ‘really’ 149 times in your book. Make a list of the most commonly over used words: just, only, that, really, actually, was, were
Using grammar programs
There are a number of grammar programs out there, from the grammar checker in Word to Grammarly to Prowritingaid.com They have their place, but like spellcheckers, they don’t replace careful reading. What they can do is point out where you have too many pronoun starts, or consecutive sentences which start with the same word. They will help with the overused words and to a greater or lesser extent with sentence structure and length. All of them have free versions and they are worth trying.
Reading out loud.
Why you still may want to hire an editor.
After all this work, why hire an editor?
Editors aren’t attached to the story, so they will see things you miss. They may also spot your habits and point them out so you are aware of them.
Editors will know story structure and point out where it needs work, and how you might fix the problems
Editors are enthralled by darlings.
Working with an editor will make you a better writer.
How to hire and editor and work with them.
Just as there are publishers who are scams, there are editors who will take your money and give little or nothing back.
Not every editor is the same. You need to be able to work with this person and trust their advice.
Get a test edit, preferably get several editors to do test edits on the same section of work. I prefer the first 5k (which is a huge test edit but I have my reasons). This test edit should be free and no obligation. Read through all the comments and pick the person who is going to grow your story. I’ve had more than one client tell me they picked me because I made them cry. Not that I was mean, but I saw so much more in the story than the people who told them everything was brilliant.
Negotiate a schedule and process. If you have deadlines, tell your editor up front.
Ask questions, argue. The editor is not always right. This is your book, and in the end, you decide. The editor should be able to adjust their work to fit your vision of the book. You want your book, only refined, not your book the way the editor would write it.
Pay for the work. This person is taking hours of their time to work through your book. They deserve to be paid on time and without griping. If they are too expensive, you are better to find someone else than try to talk them down.
Over the years I’ve dealt with being fired, poor, homeless, not to mention time as a single parent after my wife’s accident left her unable to parent for the better part of a year. There’ve been some real highlights too, the resurrection of our marriage, the continuing joy of being a parent and now a grandparent. Through all that and more I have been an author and reviewer. None of it stopped me from writing though some caused more turmoil for my characters.
The first thing to slow the flow of words is the literal pain in the neck which I carry around as a daily challenge. Think of a mild migraine headache which started some five years ago and hasn’t let up since. If I listed all the things I’ve tried in that time I would double the word count for this post. Let’s just say, if you’ve thought of it, I have tried it.
So what does this have to do with writing? Imagine my capacity to get through the day as an eight ounce glass of water. In a normal day I might use four to six ounces to do the things I do, including being a loving husband and an author/editor. The left over goes into a reserve which I can draw on during family crises or NaNoWriMo.
Dealing with the effects of the pain takes about two or three ounces. Not too bad, I’m over some days and under others. Problem is I don’t sleep well, so my total capacity is lowered to five or six ounces. On a good day I have nothing left, on a bad day, I’m overdrawn.
What happens now is I take the part of the day between the cracks and I write. Mostly working on my client’s books to not fall too far behind. That’s important, as I need the editing money to pay the bills, not to mention my commitment to help those authors with their craft.
In the remaining cracks, in the car or grocery line, at a coffee shop waiting, in the wee hours of the night when sleep is scarce, I write my stories in my head. Over and over and over so I won’t forget them. Then with five minutes here or ten minutes there I type them into the computer.
I’m a writer, I write. That sounds trite until you’ve spent ten minutes staring at the screen trying to remember what you blocked out at the store. Yet the words build up, the story takes shape. I achieve a few victories, book are published, reviews suggest people like them. Also I take new blows which threaten to knock me down. I’m on long term disability for the pain and depression. It’s not only hard to move, but hard to care. I’m single again as after seventeen years, my wife has decided again, she doesn’t get what she needs from our marriage. All of it goes into the stories to be transformed.
I’m a writer so I write, even when it is impossible to write I write. I’ve typed pages with my eyes closed because of the pain. Because I’m a writer.
When I die, my heirs will find unfinished stories on my computer.
One last thing about writing and pain, I believe my writing is richer, has more depth. I know pain so I can write pain, my characters can be twisted by life and still be whole. And one more blessing yet, they may find their way free.
And in that second, that moment of transported joy, I become free too.
I am not made out of my pain, but out of the stories I’ve been given to tell.
In all the critique groups I’ve been members of, the writers have been quick to accuse authors of head hopping. This is not necessary an automatic reality when you show the thoughts and feelings of more than one character in a scene.
Third omniscient has a long history, it was much more popular in years past, especially in children’s’ literature. Though it is an older style, that doesn’t mean no one uses it today. Stephen King has written in Third Omni, The Lemony Snicket Books are in Third Omni as are others.
Like every other aspect of writing, you don’t want the reader to stop and think, ‘Wow, this is in Third Omni.’ The purpose of Point of View is to frame the story for the reader and pull them into the story. Third Omni can do that as well as any other POV.
Having said this, one can’t simply dive into a multiplicity of character’s head and call it Third Omni. Let’s back up a bit and define what we’re talking about here. Third Person Omniscient is a point of view in which the narrator knows everything, what everyone is thinking, feeling, no matter where they are. They also know how the story ends, and what comes before. However, there are shades between Third Person Limited and Third Omni. The author can show thoughts and feelings just within the scene and setting. You can have a narrator who doesn’t know how things turn out and so on. It is important to pick what the narrator knows and what they don’t, then be consistent with that level of knowledge.
I keep talking about the narrator. The narrator can be a character like the one in Lemony Snicket, or barely visible as Stephen King’s tend to be. The important thing is to establish your narrator and keep them in front of the reader. The easiest way I’ve found to manage the narrator is to use description as a way to remind the reader of the narrator’s presence.
Say you have a scene in a coffee shop, in third limited you’d show the coffee shop through the eyes of your POV character, the smells, sounds, sights etc. With a narrator you step back and move to a wide angle view to show the coffee shop as the character moves through it. Instead of riding on the character’s shoulder we’re watching them. We may see what the cook is thinking, or feel the waitress’s painful feet. Once you’ve done this you can zoom in closer to the characters and their dialogue/thoughts/feelings. Since you’ve reminded the reader of the presence of the narrator, they’ll take in the extra information without getting confused.
Even in Third Omni, you want to work hard on showing feelings etc., not just labelling them. Think of writing from the narrator’s POV, and that narrator can cut from one place to another like camera angles in the movies.
The challenge of Third Omni is getting your reader to attach to your characters. This is why the narrator is so important. If the narrator cares about the characters, the reader will. Narrative voice and whether they are trustworthy is vitally important to a good story, even more so in Omni than in other POV’s.
Next time you’re in a critique group, shock the group by not complaining about head hopping, but suggest how the author might more effectively work in Third Omni.
The person that you write your story in will have a big effect on your Point of View. Person is whether you tell the story as if it were happening to you – I pulled up my gun and yelled “This is a stick up!” The advantage of first person is the immediacy. The reader is right there with the character and knows everything the character knows though sometimes the narrator is untrustworthy and withholds information. The challenge with first person is that the character can’t read minds or know what is going on in the next county so you have to use a lot of dialogue and other tricks to show the story in its fullest to the reader. While there are a few first person novels that switch POV to another first person narrator, they are few and far between. The ones that do it well are even fewer. If you are going to change into a different first person POV, you not only have to change the POV, but you need to change the voice of the narrator so it doesn’t read like one character with two different names. It is possible to mix first person and third person, but again, voice is essential as is making clear whose head the reader is inhabiting.
Third person is when we sit back a bit further and use ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘I’ – Jim Bob ran into the bank waving his gun and yelled. “This is a stick up!” You have to work a little harder with third person to achieve immediacy because the reader is at that much greater distance from the character. The advantage is that you have a wider field of view. You can have the bank guard pull his gun to shoot Jim Bob in the back, and Jim Bob doesn’t know it. You can’t do that in first person.
There are a range of options in third person stories. You can stay pretty close to ol’ Jim Bob and just describe the action in the bank. Or you can pull back and watch the bank robbery in progress, but also comment on the action further away. The danger is that you lose even more connection with your character. There is also a style that is even further back called the omniscient narrator. In that case the narrator knows everything including what is going on in other people’s heads. This is rarely used these days.
So now we’ve defined the different persons a story can be written in, and some of the varieties of POV. Let’s look at that bank robbery and see what head hopping does.
Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention.
Frank was cleaning his nails when the idiot ran into the bank yelling about a stick up. Somebody high on something. He didn’t even have a gun. Then the idot pulled his gun and blew a hole in the ceiling. Plaster dust wafted down on the screaming customers. Frank pulled his gun and took careful aim at the bank robber’s back before pulling the trigger.
Marion was counting hundred dollar bills for Mr. Smythe when she heard a shot, but she felt a sharp pain in her chest before she could push the alarm. Her legs gave way and she fell to the floor.
Mr. Smythe didn’t know what to do. Was the money on the counter still the banks, and thus insured, or was it his and not covered? He felt the hot steel of a gun barrel poke the back of his neck and decided that perhaps it didn’t matter after all.
Jim Bob grabbed the rich dude and spun him around to be a shield between him and the bank guard. He fired two shots at the guard.
Mr. Smythe’s ears rang. He might be permanently deaf from the noise.
Frank forced his shaking hand to be still and fired back.
Dang it, Mr. Smythe thought, that’s going to ruin my suit. Then he fell dead to the floor.
Jim Bob put both hands on his gun and emptied it at the blasted guard.
Frank knelt on the floor and steadied his hands before emptying his gun at the robber.
“Freeze,” shouted Sheriff Jones as he ran into the bank followed by his deputies. The bank robber and some old geezer in a guard uniform were pointing guns at each other and pulling the trigger though only the clicks of a dry fired gun sounded.
It was Deputy Bill’s first day on the job and he was pumped that they were responding to a bank robbery. That is until he saw the bloody corpses of employees and customers sprawled on the floor. He staggered outside to lose his donuts in the bushes.
I got confused about what was happening and I was writing the scene. That’s an extreme example, but even if you had several paragraphs for each POV it would be hard to follow. The problem is that we aren’t inside someone’s head long enough to empathize with them. If you re-wrote the scene all from one character’s POV you could create some emotional connection. The way I have it, it is more like telling than showing, even without the usual markers for telling. You can get much more out of the story that way. I’ll show you what I mean.
Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention. The customers were screaming and running around in a panic. He was THE MAN. There was a teller counting out bills for a guy in a suit. They looked like hundreds. He wanted some of them.
Jim Bob pushed his way to the counter. He heard a shot from behind him and the teller made this funny gasp as red blood stained her blouse. As she slipped from sight, Jim Bob grabbed hold of the guy in the suit who looked like he was dithering over the money. The guy would be a good hostage. Jim Bob poked him with the barrel of his gun, then spun around.
There! An old geezer in a uniform was pointing a gun at them. Jim Bob fired a couple of rounds at the old guy. This gun thing was harder than it looked. He missed the old guy completely though a customer that was hiding behind the guard swore softly and fell to the floor. The old guy fired back and the suit grunted and fell to the floor. Jim Bob had nowhere to hide. He had to take this guy out. He put both hands on his gun like they did on the shows and pulled the trigger.
The sound of his shots and the old guy’s were deafening. But he couldn’t stop. It was kill or be killed. He was still pulling the trigger when the Sherriff barrelled in through the door and shouted.
Jim Bob stopped pulling the trigger. He didn’t know how long his gun had been just clicking instead of banging. The bank looked like a battle zone. There were dead and injured people lying on the floor and he could smell the blood, and other things. One deputy went white and ran out the door faster than he came in.
It is possible to write a good story with quick multiple POV, but it is a challenge. Check this story for an example The Drive Past Devil’s Butte
Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it’s likely the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and create atmosphere. Now, I know everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end is a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.
A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil was rich and fertile and the crops were ready to harvest. There was only one town in the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.
That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:
Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them.
The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch it fluttered and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over the thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but there was something she couldn’t name that kept her eyes lifting to the mountains that towered on all sides and wondering what was on the other side.
At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. It lay weightless and delicate in her hand. She could see the tiny veins that ran through it, yet already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne turned to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew change had found her.
Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.
Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.) None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”
Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.
The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.
John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. The night deepened; the streetlights lit as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. Not caring he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life he loved, and he messed it up.
John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. DogThing was licking his face. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.
The final point for this article is the difference between passive and active description.
Passive description has nothing to do with passive voice (that’s another article). It is what I call description in which the character (and thus the reader) stop everything to look at the scenery.
Anthony stepped through the door. The butler stood on his left, a look of disapproval pasted on his face. All around the great hall hung the portraits of Anthony’s ancestors. Each with varying degrees of disgust trapped in paint on canvas. The floor was polished marble; he used to get in trouble for sliding in his stocking feet. Straight ahead the staircase spiraled up to the gallery. His mother stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on her son.
That’s a lovely setting, all kind of emotional things going on in the background. We learn a lot about Anthony just by the way he sees the hall. What is he doing while we read the description? Standing in the doorway, frozen in time until he takes the next step. If this is part of a highly emotional homecoming, he have had to work himself up to knock on the door. We expect an emotionally laden dialogue with mother dear, and in between -he’s stuck in the door. There may be times we want that ‘stuck in the door’ moment, but it means we need to use it to forward the plot.
What I like to do is have the character interact with the setting. Thus, active description.
Anthony stepped through the door. He nodded at the butler with disapproval pasted on his face.
“My coat.” Anthony offered his threadbare garment. The butler lifted it with one finger and carried it away, probably to burn.
The paintings still hung around the great hall, Anthony strolled along the line of his ancestors, each with varying levels of disgust captured in paint on canvas.
“Sorry, Father.” Anthony stopped in front of the newest portrait, trying to feel anything but relief.
Anthony turned to the grand staircase where his mother waiting. For a mad moment he wanted to kick off his shoes and slide across the polished marble floor. His mother’s frown deepened as if she’d read his thought. He dragged himself over to stand at the foot of the stairs. As always, she stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on him.
All the same elements are present, but the plot moves forward. We see the emotion in the hall, but also feel Anthony’s shame and reluctance.
Is God a character in your story or part of the setting? Strange question, but bear with me here. If God is a character, then He needs to be treated in the same way as other characters; namely gradually revealed through the story. It’s unlikely God will have a character arc which changes Him, but a flat arc is very useful. The flat arc is for a catalyst character who doesn’t change during the story, but forces the people around her, especially the protagonist to change. Sound about right?
My experience is few books treat God as a character. One of my favourite examples is To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson. Achan has been struggling with God through the first book and To Darkness Fled, the second. He has good reason to be angry with God, though God keeps showing up to preserve him. In a scene toward the close of book two, Achan is in a beautiful old temple praying, wrestling with his faith. Finally he submits himself and his life to God. At that moment the Temple explodes leaving Achan sitting in the ruins with a warning from God that things are going to get really hairy from here on out.
There are a few points to consider here.
First, God and the characters interact through the story. Things change because of God; it doesn’t have to be miracles, it could be attitudes of the characters around, a change of heart in one of the villains. God is active and at least spiritually present.
Second, God has character traits which are revealed through the interactions. This seems like a no brainer, but if you are intending the book for anybody but a purely religious audience you need to show what God is like in this particular moment in this particular time. That is harder than it sounds. Are you showing the forgiveness of God? The Love? The Call to discipleship? Trying to do too much at once leaves the reader confused, or unsure which attribute is affecting the main character.
Finally, and this is an important one, while God is present at the climax of the book, God doesn’t resolve the plot. Greek Tragedy had a thing Deus ex Machina literally God in the Machine. At the end of the play, the Gods would step in and sort everything out, making the character’s journeys pointless. If the character is to come to the final revelation of what God wants them to learn, then they must be the focus of the final struggle, not God. So no last minute conversion making everything all right, no miracle to defeat the enemy, just what God is in most of the scripture stories, a present strength for the character to live righteously.
God as a part of the setting.
God doesn’t interact with the characters. The assumption is he is present, but nothing much changes because of that presence. He is there the same way a mountain is there. An example is Uneven Exchange by S.K. Derban where all the good guys pray constantly, about everything, but while they make a decision based on their prayer, it doesn’t change them as a character.
There is no slow revealing of God in the story. The Characters’ understanding of God is the same at the end as at the beginning. God’s relationship to them doesn’t alter any more than the air or the ground changes from start to finish of the book. (if it does it’s because it’s being acted on, not because it’s acting)
Lastly, God is not a substantial part of the conclusion. The assumption is God is present, but there is neither a deus ex machina ending, nor a God present giving strength to the character in a different way than at the beginning of the story. So the character will pray about the final battle, but it won’t be a changed prayer from what they spoke at the start of the story.
Both these situation are valid presentations of God in our story. You don’t have to have God as a character to have the story be an effective witness. Your main character may already have a strong faith, and it that faith you want to show. You may be writing in a time or place in which faith is understood to be universal, so to ignore it would damage the world you’ve carefully built.
What is important is that you think about what God is doing in your story and plan how to write about Him in a way which makes your story deeper.
Many stories have fight scenes from Rocky’s bouts in the ring to the duel shown in the above picture from the Princess Bride. The scenes serve a variety of purposes as diverse as the stories they belong to. It would be hard to have a boxing movie with no boxing, but fights aren’t always physical and not all are fought with fists or swords. The first thing is to understand why you want a fight at this exact point in the story. You may have to show an aspect of your main character, or move the plot forward.
The duel in Princess Bride accomplishes a few purposes. It shows the Dread Pirate Roberts is not quite what he seems to be, it is a chance for humour, and most importantly it sets up the partnership between Roberts and the people he bests. The action is classic movie duel with them moving around a lot, talking a lot, gaining minor injuries and switching hands. Since the book and movie is a send up of the classics, this is done with wry wit and a wink at the standards.
If you are going to write a good fight scene you need to think it out carefully. They are, by their nature, high points in a story, so deserve to be solidly set in the plot. Once you know why you need the fight, the how is much easier. This is my methodology of writing strong fight scenes. I’ve picked the climactic scene to write, but the basic point made below need to be considered in more or less detail in any fight.
My way of writing a strong fight scene.
Before we start fighting we need to talk about language. Not the fighter’s language, but the language you use to describe the action. There is a range of options from being vague. He swung at his opponent and missed. to extremely specific. She threw a straight punch from her hip aiming at his solar plexus. He used a low block and slid to the left before attacking with a snap kick from his right leg. You probably want to be in the middle somewhere. If you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about find a martial artist and explain what you’re doing and let her help you with how to succinctly describe the give and take of a fight. The more detailed and technical you get, the more likely some fight geek is going to spot a mistake.
What you want to avoid is things like ‘She punched him right in the face.’ You don’t need ‘right’. You will also want to have a broad collection of verbs to use so your fight isn’t weighed down by adverbs.
Setting the Stage
The first thing in any fight is to know where your combatants are going to duke it out. A fight in a boxing ring will be very different from a brawl in an alleyway or a tussles in a Victorian parlour. Not only you need to know the setting, but your reader does. This does not mean you give an exhaustive detailed description of the setting, but you lay the ground work for what’s going to show up later. We’re going to write a fight scene set in the Edzell Castle about where the words ‘West Range’ appear. Look around, what would be the immediate things the POV character would see? How do they enter the space? Let’s have our hero enter from the Garden, We’ll call her Sir Glancelot. The villain of the piece will enter through the entrance. We’ll call him the Black Smirk.
Next we need to think about what they’re wearing. It’s a medieval style combat so some kind of armour. Chain mail – lighter but less effective in protecting against blows, but is lighter and allows a bit more free movement. Plate armour – the full clanking suit which will stop most medieval weaponry but is much heavier and clumsier and is usually worn on horse back. Since we don’t have horses, we’ll put both of them in chain, but the Black Smirk has bracers (extra armour on the forearms) Sir Glancelot doesn’t. We’ll have them duel with sabre, an edged sword which can also be used to thrust if needed. They are relatively light and would have been common. Unless they are in armour, the huge two handed swords are unlikely as they are too slow.
Sir Glancelot crept through the narrow gate from the Garden into courtyard. The tower loomed over her on her left. She almost stumbled over the broken rock of the fallen stables. The courtyard was empty but for a unhitched wagon on the north side. At the corner of the wall Sir Glancelot peered carefully around the corner, no telling what the dastardly Black Smirk would do. Nothing. Boots thumping on flagstones, she walked out into the space, disappointed. He’d run away again.
A flash in the corner of her eye made her spin. She barely blocked the thrown knife with her arm. It clattered into the rocks behind her. The Black Smirk charged from the wide entry, sabre in hand.
A fight scene, like every scene is a mini three-act story, with its own plot and end-goal. It’s no good writing a fantastic fight if it doesn’t matter to the plot. The hero must start in one place and as a result of the fight end up in a different place. The goals of a fight will vary depending on where they are in the story and what you need to do with the character. Not only the goals are important but the motivation for the fight. Why are they fighting instead of running away? Who’s going to win? This last question isn’t as obvious as it seems. Of course the hero wins, right? Except at some point in the story, the hero needs to lose a fight and take some lumps. If you want any suspense at all in your fights, the reader needs to believe the hero could lose. The only way to do that is have the hero lose at least once. Lastly you need to know how long the fight is going to last. As a general rule, the more important the fight, the longer it should be. I edited a book by a writer who wasn’t really comfortable with fights though she was writing about knights and warfare. It wasn’t a problem until it got to the climactic fight at the end of the book, which she finished up in a paragraph. By the time we were done, it was closer to being an entire chapter. The flip side of the length of the fight is the weight it has in the story and the payoff at the end. Weight is how important it is to the plot. A longer fight will move things further than a short one. The payoff is the emotional release at the close. Relief, sorrow, joy, the more important the fight the more complex the emotions need to be.
We’re going to just write the opening section of act one. This is the final battle between Sir Glancelot and the Black Smirk. The Smirk is holding the Prince captive somewhere in the castle. She needs to get past the Smirk to find the Prince. If she loses, the Kingdom will fall into evil and ruin. Each time they’ve met, Sir Glancelot has barely escaped with her life, if not her honour, intact.
Sir Glancealot whipped her father’s sword from the sheath making the air hum. Deep breath, don’t panic. Their weapons clashed echoing from the broken walls. Before she could blink, he’d disengaged and slashed at her face. Her feet tangled as she threw herself back and she fell hard to the pavement. The Smirk sneered at her and jumped forward to finish her off.
“Should have stayed with your needlework.”
Don’t be in a rush to get up. Sir Caldwell’s voice spoke in her head. She parried his strikes and waited her chance. The Smirk stepped in close to send a slash toward her throat. Her sword held his, ringing like a bell. In the second before he recovered for another attack she struck out with her foot, connecting with the Black Smirk’s leg belong the knee. He stumbled back…
Dialogue and Paragraphing
A lot of fights in books and movies have the characters engaging in a long dialogue while they fight. Imagine dancing to a fast song a club, and engaging in a deep meaningful conversation at the same time. Not so easy. Keep dialogue short and punchy during the action. Keep longer speeches for natural breaks in the action.
There are a few ways to paragraph fights. One is to use a new paragraph for each character’s action. So Sir Glancelot would have her paragraph, the Black Smirk would have his. This is great for large battle scenes where you need time and space to set up each move, but in the above section almost every sentence would be its own paragraph.
In duels I like to use a paragraph for each exchange. So in the example above, she’s lying on the ground, he’s attacking, she’s blocking, he steps in close, she kicks him and so on. When that bit of action is complete, I’ll start a new paragraph.
As in the larger scene, each paragraph has its own beginning, conflict, resolution.
Here’s where things get dicey for our heroine. In book this is the low point in a character’s life. Everything is falling apart. In a fight it is where the antagonist begins to get the upper hand. What I don’t mean is they chase the hero around beating the everliving snerf out of the hero. Too many movies/books have the hero at the point of death in this section. They are beat, just not dead, then they pop up as if they aren’t battered, bruised and bleeding to death from a ruptured spleen and win the day. You want the reader to believe the hero can lose the fight, but you also need to make the victory plausible.
At this point there should have been a few minor wounds, now things get more serious. Injuries which could threaten the hero’s ability to fight happen, but the villain has taken some lumps too.
What is more important than the physical danger is the emotional danger. This is where the heroine doubts herself. She’d never beat him before, she can’t beat him now. She’s going to die, the Prince will die, the Kingdom will fall into ruin. There won’t be much dialogue in this section as both combatants will be exhausted, but you can use internal thought to great advantage in showing state of mind.
Don’t neglect the physical effects of the fight, pain, anger, humiliation. Where are they located in the hero’s body, how do they affect her ability to fight?
Sir Glancelot gasped for air. Blood running down her arm made the grip on her sword slippery. She blocked a blow from the Smirk and almost lost her sword.
The Smirk had stopped smirking now. He limped forward slashing at her as if his arms were iron instead of flesh. His sabre ground across her chain mail, screeching like a banshee. She gave up on elegance and punched him with the hilt of her sword.
She retreated away until her back hit the wagon. Her sword hand trembled. Her heart pounded painfully. The sting of the cuts he’d given her didn’t hurt as much as her failure. The duel had descended from an honourable fight to a brawl. A knight doesn’t brawl, they fight with and for honour, no matter what the enemy does. Sir Cadwell’s instructions to the squires the first day they assembled condemned her.
She’d lost, the Black Smirk’s eyes burned as he stalked toward her told her he knew it too.
Unless we’re writing the equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back. The hero needs to win the fight to have a positive outcome to the plot. Everything has pointed toward this moment, but we’ve all but convinced the reader the fight is lost. Now we need to turn things around, but in a way which doesn’t ignore all that’s gone before.
At the beginning of Act Three, the antagonist has the upper hand, not necessarily because of serious wounds, but because of the emotional space the hero is in. Before we can turn the fight around, we need to turn the hero’s thinking around. You’ll have been dropping hints for this moment throughout the book. You haven’t, go back and do it, I’ll wait.
Those hints will be a counterpoint to the emotional thinking which led the hero to this place and time. In Sir Glancelot’s example, she’s been trained to fight honourably, no matter the circumstance. Anything less diminishes her and shames her knightly order. To counter that you need to have someone who talks about honour being great, but not much use if she’s dead. Perhaps a knight whose fallen into cynicism, perhaps an encounter with someone who never cared about honour. Doesn’t matter, only that you have at least three occasions on which she is presented with the pragmatic alternative to dying honourably.
The next thing is to focus the heroine on the goal of the fight. It’s bigger than her. The entire Kingdom will suffer, will they care that she died honourably?
The combination of those two things will shift the heroine’s stance and bring to bear a new weapon or skill which she’s refrained from using because it would stain her reputation. Again you’ll want to have set this up long before we get to this fight. Make it clear using this skill/weapon has been frowned upon, even forbidden. It is important you bring something new to the fight, because what’s she’s been doing hasn’t worked.
Sir Glancelot dropped the broken sword, and stood waiting for the death blow. The Black Smirk lifted his sabre.
“I’ll be sure to tell everyone how you failed.”
The Prince, the Kingdom, they’d get along without her. If they survive this. Tears stung at the back of her eyes. She hadn’t thought her heart could break any further. The Smirk had taken everything from her, father, his sword, her honour as a knight and now…
The slash came toward her throat. Her knees collapsed and she rolled to the side. The sabre clanged against the stone. You’re no good to anyone dead. Not Sir Caldwell’s voice. Cameron’s before he wrapped her hand with cloth and set her punching a board. All the while telling her how to strike to hurt a man worst.
The Smirk came at her again, smirking at this new opportunity to torture her.
“Maybe I won’t make it quick, there’s lots of fun to be had with a girl, even one as ugly as you.”
Fire climbed up from her gut. She expected her mail to melt from the heat. The Smirk’s leer grew wider, thinking the heat came from shame.Emily had grown up being shamed, for her looks, for her actions. Shame had been her life’s companion. Emily laughed.
The Smirk paused a brief second. Emily balled her fists and leaped to the attack. Her first blow hit his collarbone, not hard enough to break it through the mail, but it made his arm spasm. Her left hand hammered on his wrist and his sword fell.
She hated everything this sneering worm stood for. Emily let the fire loose to power her fists….
Of course, it won’t be quite as simple as all that, but the desperation is reversed, now the villain is fighting for his life. Remember that knife he threw at the start? Yup, that one. But in spite of the knife she wins.
Now comes the point at which you wrap up the emotional cost of victory. She’s not the same person who started. Sir Glancelot began the fight, the shameless Emily finished it. What price does she pay? Make sure there is a cost, but also a reward. The scene ends as a transformative moment, here is where she embraces the truth of her life and finally lets go of the lie which has been driving her through the story.
If you don’t work the aftermath, the battle loses its power to move the reader. This, as much as the fight itself, is the climax of the story.
In smaller fights, there will still be an aftermath, but it points the hero in the right or wrong direction depending on the needs of the plot. Here is where you show why the fight mattered. A word of warning. Don’t do a voice over explanation of everything she’s learned. When I started writing as a kid, I always felt I needed to explain to the reader what they’d just finished reading. I still fall into the trap and savagely cut it out of the manuscript.
Emily picked up the hilt of her father’s sword. He’d have died of shame if he known how she’d defeated the Black Smirk. Her eyes watered, and she let both her tears and the hilt fall. If he hadn’t been so stubborn, he’d have been here with her.
Falling to her knees, her anger and grief over his dead burst out of her and her cry echoed off the walls like a wild creature. It left her empty and oddly at peace. No longer did she have to pretend to be a knight, to fight against the stares and murmurs. It didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. The Kingdom would be at peace.
That was worth the cost.
Boots clanged across the stone, familiar voices argued until the Prince’s boot stood in front of her. Not polished or immaculate. They looked as torn and dirty as her heart. He’d have to get a new pair.
“Sir Glancelot.” The prince extended his hand.
“Emily, Sire.” She refused to take his hand. “Just Emily. You should have no trouble rounding up the remainder of his troops.”
“Sir Emily Glancelot,” the prince’s voice sounded annoyed. Nothing new there. He knelt down in front of her. Gasps sounded around her, then clanks and grunts as the rest of the knight fell to their knees. “I watched you fight. He’d tied me at a window so I could see your defeat. You had me worried for a bit.”
“I had me worried.” Emily kept her eyes pinned to the ground, just in front of his knee, scraped and bloody through a tear in his trousers.
His hand lifted her chin up until she had no choice but to look in his eyes. She saw something she’d never expected. Respect….
So there you have it. The fight is a story encapsulated. Whether you get technical or stay away from exact descriptions, it will the emotions which will have the biggest impact. Especially for the closing battle. In a way each fight is a summary of what the character has learned so far, either rightly or wrongly.
A couple of suggestions to finish off. I made a point of how the setting affects the fight. I found the castle map on the web and used it as inspiration. The surroundings are important throughout the encounter. The rubble, the wagon. You could go Douglas Fairbanks and have them on the stairs. In order to keep track of where they are in relation to each other and the setting I’ve been known to print out the map and use coins to move the people around. That way I don’t have someone teleporting across a large distance or running through the wagon. Blocking out the fight physically is very useful. If you have a large room, moving yourself through the fight physically is a great way to check for impossibilities.
Lastly, as I said at the start. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Experts enjoy the chance to teach what they know.
One more point. Very similar principles are involved in writing strong romantic encounters.
Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them or point you in the right direction.
I dream I’m walking through the grocery store. Look there’s a sale on Mean Girls! Jocks are buy one, get one free. Someone’s come out with a brand new product. It’s the Talent Show with a Sad Backstory and it comes in two flavours. I’m still trying to decide whether to risk it when I wake up.
It would certainly be easier if we could buy our characters ready made and needing just a bit of a warm up to be ready for our story. But if our characters are pre-cut and wrapped for us, what is left for us to do? There’s no room for them to grow. A Mean Girl #4 with the option to repent at the end of the story will only do what she is programmed to do.
There are sites on the web that help you get to know your characters. You can fill out questionnaires about them. What do they like? What’s their hair colour? What’s the size of their…oops better leave that one out it’s going to be a G rated story so it’s not like they’re going to get to use it. This is useful as a first introduction to your character. Kind of Match.com for characters and writers. But it only goes so far and then the age old question makes itself heard. Where do we go from here?
So we have a Biker who has blue eyes, red hair, listens to Paul Anka and cries during Little House on the Prairie reruns. But how is he going to react when you spill your latte grande on his leather pants? Even harder, what kind of dialogue can he have with the Emo girl who listens to Evanescence, has blue hair and red eyes and laughs all the way through Nightmare on Elm Street?
Let’s leave the quiz for a moment. Think about your best friend. What’s the first thing that comes to mind. I’ll bet you that it is not their hair colour/eye colour, what they wear, or how big their… oops still G rated. The first thing you thing of is probably a story. Maybe about the time you water ballooned your brother, or you got lost in the mall. When we think about people we know. We attach more importance to shared experience than we do to physical attributes. Sure we might be able to describe them to the police if they’re still lost in the mall, but when we’re talking about them with other friends, it is the stories that we tell.
So, back to the characters in the stories that we are writing. If we only think of them in terms of their physical characteristics and personality traits, they will come out flat and uninteresting. Creating a character is about more than following a recipe. We need to hear their stories. Why does Biker dude like Paul Anka? What the reason for the tears during reruns? Why is Emo girl hiding behind those red contacts? If we want them to talk we need to create a reason for them to have a conversation. We create a story that they will tell about each other. As their relationship develops the collection of common stories grows. We don’t have to put them all in our writing, but we need to know that they are there.
The funny thing is once we start listening to the stories behind our stories, characters become pretty easy. They become organic and rounded. They do odd things and go in strange directions. People who read our stories don’t feel that the characters are just pieces being moved on a board. They get interested in what is happening to these people. They root for them and they want them to succeed. Once you have your reader fully engaged with your characters, you have them hooked.
Character development is the next logical step. They learn from their experiences, just like we do. Ask yourself what you would learn if you went through what your characters had to. Then apply that insight to the way the character acts, talks and thinks. Now, not only are your characters three dimensional, but they grow.
So if the dream at the start was your character’s, why are they dreaming about cardboard people? What is going on that put them in that dream and not a different one? What are they going to learn from this dream.
And if this is a grocery store, where are the mangos?