Tag Archives: writing

God: Character or Setting?

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?

Brooklyn Museum-The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road, James Tissot

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.

Cliches, let’s not think about that.

What is cliche, what isn’t? It’s a discussion which comes up in almost every critiquing group I’ve belonged to.

I am not going to try to come up with an exhaustive list. I don’t think that’s possible. We all like to poke fun at cliches, but when was the last time we considered what made a cliche a cliche?

I’m going to attack the issue from a slightly different perspective. Rather than declaring that vampires with speech impediments are cliche while twinkly vampires are not, I’m going to suggest that if you don’t have to work very hard at creating a character, plot line or setting you are in danger of being cliched. That’s because cliches are short cuts allowing us to move ahead without much thought.

Let’s look at bars, bars are a good example because they cross genres, fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, even romances have bars.

So John is going into a bar, the reason isn’t important at this point, but we may come back to that. He walks into the bar and he has to stand in the door while his eyes adjust to the dim light. Recognize that? That’s the feeling that you’ve been in this bar before. There may be a bouncer cracking his knuckles and eyeing John suspiciously. The barkeep may be polishing the glasses or maybe talking to the customers. Maybe there’s music, perhaps live, maybe a jukebox.There will be a shadowy little corner where it may be possible to get in a little noogy or get away with murder. The acoustics will be such that John can hear the conversation in the booth behind him, but nobody will be able to hear what he says or does.

That’s a cliched bar. We’ve all been there in dozens of books. This bar is a useful little plot device. Maybe John will fall in love, maybe get in a fight, maybe die. We know all these things are possible because we’ve seen it happen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the bar is going to be more than a brief stop on John’s journey of self discovery, we will need to dress it up.

So why is John going into a bar? If he is looking for love in all the wrong places we will want to loud music and louder women, or men. He probably won’t have to pause to let his eyes adjust because it will likely be night. A little commentary on the decor will be useful.

John entered the bar and winced a little at the volume of the music pumping out of the speakers. He could see a distorted version of himself in the chrome bar rail. But he didn’t take the empty spot at the bar. There was a mirror on the wall there and he didn’t want to look himself in the face just now. He selected a wobbly litte table on the edge of the dance floor. Bodies gyrated under the strobes looking like so many mating octopi. The waitress placed the beer in front of him and he downed it with a gulp. If he was going to do what he came here to do, he would need something stronger.

Maybe he’s looking for a whiz-bang magical sword. We need a different kind of crowd and not so sleek an ambiance.

John pushed his way in through the crowd. Most of the crowd were dwarves. It was a dwarfish bar. He was careful to be polite, when a dwarf elbowed a human, it wasn’t ribs that got bruised. He made it to the bar where a troll handed him a drinking horn.

“Two bits,” it said.

John passed over the money and leaned on the rough wood that spanned the empty casks.

“I’m looking for…”

“Over there,” the troll said. “Two bits a pull, double if you break anything.”

He passed over more money and made his way toward a crowd that surrounded a sword that was stuck in an oak log.

“Hey, look where you’re stepping!” A pixie kicked him in the ankle.

John tried not to limp as he made his way to the sword. It was the ugliest sword he’d ever laid eyes on. The blade that wasn’t buried in wood was chipped and pitted. The leather of the grip was rotted. There was a dwarf that was pulling on it. He looked like he was in danger of rupturing something. One of the dwarves looked up at John.

“Yo, Thornpiek, gi’ it a rest. We got a live one!” Rough hands pushed him over to the sword.

“Gi’ you hands a good spit,” a dwarf said, “let’s see if you be t’ one.” The dwarfs all laughed while John stared at the sword. He took a deep breath and gripped the sword.

Perhaps John is meeting an intergalatic snitch.

John paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light of the bar. He felt a sharp pain in his back and looking down he saw the point of a Thr’xian dagger sticking out of his chest. He crumpled to his knee and a rough kick pushed him to the floor.

“Blasted humans,” the Thr’xian said, “always stopping and blocking the doors.

So while the concept of a bar might be deemed cliche, if you make it your bar it won’t be cliche. It will be a seamless part of the world that you are creating.

Show, Tell and Narrative Summary

Here’s a scene I wrote some time back.  A scene is a little bit of the story. You string a bunch of them together like pearls in a necklace to make your story.

Harry walked into the party with his wife on his arm. Sculpted beauties gazed at him. He was out of place with his middle age sag and his wrinkles. If he didn’t fit in, Faye stood out like a minivan at a Porsche convention. Since the death of their youngest son she had taken comfort in food. You could make dresses for any two other woman in the room from what she was wearing. But Harry knew what it was like to lose yourself, only he had chosen drink over food. She saw the buffet and gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and headed for the food.

Harry shook his head and smiled. He started to mingle with the others. He held a drink and pretended to drink from it. He was just thinking that it was time to leave when a woman came up behind him and took his arm. He knew immediately that she was three parts intoxicated.

“Hey, handsome,” she purred, “How about you and me find some privacy.”

“I’m married,” he said trying to turn away.

“So am I, what of it?”

“Not interested,” Harry said starting to get annoyed.

“What, you prefer her?” the woman sneered.

Harry looked at his wife. For a moment he saw what everyone saw. A fat woman with an over full plate surrounded by the best Hollywood’s surgeons could produce. Then he looked deeper and saw the woman who still struggled with her grief, and helped him struggle with his. The woman who had brought his four children into the world. He saw the woman who on the day he married her outshone any two woman in this room.

“I do.”

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“Me,” said Harry and he went to join his beautiful wife.

I’ve highlighted the parts of this story that are telling rather than showing. You can see that they are most of the parts that are meant to show emotion. The problem is that the emotion is being pushed at us. They aren’t attached to Harry, rather they are about Harry.

Here is the scene rewritten to show rather than to tell.

Harry walked into the party with his wife on his arm. Everywhere he looked sculpted beauties gazed back at him.  I don’t belong here, he thought, not with my wrinkles and sagging body. If he didn’t fit in, Faye stood out like a minivan at a Porsche convention. He figured he could make dresses for any two other woman in the room from what she was wearing.  She gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and headed for the food.

Harry shook his head and smiled. He fetched a drink and pretended to drink from it as he  mingled with the others in the room.

Maybe it’s time to leave, he thought a short time later, I shouldn’t have to work this hard to smile.

A woman came up behind him and grabbed his arm almost spilling his untouched drink. The smell of alcohol on her breathe hit him like a wave.

“Hey, handsome,” she purred, “How about you and me find some privacy.”

“I’m married,” he said trying to turn away.

“So am I, what of it?”

“Not interested,” Harry said.

“What, you prefer her?” She pointed at his wife; a fat woman with an over-full plate surrounded by the best Hollywood’s surgeons could produce.

For a moment he saw what he guessed everyone else saw, but he saw things that no one else in this room could see. On the day he married her, Faye had outshone any two woman in this room. She’d brought his four children into the world and stood beside him as they buried their youngest. She still struggled with her grief, and helped him struggle with his. Harry blinked away tears that tempted him to sip the drink in his hand.

“I do,” he said as he carefully put his drink on a nearby table.

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“Me,”  Harry said. He walked over to the buffet and picked up a plate. He put his arm around Faye and gave her a smile and a hug.

I can hear you saying, “But you didn’t change that much!” I didn’t add much to the scene. It was written for a contest with a word limit of 300 words. I wanted to stay within that limit. What I did do was attach the emotions and memories to Harry.  Instead of narration, they become Harry’s internal thoughts. I dropped the extra words on the attributions since they weren’t really necessary.

Now say this is a scene in a much larger work. A novel about Harry whose novel has been picked up and is being made into a big budget movie. It is all about his experiences in Hollywood. There are lots of parties in Hollywood. Do we need to show each and every one of them? That would get old fast. Even though we were showing rather than telling, we are showing  the same thing each time. So we use narrative summary. Narrative summary is the string that holds the pearls together and helps the reader move from one to the next.  It could be as simple as:

Harry attended an endless string of parties, each one filled with the same sculpted beauty and the same empty conversation. He could feel the siren call of the booze that would let him fit in. He could see the self-loathing on Faye’s face as she tried and failed to stay away from the buffet tables.

That little bit gives the reader a sense of time passing, but also of the cost of that time. So when I write the next scene I don’t need to tell the reader about Harry and Faye’s despair.

So, there is no hard and fast rule to never tell, but your story does need to mostly show. And it MUST show the really important developments. To go back to Harry and Georgia, you can’t later in the book talk about Harry starting to drink at the parties or having an affair without showing that particular party.

So quick summary, showing is letting the reader experience the story through the thoughts, words and actions of the characters. Telling is dumping information that is unconnected to the characters into the story. Often, but not always, telling is in the passive voice and often, but not always, involves a lot of adverbs. Narrative summary is a form of telling that smooths the movement from one scene to the next, but you want to make sure that it doesn’t replace necessary scenes in your story.

To get more of the picture of show, not tell, Go read Don’t Think, Don’t Feel

Shades of Nuance: Shades of Feeling

Everyone knows feelings are essential to evocative writing. Without emotions there is little reason for the reader to care about what is going on in the story or what happens to the characters.

So we write how our characters are angry, or sad, or furious, or happy or any of another dozen or so standard emotions.

Take a second and try to imagine how many different emotions we humans have.

Give up?

I saw a list of emotions that listed 101 emotions, and it stated explicitly it was not a complete list. There are emotions for which we have no words in English, but other languages do.

So how do we write all this myriad of emotions? Do we dig out the Emotional Thesaurus and expand our emotional vocabulary. This is a great book by the way. It gives you an emotion, then the corresponding physical sensations and body language. This is a good start. Using words like cranky or grumpy, or ecstatic to describe feelings will add depth to your writing. Even more so when you start using the corresponding body language to match the words.

When I was studying to be a therapist, one of the things we were trained to watch for was body language that didn’t match what the client said or expressed as feelings. Clients whose bodies said one thing while their words said another were extra challenging. When you asked questions based on the body language, you tended to be more successful working through the issues at hand.

Imagine what you could do with a character whose body language didn’t match their expressed emotions? Your reader knows something is off, but they don’t know what. It is a great device to create distrust toward an otherwise bland character.

The next step is to get beyond the basic four emotions, mad, sad, glad and scared along with their hundreds of synonyms to feelings which are further off the chart. How do you write humility? Loyalty? Disgust? How do you use an emotion which has no name? We use the physical sensations and body language without identifying the emotion we are trying to portray.

This is where the real nuance starts coming in. Stop and think for another minute and list all the physical sensations you use to show character emotion to the reader.

How many did you come up with?

From my editing these are the favourites:

Sinking or rising heart/stomach

Some form of fire/heat/cold/ice

Shaking legs, hands

Of course the smile/smirk/eyebrow and other facial movements and movements of the head

Various forms of crying/laughing

Blushing/heat in the face

and of course the ever present Sigh

As there are hundreds of emotions, so there are at least as many ways we experience the emotions. We experience them intellectually and mostly write about them intellectually. The problem with writing emotions from the intellect, that is describing them through naming and categories, is the reader will process them the same way.

If we use the standard ways to show emotion, we never get below the surface and more to the point, we don’t pull the reader below the surface either. Moving away from the usual ways of showing emotion makes the reader think about the physical experience and label the emotion for themselves. While they may end up with a different word than we had in mind, they will be pulled into the experience.

I suggest that one start with the usual expressions and gradually shift to more unusual ones as the book progresses. In essence we train the reader to dig deeper into their own emotions to understand the emotions of the characters. They feel every emotion the character does.

Writing deliberately nuanced emotions, physical reactions and body language gives us the opportunity to affect the reader in powerful ways.

A fantastic resource for writing emotion is The emotional thesaurus:

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression

Break Dancing, or Where to End your Chapter

Some people like long chapters that pull them deep into the world that the author is weaving around the the story. Others like short chapters. To say that all chapters must be long, or that all must be short would be similar to saying that you have write all long sentences or all short ones. Chapters, like paragraphs and sentences come in different lengths and evoke different feelings in the reader. Short chapters, as with paragraphs and sentences, move the story along briskly. Longer ones slow things down and allow time for the feel of the world you are creating to settle in the mind of the reader.

It is up to the author to decide where to break for a new chapter. That decision needs to be based on the needs of the story at that particular moment. It is a trap to simply start a new chapter whenever you start a new day of writing. It will make your story feel unbalanced and unfinished.

So where do you make the chapter break?

There are a few different reasons to end a chapter. The first and probably most over used is the cliff hanger. This is a hold over from the days when books were published a chapter a month in magazines. You needed something to get people to buy the magazine next month to see what happens. Comics still do this. A few cliff hangers are good, but too many just gets tiresome. The best place to put a cliff hanger chapter ending is just before a POV switch to another character involved in different action. A good cliff hanger doesn’t have an obvious or easy solution. It doesn’t have to involve physical danger, but there has to be something at risk.

Which brings me to the next reason for a chapter break. POV switch. I prefer writing entire chapters in the same POV. I don’t like reading stories where there is a lot of head hopping. So when you’re going to switch POV, start a new chapter. This is especially important if you are also changing the site of the action. An exception to the POV chapter break is if the characters are involved in the same action at the same location and you have a very good reason for switch POV. There is a discipline to staying with one POV for an extended time, but it will help you develop at a writer when you need to work out how to let your character learn what they need to learn to show the reader.

Natural breaks in the action are another good way to end a chapter. Everybody goes to bed. Instead of wasting time describing your characters sleeping. You end the chapter and start the next chapter with the characters awake and once more involved in meaningful action. Another form of this natural break is where you want to make a shift from quick action to more reflective thought. A major battle has been won (or lost) and your MC want to mourn the foolishness of war. A chapter break will signal and highlight the change in mood. That will allow you to follow the character into less ardous tasks and provide some contrast. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a variety of moods in one chapter. Let your story decide.

The last chapter break is a minor conclusion. Plot lines don’t go up evenly to the climax. Rather they should look a little like the graph on a seismograph. When your story has reached a point where a smaller obstacle has been resolved it may be a place to break. Just make sure that it doesn’t feel like the action is done. The above example is also an example of a minor conclusion. The characters get to live another day, but there is still the unfinished task hanging over their heads.

Knowing where to put chapter breaks is similar to knowing whether to write long or short sentences. It is about emphasizing parts of your plot and staying in control of pacing in your story. It is a skill that will mark you as an accomplished author. It is like dancing with your story. You need to feel the rhythm, but still stay in control.

Comment from Cynthia Port

I took Alex McGilvery up on his recent promotional offer of $100 to content edit an entire book. I don’t have extra cash for my writing, so this was not an easy decision, but I was feeling mired down by this manuscript (that I love) and needed a boost. He made nearly 400 separate comments on the document, plus several pages of recommendations and observations at the end!!! By the time I have finished responding to his suggestions, both the book and my skills as a writer will have significantly improved. 

I met Alex through CIR and don’t know him personally. I believe he may still have this offer. If so, and if you can possibly swing it, take advantage. He is very skilled. I can pretty much guarantee his rates will not stay this low. Here is his website, or you can contact him through CIR. 

Thanks Alex! (and thanks Lia London Author for CIR)

How to write a book.

This is a poem I wrote for National Poetry Month – April. 

How to write a book

Write
Write some more
Write until you get to the end of the story.
Do a little happy dance.
Tell people that you wrote a book.

Read your book.
Crawl under your desk and weep and bang your head against the wall until the sound makes the neighbours crazy.
Re-write the book adding some annoying neighbours.
Get pulled into the story again.
Rant and rave at your characters.
“Behave,” you say, “or I’ll kill you off.”
They laugh and run off to dance in the moonlight.
Bang your head some more.
Apologize to the neighbours, again.
Tell them you’re writing a book.

Start to wonder how any one person could have made so many mistakes in one book.
Fix mistakes, make new ones.
The book takes on a life of its own.
No longer just words on a page, this is your baby and you want it to grow up healthy and strong and maybe be a bestseller someday.

Allow the neighbours to read your precious child.
Gnash your teeth when they point out that the scene with the talking donkey really just doesn’t work.
You love that scene; you wept tears of happy abandon writing that scene.
Can’t they recognize brilliant writing?
Cut the scene.

Start to hate the book, again
It’s horrible, mindless drivel, but it isn’t the book’s fault.
So you keep working,
Cut more scenes that you love,
Let a few stay in,

One day think:
This whole thing may actually work out.
It isn’t going to change the world.
No one may even read it.
But it’s time.

The story has to stand on its own now.
There are still things you can do, but you don’t.
Instead, you hold your breathe and send it off with a backpack filled with sandwiches and a change of underwear.

Look, there it goes.

Isn’t it cute?