I originally wrote this seminar for a workshop I gave at a science fiction convention in Toronto. It therefore has a few sections that are specific to the venue (for example, many of the examples are obviously science fiction or fantasy). For the most part, however, the advice I give applies to all types of fiction—not just science fiction, but fiction in general.
Before starting, I want to make an important point: the value of advice doesn’t lie in the advice itself but in your own response to the advice. As you read this seminar, think about what I say, look for examples in the fiction you read, and try things out in your own writing. Even if you ultimately decide that I’m full of crap, you’ll still have learned something useful—you’ll have a clearer idea of where you want to go because you’ll know where you don’t want to go. On the other hand, if you smile and say, “Oh, that’s great advice,” but you never do anything with it, then nobody’s better off.
One more point: some people may think I’m saying, “Everybody ought to write like me.” Wrong. As a writer, your goal is to find voices within yourself. Those voices will, of course, be colored by many outside influences including the books you read, the people you know, and perhaps even the advice from this seminar…but all those influences should pass through the filter of your own psyche and come out imbued with your own unique touch.
If that sounds daunting, don’t worry; it happens automatically. You can’t write like anyone else—you can only write like yourself. So relax, loosen your collar, and do it. The writing shall make you free.
Table of Contents
1. Introduction 1.1 Talent vs. Learned Skills 1.2 Resources 2. Reading Your Writing 2.1 Seeing What's on the Page 2.2 Reviewing and Reading Aloud 2.3 A Note About Heinlein's Rules of Writing 2.4 Things Can Change 3. Viewpoint 3.1 Choice of Words 3.2 Description 3.3 Impertinent Details 3.4 Naturalism Vs. Alternative Modes 4. Action 4.1 Suspense and Withholding Information 4.2 Maguffins 4.3 Reincorporation 5. Setting 6. Dialogue 6.1 Talking Heads 6.2 Said-bookisms 7. Words 7.1 Verbs 7.2 Adjectives, Adverbs, Etc. 7.3 Repetition vs. Elegant Variation 7.4 Gender-Neutral Language 7.5 Names 7.6 Clichés 7.7 The Risks of Early Metaphor 7.8 Rhythm 8. General Tips 8.1 Acknowledging the Unusual and the Obvious 8.2 Don't Avoid the Future 8.3 Showing Your Work to Others 8.4 Comedy 8.5 Eh vs. Huh 9. Conclusion 10. Exercises
90% of my writing time is spent on two things:
- Trying to write the next sentence.
- Trying to improve the sentence I just wrote.
Many writing seminars concentrate on finding story ideas, creating characters, developing plot, etc. Those things are important, but they don’t occupy much of a writer’s time. It takes me about 12 hours (spread over a few days) to come up with everything I need to start writing a novel. After that, I spend a few minutes a day sorting out plot and character details, but the rest of my time is spent writing or revising prose: one sentence after another, putting down the words that actually constitute the story.
This seminar discusses how to string words together…and how to do it well. Writers who can’t use words are like painters who can’t hold their paintbrushes; artists (including writers) have to master the materials of their art, and words are the most basic materials we writers have.
If you want to learn to draw, you have to draw. It’s not enough to read a book or listen to a lecture. You have to train your eye-hand coordination; you have to improve the fine-motor skills of the muscles in your drawing hand; you have to develop the visual areas of your brain to see as an artist sees. There’s no magic—there’s just the (lengthy) process of improving your physical and mental abilities by applying yourself to the work.
Similarly, if you want to learn to write, you have to write. How-to books and seminars may open your eyes to new possibilities and help you avoid going down blind alleys, but they won’t build the neural circuits you need for good writing. Your brain can’t change overnight: it takes time to develop the skills and insights required to be a writer. If you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy that time. It won’t always be easy, but it doesn’t have to be drudgery. Writing should be a labor of love—you can’t avoid the labor, but the love of what you’re doing makes it worthwhile.
A Slightly Embarrassed Disclaimer: This seminar contains numerous prose passages designed to illustrate principles of writing. Often, these passages have been exaggerated to make a point. For example, when I talk about narrator tone of voice, I use narrators with intrusively extreme tones of voice; I want to make it very obvious how the narrator’s personality influences the prose. In practice, you’d usually aim for more subtlety…unless you’re Damon Runyan, P.G.Wodehouse, or some other writer whose style is intended to
I’m open to the possibility that there’s such a thing as talent: an inborn potential for doing something better than people who don’t have that inborn potential. However, talent is at most a potential, not a developed gift. Even talented people have to do the work and learn the skills before they can achieve anything.
Furthermore, nobody knows whether you have talent until it manifests itself. You don’t know; I don’t know; your friends don’t know; your writing teachers don’t know. All you can do is work and see what comes out.
The first stuff you write probably won’t be good—someone once said we all have 10,000 lousy pages inside of us and we have to write those pages before we can see if there’s any good stuff underneath. I believe that more than I believe in talent.
So don’t jump to conclusions about whether you have the potential to be a writer.
Nobody knows until you’ve done it…so get to work.
This seminar discusses how prose is used in fiction. For information about writing prose in general, I recommend the old reliable Elements of Style by Strunk and White. My favorite guides to grammar and punctuation are The Transitive Vampire and The Well-Tempered Sentence, both by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. You might also look at style guides—the one I consult most often is from the Canadian Press, but there are also good ones from many other newspapers in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. (I prefer newspaper style guides rather than academic guides like The Chicago Manual of Style…but hey, check out a bunch of guides and see which you like yourself.)
When you’re choosing reference books, I recommend that you go to the library before you go to the bookstore. Take out a variety of books, put them on your writing desk or your bedside table, and see which ones you actually use in the next two or three weeks. Once you know what works for you, then you can buy your own copy.
Remember that having a book doesn’t do you any good if you never open it. The best dictionary, for example, is whichever one you’ll actually use. Those big honking dictionaries that weigh fifty pounds may look impressive, but if they’re so heavy you leave them on the coffee table instead of your writing desk, they’re a waste of money.
Before you can write, you have to read. Specifically, you must read a ton of books, inside and outside your chosen genre—getting the feel for what has been done and what can be done.
|Writing is one of the few arts where you have unlimited freedom to make corrections. If a violinist plays a wrong note during a concert, there’s no way to go back and do it right. If a painter messes up part of a painting, it’s possible to paint over the problem, but if you do that too often, you get a thick lump of paint layers. If an architect makes a mistake (to quote Frank Lloyd Wright), “all you can do is plant vines.” But writers can keep going until they’re satisfied.|
You also have to read your own work. Assess what’s there, and decide what needs to be done in order to make it better. In the process of reading your work analytically, you’ll probably find mistakes and weaknesses…but that’s okay. You can rewrite as often as necessary.
Learning how to read your own writing is a crucial skill. You have to detach yourself from possessiveness; you have to develop the skill to see what’s worth keeping and what isn’t. It isn’t easy, but a degree of judgment comes with time.
Writers are often told to “kill their darlings”—toss out stuff that you really like but that doesn’t fit with the rest of what you’re doing. (Samuel Johnson once said, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”) But you also have to be able to recognize material that actually has value, even if it isn’t yet in perfect shape. That means you have to see both the good stuff and the bad…and that’s tricky.
To be a good photographer, you have to see what’s actually in the picture. It’s easy to concentrate on the “subject” of a photograph, and ignore distracting background details that spoil the total effect. We’ve all seen snapshots of people who look like they have trees growing out of their heads, or who are standing at a slant because the camera was crooked. In these cases, the photographers didn’t see what was in the viewfinder; they had the desired images in their heads and were blind to what was really there.
The same applies to writers. It’s easy to think you’ve written one thing when you’ve actually written something else. I’m not talking about simple typos (although typos can be symptoms of not paying enough attention to what you’re doing). The more significant problem is when you think you’ve said something clearly, but the result is just confusing…or even worse, the result is at odds with what you intended.
You think you’ve depicted your hero as smart…but readers think the guy is a stupid jerk. You think you’ve written great drama…but readers think it’s a comedy. You think your setting is daringly original…but readers have seen it all before and they’re yawning. A story is a tool for planting your ideas into a reader’s head, and if you aren’t careful, your tool won’t work.
If readers can’t follow what you’re saying, that’s your problem, not theirs—you haven’t made your words clear enough. It’s your job to be comprehensible… or (on rare occasions) to be incomprehensible in such a way that readers immediately realize they aren’t supposed to understand what’s going on.
|Disclaimer: No story will ever please everyone. If certain readers don’t like your subject matter, c’est la vie. But if they don’t understand what you’re saying, that’s something you should learn how to correct.|
If you’re part of a writers’ group, learn to distinguish feedback from advice.
Feedback tells you how people reacted to your writing. That’s valuable, and you should always pay attention to it. When readers don’t “get” what you’ve written, ask yourself why and what you can do to fix it.
Advice, on the other hand, is often useless—it might be wrong, or it might describe a solution that doesn’t fit with your skills and/or taste.
Always pay attention to feedback; take advice with a grain of salt.
Review everything you write, and revise whatever needs changing. Editing a piece the same day you write it isn’t good enough—review at least 24 hours later, when you’ve got a little distance and perspective. Do your best to see the piece from the reader’s viewpoint; fix anything that doesn’t get the right message across.
Part of reviewing is reading everything aloud. Notice where your tongue stumbles—if the words throw you off (even a little bit), readers will be thrown off too. They’ll have to pause a moment, and maybe reread the sentence before they understand. You don’t want that. Fix the sentence so you (and everyone else) can read it smoothly the first time.
If you do a significant amount of rewriting during a review, schedule another review…again, at least 24 hours later. Make sure your corrections are as smooth as you thought they were.
Knowing that you’re going to rewrite later can have a liberating effect. You don’t have to get everything right the first time—you can splash down words spontaneously, without worrying if they’re perfect. I toss in all kinds of stuff when I write my first rough drafts: anything that comes to mind, the messier the better. If it doesn’t work, I can remove it later…but often I find that something I created on a whim in Chapter 1 becomes crucial in Chapter 10. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come to a point where I needed to solve some plot problem, then realized the solution lay in some minor detail I’d just thrown in for the sake of color earlier on. Serendipity is my friend; I rely on it absolutely.
|I start every writing day by reviewing what I wrote the day before. I also do a complete review after I finish a draft. Remember, when I talk about a “review” I mean rereading the piece (at least once out loud) and revising anything that needs to be changed. The revision process can often take longer than you spent writing the piece the first time; if that’s what it takes, so be it.|
Even if you don’t depend on serendipity, you’ll find it easier to start writing if you don’t demand perfection the first time around. Once you’ve written something (anything!), you have material you can work with. You have a starting point instead of a blank piece of paper (or computer screen). Sometimes I find writing the first draft of something to be as hard as pulling teeth; it only gets harder if you tell yourself it has to be perfect. I write rough stuff, then make it better. That’s what works for me.
Those familiar with Robert A. Heinlein’s Rules of Writing will know that he recommended against rewriting, except at the request of an editor. My answer to this is twofold:
- I agree there’s such a thing as too much rewriting. At some point, you just have to say, “It’s done,” and begin the next story. Too many people waste their time rewriting the same thing over and over, when they’d be better off starting something new.
- There’s much to be said for doing your best the first time rather than saying, “Ahh, I’ll fix it on the rewrite.” Nevertheless, I believe rewriting is absolutely necessary, especially for neophyte writers. How can you improve if you don’t read what you’ve written, identify any flaws, and figure out how to make the piece better? If you don’t learn to recognize weaknesses and how to correct them, you’ll just keep making the same old mistakes.
|Good tennis players always review their most recent game to see if they had any problems. If they did, they work on whatever they were doing wrong so they’ll be better the next time. Writers should do the same…and unlike tennis players, writers have the chance to fix their mistakes before anything gets seen by the public.|
While I’m talking about rewriting, I want to share an insight I had while reading Cold Fire by Dean Koontz. The novel has two lead characters. The hero is a man who gets psychic premonitions of crimes, accidents, and other such tragedies; when he gets such a premonition, he rushes to the site of the disaster and tries to save as many people as he can. The heroine is a reporter who sees the man yank a child from the path of an oncoming car; she wants to interview him as a “Good Samaritan” but he refuses. Later, she sees his picture in connection with a woman he just rescued from a biker gang. The reporter tries to track the man down and eventually follows him onto an airplane that he has foreseen will crash on takeoff. She just catches up with him when all hell breaks loose and the two of them work together to help as many people as possible survive the crash.
The crash is a lovely dramatic scene, and shows us a lot about the strength and courage of the two leads…but when I’d finished reading the scene, I had an epiphany: it didn’t have to be an air crash. Koontz could have chosen any other kind of disaster—a ferry sinking, a terrorist bombing, an earthquake, a tornado—and it wouldn’t have made any meaningful difference to the book. In fact, the only plot requirement was to get the hero and heroine together. They could have met in a coffee shop and the plot would proceed in exactly the same way.
Why is this an important insight? Because it showed me that nothing is cast in stone. Koontz did a good job of writing the air crash—it was tense and memorable. But if, for some reason, he wrote a draft of the air crash and decided he didn’t like it, he could have replaced the whole scene with something else and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the rest of the book.
|This is a lesson every writer has to learn: your first version isn’t the only possibility.|
Stories are fictions you invent. If you decide a particular scene doesn’t work, you can invent something different that serves the same purpose. Sure, you may have to make little adjustments in the rest of the piece—you might have to change a line in some later chapter from, “Remember that time in the air crash,” to, “Remember that time in the earthquake”—but generally speaking, stories and novels have few elements that are so essential they can’t be changed.
Your first version isn’t the only possibility. Almost anything can be replaced if it’s not working.
All writing is done from someone’s viewpoint. This is most obvious in stories that are told in the first person: “It was cold the day I shot my best friend…”
Other stories are told in third person, but are obviously being seen from a particular character’s perspective: “Jane couldn’t remember the last time she’d kissed a man.” Obviously, that sentence shows we’re sitting inside Jane’s head, even if the words are written in the third person. I once heard this approach called “using a sigma character” and that phrase has stuck with me (even though I’ve never heard the expression since).
Some pieces (especially long stories and novels) may be told through multiple sigma characters. For example, The Lord of the Rings is told through the viewpoints of the various hobbits in the story, switching back and forth between hobbits to cover all the action. A single sigma character is used throughout a unified block of text (i.e. throughout a chapter or a distinct section within a chapter). When you reach a new chapter or section, you can change to a new sigma character…but it’s almost always a mistake to change sigma characters when you aren’t at an obvious break in the text. If, for example, you switch viewpoint characters in the middle of a paragraph, the effect is typically clumsy and confusing.
A few stories are not told from the viewpoint of any character in the story. For example, the famous “third person omniscient” type of story is told by a godlike being who can see into everyone’s mind as well as seeing into the past and the future. This doesn’t mean there’s no viewpoint character—the persona telling the story is as much a character as anyone who’s actually in the story. As an example, consider anything by Terry Pratchett: the viewpoint character is Pratchett himself, tossing off jokes, footnotes, and side remarks as he tells the story. In other words, Pratchett creates a persona for himself and narrates the story from that persona’s viewpoint.
You may have learned all this viewpoint stuff in Grade 10 English. If so, you probably said, “So what? Why does viewpoint matter? Why can’t I just write however I want and forget about artsy-fartsy literary terminology?”
The answer is that viewpoint is essential in winning the reader’s confidence and sympathy. Readers experience everything in the story through the perceptions of the viewpoint character(s). A reader’s relationship to the viewpoint character(s) is the primary factor determining the reader’s relationship to the story as a whole.
If, for example, the readers are bored by a viewpoint character (VPC), they’ll find the whole story boring. They won’t want to “hang out” with the character; they don’t care what the character experiences. On the other hand, if the readers are sympathetic toward a VPC (or, in the case of villains like Darth Vader or Hannibal Lector, if the readers get a kick out of the character, even if the character isn’t conventionally likable), the readers will be favorably disposed to the story as a whole.
The #1 most common mistake of beginning writers is screwing up the viewpoint. Here’s an example:
Beth watched the second-hand on the office clock work its way up to the 12. That made it a full hour now; she’d give Jeff another five minutes, then she’d call him herself. Yes. Definitely. In five minutes she’d call. She brushed a strand of her fiery red hair away from her piercing green eyes and tried not to look at the clock again.
What part of this is wrong? To me, the phrases “fiery red hair” and “piercing green eyes” are glaring authorial intrusions. The first few sentences give us Beth’s point of view; in fact, we’re inside her head. Beth’s attention is focused on the clock and the call she’s waiting for. She’s definitely not thinking about the color of her hair or her eyes. (When I brush my hair from my eyes, I don’t suddenly think, “Oh hey, my hair and my eyes are brown.”)
|Just out of interest, take five books at random off your shelf and see if they actually describe the viewpoint character in the first three pages. I did this myself and found that three of the books had no description at all, one cleverly worked in a single phrase (“a disreputable man in his early thirties” spoken by a constable who was arresting the VPC), and one was written in the first person, with the narrator stating that the two middle fingers on both her hands were the same length. No other details. Personal descriptions aren’t as common as you might think.|
Therefore, the sample paragraph starts off in Beth’s viewpoint—in fact, it’s trying to make the reader feel the same emotions Beth is feeling—but suddenly, the author jams in some stuff that takes you right out of Beth’s head. The spell is broken. You’re jarred out of the mood as you stop identifying with Beth and see her from the outside.
Authors usually make this kind of mistake when they think too much. Instead of just putting themselves in Beth’s place and telling what Beth sees, they start worrying that they should do more. “Oooo, I’m talking about this woman but I haven’t described her yet. Readers probably want to know what she looks like.” So the author decides to “help” the readers by subtly sneaking in some details.
Don’t. Just don’t.
Whenever you screw up the viewpoint, you jerk the reader out of the story. Some readers will be conscious of this; others will simply lift their eyes from the page, not knowing why they suddenly don’t have much urge to read the next sentence.
Here’s the bottom line: if you present a consistent viewpoint, the story feels professional; if you mess up the viewpoint, the story feels amateurish. If the viewpoint character is engaging, readers will be engaged by the story; if the viewpoint is tepid, you’ve got a real uphill climb.
|I’m not saying your VPCs must be flamboyant or unusual. Of course, they can be…but they can also be normal joes or janes. The point is that they are a reader’s gateway into the story—the eyes through which the reader sees—and you must present characters in such a way that a reader is willing to go along for the ride.|
Your viewpoint character inevitably conveys an attitude through choice of words. Consider the following three sentences:
Her hair was brown.
Her hair was the color of good rich earth, gleaming in the sunlight.
Her hair was the same shade as a dog turd that’s sat on the sidewalk for three days.
All three of these convey similar information about the woman’s hair…but obviously, there’s a world of difference in emotional content. In each case, the viewpoint character passes judgment, and the character’s choice of words reveal what that judgment is.
The above examples are deliberately extreme, but the same principle applies to everything. Choice of words reveals the viewpoint character’s personal tastes, however subtly. Does the VPC say that someone walks to the door, strides to the door, scurries to the door, or slinks to the door? Each word carries a different perception and a different quality imputed to the person who’s going to the door.
Notice that I say the viewpoint character chooses the words. Of course, it’s really you, the author, who chooses the words…but you choose them to reflect the perceptions and prejudices of the VPC. If the VPC dislikes someone, the VPC is likely to refer to that person with negatively loaded words; if the VPC is in love with someone else, the VPC will tend to use positively loaded words.
So the choice of words reflects the VPC’s judgments. The words also reflect the VPC’s background: an older person is likely to use different words than a younger one; an educated person will use different words than a not-too-bright peasant; a mercenary soldier talks differently from a bishop. I don’t just mean the way these people talk in dialogue. I mean everything in the story that is told from that person’s point of view, whether you’re using first or third person. You’re describing events as that person sees them; never allow yourself to fall out of character.
Memorize this principle:
|A descriptive passage is the story of a character’s encounter with a person, place or thing.|
Description is not a list of details; it’s not the passive experience of sitting back and looking at a scene. It’s the story of a character’s encounter with a person, place or thing.
For example, when you enter a room, what do you do? You look around; your eyes and ears get a first impression, then focus on specifics. The specific details you notice depend on the situation, your general personality, and your current mood. If you’re urgently looking for a particular friend, you’ll probably ignore most of what’s happening in the room. On the other hand, if you’re bored and just killing time, you may stop and look around for a while, even if you don’t immediately see anything worth your interest.
In writing, a character’s frame of mind influences what that character notices. It also influences how the character behaves in response. For example, suppose your viewpoint character enters a room crowded with people. Some VPCs will freeze in the doorway; some will back away and leave; some will stride into the middle of the room and say hello; some will slide along the wall and sit in the back corner; some will stand out of the way and see if they know anyone who’s present.
When describing a character entering a room, the story typically consists of:
- The character opens the door;
- The character sees one or more people (and hears them, smells them, gets first impressions—there’s a big difference between looking into a room full of 50-year-old business guys drinking cocktails, or one filled with terrorists dressed in combat uniforms and quietly cleaning their Uzis);
- The character reacts to the sight and does something (even if the character’s reaction is just standing quietly).
|Here’s the point: you don’t describe the room, you relate the story of the character entering the room. You tell what the character sees and what he or she does in response. Different characters will see and do different things.|
Let’s look at some examples: an assortment of characters walking into a karate school where a group of teenagers is having a class. Though it won’t be obvious, all three of the VPCs are encountering the same scene.
I heard the kids long before I reached the door: high-pitched voices shouting, “Hai!” every three seconds. When I peeked inside, I saw it was some kind of kicking drill—the teacher would count, everyone would shout, everyone would kick. Some kids kicked higher and harder than others…a few keen boys tried to outdo each other, and some mousy girls, devoid of makeup, did what they were told because they always did what they were told.
The rest of the class were just dogging it: boys making no effort and girls (with plenty of makeup) doing their best not to work up the tiniest bead of sweat.
Like most such schools, it stood in a god-forsaken strip mall: between the U-Brew Beer Shoppe and some out-of-business whole-wheat-and-tofu bistro that used to be called Nature’s Bounty.
Cheap Sandalwood incense wafted out the school’s door as I approached, foreshadowing what I knew I’d see when I stepped inside—tacky little Japanese tzotchkes bought at Samurais ‘R Us to give that faux-Ginza flavor all soccer moms appreciate when it’s time for little Megan and Justin to learn lethal strikes to the throat. Sure enough, when I stepped gingerly inside (onto a gritty entrance mat that hadn’t been vacuumed since the Tokugawa shogunate), my eyes were assaulted by the requisite black-lacquered screens depicting pasty-faced blob-men trying to behead each other, and Laughing-Buddha urns that would have brought the real Gotama Siddhartha to tears. If that wasn’t bad enough, the pimply-faced collection of adolescents inside were all wearing badly fitted outfits that I knew were a polyester-dacron blend. I mean, really! The scrappy old fellows who invented karate would have committed seppuku if they ever saw such a travesty. As for me, I closed my eyes and wondered if this was Tokyo’s way of getting back at us for Hiroshima.
There are two types of dojos: those run to make a lot of money, and those run to make enough money. If you want to make a lot of money, you put up fancy signs, you have big placards advertising enrollment specials, and you mount a shelf of trophies in the front lobby, where potential customers can see that your students win plenty of competitions. If you only want to make enough money—enough to keep the school in business so the owner and his inner circle have a place to train—then you decorate enough to meet the expectations of middle-class wannabes, and you save any excess cash for buying kick shields or focus
One look at the outside of Black Dragon told me this was an “enough money” school. The sign above the door was neat but not gaudy. The windows had no ads at all—just a small sheet of paper saying VISITS BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. That told me there was no receptionist, secretary, anything like that; just the owner, who couldn’t fully shut out the public but didn’t want to be bothered too much by them.
When I went in, there was a class in progress—the usual thing, a bunch of teenagers hacking around, none of them very good. The instructor at the front of the room was a different story. She couldn’t have been more than five-foot-two, Italian-looking, in her forties: maybe an office worker in real life, the sort who’d got to thinking she was a few pounds heavy and looked around for an exercise program that wasn’t dominated by clones of Aerobics Barbie. Now it was several years later; she’d only reached her brown belt, but as she led those kids, every single one of her kicks was higher than her own head, with enough strength and focus to shatter a man’s jaw.
I smiled. If that’s what this school produced in a brown belt, the black belt people would be more than adequate for my purposes.
End of samples. Notice how much characterization is implicit in what each narrator observes—the narrators never describe themselves, but after reading these passages, we know a lot about each one. The first pays attention to which girls do or don’t wear makeup. The second has no interest in the students; all this narrator cares about is the décor. The third seems knowledgeable about martial arts, and is the only one who pays attention to the instructor; we don’t know what he’s here for, but it probably involves big-time butt-kicking.
Notice also that each character has an attitude toward what is being perceived. They don’t just describe what they see; they respond to it emotionally. I exaggerated the responses so they’d be more obvious. Still, these passages aren’t too wildly over the top. They demonstrate that descriptions aren’t passive lists of details—they’re active interplays between a character and an environment.
When I say “active,” the actions don’t have to be dramatic. The action of the first character is to check out the students. The second character looks around, then closes his eyes in horror. The third character focuses on the instructor, watches her a few seconds, then smiles. These aren’t big actions, but they’re all sufficient to set a tone that marks an endpoint for the passage. Each story can now go on with some new development, having described the basic setting to the reader’s satisfaction.
|Since your VPC determines what you can say in a story, you have to choose a VPC who’s suited to the story’s needs. This means you pick a character whose knowledge and perceptions make it possible to tell the story through that character’s eyes. For example, you probably wouldn’t pick the “interior decorator” VPC shown in Example 2 if your story involved significant fights. The interior decorator just doesn’t care enough about martial arts to give a sufficient description of a fight scene.|
When we envision a scene, we tend to limit the décor to relevant things. For example, take a second to picture a restaurant. You probably thought of tables, chairs, people eating, maybe a few more generic details.
But when you think of a particular restaurant, at a particular place and time—or better yet, when you look closely at a restaurant the next time you go to one (and listen closely, plus touch, smell, taste)—you’ll see there are plenty of details that aren’t generic at all. Perhaps there are posters on the wall; perhaps there’s a table of kids having a birthday party; perhaps the air-conditioning is bone-chillingly cold. (I haven’t even mentioned the smell of food, the tank full of live lobsters, and the bell that rings when an order is ready.)
Details like this can lift a generic restaurant scene into something more specific…but they’re still pretty predictable. They’re typical restauranty things. To introduce a dash more life into a scene, add something that isn’t so typical. For example, the server who serves the VPC might have a splash of spaghetti sauce on his shirt, and he might keep apologizing, “Some kid hit me with this, and I don’t have a clean shirt here, and we’re too busy for me to go home.” This sort of passing detail is still quite believable, but it lifts the scene from the generic into something that truly puts a picture in the reader’s mind. A generic restaurant is vague; sauce on the shirt is vivid.
One of my writing teachers called this an “impertinence”: a detail that makes a scene more tangible because it’s not the same-old same-old. Notice that the sauce splash isn’t weird or out of place; it’s just different enough from common experience that it feels like the VPC is describing something that actually happened. The scene becomes more real in the reader’s mind—it changes from “generic restaurant” to “I was at East Side Mario’s last night, and this guy who was taking our order had this great big smear down his shirt…”
|Too often, the only things we put into a scene are the relevant things: stuff that’s required by the plot, or stuff that has to be there because of the nature of the setting (for example, a normal restaurant has to have tables). But real life doesn’t restrict itself to relevant things…and you can make a scene feel more real if you toss in an impertinent detail now and then. This gives the reader the impression you’re talking about a specific occasion (“the night our waiter had ketchup on his shirt”) rather than action taking place in a vacuum.|
For my purposes, naturalism is an attempt to depict people and things as they really are. In science fiction and fantasy, this is seldom “real life” as we live it today. Still, naturalistic SF&F still aims at an air of ordinary people going about ordinary lives in whatever milieu they inhabit.
The alternatives to naturalism are not necessarily “unnatural” but they are departures from the mundane. One common example is comedy: while comedy can be firmly rooted in real life, the comic mode allows for departures from naturalism. People in comedies are wittier than normal, situations may grow more convoluted, and consequences are usually lighter. Comedies are more elastic than naturalistic writing—even if a comedy never strays beyond the bounds of possibility, what happens in comedies is generally more vivid than we recognize
life to be.
|If you don’t like the word “mode,” you can substitute “tone,” “atmosphere,” or “ambience.” The point is that all writing has an overarching “feel” to it. Longer works can have scenes that diverge from the dominant mode—for example, a “serious” piece can contain the occasional comic scene (comic relief)—but these diverging scenes can’t be allowed to derail the feel of the whole work. For example, Hamlet can take a few minutes to talk to a comic gravedigger, but the scene can’t go on too long, and the play certainly can’t turn into a comedy in the last act just because of one funny character.|
Another alternative to naturalism is the mythic mode. This is common in fantasies, though science fiction can certainly be mythic too. In myths, everything is larger than life: the warriors are strong, brave and chosen by destiny; the women are beautiful and even a tavern wench has untapped reserves of heroism; the villains (even if they sometimes have consciences) will go to any lengths to achieve their ends. I’m not saying fantasy has to be this way—plenty of good fantasies aren’t. But this mode is a popular one that’s been entertaining audiences for thousands of years, and it’s bound to outlive anyone who’s reading this now.
Other modes include such things as magic realism, experimental narrative forms, tall tales, melodrama, “slipstream” tales, and so on. I don’t want to judge any of these forms—masterpieces have been written in each mode. The only important point is that readers are quick to pick up on modes and to pigeonhole everything they read. This inevitably raises expectations…and it is up to writers to recognize those expectations and deal with them.
For example, if you start writing in a naturalistic mode, you can’t switch to slapstick comedy in the blink of an eye. The audience won’t go along with you. Similarly, if you start in slapstick comedy mode, you can’t suddenly switch to naturalism. You can (if you’re good) work a gradual transition; Romeo and Juliet, for example, starts much like a standard Shakespearean comedy with couples falling in love, barriers preventing their love, etc. But as Romeo and Juliet continues, it becomes more and more apparent that in this play, the lovers won’t find a happy ending. Romeo and Juliet is a comedy that gradually becomes a tragedy. (So, by the way, is Shakespeare in Love—it starts slapstick and gradually comes down to earth with real insurmountable problems.)
So you can gradually change modes if you have enough time and if you’re interested in such a transition. (Nothing says you can’t write in the same mode from start to finish. That’s more common than making a transition.) The thing you usually can’t do is change modes abruptly, especially after you’ve established your mode in the first few pages. If you’re in mythic mode, for example, you can bring in mythic-style comic relief—lots of myths have jokers and fools—but you can’t suddenly bring in something that conflicts glaringly with the mode you’ve established. A hundred pages into The Lord of the Rings, you can’t suddenly bring in Jerry Seinfeld. Once you establish a tone, you can’t drastically depart from that tone; it will jar the reader right out of the story.
And how do you establish a tone? You should know by now: through the viewpoint characters. The perceptions and attitudes of the VPCs establish the mode. For example, even though the subject matter of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld appears mythical, the droll voice of the narrator indicates that you’re really in a comedy. I dare say you could take roughly the same action as a Diskworld novel and make it into mythic fantasy; you might also be able to make it naturalistic. But Pratchett’s voice quickly tips off readers what mode they’re really in.
|Mode is not the same as subject matter. You can write a Swords’n’Sorcery book in any mode you like: naturalistic, comic, mythic, whatever. It’s not what you write, it’s how you write.|
You might ask, “What if I don’t want to choose a mode? What if I don’t want to limit myself?” The answer is that even if the writer doesn’t commit to a mode, the readers will. Within the first three pages of a story (or the first chapter of a book), readers lock in on what mode they think they’re reading. They’ll still cut you some slack for a while—they’ll go along with you, for example, if you have a prologue in one mode, then switch to a different mode for the main part of the book—but pretty soon they’ll decide what type of story they’re reading, and after that, they’ll throw the damned book across the room if you break the consistency.
In other words, you get a mode whether you choose one or not. If you don’t establish the mode yourself, the readers will impose one for you. Your readers will quickly build up expectations…and if you don’t meet those expectations, they’ll be frustrated and angry. You can’t stop the readers from building expectations; you can only control those expectations so that readers will accept what you give them.
Therefore you have to be conscious of what mode you’re establishing with your readers, and you have to avoid breaking out of that mode too jarringly. At best, you can work a gradual transition over the course of a novel, but that’s Big League stuff you’d better handle carefully.
|When you’re writing something, you don’t have to say, “I am writing in mythic mode” or explicitly name any other mode. You just have to be aware of what expectations you’re setting up in your reader. Surprises and twists are fine, so long as they’re in the general ballpark of what you’re doing…but you can’t just throw in something so out of keeping with the previous tone of your work that readers say, “What the heck is that doing there?”|
For the purposes of this seminar, “action” means people doing things. It doesn’t have to be dramatic—as far as I’m concerned, someone getting out of bed and making coffee is just as much “action” as a fist fight.
When you narrate action, make sure readers have time to absorb important events. This generally means giving more word-space to what’s important, and minimizing the word-space given to things that are less important. Here’s a simple swords-and-sorcery example:
After lunch, Jonric went to the training yard for some long-delayed fencing practice. He stabbed and slashed the mannequins a few hundred times, sparred with two cocky juniors who weren’t as good as they thought, had a much more interesting session with a grizzled seventy-year-old who turned out to be a retired sergeant-of-the-guard, and was listening to the sergeant describe the weaknesses of Elanthian saber techniques when Lord Tookamun entered the yard.
The sergeant stopped speaking mid-sentence. The juniors broke off their noisy mock battle and vanished through a side door. Jonric looked at the rapier in his hand and wished it didn’t have that big button on the tip to prevent it from doing real damage.
Notice how much word-space is devoted to various actions. Lunch is mentioned, but not described because it’s not important to the story. Jonric’s workout (which might have taken an hour or two) is described in a single sentence—it’s a long sentence listing several ways Jonric practiced, but it doesn’t go into detail on anything. We get the impression that Jonric is pretty good with a sword, but we don’t get any specifics.
Then Lord Tookamun arrives, and immediately we recognize this is going to be important. Why? Because the passage devotes a lot of word-space to his arrival. The first paragraph covers a couple hours of workout; the second paragraph covers no more than five seconds. Proportionately, we’ve given Tookamun a lot more space. Readers know he’s going to be important.
|You’ve probably heard the expression “Show, don’t tell.” The passage about Jonric and Tookamun illustrates this point. It never directly states that Tookamun is a scary dude; instead, it shows a number of people reacting fearfully at his arrival. Concrete evidence like that is far more convincing than saying, “Tookamun was the most terrifying man in all the kingdom.”|
You’ll notice the passage hasn’t yet described Tookamun; it only shows what other people do in response to his arrival. In movies, these would be called reaction shots: pictures of people reacting to what has just happened. Movies use reaction shots because of the same principle we’ve been discussing—to give more screen time to important events, so the audience can absorb that they’re important.
Consider, for example, a character getting hit with a bullet. In reality, this only takes a fraction of a second; in movies and books, the event requires a lot more time so it can sink in with the audience. Movies often use the trick of having the character fall in slow motion. They also cut to the faces of people watching, showing their shock and horror. (Sometimes the watchers move in slow motion too.) You might see blood splashing against nice clean walls, or the character who’s been shot might say something incoherent before passing out, or the camera might zoom in for a close-up of the body lying on the floor…in other words, Hollywood will do just about anything, no matter how cheesy, to prolong the moment. It’s necessary to give the audience time to appreciate the importance of what’s just happened.
The same applies to writing. You must give word-space to important events. Word-space tells readers which events are important.
Some moments need to be prolonged any way you can. Does this mean shamelessly padding with filler? Well, yes…sort of. You don’t want the filler to be worthless—you want it to heighten the mood, clarify what’s just happened, reveal aspects of your characters’ personalities—but if you can’t think of anything good, you still need to put in that filler when the timing of the situation demands it.
Go back to the example of Jonric and Lord Tookamun. The second paragraph is filler, designed to pad out the moment…but it also sets the mood and tells us something about the relationship between Jonric and Tookamun. Therefore the paragraph develops the story and helps it progress, even though the action of the story is temporarily put into a freeze frame.
Prolonging important moments is necessary in many situations. Consider, for example, a fight scene. Real fights seldom last more than a few seconds—whoever lands the first solid hit usually wins, whether you’re using fists, swords, guns, or phasers. But unless you’re trying to make a point about the briefness of genuine fights (“I hit him. He fell. End of story.”), you want the fight to have enough breadth to make an impression on the reader.
Roger Zelazny once recommended that fight scenes should have at least two sentences of filler for every sentence of genuine action. Otherwise, the fight moves too quickly for readers to “get into” what’s happening. Again, this doesn’t mean useless filler—it means various kinds of reaction shots and other material that contribute to mood or characterization without actually proceeding to the next tangible action in the fight. Here’s an example:
Without saying a word, Lord Tookamun stabbed at Jonric’s throat. Tookamun’s sword was some kind of Vardic weapon, like a katana except that its blade was blood red. Most of those damned things were enchanted—they were lighter than normal, faster to maneuver, and able to slice mere steel like candlewax. Jonric barely got his own sword up in time, a slanted parry that managed to deflect Tookamun’s blow without directly clashing Jonric’s blunt rapier against the sharp Vardic blade-edge. Even so, the katana shaved a thin sliver of steel off the rapier as it slid up the practice sword’s length. Jonric knew if he wanted to survive the next five seconds, he’d better come up with a way to even the odds.
As you can see, this paragraph has two actions: Tookamun attacks and Jonric parries. The pattern of the paragraph is
Action sentence Filler sentence Filler sentence Action sentence Filler sentence Filler sentence
However, the filler sentences are not wasted space. The first two filler sentences provide background information about Tookamun’s weapon. They heighten the suspense by showing that Jonric (with his pitiful practice sword) is in big trouble. The next filler sentence confirms that Tookamun’s blade is really bad news—it actually carves a piece off Jonric’s rapier. The final filler sentence is a reaction shot, telling how Jonric feels about all this and presumably leading to a new paragraph where Jonric will try some clever tactic to save himself.
What I’ve just described isn’t a formula that must be slavishly obeyed. Variety is essential—if you just keep going action-filler-filler, action-filler-filler, the scene gets boringly repetitive. You should vary the pattern, vary the sentence lengths, throw in interruptions, break for brief verbal exchanges (“Why are you doing this?”), etc., etc. That’s where writing becomes an art rather than a cookbook.
But you should understand the purpose that filler sentences serve in establishing a good pace for the action. Once you’ve developed a feeling for pace, you can come up with your own original techniques for controlling the action’s speed in the reader’s perception.
Once again, I want to note that I’ve been using extreme examples in this section—fights, overt hostility, etc. I’m only doing that because the issues stand out more clearly at a high level of action. The same principles apply to subtle actions: quiet walks, lingering glances, the whole Merchant-Ivory repertoire.
|Important moments should be prolonged in comparison to less important moments. That means using more word-space so the important moments linger longer with the reader.|
An Exception: Sometimes you don’t want the reader to realize something is important. If you’re writing a murder mystery, for example, you might downplay vital clues by only mentioning them briefly in the midst of other action that seems far more important.
There’s a fine art to this—the best writers know how to bring up a clue just long enough that readers will remember it when the mystery is finally solved, but not so long that readers will recognize it as a big red flag.
Alfred Hitchcock once described the following scenario. Suppose there’s a bomb hidden in a room and it’s set to go off at one o’clock. If the audience doesn’t know the bomb is there, it explodes, there’s a big boom, and the audience says, “What the heck was that?”
But if the audience does know about the bomb—if they know exactly where the bomb is hidden and exactly when it will go off—that’s when you create suspense. Someone goes to open the cupboard where the bomb is hidden…but at the last moment, someone else calls the first person away. Someone comes in and invites everybody to go outside to play croquet…but nobody’s interested. A dog starts sniffing about the cupboard…but the dog’s owner says, “Bad boy!” and pulls the dog away. The tension builds each time it looks like someone might find the bomb, or convince everybody to leave the room safely. By the time one o’clock rolls around, the whole audience is on the edge of its collective seat.
This demonstrates an important principle about suspense:
|Suspense is not created by keeping secrets from the audience. It’s created by telling the audience everything…except how events will turn out.|
When the audience knows what’s going on (or most of what’s going on), they know what there is to worry about. If you withhold information from the audience, you usually ruin the suspense (and make the audience mad at you).
What is true for movies is also true for stories: withholding information from the reader is usually a mistake. I’m not saying murder mysteries should begin, “This is the story of how Hercule Poirot discovered that everyone on the Orient Express was guilty”…but it’s a well-known rule of mysteries that you must not hide clues from the readers. If Poirot finds an object in the hand of the murder victim and the story doesn’t reveal what that object is, readers will go ballistic. The writer isn’t playing fair. The writer is cheating. The writer is being a jerk.
I’ve seen many stories written by amateurs where the writer thought it would make for a cool surprise ending if some crucial piece of information was withheld until the very end. (“And by the way, the murderer was really a bacterium, and the cops were white corpuscles in a person’s bloodstream!”…or even worse, “And the man and woman who crashed on this strange new planet were named Adam and Eve.”) Such surprises are not cool; such surprises make readers want to vomit copiously, preferably into your face. (Many times such tricks aren’t even surprises—SF&F readers can often see bilious twists coming far ahead of time.)
I’m not saying twist endings are bad—I liked The Sixth Sense as much as anyone. But twists are tricky, and when they’re created by jerking the reader around, you won’t win yourself any friends.
Be extremely wary of withholding information—especially information that would be obvious to the viewpoint character. For example, suppose the VPC talks to a guy named Gabriel…and ten chapters later, you reveal this Gabriel was nine feet tall, had bright white wings, and carried a golden trumpet. Readers are likely to be pissed off that you didn’t mention this at the time. After all, the VPC could see all those things about Gabriel, so hiding the facts is a cheat. Not only did you jerk the readers around, but you screwed up the viewpoint.
It’s important to contrast this with the situation where the VPC doesn’t clue in to something:
I saw something on the floor. It looked like a piece of fur from my dog—poor Fido had been shedding for weeks. I told myself to write a note to the cleaning woman and went back to my work.
This is perfectly acceptable, even if the narrator finds out in a later chapter that the thing on the floor wasn’t dog fur. The reader is given everything the VPC sees and knows at the time. Therefore you aren’t arbitrarily withholding information—you’re giving an honest and complete picture of the VPC’s perceptions.
I believe Alfred Hitchcock invented the word maguffin. A maguffin is an object (or less commonly a person or event) that lies at the center of many kinds of story. People search for it, pursue it, steal it, kill for it, try to find out what it is…and yet for all its apparent importance to the plot, its only real value is as an excuse for people to do things.
|Maguffins abound in SF&F. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is obviously a maguffin. It’s something the bad guys want; it’s something the good guys have to deal with. While the One Ring is everpresent on one level, the book is actually about a group of heroes being heroic. This is obvious in all the Tolkien imitators that we’ve seen since LOTR came out-people are constantly chasing the Sword of This or the Tome of That as an excuse for getting into trouble. Over in science fiction, you see maguffins like the Genesis Device or the plans of the Death Star.|
The Maltese Falcon is a good example of a maguffin. The falcon turns out to be a jewel-encrusted statue that’s been coated over to make it look “normal”, but from a storytelling point of view, the falcon could be anything people consider valuable. It might just as easily have contained Nazi military plans or the combination to a safe; it might have been the symbol of office of the King of Ruritania or the key to finding the Ark of the Covenant. It doesn’t matter what the falcon is, as long as people want it.
Here’s another example: I once heard an interview with Michael Palmer, an M.D. who writes medical thrillers. He talked about his first book where a young intern is working in the E.R., tending to a dying man. Just before the man dies, he gives the intern a key; soon afterward, the intern realizes that he’s being followed. The rest of the book is about the intern trying to discover what the key unlocks while being pursued by bad guys who want the key back.
Palmer pointed out that the key appears to be the most important thing in the story…but in fact, it doesn’t really matter what the key opens. It’s simply an excuse for action to happen. Eventually, of course, the book does have to explain what’s going on and why the key is valuable—otherwise, readers will get pissed off. But the explanation is just needed for closure, not for the plot itself.
There is nothing wrong with centering your stories around a maguffin—it’s a time-honored technique (as in searching for the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece), and it will continue to work as a plot device far into the future. But for heaven’s sake, realize that the maguffin is unimportant. The Maltese Falcon isn’t a classic because of the falcon; it’s a classic because of Sam Spade and Caspar Gutman, because of its hardboiled attitude and some immortal lines of dialogue.
|If your story is only about the maguffin, it’s a hollow shell. To give the story a heart and brains, you need characters, emotion, meaning, and nuance. Those are the things readers remember: people, scenes, and atmosphere, not niceties of plot.|
Plot Coupons: While we’re talking about plot devices, I suppose I should mention the idea of “plot coupons.” This is a derisive term used in connection with stories like this: The hero’s father is killed by a demon; the hero wants revenge, and learns the demon can only be killed by the Sword of Kumquat; the only person who knows the location of the sword is the Sage Rashomon; the hero goes looking for Rashomon; Rashomon is imprisoned in a golden bubble; the bubble can only be broken by ringing the Bell of Adano; the hero goes off to find the Bell; he finally gets it and frees Rashomon, but the Sage says you can’t get the sword unless you have the Rainbow Key…
You get the idea. The bell and the key and sword and Rashomon are called “plot coupons.” The novel is basically about the hero traipsing about collecting coupons. When the hero collects enough coupons to fulfill his goal, he beats the bad guy and the novel ends.
There’s an obvious similarity between maguffins and plot coupons. A maguffin is a single thing that propels the story; plot coupons are a succession of things that propel successive sections of the story. Both maguffins and plot coupons have the same weakness—if your story is only about chasing the maguffin or collecting coupons, the result is hollow…just an unsatisfying sequence of incidents.
You have to give the reader more. The incidents have to mean something. There has to be emotional resonance. Characters have to develop, rather than just running around. The difference between a good story and a bad one is not the plot; it’s everything besides the plot. Therefore if your story is just a bunch of characters chasing plot coupons, you’re in trouble.
Give your reader more.
Some writers can plot stories in advance. I can’t. Whenever I create a plot outline in advance, it may look okay on its own but it simply doesn’t hold up once I start the actual writing. As I learn more about my characters and their situation, the plot outline quickly becomes useless—details that looked good in advance just don’t fit once I start the actual writing.
|In this section, I mean no disrespect for people who do create detailed plots in advance. Many writers I admire start with detailed outlines. I just can’t do it myself…and I know that many other writers are like me. Therefore the discussion in this section is for writers who aren’t “outline people”.|
So if I plot at all, I do so in broad strokes. For example, in my novel Trapped (fall 2002), I only decided on two plot points before I started writing—the initial situation and an extremely rough direction thereafter. Here’s all that I had:
- The set-up: A group of teachers at a private school discover a teenaged girl murdered and her boyfriend missing. One of the teachers reveals that the boy is a powerful psychic, and she suggests the boy has been kidnapped by person or persons unknown who want to use his powers for their own ends. (Before I started writing, I also knew who the kidnapper was and why he wanted the boy, but I won’t spoil the book by revealing that here.)
- The direction of the plot: The teachers would try to retrieve the boy, following various clues that would suggest where he’d gone. In the end, they’d confront the kidnapper and rescue the boy in the nick of time, just before he was tricked into the dastardly deed that the kidnapper wanted.
I did not decide in advance what clues the teachers would follow, what would happen to them along the trail, how they’d defeat the kidnapper, and many other details that I’d have to come up with in the actual writing. I assumed I could deal with them as I went along…and I could because I knew the most important secret of plotting: reincorporation.
|Reincorporation means bringing back elements that are already present in your story: bringing back people, places, and things you’ve previously mentioned.|
The recurrence of past elements is what makes a plot feel connected. After all, a plot isn’t just a sequence of incidents; it’s an ongoing development, wherein past events lead to subsequent events. As Connie Willis once put it, “Plot isn’t ‘And then’, it’s ‘So then.’” What happens next is a consequence of what’s already happened.
Therefore, if you reach a point where you’re asking, “What do I do next?”, your solution lies in asking, “What do I have to work with?” What does your story already have that can be reincorporated at this point in order to move things forward?
As an example, let’s go back to my book Trapped. There comes a point where the teachers learn that the kidnapper has taken the boy onto a boat and headed for a particular destination. Therefore, the teachers need another boat in order to pursue…and it happens to be the middle of the night, so renting a boat might be difficult. I had no immediate solution to this problem. However, thinking back over what I’d already written, I realized I’d already built in my answer.
My narrator (named Phil) had already mentioned he had an on-again/off-again relationship with a woman named Gretchen. Gretchen was idle, rich, vain, and beautiful, but she was forty and terrified of growing old. She kept her mind off her age by having affairs with younger men, including Phil. I’d thrown in this detail as a way of showing Phil’s character—his life was going nowhere, and his only-for-sex couplings with Gretchen demonstrated how pointlessly he was spinning his wheels. She called him when she didn’t have anyone better in her bed…and Phil went because he had no meaningful relationships either.
So Gretchen began as someone referred to “off-stage”—a convenient symbol that Phil was just drifting. I had no other plans for her. However, Phil and his friends suddenly needed a boat…preferably one fast enough to catch the kidnapper. Wouldn’t it be natural for a rich idle woman to own such a boat? So I had Phil visit Gretchen to borrow her boat; this led to a touching scene between the two that included useful character revelations and developments. In the end, it seemed natural for Gretchen to accompany Phil in pursuit of the kidnapped boy, and her presence on the journey added a great deal.
Notice how much of this was pure serendipity. When I first brought up Gretchen’s name in the story, I had no plans whatever for her. Zero. She was simply a side remark, a woman mentioned in passing to show how feckless Phil was. Her name cropped up a few more times in passages where Phil reflected on how he was wasting his life. However, I never planned for her to make any contribution to the plot.
Then I reached a point where I needed something…and Gretchen was a perfect candidate to provide it. I could reincorporate her, bring her back in, and it would seem entirely natural—almost as if I’d planned it from the start. At the same time, I could be fairly sure readers wouldn’t think that I was “cheating” by giving Phil a lucky break: wow, he just happened to know someone who had exactly what he needed! Gretchen wasn’t jammed into the book as an afterthought, she’d been there all along. Therefore, readers wouldn’t feel I’d just pulled her out of a hat.
What would I have done if I hadn’t had Gretchen? I would have used someone else—I had plenty of other characters I could reincorporate. For example, I’d done a fair bit with the chancellor of the school where my heroes were teachers; perhaps she had a boat. There were the parents of the missing boy; perhaps they had a boat. My heroes had got into a fight with a group of fisherman earlier in the story; perhaps those fisherman could be persuaded to offer their boat.
|If you decide to write without an outline, you just have to trust that it will all work out. Occasionally, you may find you’ve gone down a dead end and you have to backtrack,then rewrite…but more often than not, you’ll find yourself traveling places you never dreamed of when you first set out. And that’s kind of cool.|
The point is there was no reason for me to invent something out of the blue. I had already set up resources I could use, even though I hadn’t done so intentionally. By reincorporating one of those resources, I could tie in the future with the past. The plot flowed naturally from what had gone before, and I could keep writing…until the next time I got stuck.
This approach does not rule out plot twists. In fact, it’s easier to justify plot twists if they’re outgrowths (albeit unexpected ones) from what has already happened. Here’s just one twist that occurs to me now. Suppose the teachers in my book had no Gretchen or anyone else to turn to; what could they do? The obvious course of action would be going down to the docks to see if they could find someone who’d rent them a boat, even though it was the middle of the night. So what if they went down, looked around…and suddenly saw someone they knew sneaking onto a boat. Maybe another teacher. Maybe the chancellor. Maybe a student. What would a student be doing around the docks at three in the morning? Maybe the student knew something. Maybe the student had helped the kidnapper somehow. Maybe the student was a girl who had a crush on the kidnapped boy; she was spying on him, followed him, maybe saw or heard something important…
Whenever you make a decision like this, you have to live with the consequences. If, for example, I brought in this girl with a crush on the missing boy, it would have all kinds of repercussions. So what? If your story has no complications, it’ll turn out mighty bland. Embrace the future, leap in with both feet, and describe what naturally results. Making things messy for yourself is one of the great joys of writing.
The setting is where action takes place. In science fiction and fantasy, the setting is often very different from the here-and-now…but I don’t want to discuss worldbuilding in a seminar that’s about writing prose.
Instead, I want to make a point I was taught in Grade 11 English. Setting is made up of three components:
|Setting = Time, Place, and Circumstance (TPC)|
Time and Place are straightforward. Circumstance consists of background details that modify the nature of the time and place.
For example, let’s pick a simple science fiction setting: New York City, the year 2051. That’s just a Time and Place; there’s no life in the setting until I tell you a Circumstance. Here are some possibilities:
- Runaway global warming has melted the polar ice caps. Much of Manhattan is under water. The city has mostly been abandoned; only lowlifes and the poor remain. The city is a vision of hell.
- Same as above, but the city wasn’t abandoned at all. Gondolas drift serenely down Broadway. Office buildings may have been flooded on the lower floors, but it’s business as usual in the upper stories. Crime is down, and tourism is up. The city is the prettiest it’s ever been.
- Same as above, but conquering aliens arrived in 2023. Alien gunboats chug amidst the gondolas in search of resistance fighters. All humans are slaves. The city is a prison camp.
- Same as above, but the aliens were benevolent and brought extensive bioengineering technology. The flooded bottom floors of buildings are still in use, by people who have been equipped with gills. Winged humans soar from tower to tower. Almost everyone is augmented in some way. The city is like a Renaissance painting of heaven.
- Same as above, but there is a strict caste system based on augmentations. People with gills are shot if they ever show their heads above water. Those with wings are arrogant tyrants, with complete power of life or death over the wingless. The city is a demihuman version of Animal Farm.
I could go on. Remember that all of the above settings have the same Time and Place. It’s the Circumstances that give each setting its flavor.
|I’ve just finished reading Passage by Connie Willis. It mostly takes place in a hospital where parts of the building are under construction; the presence of construction keeps coming back again and again to affect the action.|
Even small circumstances can have significant effects. For example, a story set in winter might go in different directions than a similar story set in summer. Scenes set at night can be very different from similar scenes in daylight.
As a writer, you should set the circumstances to your advantage. Would a particular scene be more effective in a rainstorm than in pleasant weather? Would your story be less generic if it took place during an extended garbage strike? What if your spaceport is based on Indian architecture like the Taj Mahal, rather than the usual Star Fleet neo-Holiday Inn décor? Details like that (used judiciously) add life to your work, and make it stand out from the crowd.
Dialogue is a significant part of most stories—whenever two or more characters come together, they’re likely to start talking. It’s not unusual for stories to be as much as half dialogue…or more.
Even in naturalistic work, dialogue is never 100% faithful to life—in life, we pause a lot, don’t finish our sentences, put in “umms” and “uhhs”, interrupt each other, and so on. Naturalistic dialogue can do a little of this to suggest what real conversations are like…but if you try to do as much as happens in real life, the result will quickly become annoying. (If you don’t believe me, get a tape recorder, record a real conversation, then transcribe it. You’ll find the result is hard to follow, and all the people sound like idiots.)
In non-naturalistic modes, dialogue stays true to the mode. For example, in mythic mode, you can’t have a noble knight enter an inn and call out, “Yo bitch, get me a heap of that wayfarer bread, and hustle your bony ass!” On the other hand, mythic mode doesn’t force you to use “thee’s” and “thou’s” either. You can be perfectly true to the mythic mode with standard contemporary English; you just have to avoid slang that’s too jarringly modern to fit the milieu.
Different characters speak differently. There’s bound to be a marked distinction between the speech of a lord and of a gutter-thief. Even different lords will have different ways of expressing themselves. This is yet another facet of characterization. Some people will be blunt and to the point; some will be more garrulous; some will tell jokes (or try to); some will only speak when they have something intelligent to say.
You don’t have to set up explicit rules of how a character talks (although you can if it helps you). Just pay attention to what you’re writing, and never let someone speak “out of character.”
Every dialogue passage should have a purpose. If you reach a point where it’s natural that characters would converse but the talk won’t contribute to plot or characterization, don’t write the conversation explicitly. Just brush past it:
We talked for most of the afternoon about what had happened since we’d last seen each other. The women we’d won. The women we’d lost. The women we’d fought to a draw.
These few quick sentences show the passage of time and provide a bit of characterization without wasting space on irrelevant chatter.
When there is a point to explicit dialogue, make sure you know what the point is. You may be advancing the plot; you may be supplying background information; you may be demonstrating the nature of the characters; you may be doing all three, and more besides. (It’s nice when writing serves more than one purpose at a time.) Know what job you’re doing, and do it.
Dialogue runs the risk of turning into “talking heads.” This means a bunch of people sitting around doing nothing but talk. Talking heads are all right in small doses, but if a conversation needs to go on for a while, think of ways to introduce action or visuals to make the conversation into a scene rather than a mere collection of voices.
Here’s a simple example. Suppose you’re writing a science fiction story and you’ve reached the point where Jenna has to tell Buck her father was the man who invented the Death Plague. Now Jenna could just come out and say so…but that’s just talk, not a scene. Try this instead:
She put her hand in her pocket and pulled out something furry. “You know what this is?”
Buck looked. “A lucky rabbit’s foot?”
“No. The rabbit wasn’t lucky at all. Look closer.”
She held the foot out to him. Buck took it and turned on the desk lamp so he could see more clearly. The foot’s fur was mottled gray and white, unlike any rabbit breed he’d seen. The skin beneath was patched and scabby—crusted with the half-healed scars of pustules and lesions. “Death Plague,” he said. “I thought it only infected humans. Animals are supposed to be immune.”
“They are,” Jenna said. “They’re immune to the current strain of the virus. But there were earlier strains that infected a wider range of species.”
“I’ve never heard that.”
“It’s not public knowledge. Few people saw the early strains. But I did. In lab rats. Mice. Rabbits.” She took a deep shuddering breath. “This paw belonged to a rabbit I called Easter. When Easter died, I cried so hard that my father gave me the foot after the autopsy. The dissection. God knows why I kept it, but…”
She fell silent. After a while, Buck said, “Your father studied the disease?”
“No. My father made the disease.”
Introducing the rabbit’s foot changes the conversation into a scene. Instead of just talk, there’s action. It’s not extravagant action—just pulling out the rabbit’s foot and examining it. But readers can visualize what’s happening; they can visualize the people and the rabbit’s foot.
Introducing objects into a conversation is one way to make conversation into a scene. You should also consider the setting. Having a conversation in a nondescript room gives you nothing to work with; moving the conversation to some interesting venue gives you more chance to dramatize. For example, if you want cops discussing a murder, don’t set the conversation in the police station—let the detectives go to the scene of the crime, walk around, stare at blood stains, try to reenact what happened. At the station, they’re just talking heads; at the murder scene, they can actually do something.
Another remedy for talking heads is to have people busy with something else as they talk. Even something as mundane as eating dinner gives you a chance to create a scene rather than just conversation. People can be passing the bread, getting drunk, trying to figure out how to eat this damned Romulan cuisine…and in the meantime, having a conversation that serves a different purpose.
I believe the concept of the “Said Book” was first invented at the Turkey City science fiction workshop in Texas. The “Said Book” is a fictitious tome that contains all the alternatives for the word “said” that bad writers use: “he uttered, she demanded, he barked, she expostulated,…” This led to the term “said-bookism” for excerpts from the “Said Book.” The term has since become widespread throughout the SF field.
Said-bookisms are bad. Said-bookisms should be avoided. There is nothing wrong with using “said” over and over again. “He said this, she said that, he said something else in return…” Using “said” is highly preferable to using some fancy word that makes your writing sound ridiculous.
|I allow myself the occasional use of common words like “ask”, “answer”, or “tell”, and when appropriate, words like “shout” or “mutter.” I consider these to be words that don’t sound idiotic when used in the right context.|
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional use of something other than “said”: “She whispered, ‘I love you.'” In a sentence like that, “whispered” conveys an image and emotion that “said” wouldn’t…and “whispered” is an unpretentious word that doesn’t sound like the writer is showing off.
But “said” is still the great workhorse—it does the job almost anywhere, and even if you use it in one sentence after another, it doesn’t sound repetitive. It’s such a small common word that it just flies by.
In many cases you don’t need to use “said” or any other word. Readers know who’s speaking without needing to be told.
The lieutenant watched his men leap off their cots and snap to attention. He walked slowly down the row, not meeting anyone’s eye until he came to Johnson. “Is that your uniform, private?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“Your official uniform?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“The uniform you were issued by a duly authorized quartermaster of the Federated Infantry?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
The lieutenant reached out and picked a tiny bit of fluff off the boy’s collar. “Nice uniform, Private.” He moved on down the line.
None of the above speeches were directly attributed to a particular character, but I hope you had no trouble identifying who was speaking. There were two reasons for that. First, several speeches were juxtaposed with actions, as in
The lieutenant reached out and picked a tiny bit of fluff off the boy’s collar. “Nice uniform, Private.”
The lieutenant does something and then there’s a speech. We naturally attribute the speech to the lieutenant.
|Many people have odd ideas about how to punctuate dialogue: where to put the quotation marks, and whether punctuation marks go inside or outside. Consult one of the style guides mentioned in the Resources section of this seminar. Learn what you’re supposed to do, then do it.|
Second, there’s a substantial difference in how the two characters speak. Johnson only says, “Sir, yes, sir!” The lieutenant is smug and domineering throughout, just as we expect such lieutenants to be. Readers can tell the two characters apart by the tone of voice. Because tone of voice distinguishes the speakers, we don’t need to put in explicit attributions.
As a rough rule of thumb, consider putting in attributions at least every four speeches. The attribution doesn’t have to be an explicit, “He said…” It can just be a juxtaposition of the speech with an action by the speaker. If you go more than four speeches without an attribution, readers get confused about who’s speaking. (The preceding example actually went six speeches without an attribution, but the “Sir, yes, sir!” lines so clearly belonged to the private that I wasn’t worried about readers getting lost.)
Fiction is made up of words…and all words have connotations. Connotations are the resonances (or side messages) that a word has beyond its literal meaning. For example, all of the following have the same literal meaning (or denotation), but different connotations:
Female parent Ma Mother Mammy Mom Mater Momma
“Female parent” is cold and clinical. The others have varying degrees of connotational baggage. “Mammy,” for example, has a strong whiff of the south; “Mater” is the sort of word Monty Python would use when making fun of upper-class twits.
You can never completely control the connotations associated with words—the word “Mother” stirs up different emotions in different readers—but you can try to be aware of the most likely associations and use them to your advantage. When a son addresses his mother as “Mom,” it has a different emotional flavor than addressing her as “Mother” or “Ma”. You have to be aware of those emotional flavors, or you won’t be in control of the side messages your writing is sending out.
I want to stress that all words have connotations. I started with “mother” because it’s obviously a loaded word, but every word has side messages, however subtle they might be. Here’s another set of examples:
“I’m a murderer.”
“I’m the murderer.”
“I’m your murderer.”
These sentences only differ by a single word, and those differing words are so small and common you might think they’re insignificant. However, you should feel how the sentences evoke different emotions:
- “I’m a murderer” sounds like an anguished cry—the sort of thing characters might say when they’ve just discovered their actions accidentally killed someone.
- “I’m the murderer” is a confession, as in a mystery story.
- “I’m your murderer” summons up the image of a killer about to pull the trigger on the listener.
Of course, these sentences could have different meanings depending on their context in a story…but even on their own, they show that changing one small word can substantially change the inherent side messages of what you’re writing.
Verbs sing. Verbs dance. Verbs pound the walls and smash the windows. Verbs creep through darkened hallways or march to the city gates. Verbs dazzle. Verbs quicken the pulse. Verbs grab the reader by the throat and squeeze till the eyes bug out.
In other words, pay attention to your #$%^&*@ verbs! Use good active ones. I don’t mean you have to be fancy—the verbs in the preceding paragraph were all common concrete words, not fancy at all. Simple direct verbs work well in many contexts. Of course, other contexts may require more sophisticated verbs: multi-syllable verbs like “scintillate,” “vaporize,” or “vivisect.” Variation is good; suit your words to the context.
|I’m not saying you should always avoid forms of “to be.” That’s going too far. “To be” is the most common verb in the language, and perfectly acceptable in many contexts. However, if you use “to be” too much, your prose becomes flat and tedious.|
Whenever you use a form of the verb “to be” (“is,” “are,” “was,” etc.), take a second to consider more active ways to phrase the same sentence. Instead of writing, “There were lots of shoes on the mat,” you might write, “Shoes lined the mat in neat rows” or “Shoes lay scattered across the mat, some knocked over on their sides and a few that had flipped completely upside-down.” By forcing yourself to choose better verbs, you can open your eyes to more expressive possibilities.
Some beginners avoid strong verbs precisely because the words are strong. They’d rather use weaselly weak verbs that aren’t so blunt and threatening. Well, just get over it. Make your peace with good verbs and don’t be afraid to use them.
Adjectives and adverbs can be overused. Often, they make sentences less descriptive and powerful. For example, “He was fat,” has more impact than, “He was pretty fat,” or even, “He was very fat.” Too many adjectives and adverbs can weaken your prose.
On the other hand, piling on the modifiers can be used to great effect when the VPC’s voice lets you get away with it. Here’s a famous bit from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:
Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!
This wouldn’t work in a naturalistic book, but it’s perfect for A Christmas Carol (which Dickens presents in a voice like a wine-lubricated old man sitting down by the fire to tell his grandchildren a ghost story).
Adjectives and adverbs have to be closely supervised. Never use them gratuitously, and never ever use them because you think they’ll make you sound more impressive. When you review your writing, take a second to consider every adjective and adverb. Can you delete them and retain the same effect? Do you have to use a lot of modifiers because your verbs are wimpy? Are you putting in adverbs like “slightly,” “really,” and “mostly” because you’re too chicken to make an unmodified statement? (This is one of my own common problems.) Asking such questions can help you eliminate flabby modifiers from your prose, leaving only the ones that truly serve a purpose.
“Elegant variation” means avoiding the repetition of words that catch the reader’s attention—that hang in the mind long enough that the reader realizes you’ve repeated yourself.
Let’s take a concrete example. I recently finished a novel that had a lot of pyrotechnics in it. One set of characters liked to use flamethrowers as weapons; another character was a pyrokinetic, able to control fire by the power of her mind. Therefore, I had a number of scenes with people trying to char each other to cinders. That meant I had to come up with a lot of different words for fire. “The blaze…the inferno…the flames…the burning heap…the searing intensity…”
Why did I have to come up with these different expressions? Because I didn’t want to use the word “fire” half a dozen times in a single paragraph:
The fireball flew across the room. Impervia dodged the fire, but Myoko didn’t; the fire washed across her face and her hair caught on fire. She tried to put out the fire with her hands, but her coat-sleeves caught on fire, so they were on fire too.
You get the idea. Here’s a version of the same paragraph with a bit of elegant variation:
The fireball flew across the room. Impervia dodged the blaze, but Myoko didn’t; flames washed across her face and her hair began to burn. She tried to put out the fire with her hands, but her coat-sleeves ignited with a burst of smoke and light…
Elegant variation means avoiding the repetition of notable words. The more unusual the word, the less frequently you want to repeat it. For example, you’ll notice that the above example still repeated the word “fire” (once in “fireball” and once on its own). I decided that was okay because “fire” is a common word that doesn’t make a big impression on the reader’s ear. A word like “inferno” is more uncommon, and I’d be reluctant to use it often. “Conflagration” would be even worse. I certainly wouldn’t repeat “conflagration” within ten pages of itself—it’s such a noticeable word that readers would think I was getting into a rut. Compare that with unnoticeable words like “the” or “a.” “The” is used eight times in this paragraph and “a” is used six times, but I doubt if you feel I’m being
Repetition is not always a bad thing. It can be effective in a parallel structure like the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
The repetitive parallel structure shows the contrasts and confusions of the times (the French revolution). Its seesaw effect sets the tone for the book to come.
Repetition is also good for emphasis, especially in dialogue:
Sarah glared at him coldly. “I hate you. I have always hated you. I hate your constant whining and your petty, petty ways. I hate every second I have to look at your face, every hour I have to listen to your boorish voice. If hate was a tangible thing, all the ships in your fleet would sink under the weight of a single day of my loathing…and I have endured it for twenty-six years.” She got up and straightened her dress. “Shall I bring in the tea now?”
Sarah’s speech uses several types of parallelism. The first few sentences parallel each other; there’s also the parallel structure in “every second…every hour.” The word “hate” is repeated a number of times, as is “petty.” Then, in what I hope is a nice contrast, the paragraph ends with a complete departure from repetition and parallelism, suggesting…I don’t know what. But the very fact that it’s a break from what’s gone before gives it a feeling of significance.
|You have to be in command of all a writer’s tools. Repetition is one of those tools; so is elegant variation. Knowing when to use which is another thing that makes writing an art.|
A few more comments about repetition: I try to avoid starting two successive sentences with the same word unless I’m deliberately creating parallelism. I also avoid starting two successive paragraphs with the same word. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but I find them useful. They force me to vary my sentence structure, so I don’t fall into plodding rhythms.
Gender-biased language creates gender-biased characters. That’s fine if you want to depict someone as a sexist. It’s bad if you put the words in the mouth of someone who supposedly believes in sexual equality. It’s especially dangerous if you’re writing from a third-person omniscient viewpoint—readers will assume that you’re the one who’s biased.
Therefore, every writer’s repertoire should include the ability to write gender-neutral language. A key element is to avoid such words as “man” or “mankind” to refer to our species (use “humanity”, “humankind”, “Homo sapiens“, or even “Earthlings”), and to steer clear of other non-inclusive words.
Avoid forms of “he” as a “generic” third person singular, as in “Each writer should practice his craft.” Use the plural instead, as in, “All writers should practice their craft,” or the second person, as in, “If you want to be a writer, you should practice your craft.”
Another useful approach is to choose specific people as examples: “Clark and Lois both want to be writers. Clark thinks he should read a lot of writing books, while Lois believes she doesn’t have to read anything as long as she writes at least 300 words every day.” By choosing specific people as illustrations, I don’t end up in a snarl of (supposedly) generic pronouns.
While I’m talking about gender, I’ll pass on a trick I like. As I write a story, I sometimes find I have no particular reason to make a character male or female. For example, my lead character might be a police officer interrogating a murder witness. The witness is just a minor character who happened to be standing on the street when the murder happened; there’s no plot reason why the witness has to be a man or has to be a woman. Therefore, I’ll choose whichever gender is the opposite of the other person in the scene. This makes the scene easier to write because one person can be “he” and the other “she”. Here’s an example:
Detective John Marlowe found the witness at the curbside: a middle-aged woman who’d been coming home from work. He asked what she’d seen and she told him of the weird green ray that shot out of the alley as the victim passed…
That’s what it’s like when Marlowe is male and the witness is female. Now suppose they’re both male.
Detective John Marlowe found the witness at the curbside: a middle-aged man who’d been coming home from work. Marlowe asked the man what he’d seen and the man told Marlowe of the weird green ray that shot out of the alley as the victim passed…
This isn’t as slick. I have to keep talking about “Marlowe” and “the man” so you can tell which is which. I’d have the same difficulties if both characters were female. Going with one of each gender avoids such small but irksome wording problems.
Once again, I want to stress this is only when the gender of the character doesn’t matter. If the witness in the Marlowe example is going to play a significant role in the story (beyond this brief appearance in a single paragraph), then you can’t treat gender so casually. Like it or not, gender has a huge effect on the reader’s perception of a character and the dynamics of that character’s interactions with other people. Even when the context is utterly non-sexual (a witness who just happened to see something), the character’s gender will begin to exert an influence if he or she remains “on-stage” for a meaningful length of time.
Character names are tricky in all fiction, but especially in science fiction and fantasy. Stories in our genre can take place on worlds that have little or no connection to our own…and mundane names like George or Alice don’t fit in when you’re writing about aliens or elves. Even when you’re writing about Homo sapiens, mundane names won’t be appropriate a million years in the future or for mighty warriors and sorcerers.
My usual approach to creating unusual names is to lay a few ground rules, then just wing it. For example:
- In my book Vigilant, I created a race named the Ooloms. Early on, I decided that all Oolom names would have two or three syllables; male names would end in “r” as in “Chappalar,” and female names would end in “f” as in “Zillif.” After that, I just made up names that I liked the sound of.
- In my book Hunted, I had a race called the Mandasars that was split into castes like bees. I decided all queens were named after virtues (Queen Verity, Queen Honor, Queen Innocence); workers had single-syllable names (Hib, Pib, Nib); warriors had pompous-sounding multi-syllabic names (Zeeleepull); and the “gentle” caste never revealed their true names, choosing instead to go by simple titles like Counselor or Doctor. Not only did these guidelines make it easier to come up with appropriate character names, I think they also conveyed something about the nature of Mandasar culture.
- In a group of fantasy stories centered around a city called Cardis, I created different factions within the city by using names that sounded like different human ethnic groups. The upper class citizens of Cardis all had names I thought sounded like Sanskrit (Vasudheva, Bhismu, Niravati). A group called Northerners had names reminiscent of Native North Americans (Hakkoia, Tehawni). A group called Westerners had names reminiscent of Hungarian (Sztam, Isabel, Raghamazj). I hoped the different types of names would suggest different cultures, as well as different levels of wealth and influence.
These examples should give you ideas for creating names of your own. To a great extent, you just have to choose names that please your ear. It’s also nice if they suggest something of the underlying culture. (A culture that prefers long names like Halluwallamai is probably different than a culture that uses short names like Chug and Lodd.)
|One interesting name source is National Geographic. For example, if they run an article on Nepal, you’ll find a lot of Nepalese names, which are likely different than anything you’ve seen in conventional SF&F.|
When you choose a name, make sure there’s a reasonably obvious way to pronounce it. Many readers speak names “aloud” in their heads—keep these readers in mind when you make up names. (You’ll notice that even though I use strange names, it should be obvious how to pronounce them. Zeeleepull. Tehawni. Sztam.)
Avoid names that are easy to confuse with each other. For example, if you have a pair of men named Richard and Robert, I guarantee many readers won’t remember which is which. The names are just too similar. (Shakespeare actually uses this effect deliberately in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He names two women Helena and Hermia because he wants to suggest that they’re basically interchangeable.)
Whenever I start a book or story, I make a computer file that has a line for each letter of the alphabet. Then if I give a character a name beginning with A, I list that name on the A line; if I give a character a name beginning with B, I list that name on the B line; and so on. Whenever I need to come up with a new character name, I go to the file and see what beginning letters I haven’t used. For example, if I don’t have any names starting with L, I might make an effort to give the new character an L name. This avoids having two characters whose names start with the same letter.
If I have to double up because there are more than 26 characters, I make sure the doubled-up names are significantly different from each other, or that the doubled-up characters are in different parts of the story so the reader won’t get confused.
|I was originally taken aback by the idea that readers couldn’t identify with certain characters just because the characters had non-standard names. However, my wife pointed out that I love making fun of names in romance novels: Slade Grayson…Marie Claire Saint-Ange…Coquette Winspear…Lisaveta Lazaroff. (I’m not making these up.) Since I can’t take such characters seriously, I suppose I have no right to chastise readers who feel the same about names like Graal, Felgerpeek and Tishlan Harkavor.|
One last point about names. Someone in SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) did a survey of non-sf readers and found that their biggest reason for not reading our genre was all the weird names. I’m not kidding. These people said they just couldn’t sympathize or identify with a character whose name wasn’t “real.” Rather than ranting about how ignorant that attitude is, I recommend you keep it in mind. If you can call a character by a familiar name—if you’re writing about a milieu where it would be reasonable to have names like John and Elizabeth—maybe you’ll get more readers by using conventional names. At least, it’s something to think about.
A cliché is a trite overused phrase: tight as a drum, dog-tired, turning over a new leaf. The problem with clichés is that they’re so familiar they have no life left in them—either they make no impression on the reader, or the reader actually finds them annoying. (Can you hear the phrase “information superhighway” without grinding your teeth?)
To see why clichés cause problems, consider the following sentence:
I was scared out of my wits.
To modern readers, that’s just an empty phrase—it doesn’t convey the impression that you were truly, genuinely frightened. Compare the cliché with something more original:
I was so scared I couldn’t piss. I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t faint, I couldn’t have a heart attack, I couldn’t do a single goddamned thing that terrified people do in movies because my body had frozen with fear as solid as a kewpie doll dipped in liquid nitrogen…and if anything touched me, I’d shatter.
Now that gets across the idea of all-consuming terror. If it doesn’t, at least it catches the reader’s attention.
George Orwell said something to the effect that any phrase you’ve heard before is probably a cliché. Certainly, you should be wary of any phrase you’ve heard too often—it’s likely been sucked bloodless.
|Of course, there may be times when you want to sound clichéd, particularly when you’re writing dialogue for a pompous character. In that case, put your nose to the grindstone and just start sniffing. Or something like that.|
A metaphor is a word or phrase used in a way that looks like a direct equivalence but is actually an analogy. For example, “He was a snake of a guy,” appears to say that this man truly was a snake; however, we recognize that it’s just an analogy, not an actual statement of fact. Similar metaphors include, “Oh, you’re an angel,” and “Death is just around the corner.”
In science fiction and fantasy, however, these might not be metaphors at all. A man might genuinely be a snake, complete with scales and forked tongue. The person you’re talking with might truly be an angel, strumming a harp, flapping a big pair of wings. The literal embodiment of Death might be standing around the corner, grabbing a quick cigarette before he goes back to gathering souls.
In our genre, anything is possible. A sentence that’s just a metaphor in a different kind of story could be a statement of fact in SF&F.
This means that writers in our genre have to be careful of metaphors, especially in the first few pages of a story. Until readers get a feel for what is and isn’t possible in the story, they can’t tell metaphor from fact. Using a metaphor too early can confuse the hell out of your audience, and give them utterly wrong ideas about what you’re saying.
As an example, I once read a story that used the term “caterpillar-bus” for one of those buses that’s hinged to bend in the middle. I swear for half the story, I thought this was a world that bioengineered insect larva for use in public transit. With that one thing putting me off, I misinterpreted the whole damned story. (Mind you, I think my interpretation was more interesting…)
|Avoid metaphors in the early pages of a story, just so you don’t give the wrong first impression. Setting the stage is hard enough without your own metaphors working against you.|
Good prose pays attention to rhythm: the rhythm of the words and sentence. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s very real; writers with lousy rhythm are harder to read.
Sentences establish rhythm by their length and punctuation. Long languid sentences convey a different mood than short choppy ones. A short sentence that comes after several longer ones draws attention to itself—such sentences are often used as cappers to the preceding material, capping off the passage before going on to something new:
I was just about to lock in the auto-pilot when the navigation screen flashed every color in the rainbow for three and a half seconds, turned fuzzy gray for a second after that, then went completely blank. Naturally, I hit the DIAGNOSTICS button. Nothing happened—for all I knew, the diagnostic suite might be happily running through the nav system circuits, but the screen didn’t show me a thing. I spun my chair to face the command console, but its screen had gone blank too. So had the screens for the engines, communications, and life support. I stared stupidly at all those empty screens until it dawned on me that things had gone awfully quiet behind my back: the usual noise of machinery, air ventilators, and cooling fans had fallen silent.
Then the lights went out. Shit.
The above passage consists of a long paragraph describing the narrator’s gradual realization that something has gone wrong with the ship. The sentences of that paragraph aren’t all long, but taken together, they give the impression of slowness: a progressive unfolding of one bad thing after another, each making the situation seem worse.
|The passages in this section are examples, not recipes. I’m not saying you should imitate them (although you can, if you do it wisely); I’m just using these passages to illustrate the effects that rhythm can have. It’s up to you to develop your own feel for rhythm and how it can work for you.|
The second paragraph is the capper: two short sentences giving the final indication of trouble and the narrator’s reaction. After this, the story will presumably shift away from describing the initial problem and will tell what the narrator does in response. (It should be obvious that after “Shit,” the story can’t go back to the narrator watching things go dead. The time has come for the narrator to get out of the chair and do something. One reason that’s obvious is the story’s rhythm—after the capper, you have to do something different.)
Using a capper like this is a nice gimmick, but it shouldn’t be overdone. I’m showing it here as an easy-to-understand example of rhythm in sentences. Most of the time, rhythm is more subtle. You mix the length of sentences, and stay away from sentences that are noticeably short or long.
The rhythm in dialogue often contrasts with the rhythm in the surrounding text.
“Frank? Frank. Oh no. Frank!”
She ran across the room to where he lay bleeding on the immaculate white carpet…
The rhythm in the dialogue line shows extreme emotion. After the choppy dialogue sentences, the text that follows is smoother, conveying some of the speed with which the woman runs to the body.
Single words can be important to rhythm too. A long word has a different effect than a short one. Sometimes I find myself saying I need a two-syllable adjective with the emphasis on the second syllable, or else the rhythm of the sentence will be thrown off. Fortunately, the English language has so many words, I can usually find one that suits my purposes.
|A writer’s sense of rhythm develops over time. It’s mostly unconscious—I certainly don’t say to myself, “It’s time for three long sentences followed by a short one.” I’m simply aware of the “feel” of what I’m writing and try to match that feel to the impression I’m trying to make.|
We’ll end this seminar with a grab-bag of tips related to situations many writers encounter as they write.
Whenever something surprising happens, it’s good to have a reaction shot of a character saying, “Wow, what a surprise!” I don’t mean you should milk the moment in a melodramatic way; I just want characters to react in a manner that shows they know something unusual has happened.
|When a surprise happens within the story, the characters should acknowledge they’re surprised.|
You may think this is obvious; but I’ve read story after story where bizarre things start happening and nobody seems to clue in. I recently read the first draft of a story where a slightly non-human person materialized out of nowhere inside a sealed room in the middle of a highly secure installation…and people immediately concluded he was a terrorist, case closed. Argh!
All I wanted was for someone to say, “This looks really weird, but there’s got to be a rational explanation.” That would have made me happy. It would have shown that the characters had enough brains to see what was right in front of their eyes. When they don’t acknowledge the strangeness, the characters just look like idiots. (Since it was only a first draft, and since I howled to the author in outrage, I trust the scene has now been revised.)
Aren’t you frustrated with stories where a body is found drained of blood and nobody even mentions vampires? I’d be perfectly happy if one of the cops says, “Maybe it’s a vampire,” and another cop says, “Maybe it’s a whacko who thinks he’s a vampire.” That’s all I need—the story has acknowledged what is patently obvious to the reader (the vampire-like nature of the crime). The police have come up with a sensible theory: a lunatic think he’s a vamp. They’re probably wrong (in a science fiction or fantasy story, it probably is a vampire), but at least we don’t think they’re morons for failing to see the obvious.
I despise stories where people don’t acknowledge when something is weird. I despise stories where people blame “terrorists” or “kids” for actions that a two-year-old can see must have been done by aliens, or time travelers, or whatever. It doesn’t take much to please me—I’m satisfied if someone says, “Okay, this looks like it was done by aliens, but there’s got to be a rational explanation.” What I hate is when nobody has the sense to say what the readers immediately say to themselves. That makes me lose respect for the characters and the writer.
When two characters want to fight, write the fight. When two characters are ready to kiss, let them kiss. When it’s time to reveal the villain, reveal the villain. When it’s time for a bomb to go off…boom.
Novice writers tend to delay the inevitable. For example, suppose a human-looking character is actually an alien. You drop a few hints that this might be so, but other characters are slow to pick up on the hints. You keep dropping hints; the characters continue to be stupid. After a while, your readers lose respect for your characters because they aren’t seeing the obvious. But you (the writer) are afraid to come right out and say, “This woman is an alien,” because then you’ll have to figure out what happens when the secret is revealed.
|This is an example of avoiding the future: pussyfooting around something that has to happen sooner or later. Readers will find it annoying. Commit yourself and live with the consequences.|
I’m reminded of the TV series Lois and Clark (about Superman). There was a beautiful moment when Clark proposed to Lois and she asked, “Who’s proposing? Clark Kent or Superman?” That was great. Up to that moment, we didn’t know Lois had figured out Clark’s secret…but the writers made a ballsy move and laid everything out in the open. Audiences loved it.
Audiences didn’t love what came next. For the rest of the season, the writers stalled and stalled and stalled, using one delaying tactic after another to prevent Lois and Clark from actually getting married. After a while, I stopped watching; so did a lot of other people. I realized there’d be hitches on the way to the wedding—nothing ever runs smoothly in TV or comic books—but after Lois lost her memory and fell in love with someone else, after Lois got kidnapped a few dozen times, after Lois got replaced on the wedding night by a mutant frog (!)… that was too much. I couldn’t stomach any more.
There’s a fear in Hollywood that if you consummate a relationship, viewers have no more reason to watch. However, I can’t imagine that letting Lois and Clark get married would have damaged the ratings half as much as the ridiculous delaying tactics the writers used to prevent it.
|Avoiding the future is worse than plowing straight ahead and damn the torpedoes.|
If someone’s a werewolf, reveal the secret and then deal with it—don’t keep going to ever more ridiculous lengths to avoid committing yourself to the consequences. Whenever you find yourself holding back from something you know really has to happen…just do it. Write the fight, write the kiss, write the revelation. Your story will suffer if you don’t.
There are things you write that aren’t for public consumption—writing exercises, for example, or personal diary-like stuff. I strongly recommend that you keep these to yourself. There may be times when a writing exercise turns out so well it might be worth developing into a real story, and the same thing can happen in diary/journals. Generally speaking, however, such writing is only meaningful to you, and showing it to others is asking for trouble.
|If you give your story to six professional writers, they’ll give you six different answers about what needs to be done. That’s seldom useful. On the other hand, if they’re all talking about the same scene, you can be pretty confident that the scene needs to be fixed. They’re saying the scene doesn’t work; the possible remedies they offer may or may not be useful to you, but it’s obvious something has to change.|
What kind of trouble? People won’t know what to make of it. (“Is that supposed to be funny?” “But what happens next?” “Are you writing about me?”) They may say, “It sucks,” or just as bad, “It’s really good.” Such responses don’t help you at all.
Showing anything to non-writers—even finished stories—is a crapshoot. They probably don’t know enough to give you useful advice; they may not even give you good feedback. Usually, they’ll say just enough to undermine your confidence, without saying anything to help you improve.
Writers’ groups have a better chance of being useful…but they’re never sure things. If the writers in your group actually have writing skills, they may be able to contribute; if a group is just made up of beginners, they may be no better than showing the story to your mother.
Even when you get advice from a professional writer, you have to take it with a grain of salt. Other writers will tell you what they would do with a bit that isn’t working…but you have to make your story your own.
Some people spend years futzing around on the same story, getting advice from friends and relatives and writers-in-residence, changing whatever they say, rewriting and revising incessantly. Past a point, this is just another way of avoiding the future—get the story out of your life by sending it to a publisher, then immediately start a new story.
Of course, the story may get rejected. Tough. Send it to someone else and try again. After you’ve exhausted the professional markets, there are dozens of semi-pro publications and fanzines you can try. Have a look at the sff.net web site for listings.
If an editor sends back a personal note with any sort of suggestion on it, it is not a rejection. For example, if the editor says, “I liked it, but I don’t think the ending worked,” that is not a rejection. That is a statement saying, “If you change the ending, I’ll read the story again.”
|You may be tempted to say, “The story’s not good enough to send anywhere, I’ll just put it away in a drawer.” When someone said that to John W. Campbell (the most important editor in science fiction’s “golden age”), Campbell yelled, “How dare you reject stories from my magazine? That’s not your decision. Send me the story and I’ll make up my own mind.” This is something all writers should take to heart: it’s not up to you to decide whether your story is good. Send it out and let an editor decide.|
If you get such a note, what do you do? You think of a way to change the ending and send back the revised story with a cover letter that says, “I’ve changed the ending as you suggested. What do you think?” How much do you change the ending? That’s a tricky decision. I once got an editor to say yes by changing a single sentence; some niggling problem with the first version of the sentence left a bad taste in his mouth, but the change cleared everything up. On the other hand, editors have a bad habit of saying, “I’m just asking for a tiny change,” when they’re actually asking for a total rewrite.
It’s a judgment call, and you have to develop your own judgment. If there’s something in the story that you’ve always been unsure of, correct that and send it off again. The important thing to remember is that if an editor gives you any sort of suggestion for improvement, it’s not a rejection—it’s encouragement to fix the problem and resubmit.
|Before you submit your work to a potential market, go to the publisher’s web site and check their submission guidelines. Follow the guidelines exactly! (I’ve heard people say, “But their standard format is so UGLY! It’ll be better if I make my manuscript pretty.” But no. Give them the format they ask for. Otherwise, you start out with black marks against you.)|
I love funny stuff; I love writing funny stuff. Therefore, I feel obliged to say a few words about comedy.
First, I don’t believe that some people are born funny while other people aren’t. We learn to be funny the same way we learn anything else: through hours and hours of practice, preferably following the influence of good role models and with frequent opportunities for feedback. Therefore, some people do have an advantage when it comes to being funny—people who are born into families which already contain funny people and where a sense of humor is valued.
Different people find different things funny. You’ll never please everyone; all you can do is use your own sense of humor as a guide.
And do, do, do use your own sense of humor rather than someone else’s. When people try to be funny, they sometimes think they have to use tricks and gimmicks that smell like comedy: forced witticisms, contrived situations, toilet jokes, etc. Don’t use gimmicks you think ought to be funny. Use stuff that actually makes you laugh.
I had a great-uncle who was a noted wit and raconteur, at least in the small town
where he lived his entire life. My father and grandfather were also inveterate pranksters; they used to make us kids laugh with all the tricks they pulled when they were young. People in my family loved a good joke—for a while, the only books my brother owned were joke books—so naturally, I grew up wanting to be funny myself. I told jokes, I read funny books, I invented my own jokes and funny stories…and in time, I got pretty good at making my friends laugh.
In short, I dearly wanted to be funny. After ten or twenty years of practice, I succeeded. The practice included acting in stage comedies and writing for the annual musical-comedy revue at my university. (There’s no better feedback than the response from a live audience: they laugh or they don’t, and either way, you learn something.)
All of this led me to a simple conclusion: in order to be funny, you have to make a commitment to comedy. You have to keep pushing for laughs, even if you bomb. It has to be important to you—more important, for example, than dignity or looking cool. Professional comedians are seldom warm cuddly people; they often make jokes at others’ expense, because in the trade-off between humans and humor, comedians often put humor first.
So the secret of humor isn’t genetic: it’s commitment to comedy, and everything that entails. I’m not saying you have to be an antisocial boor, stomping on people’s feelings…but you have to care about laughs, you have to devote yourself, and you can’t let yourself back off when the going gets tough. (The same, of course, holds for learning to write, learning to play baseball, or learning cross-stitch embroidery. You have to set your priorities and press on.)
Comedians don’t get no respect…or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. There’s sometimes a feeling that comedy is a lesser achievement than “serious” work. In recent years, for example, comic movies seldom win Oscars, nor do comic novels win prestigious book awards (although there are exceptions).
My answer is, “So what?” The ability to make people laugh is its own reward. And history is kind to comedy-think of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Dickens, Mark Twain, and many more. I strongly suspect that more people read P.G.Wodehouse today than most of the authors who won the Nobel prize during the 1920’s. The Importance of Being Earnest is staged more often than Hedda Gabler. Laughter is a deep human need, and providing it is a noble calling.
Especially fart jokes.
Once you’ve made your commitment to comedy, you have to immerse yourself in it. You have to get the feel of what can and can’t be done. Some people think you can do anything in a comedy because it’s not “serious.” Others tell you that comedy has to adhere to a strict internal logic, more rigorous and demanding than “realistic” writing. But the wonderful thing about comedy is that it’s neither loose nor strict—it’s structured and anarchic, free from all restraint yet utterly bound by the need to engage an audience.
Engaging the audience is key. You want to keep the audience with you all the way. This means it’s not true that “anything goes”—some things simply don’t fit in some stories, even if they seem good in isolation. It’s even possible for a passage to be too funny, if it gives the audience wrong ideas about what kind of story you’re telling.
Yet it’s easy to get hung up on consistency. It’s easy to shy away from going over the top because you think it’s too much. There is such a thing as too much, but most people never come close. My own policy is to err on the side of extravagance, then tone it down later if I decide I’ve gone too far. If you want to write comedy, you can’t get in the habit of being tame; audacity first, and only rein yourself in if it improves the work as a whole.
You’ll notice that I haven’t given any specific comedy tips. That’s because I have none…nor have I ever heard anybody else offer any useful concrete advice. Mark Twain said that dissecting humor was like dissecting a frog—you can do it, but when you’re done, both the joke and the frog are dead.
My only advice is to make your commitment to comedy, then submerge yourself in it. Read comic stuff from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tom Jones to Dilbert and the Twitter accounts of funny people. You don’t master comedy; you let it master you.
I am proud to be a Canadian…but you’ll notice I’ve used U.S. spelling throughout this seminar. Why? Because the majority of science fiction & fantasy markets are in the U.S. and you may as well reconcile yourself to that.
It’s not that U.S. editors will immediately torch your manuscript if they see Canadian spellings. A lot don’t care…but some do. If your story is an utter masterpiece, editors will buy it no matter what your spelling is like…but if it’s on the borderline, you don’t want the tiniest negative factor to tip the balance.
There’s also the matter of respect. You’re the one who’s asking for the editor’s time and effort in reading your story; it’s an insult if you don’t make an effort to be accommodating. Furthermore, if your story does get accepted for publication in a U.S. market, the spelling will be changed anyway…so you may as well do it first, as a professional courtesy to the editor and as a small but possibly significant effort to make your manuscript more acceptable.
If you’re still feeling nationalistic, maybe an analogy will help. North American auto manufacturers who want to sell cars in Britain had damned well better put the steering wheel on the right hand side. It doesn’t matter if the manufacturer thinks left-hand steering is “better” or “more natural” or cheaper to build: if manufacturers want their products to sell, they have to make the change.
The situation isn’t quite so drastic in the writing world—as I say, many editors don’t care if you use Canadian spellings—but if you want to look professional, you’ll suit your spelling to the market.
End of sermon.
There are no rules in writing, even if I’ve sometimes talked as if there were. Whenever someone says, “This is a rule,” you can find a masterpiece that breaks the rule with wonderful results.
But even if there aren’t rules, there are techniques you can learn…and some techniques have a better track record than others. For example, the approach I described for writing descriptive passages usually works better than simply listing one detail after another. This isn’t always the case, but it’s true often enough that you should add the given technique to your repertoire.
I’ve mentioned “repertoire” a number of times throughout this seminar. It’s a useful concept. You never know what skills and techniques you may someday need in the course of your writing—maybe you’ll need to write a fight, maybe you’ll need to be funny, maybe you’ll need to make a scene deeply tragic—so you want to extend your repertoire to include as much as possible. Be able to do everything; then if the need arises, you’ll be ready.
In particular, you have to know how to string words together to achieve various effects. I haven’t said a thing about developing plots or characters—maybe some other time. But having a great idea is useless if you can’t express the idea in words and sentences and paragraphs. As my Great-Uncle Fred used to say:
|It’s not enough to know a joke. You have to be able to tell the joke.|
The following exercises will help you practice concepts discussed in this seminar. Don’t just think about them for a few seconds, then say, “I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I’d do for that, so I don’t actually have to write anything.” The world is full of people who have ideas—I meet them all the time at parties. People who can put ideas into words are vanishingly rare.
|The whole point of this seminar is that it’s not enough to have ideas—you have to be able to deliver those ideas to a reader. All the ideas in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t express them to other people.|
Therefore, if you’re going to do these exercises, take them seriously. Assemble words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Learning to write means developing appropriate neural connections in your brain; the only way to do that is to do the work.
[Note: These are writing exercises, not story exercises. If you can make interesting stories from the exercises, good for you! But don’t feel bad if what you write is less than brilliant. These are just exercises—like lifting weights to build muscles, so that later you can use those muscles for something more fun or interesting.]
- Write a first-person narrative of someone landing in a spaceport, walking through the spaceport, and meeting someone at an appointed place. (If you prefer fantasy to science fiction, you can change “spaceport” to “castle” or “village” in this exercise and all the following.)
- Same as in Exercise 1, but the viewpoint character is thrilled and excited to be in the spaceport. The VPC should walk past exactly the same things the narrator did in Exercise 1, but should perceive them according to his/her/its upbeat mood.
- Same as in Exercise 2, but the viewpoint character is annoyed to be in the spaceport.
- Pick any of the preceding exercises and rewrite it with different background circumstances. For example, the spaceport might be under attack by aliens, its life support systems may be on the fritz, there might be a riot in progress, or the director of the spaceport has gone a little funny in the head and has embarked on a massive “redecorating” program. As before, the VPC passes exactly the same things, but they may have changed due to circumstances.
- Pick any of the preceding exercises and rewrite it in third-person rather than first person. The viewpoint character is the same as before.
- Pick any of the preceding exercises and rewrite it from the point of view of someone other than the original viewpoint character…perhaps someone watching or following the original VPC. You can use either first-person or third-person.
- Pick any of the preceding exercises and rewrite it in third-person omniscient. Remember that this involves creating an authorial persona to perceive the action.
It’s up to you how long you want each exercise to be. Good luck!