I am a person who raises himself up to the next level, rather than becoming discouraged. – Sakamoto Ryōma
It has been a while since I posted a great song on here. This one . . . you may have to get past the first few seconds, but, trust me, it’s amazing. If you listen to this song on a ten hour loop, you’ll write like a well-oiled engine (at least I did!)
Unlike movies, magazines, newspapers, manga, comics, websites, and so on, writing does not offer a visual for people. Words must paint the picture so many other medias naturally provide. In fact, everything in a story falls upon the words, from tone to setting to characters to any deeper meaning of the text. This means that the author has to be careful when selecting which words he/she uses to create an affective picture, words that lets the reader see what a picture could have otherwise provided.
Just how can authors use words to create images as vivid as a movie, especially when considering that less and less people want to read as the world becomes more visually driven?
Well, it’s all in the details.
It’s always frustrating when you want to describe, say, a room in a story. Unlike a movie, the reader cannot “see” the room in your head. He/she doesn’t know about the books and the title of those books sitting on the floor. He/she can’t see the faded blue walls, wooden and unpolished floor, or the chip in the corner of the door. He/she has no idea the picture of the grandpa—the reader has no idea what he looks like, by the way—is faded and hanging at a slight angle. Nope. Instead, you have to tell the reader.
Then the question is, how much do you tell the reader?
Here’s the great advantage books have over visual mediums: you get to decide what the readers “see” and the reader gets to decide the rest. Unlike a movie, which tells you everything but smell, a book only tells the reader what the author has put down. If you don’t tell the reader the color of the walls, the reader gets to decide what color he/she wants the walls to be. In this way, books allow for a lot more imagination than something that provides a picture. The trick is that the author must know what to describe and what to leave for the reader to imagine.
Hence, “it’s all in the details.”
That’s right. It, generally, is better to describe the little things about the room. Describe a few key visual elements of a room or object or person or so on. Does that person have a chipped tooth? Is that jacket’s right sleeve slightly frayed? Does the floor creak or smell like wood? Give the reader a some sensory elements that add to the tone (and perhaps even meaning or clues) of the story.
For example, if you have a character whose past seems to follow him/her, have a stain on the carpet that just won’t clean no matter how hard he/she tries. It doesn’t have to be such an obvious connection, but you can use clues like that to guide the reader down a path and let the reader explore the world around it.
As always, if you have any questions, let me know. I’d be happy to answer them for you!
Now, I could spend an hour or so writing about why music will help improve your prose, but I think I’ll demonstrate a little bit.
Before I go and do that, here’s the point I’m trying to make: what music (or noise in general) that you listen to while you write will influence/enchance your story’s tone. Music affects you emotionally. So, what you’re hearing while writing can change how you’re feeling while writing. Listening to the right type of music can help your story maintain a feeling and tone (the music’s “feel” should match the story’s, obviously).
For every story I write, I create playlists. I usually have a generic playlist that fits my story’s over all tone, one for sad moments, one for romantic moments, and one for action scenes. You can create as many or as few playlists as you want.
Don’t forget that you don’t to break the bank or clutter your iTunes to do this. You can create a playlist for free on sites like Pandora, SoundCloud or Youtube that have access to hundreds of thousands of songs. While I recommend Youtube (free, easy to block ads, can create playlists, huge selection of music), there are plenty of sites out there. If you don’t want to hand select each song but want a general “feel”, then something like Pandora is a better option for you.
I know that sometimes people struggle to write while music is playing. If this is you (or sometimes you), there is always the option to find a site that plays ambient noises, like rain, birds, campfire, wind, and some even have options like “dragon cave” or “tavern”. These are always fun to use too and can help you in the same way music can.
Okay. Lets see if I can “demonstrate” this. Obviously, you can’t see me doing this, but I’m going to play some songs (I’ll link them) and write whatever during the entire song (so the passage probably won’t have much of a story. Let’s pretend each paragraph is the start of a new story I’m writing).
In this case, the song is shaping the writing instead of letting the music influence it. But, hopefully you’ll get the gist of what I’m trying to do. I invite you to read passages that don’t match up to the song and see how weird it is.
This isn’t scientific or anything. It’s probably better if you listen to the songs and try to write little paragraphs yourself. It’s just to show how music can subtly influence your writing. It’s also a fun exercise to flex those writing muscles, so I encourage you to try it
Lastly, there will be major errors in the paragraphs below. I have left them entirely raw (no editing whatsoever) to better demonstrate how the words match the song.
The girl looked behind her. Then she ran. All around her people ran, and kept running. To where? It didn’t matter. Away. Away from what came behind them, the storm. Glass-like rain swirled and whipped in the air, shooting towards the fleeing mass like arrow from a broken down fairytale. Pieces a already lodged into her skin, which wept like tear. Heart slamming, she looked forward. I can’t afford to look back. This storm, it couldn’t be conquered or defeated, just avoided. Shelter. That’s what she needed to find. Lungs bursting, she legs had started to burn a few miles back.
The impact drove everyone to the ground. She skidded across the dirt as glass bounced from the stone and into the air. Another huge sheet of the falling sky had broken.
He ran his fingers over the grass, sleep trying to lure him back in. He loved his dreams, more than he loved reality anyway. Things happened in them. He met people who left a deeper impression than “real” people. Those people, the waking people, they always forgot his stories and name, ignored the bruises on his skin.
He didn’t need them anyways. Not when he had his dreams.
In his dreams, she wasn’t dead. Still four and smiling and blond. She’d never change in his dreams. There, they could fly across the sky, free, so free. They swam in the ocean and laughed. So pure and so sweet the sound drifted into the cloud, making the world brighter than the sun ever could.
But he couldn’t escape the reality. She died. And the water here tasted like piss. The grass, mostly brown and dried, gave him nothing. The sun, bleak and hot, didn’t brighten the world but beat on it.
He closed his eyes. Yeah, dreams are better.
After reading those passages, I hope you better understand how music can influence writing. Those were both free writes and fun to do. As always, I’m happy to answer questions!
Like a main character, his or her love interest can tend to run a little flat. Even if the protagonist interests the reader, the love interest may become a burden that simply holds the main character back (while this general happens to a male protagonist and his female love interest, it can happen the other way around). However, love interests should engage the reader and add to the story, not take away from it.
How can you do this?
Give the Love Interest his/her own plot
This character should become as important as (or close too) the protagonist. This means the love interest should have a plot/dreams/hobbies outside of the romantic plot s/he shares with the protagonist. Let the character truly become a person who acts outside of the protagonist’s main plot (or become an integral part of the main plot as something other than a love interest) as well. By doing so, you’ll ensure that the reader does not see this person as an obstacle the protagonist must simply protect/”win”/etc. It will also help the character feel more like a person and less like a stand-in.
This does not mean the love interest needs a POV, just something s/he can do outside of the love story. You don’t have to distort your story and force in some random irreverent plot, but you can let the love interest talk about this plot so the reader’s know s/he has a life outside of the protagonist.
Of course, you can always make both sides of the relationship a POV and main character, like Brandon Sanderson did in Mistborn. If you write Fantasy, as I do, you have the ability to tack on POV’s (if you should and how to manage so many POVs is a topic for another time). So there is no harm in letting the love interest get a few POVs to explore his/her story outside of the protagonist’s. If you want to do that, however, you ought to make sure that plot will connect to the overall story in some way.
Make the love interest as interesting as the protagonist
Don’t plant some stereotype or “set” character type into your story as the love interest. Let him/her be as complicated and unique as the protagonist. Give them faults and strengths, his/her own set of problems, strange quirks, a moral code, and other things that help make any character more compelling. The love interest should be interesting and complex enough for you to write his/her story, if you had too.
Give the couple some common interests
While opposites can attract, the characters should have a believable reason for liking each other (please, please go beyond “s/he was just so beautiful). If a reader is going to “get behind” a couple, the couple has to seem (somewhat) realistic. Give the couple something that connects them (childhood, moral code, hobby, similar political views, etc.). And don’t force a couple. If you planed for a romance that is just falling flat on the page, let it go. Just like in movies, some characters have chemistry. Other’s don’t. If the relationship seems strained to you, it will also seem that way to the reader.
Side tip: show the reader some little moments between the couple. While declarations of love are always great, so are the times where they learn a little more about the other or make each other smile.
Prevent a toxic relationship
Why some people may enjoy a destructive relationship, a lot of people prefer healthy ones where the couple supports each other instead of always tearing the other one down. Instead of having them berate and abuse each other, let the couple help each other grow.
Another tip: let the couple think about the other person when s/he is not around. If the protagonist truly loves someone, he (she) will think about her (him) even when she (he) is not around. This helps show that the love interest is part of his/her life.
If you have any questions, let me know!
While dialogue, appearance, history, hobbies, personality, and faults all help develop a character, one way to really cement him or her is when you write his or her POV. When you’re editing your story, make sure your character’s voice match and always relate to the things listed above.
For example, when you have a character with a very scientific mind, s/he will describe a hillside differently than someone who draws. The scientific mind might observe the hill and try deducing its purpose or how it was formed. An artist could mention the color and shape of it and how the hillside fits or doesn’t fit into the landscape. In doing this, you help solidify that the character actually enjoys science or drawing and make them seem less like a collection of facts but a real person.
What people like, their history, personality, and such influences and changes how they view the world. A yeomen and a noblemen would not consider the same things important and would have different knowledge and experiences. For a cliche example, a noblemen might compare juggling a lot of responsibility like a game or a chessboard (if s/he usually plays political games, anyways), where as a yeomen might decide that s/he will handle each problem one at a time, focusing on the ones that consider his/her direct safety or survival first. A nobleman might compare a particularly tough problem to a difficult subject s/he had in school. The yeomen might compare it to a plant that never seems to grow or the roof that always leaks no matter what s/he does. What character compare his/her situation too can also help develop him/her as a character.
One author who does a good job at this—which says Brandon Sanderson in his YouTube lectures—is Robert Jordan. So if you want a good example of this, read The Wheel of Time series.
All this being said, I don’t advise you try to write this way during a rough draft or you might end up just starting at page and getting yourself frustrated, especially if you don’t share the character’s history, hobbies, and so on. Editing this sort of description in after is the better choice; then you have the ability to research how a blacksmith or doctor might view the world.
As always, if you have any questions, let me know. I’m happy to help.
Every writer (should) edit her/his story. Errors clutter first drafts—but I’m not just referring to typos. Those are, generally speaking, the last thing you need to check for when editing. Editing needs to be done a deeper level first.
So, how do you edit on a deeper level?
I’m going to show you. I could tell you, but that work as well as an example. So. I’m going to take one paragraph from one of my stories and edit it while explaining what I’m doing.
My goal for this edit is:
- Develop the character and tone/setting
- To reduce the word count by at least 15% but preferably 20%
The following is the first paragraph to a story I haven’t looked at in least three years (and wrote at least four years ago. My writing has improved, or so I hope). The first book in a series of four or five, I never got around to writing the second book–though I still have it plotted–because other ideas got in the way (which is a bad writing practice, by the way). Anyways, I won’t tell you the genre in the hopes the writing itself will tell you (though, it is just one paragraph, so).
The air was thick and fat, but the rain was heavier still. It beat on Lee’s skin as if torture were its purpose. He was starting to believe heaven had decided to play a cruel joke, and he was its fool. He shook his head to trying to dislodge the wet hair plastered to his skin. He stomped his foot on the ground and water welled around his shoes. He had never wished for boots more than in that moment.
Not too great, eh?
Okay, lets edit this sentence by sentence. Remember, this is first edit. It will still have problems (mainly grammar) after we’re done. Also, the current word count is 80. We’re going cut this paragraph down to at least 68, preferably 60, words. Note: I usually do this by page, not paragraph.
The air was thick and fat, but the rain was heavier still. It beat on Lee’s skin as if torture were its purpose.
Ah, no. This “lofty” writing is a classic case of trying too hard. It sets up an awkward image at best. What does “thick” or “fat” (which, if you hadn’t noticed, mean the exact same thing) air mean anyways? Also, the first sentence is in passive voice.
Nevertheless, the next sentence is probably worse than the first. “Torture were its purpose” sounds terrible and suggests that Lee often contemplates torture, which isn’t true and misleads the reader about the character. However, the world is a rough one, so is his. I understand, at least, what I was trying to do with this.
He was starting to believe heaven had decided to play a cruel joke, and he was its fool.
This line is one where a writer must make a conscious choice to leave something somewhat vague. This line is meant to expand past Lee’s current situation and into his past (and a bit of foreshadowing too). But it get lost in the middle and just seems random and a tad over-dramatic, especially because he is whining about rain. While Lee is a tad overdramatic and fatalistic, the main point of this sentence isn’t coming through. It’s also passive.
He shook his head to trying to dislodge the wet hair plastered to his skin. He stomped his foot on the ground and water welled around his shoes.
Both of these describe an action meant to indicate how heavy the rain is, which we already have a sentence doing. So, is this needed? No, but it’s nice to provide a visual for your readers. From this, we learn that Lee is wearing shoes and that his hair is longer. However, the word “stomped” indicates that he is angry or frustrated, which isn’t true. Therefore, it needs to be reworded. It should also take place before the “fool line” because it helps set the scene and gives the reader a mental picture. The psychological stuff can come later.
He had never wished for boots more than in that moment.
Again, this line gives us a bit of his personality. We see that he tends to be dramatic and wishful. It also highlights how miserable the rain is and how much Lee doesn’t want to be there. So, why is he there? The reader has to keep going for that. However, I feel like the sentiment is misplaced. It is not the most important piece of this paragraph and, therefore, shouldn’t go last. It also seems like he wishes for boots a lot, which isn’t true.
Now, to clarify, I keep harping about putting more psychological stuff at the end of the sentence. There’s a reason for this: writers believe that, generally speaking, it is wise to set a concrete surrounding and move up towards the more vague descriptions as the paragraph continues. So, create images that will be generally seen the same way by all readers. For example; “The cream colored poodle cocked its head, one long ear dangling.” Most readers will have a similar picture in their heads for that. Compare it with; “The dog cocked its head.” Here, readers could have have hundreds of different images in their heads. See the difference? The first is concrete writing. The latter is more abstract.
So, let’s fix the paragraph.
The air humid and rain heavy, Lee had never wished so dearly for boots. He shifted his weight and his shoes squished. Sighing, he shook his head to keep his brown hair from dripping rain into his hazel eyes. Maybe heaven decided to play another joke on him. At least this one wasn’t cruel, just bothersome.
What changed? Almost everything. I’m not saying your edits need to be this radical (remember, I wrote this a long time ago). But, can you read the difference?
The air humid and rain heavy, Lee had never wished so dearly for boots.
Sets the scene in a few words. Gives you incite to Lee’s personality.
He shifted his weight and his shoes squished. Sighing, he shook his head to keep his brown hair from dripping rain into his hazel eyes.
Two visuals the readers can relate to and picture. It lets them know how heavy the rain is while telling them a bit about Lee (wears shoes, long(er) brown hair, green eyes) and is more concrete.
Maybe heaven decided to play another joke on him. At least this one wasn’t cruel, just bothersome
Now the reader really knows that Lee has some drama issues. He views the world in a pessimistic light and likes to think of things on a grand level. It also hints that something bad has happened to him. This isn’t the first time heaven has played with Lee (according to Lee). Now, the reader needs to decide if Lee always thinks so fatalistically, or if something happened to him, which is why he thinks so pessimistically.
“The fool” seemed a little too overdramatic, so I cut it out.
Did you count? Total words: 56.
We know Lee is dramatic, fatalistic, and pessimistic. We don’t know why. Some may not take him seriously, but, with the gloomy and rainy tone, one can assume he is not a goofy character. If the reader guessed that, then they can also suppose that the joke heaven played on him was bad, not that he considers everything like a curse but that one curse seems to follow him everywhere.
That is the impression it is supposed to give. You may not read it that way, which is fine. This is only a first edit. The purpose of this was to see how I edit.
What did you think? Helpful? What impression did the paragraph give you? Any questions?
Everybody loves a villain these days while the heroes tend to get slid-lined. There are lots of factors for this switch that writers can’t change, but there are ways to make your protagonist as interesting as your villain without having to write another anti-hero.
How, you ask? Let me tell you.
Probably the biggest reason why your protagonist is boring is because, largely, he or she simple reacts to whatever the antagonist does. Villains tend to have a goal that disrupts another’s life and forces that person into action. Naturally, then, readers will find the villain more interesting, perhaps even more sympathetic. The villain has a dream and everyone can relate to that.
We, as humans, like to see people take action and want them to accomplish their goals. However, characters who sit simply react to someone else’s actions seem . . . boring, dull, and one-dimensional by comparison. The fact is most (if not everyone) has a dream. It doesn’t have to be a big or grand, but people have goals. Having a character that just acts to stop someone else’s goals does not create a relatable, dynamic character. And, yes, I know, there are other ways to make a character relatable and interesting. However, active characters (those who do things and form their own plans) are always more interesting than passive ones (those who respond the another’s actions).
This doesn’t mean your character has to be a “chess master” who outplays the villain; it simple means your character needs to take independent actions to achieve his or her own goals. These goals do not need to be in response to the villain’s action. Another tip: have your protagonist actively working towards a goal and then the villain comes and messes things up for them. If you establish your character as active before the villain comes along, that perception will carry through to the reader for a bit.
The day of thee super-perfect protagonist has died. While there is some place for it, for the most part people do not want to read about the “perfect” guy or girl who excels at everything, fights for justice, loves and forgives everyone and all things good while having the ultimate power to do so. Yeah, not so much. These days, readers crave relatable characters that have kinks in their armor and flaws in their personalities. Giving your character flaws will likely increase how much your reader enjoys and attaches to him/her.
There use to be (and still is somewhat) this idea that protagonists should be a “blank slate” personality so that the reader can put his/herself into the story and become that character. Now writers know that tends to create extremely boring protagonists, and it is better to let the reader relate to a character whose has his/her own vibrant personality. Sometimes, readers will even connect to a character through that character’s fault.
Many people have probably heard this tip before, but one way to make a main protagonist more interesting is to make him/her more relatable to the reader. An easy (ish) way to do this is by giving the character likes, dreams, quirks, hobbies and the like outside of the main story arch. This will really make them come to life. For example, a baker who wants to open her/his own shop also enjoys origami. That makes this baker unique and more “real”.
As always, I’m happy to answer any questions you have. Also, if there are any topics you are curious about let me know! If I have a good answer for you, I’ll write a blog post about it.
Lastly, if you’re looking for great writing advice and where I get most of mine, check out Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on YouTube. He’ll teach you how to write “better” and how to come across like a professional instead of hobbyist.
When should you kill a character? There is no “right” or “wrong” answer. Killing a character is a big deal and can change the entire course of your story. Also highly circumstantial, no hard and fast rules exist. So I’ll tell you the general rules of thumb I follow when writing.
Warning: I’ll probably use some examples. If you see the name of the series, the character who dies in that series is soon to follow.
Before you read when I kill characters, keep these rules in mind:
- How will this death change other characters?
- How will this death change the plot?
- How will this death change the story’s tone?
- How will the readers feels about this death?
- What are you trying to accomplish with this death?
Some deaths must happen to move the plot forward. Take A Song of Ice and Fire’s Eddard Stark, for example. His death launches the story into motion. The first book sometimes feels a bit prolog-y in retrospect his death impacts the plot so greatly.
Of course, the character’s death does not need to move the story plot forward; it can also move a character’s emotional plot forward as well, which is why parents so often die in stories, highly emotional for the character, usually not so much for the reader.
Obviously, whenever you kill a character the story and emotional (at least of some characters) plot will change—unless the whole point is to show how nothing changes, which brings me to my next reason to kill a character.
Sometimes I will axe a character because he or she isn’t really doing anything. S/he does not add to the story or the plot and just sort of exists. If this happens, the character has essentially become deadweight. I generally consider two options then: re-think the plot or remove the character from the story. “Removal” doesn’t have to mean death; the character can phase out of the narrative (go on a vacation, get called home etc.). Of course, it can mean death. Still, I hesitate to kill the person unless it adds to the development of another character and sends s/he in the direction I want. Why? Keep reading.
Watch out for this one. It can needlessly anger your readers (as can “pointless death, which is killing a character for the sake of simply raking up the body count); on the flip side, it’s a potent tool that can act like a good slap in the face for readers or characters. Don’t overuse this; at some point readers will start to expect unexpected deaths. Joss Whedon does a fantastic job of shock deaths. (Spoiler ahead) Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Paul Ballard in Dollhouse both suffer this fate.
Remember that shock factor doesn’t have to mean dying in some dramatic blaze-of-glory fashion. You could, if you wanted, have someone walking down the street get hit by a bus.
You can you the amount of character death—or lack thereof—to help set your story or series tone. However, there should be other factors that help set this. I don’t recommend just piling on the bodies to make your story seem more serious or dark. Generally, this just frustrates the reader.
While it sounds a bit like shock factor and plot device (or a refined and better use of tone setter), but I wanted to put it on its own anyways. Why? Because killing a character lets your story (or gives you the option) to completely change its path and tone. A game changing death can also act as a signifier, usually meaning: you know what has hit the fan. It can add an element of tension and drama for both readers and characters too. Take Harry Potter for example. The entire series is said to “mature” or “take a darker side” after one character’s death, successfully transition the series from light-hearted middle grade series to a more serious and dark young adult series. So, if you’re going to do this, make sure you know your purpose for it.
As always, let me know if you have any questions!
To my friend, who died not 48 hours ago
Looking at the sea, she watches the sun set into water. Long shadows stretch over the ground and reach across the sand like fingers. So many things these shadows have touched.
Wind tugs at her hair. She brushes strands from her face, but her fingers crumble apart. Little flakes of her dead flesh drift away as the breeze carries them into the water.
“So, then.” She smiles, both beautiful and sad. “This is it.”
Who knew her time would be so short? Only 23 years. She looks back at the long sunset-cast shadows as her wrists crumble away, her toes too. Ah, she sees such life behind her. Perhaps her time was short, but memories made it brilliant and bright, full of colors and laughter. Regrets do creep into her mind, dream unfulfilled, years unseen, but she embraces what she had and did.
Up to her elbows now death has claimed her. The sobs of those she’s left behind carry in the wind that carries her away. Eyes closed, a tear slips free. Yes, she thinks, there is another thing I regret to leave behind. Such a large family she had! So many brothers and sisters . . .
“And I the oldest too” she sighs. “What will they do with me gone?”
Still staring behind her, her arms and legs have fallen away. She floats now, more spirit than flesh, her hair wavying around her like a halo. She sees the glass lightening has made in the sand. Each moment of her life that stuck another’s solidified her in both hearts. Yes, she left friends and family now, but they will cling to those share moments, when two lives touch and change each other.
There will be no body for her. The wind has spirited it away. Her soul yet lingers, watching. She turns around and lets go. A bright light. Her soul winks away to those pearly gates.