Tense Slips

When it comes to narration, there are several choices to make based on what tone you’d like for your book. The one people tend to most talk about is if the narrator speaks in first or third person, but with present tense becoming more popular, Narrative Tense is becoming a hot topic.

(source: verbix.com)

(source: verbix.com)

For the most part, past tense has been the standard in story telling (“She walked down the street and looked around). With the popularity of present tense novels like The Hunger Games, however, the present tense is becoming more common (if not yet the standard). There are plenty of pros and cons to writing in either (some people find present tense more engaging, others find it distracting…) but the main writing rule when it comes to narrative voice is to be consistent.

One more than one occasion, I have been asked what to do in past tense narratives for facts that are still true after the telling of the story. For example:

My sister was named Sally.

Unless Sally is now dead, she is very possibly still named Sally. Wouldn’t you then want to say, “My sister is named Sally”?

Not unless you have a present tense framing device.

For, you see, the fact that you are using past tense in a story doesn’t mean that everything written is only true in the past. It is simply the narrative tense you are using to tell your story. As a coworker of mine once described it, “If I were describing my trip ten years ago to Germany, I might say, ‘It was beautiful. There were all these tiny streets and medieval buildings.’ It’s likely it’s still beautiful with tiny streets and medieval buildings. I just happen to be describing what it was like in the moment I was there. That is my narrative tense.”

For example Hirschhorn, Germany (Source: journey-to-germany.com)

For example, Hirschhorn, Germany (Source: journey-to-germany.com)

Similarly, unless you have a present tense narrator who is covering things in the past as a clear framing device (“I didn’t know it at the time, but…”) it is important to stay in a consistent narrative voice, even if that means you’re saying “John was a tall man” when John might still be a tall man after the story.

Similarly with present tense, everything in the story should be in present tense, unless you are actually describing something happening in the past (these would be sections that would be in past perfect in a past tense novel). For example:

In present tense:

I walk down the street, looking at the spot Jack and I went on our first date.

“I walk” is in present tense, meaning everything happening in-story should be in present tense  (e.g. you shouldn’t have something like “I walk into the building and looked around” but “I walk into the building and look around”) but as the narrator and Jack’s first date happened in the past, that verb is properly in past tense.

In past tense:

I walked down the street, looking and the spot Jack and I had gone on our first date.

Here, the narrative is already in past tense (“I walked”) meaning everything happening in-story is related in past tense. To show something happening before the story, you then switch to past perfect (“had gone”).

Once you have decided the narrative voice of your story, you should stay consistent in either using present for in-story and past for the past, or past for in-story (including things that remain true after the story) and past perfect for the past. Slipping between tenses once one has been established can at best be jarring, and worst look like sloppy writing.

Language Barriers

Today’s post, Language Barriers, is being hosted by Kate Warren from katewarren.com:

Authors are pretty lucky when it comes to choosing what language they can write their story in. Just like suspension of disbelief will let readers believe there are really ghosts in a book, it will let readers believe that someone living in Ancient Rome or on a distant planet speaks fluent English—or at least the book is a “translation” of whatever language they would be speaking. The problem, therefore, becomes what to do when a character is bilingual. Many times that raises issues of both needing to show a switch between languages while not confusing readers who very likely don’t speak both languages. After all, you can’t exactly run subtitles under the dialogue like you would in a movie.

In both of my most recent Broken Line books (novella, The Copper Rebellion, and Book 3, The Paper Masque) I came up against just this problem. While Books 1 and 2 take place in their version of England, The Copper Rebellion finds protagonist, Adela, abroad in a version of France and the protagonist of The Paper Masque, Elsie, finds herself dealing with a number of Irish Gaelic speakers throughout her story. While some readers might speak either of those languages, requiring all readers be trilingual to finish the series seemed like a tall order.

So what to do then, when your characters speak more than one language? There are a few different methods, all of which depend on your Point of View (POV) character.

POV Character is Bilingual

 

If your POV Character in a scene understands whatever the language being spoken is, the easiest method is to use tags like “in French” at the end of dialogue to show that the characters are now speaking another language. For example, in The Copper Rebellion we find:

“Bonjour, madame…” The tallest stopped in front of her, Adela’s mind taking a moment to click over into [French]. “…how may we help you?”

Adela gave a pretty smile, silently thanking her grandmother’s insistence on learning the language. “Good day. I am Adela Wembley, and I have come to call on his majesty, King Charles, if he is in?

The reader has been filled in that they are now speaking in another language, and dialogue can continue on in English.

Note: To add credence to the switch, you can use a few words here and there of the language you’re switching from. Just try to make sure that they are either words that the reader would likely know (such as Bonjour) or words that are not important to the meaning of the sentence (so that the reader hasn’t missed anything if they don’t understand that word).

You will likely notice that I have used italics throughout the sample above after the language switch. If your character will be staying in one language more often than not, italics are not necessary (you can simply add “in French”/“in German”/etc. Italics, however, can be handy if you’re going to be switching in and out of a language quickly. For example:

There is a messenger here for you, madame,” the servant continued.

Adela recovered enough to smile. “Mr. Fletcher. What a surprise.”

Antony seemed to take everything in, bowed as his gaze began to linger too long. “Your majesty.”

Louis turned to her. “A friend of yours?

“Monsieur le duc, this is Antony Fletcher. He was a painter at my late husband’s court.” She looked back at Antony, flipped to [English]. “Mr. Fletcher, Louis Delone, Duke of Parnulle and brother to the king.”

Since Adela is speaking to Antony and Louis in two separate languages, it became simplest to establish that italics=French, no italics=English and remove “in English” and “in French” from appearing over and over again. You can determine if italics are necessary for clarity’s sake in your own writing.

POV Character is not Bilingual

If your POV character does not speak the second language being used in a scene, things get a little trickier. You see, since the character doesn’t know what is being said, there is no way for them to relate what is being said.

The easiest way to get around this problem is to have another character translate. For example:

Stringing a rope along the ceiling, Úna continued to speak to Laurence as she worked.

“She’s dividing up the room,” Laurence translated. “She says we aren’t married so we can’t sleep in the same room together.”

By having a character who speaks the second language translate, you can get a summary of what is being said across without the POV character needing to understand it word for word.

If the POV character doesn’t have someone to translate for them, try to stick to things the reader doesn’t need to understand, put in enough so that the reader can follow along, or have the POV character make guesses as to the content. For example:

Colm continued to rant in [Gaelic], switching as he turned to Gordon, “Though, like you really understand what we’re even saying,eachtrannach.”

Díul mó bhad,” Gordon returned, Elsie entirely willing to believe it was an insult just by the tone.

If someone speaks Irish Gaelic, they won’t need to be told that what Gordon says is an insult, but the rest of the audience has been told enough to pass over the phrase with the knowledge that Gordon says something insulting.

POV Character is Learning

For the most part, I don’t suggest taking the “subtitle” route, where you give lines in whatever foreign language a character is speaking and then add the translation verbatim after it. This is primarily because it can become clunky/disrupt the flow of the scene. Readers who don’t know the original language will have to skip over to find the translation meaning more “clutter” in the scene which often leads to slower pacing. It can be effective, however, if used for small stretches. I primarily use this strategy when it comes to a character learning the other language. For example:

Mon père est un soldat, comme mes frères,” Antony pieced the sentence together, doing his best to explain his family—the martial proclivity he hadn’t seemed to inherit with the rest of his brothers.

Vous ne voulez pas être un soldat?” Henriette asked quickly.

You did not want to be a soldier? Antony pieced the words together with just a little delay, answered, “Non. Not at all.”

“You really are not bad.” Henriette switched back to [English].

The extra wordiness in these instances can work well since it forces in the lull it takes the character to think of what the other characters are saying. The POV character is likely a step behind and so the “clunky” feel to the wording will suit for pacing.

All in all, when in doubt, understandability should be the goal when it comes to using two languages in your writing. You don’t want your readers to miss an important plot point just because they don’t speak as many languages as your character—or worse, to get so frustrated, they put your book down. Err on the side of caution and, when in doubt, call in a beta reader or two and see if it makes sense to readers who don’t speak a second language.

Guest Post – Laura E. Koons: Strengthening Your Dialogue

Last week, I posted a blog about identifying your strengths and weaknesses as an author as a step to becoming a better writer. Since most authors tend to either start out having problems either with narrative or dialogue, I asked Laura E. Koons, author of He Said, She Said: Writing Effective Dialogue, to share a few of her tips on becoming a better dialogue writer. If you’re currently working on moving from being narrative-strong to more well rounded, here are Laura’s suggestions:

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Dialogue, like any aspect of writing, can be strengthened and improved with practice. While it may seem like some writers were gifted with “an ear for dialogue” and can effortlessly put the right words into their characters’ mouths, the art of producing good dialogue can be studied, and practice and attention can help any writer appear to have the gift of that “good ear.”

Perhaps the most useful general guiding principle to keep in mind when trying to strengthen your dialogue is the concept of fiction as a balance between the realistic and the artful. Realistic dialogue mimics the way people really talk. But while it is often a writer’s goal to make her dialogue sound “real,” dialogue which mimics precisely the way most people talk may come across as boring, clunky, or repetitious. Real people often do not speak elegantly; listen to any conversation and you are likely to hear a lot of oral crutches (um, ah, er, and so on), repeated words, pauses, and sentences that don’t come out quite right. While there may occasionally be times when a scene requires that kind of realism, most of the time you will want to make your characters speak more proficiently or more efficiently than real people usually do. This is where the balance between the realistic and the artful comes in. Use your artistic license to “clean up” dialogue of the oral crutches, repetitions, and the like that pepper most real conversations in order to present dialogue that reads like the best version of the way people really talk.

In order to strike this balance between realism and the artful in your dialogue, consider the following tips.

In order to keep your dialogue realistic:

  • DO use contractions as real people of similar backgrounds to your characters might. Dialogue without contractions will sound stilted.
  • DO use widely understood (or easily deciphered) slang and/or regionalisms appropriate to your characters. This will help them sound like real people from real places.
  • DO keep the scene going during dialogue exchanges. People don’t usually drop everything and stand still to talk to one another. They keep making dinner, or fidget, or try to fix the dishwasher to avoid the conversation, or carry on working on their report. At the very least, they gesture or make facial expressions. Having your characters do something while they have a conversation will make the conversation itself seem more realistic.
  • DO NOT overuse direct address. Most people don’t refer to one another very often by name in conversation, so having your characters do so may sound inauthentic and will become tedious.

And in order to keep your dialogue artful:

  • DO avoid distracting dialogue tags. Consider using “asked” and “said” as your default dialogue tags, as these will fade into the background and allow readers to concentrate on the dialogue itself. Reserve other tags (such as lied, interrupted, shouted, whispered) for those times when it is necessary to tell the reader how the dialogue was said.
  • DO vary character gestures and use unique rather than generic gestures whenever possible during dialogue exchanges. Real people likely do a lot of generic things like smiling, frowning, nodding, and shrugging in the course of their conversations, but in a dialogue exchange on the page, these generic gestures can become tedious and—worse—make your characters seem boring or cookie-cutter. Keep generic gestures to a minimum (they are certainly necessary sometimes) and give your characters gestures, habits, and tics that are unique to them that they can engage in during dialogue exchanges.
  • DO NOT overemphasize characters’ dialects through phonetic spellings and dropped letters. If a character’s dialect is important, suggest it through the use of slang, regionalisms, and occasional nonstandard grammar rather than trying to reproduce its exact sound through nonstandard or phonetic spellings. The resultant “apostrophe jungle” on the page can be very distracting to readers.
  • DO NOT overuse clichés in dialogue. Real people use clichés frequently, but clichés are phrases that have become commonplace and as such are usually uninteresting. Err on the side of having your characters speak with original language to keep your dialogue interesting and fresh.
  • DO summarize commonplace exchanges in dialogue. Commonplace exchanges such as the pleasantries exchanged at the beginning of a phone call (“Hello?” “Hi, Jim.” “Oh, hi, Sam.”) do not need to appear in full in dialogue if nothing but that commonplace exchange occurs. This kind of over-representation of characters’ exact words can be dull. Summarize instead: Jim answered the phone. It was Sam.
  • DO NOT overuse oral crutches in dialogue. Use oral crutches only when absolutely necessary to show that a character is at a loss for words or is otherwise stumbling over his speech. Real people use oral crutches to let their brains catch-up with their mouths—generally the reader doesn’t need to see that process for fictional characters.

In order to fine tune your ear for realistic dialogue, listen carefully to conversations going on around you. Make note of interesting turns of phrase, regionalisms, and the cadences of real speech. You might even record (with permission) some real conversations so you can study at your leisure the way real people’s speech sounds.

To ensure that your dialogue comes off as artful as well, make it a habit to read your dialogue out loud to yourself. Note any places where you trip over the words, where you hear repetitions, or where the exchange becomes dull. Ask yourself what you might remove or change (even if you think doing so will tip your dialogue away from strict realism) to make it read more smoothly.

Following these tips should help you develop your own “ear for dialogue.”

Happy writing!

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Find more dialogue writing tips and full exercises in Laura’s book, He Said, She Said: Writing Effective Dialogue, available exclusively on Amazon.

cover

Dialogue-Strong vs. Narrative-Strong

As far as art forms go, creative writing is a bit of an interesting one. Just like painting or sculpting it can take a while to become skilled at it, but not everyone seems to expect that. I can’t say I have looked into any psychological studies about it, but what I am always reminded of is one school trip I made to a arts/theater festival in high school. While at dinner that night, I was complaining to a friend that I didn’t seem to be as good at acting as some of the other classmates we had come with, and at 15, I had determined that obviously I wasn’t “naturally” as talented as they were. A teacher nearby asked how long I had been practicing–not just my scene, but acting in general stating, “You wouldn’t expect to pick up a brush for the first time and be a brilliant painter, would you? Why would you expect to be a brilliant actor?”

It didn’t fully make sense to me at the time (what was acting, really? Standing in front of people and talking! I talked in front of people all the time!) but it always stuck with me. And it’s true. Art forms, even ones that seem easy in their simplest form (talking to people, writing words down) still require a certain skill set to progress from novice to professional.

As I hinted to above, writing is very similar. With most people learning to write in some way or another by first grade, putting words on paper isn’t difficult. We are taught how to form letters, go through spelling tests, and are forced to write hundreds of school papers by the time we graduate high school or college. Therefore, many people think of writing creatively as just another part of that progression. They could write good papers in high school so this is just doing that but while also telling an awesome story. At its heart, the skills that seem necessary to write a novel don’t seem very hard at all.

Of course, if writing (or writing well) were as simple as that, I wouldn’t have this blog. There really wouldn’t be much to discuss. You’d think of a story idea, write it down in your native language, and move on with your life. After over a decade of writing, and editing, and learning it as a craft, however, I’ve realized it isn’t quite that simple. Different people have different levels of natural talent when it comes to any art form. There might be someone who has never held a pen before who can draw or write at professional levels straight off the bat. There are Mozarts of every generation. If that doesn’t happen to be you, however, that doesn’t mean that you will never write or draw (or act) at the same level as them. It just means that you need to practice. Because for all the ways you could learn to go from being an okay writer to a great writer, the best is to read and write as much as possible.

The other part to going from okay to great is to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer.

If you don’t happen to be a literary Mozart who comes to the table with all your writing skills sharply developed (I know I wasn’t) I find that writers tend to start out as either dialogue-strong or narrative-strong. It’s generally pretty simple to pick this out looking over your writing based on what you end up writing the most of in your first novel, but as a general outline:

Dialogue-Strong Authors tend to:

  • Prefer “discussion” scenes to “movement/action” scenes
  • Have long stretches of conversation, often either without tags or with very short tags (he said, he nodded, he asked, etc.)
  • Introduce characters with very little or no description but have well-developed “voices”
  • “get into a flow” when writing dialogue/not have to think too much as to how characters would naturally respond to each other

Narrative-Strong Authors tend to:

  • Prefer “movement/action” scenes to “discussion” scenes
  • May have long stretches of description without any dialogue or summaries of dialogue rather than actual discussion.
  • Provide great descriptions of characters but not feel comfortable with unique “voices”
  • “get into a flow” when writing narrative/develop brilliant action, but struggle to make conversations sound “natural”

These lists aren’t exact or all inclusive, of course, but they at least give a quick snapshot if you aren’t sure what your strength might be. If you still aren’t sure, look over whatever you’re writing and see if you are defaulting to one or the other.

I, personally, have always been a dialogue-strong writer. My struggle, therefore, has been figuring out how to insert narrative in a way that doesn’t feel clunky in the middle of dialogue. I know several authors who started out narrative-strong and have had to figure out how to make their dialogue sound natural. It doesn’t matter which your strength is, part of going from “okay” to “great” is learning how to do your weakness just as well as your strength. And that means practicing even if those parts seem awful and strained compared to what you’re naturally good at. Furthermore, when reading, pay careful attention to dialogue/narrative that you find well written and critically try to determine what about it works and what doesn’t. By identifying your weaknesses, you can become better as a writer overall, rather than just making what you’re already good at better.

Taking “I” Out of It

Happy Day 6 of NaNoWriMo. Hopefully it is going well for everyone participating–and even if it’s not, the month is still young.

An interesting fact, I have to say, that I have found as an editor is that many new writers gravitate to first person. Whether if it’s because it feels more natural to tell a story as “I” or just a quirk that makes it more popular, I’m not sure. Before I go on, I want to say there is obviously nothing wrong (or inherently inferior) with using first person for narration. First, Third, and even Second person all have their place depending on what kind of story someone’s telling. It’s all about what works for the book.

The problem many newer writers writing in first person have, however, is that pesky pronoun, “I” cropping up over and over again. As the narrator is “I” in first person novels, there is obviously no way to fully remove the word from your writing (nor should you try to). What you can do, however, is find some ways to cut down on the repetitive: “I [verb]. I [verb]. I [verb]” sentences, which make  “I” feel a little too front and center.

1) Remove filtering. I previously discussed “filtering” in regard to self-censoring. This is the other kind. Rather than trying not to filter the actual content, this is trying not to filter content through the narrator. If you are seeing a lot of “I saw X”/”I watched X”/”I heard X” you are likely filtering. To get rid of the repetitive “I [verb]” simply remove the narrator from sentences where they aren’t needed. That is:

I saw the car turn down the street.

becomes

The car turned down the street. 

As everything in a first person narration is being related by one person, the reader can assume everything happening is being seen by “I” It is perfectly fine to remove the “I” from these sentences to cut down on repetitiveness.

2) Change up sentence structure. Since not every sentence will allow for “I” to be removed (e.g. “I walked around the table”) try to change up sentence structure if you feel like you’re falling into a string of “I [verb]”s. For example, rather than writing something like:

I opened the door. I looked down the hall. I didn’t see anyone…

consider something like:

Opening the door, I looked down the hall. No one was in sight…

By joining the first two sentences, and starting with a verb, you don’t fall into that repetitive structure. You also lose one of the “I”s being used. By switching the last sentence to remove the narrator from the action, the third is gone, leaving the remaining “I” feeling much less noticeable.

As with anything in writing, don’t take these tips to an extreme. If you have a section that works very well with “I [verb]. I [verb]. I [verb]” you don’t necessarily need to change it. If things start feeling repetitive, however, or “I” begins to feel overused, see if you can use these two tips to make things a little less awkward.

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News Alert: Broken Line novella, The Copper Rebellion, is now available to buy for only $0.99 or receive it for FREE with newsletter sign up. Find out more here!

The Copper Rebellion

Where to Start

Happy Halloween, or as it’s known around my house, Happy “Oh god, it’s the day before NaNoWriMo…” Day

For those who don’t know (and possibly have never visited this blog before) NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month” and is a time when writers of all levels come together to try to write 50,000 words in the month of November.

It can be a contested (sometimes loathed) event amongst those in the publishing world (mostly having to do with authors submitting unedited, literally “written in a month” books to agents or publishers December 1st) but for those who use it as motivation, it is a great program. After all, even if you only end up writing 1,000 words over the entire month, it’s 1,000 words you didn’t have in October. NaNoWriMo serves to be the kick in the pants some of us need to put our butts in a chair and start writing.

And, as long as you edit, it’s entirely possible to end up with good stories.

TBC         

All of the above, and my newest fantasy novel contracted with Red Adept Publishing, were partially (or entirely) written during NaNoWriMo.

Of course, with kickoff just around the corner, I have seen many authors asking how or where they’re supposed to start their novels. And it’s understandable. It tends to be much easier to write when you’re already in the flow of things rather than when you’re staring at a blank page.

Short answer: Start writing with whatever scene comes to you. Yes, openings are very important when it comes to publishing (if you don’t catch an agent/publisher/reader within the first 1000 words or so, your odds of them contracting you drastically drops) but as long as you do go back and edit (several times) before sending a manuscript off, it doesn’t matter. Many people end up cutting their first scene or two once they’ve written the full book because they realize they came in too early. Others end up adding a few scenes because they came in too late. It is actually often times easier to see where you need to start after you’ve ended. As long as you start getting words down on the page, it doesn’t matter what your opening sentence, paragraph, or even scene is.

Long answer: For those who want a little more advice when it comes to picking an opening scene, look to your plot structure. While you will tend to have some exposition at the beginning of novels, you generally want to start as close to the inciting incident as possible. You picked the story you are writing for a reason–hopefully because you find it interesting. Don’t waste time with scenes that aren’t involved in the story you want to tell. So, if your story follows a cop chasing a serial killer, it is perfectly fine to start with your characters finding the first body rather than with your cop waking up and going to work one day. Or even your cop going through the police academy, meeting his/her partner, being promoted to detective, and whatever else happened before your story actually starts. As an author, you will always know more about your character’s background than your reader will likely need to know. If it helps you in your rough draft to info dump some of that backstory right at the beginning of your novel, feel free to. You will just generally find the story flows better once you get rid of that come editing time.

But, hey, that’s what editing is for. Don’t stress it.

Beat Changes

Those who knew me back in high school or college know that, while I did do creative writing groups back then, I was really more of a drama kid. Fall semester always meant the school play, and Spring the musical. While acting and writing are certainly different art forms, I do thank that experience for helping with one very important part of creative writing: Dialogue. You might be speaking someone else’s words when reciting a script, but you certainly develop an ear for how conversations flow.

The other very important lesson I picked up was beat changes.

You see, unlike a novel or short story, plays tend to give very little direction. You might see something like:

John: (sarcastic) No. Really?

Which would tell the actor how the line is meant to be read, but, for the most part, the script allows the actors to make roles their own without any sort of narration that says how each line is meant to be delivered.

Because of this lack of direction, it also is up to the actor to figure out where there are natural pauses, emotional changes, or just separate thoughts all crammed into one line. These breaks are–as my college drama professor was always prone to yelling at us–beat changes. And they are very important to acting. By picking out where there are natural shifts, it is possible to add complexity to a scene rather than just speaking the words.

In writing fiction, there is something similar. While our characters might not be picking out all of the emotional shifts in a scene, breaking up the beat changes for the reader will make for more powerful scenes.

So, how do you do that? The easiest way is to give the readers a natural pause. This gives the same effect as an actor physically giving the audience a beat change. Pauses can be done a number of ways, but the simplest to use dialogue tags/narration properly.

For example, say your character has a beat change between two sentences in dialogue. Just the line might be something like:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore. Are you listening to me?”

There is naturally a beat change between those two sentences. Without any sort of break between the sentences, however, they end up mushing into each other. There is no “beat” for the reader to switch tones in their head. The emotion you have for “I just don’t know what to do anymore” carries straight over to “Are you listening to me?” By instead writing:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she said. “Are you listening to me?”

You have a natural break between the lines. It can be stretched out a little longer using “She paused” depending on what suits your scene.

These beat changes can become even more powerful by using the tag to “show” the emotions/stretch out the beat (rather than just using the word “paused”). For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed, looked up again. “Are you listening to me?”

Now there’s action “on stage” that is showing the switch in thoughts, along with a sizable break between the two sentences that gives the illusion of the character pausing–all using body language, like an actor would.

To really stretch out a beat change, you can even separate the dialogue all together. For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed.

John stared at his hands.

Jane frowned. “Are you listening to me?”

Even though John doesn’t say anything in the scene, throwing him in there with his own action stretches the silence in the reader’s head, leaving no mistake that these are two separate thoughts.

While what is said is always important to a story, it is also sometimes important to remember the silences for a more natural feel–and emotional effect–to scenes. You want your characters to “act” in your readers’ heads. Not just give them the lines and leave them to figure out the emotion.

There are no actual actors to bring stories to life in prose like you have in plays.

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 Live in the DC area and want to see some great emerging playwrights? The DC Fringe Festival runs through July 27th with wonderful plays (like TAME by Jonelle Walker). Check it out.

And… Scene.

Today’s question: “For awhile now I’ve had so much problems in ending scenes. I’m stuck on one particular scene in one chapter for a week before I move on to another scene and the same thing happens over and over again. What I like to ask is how do you know when to end the scene? How do your own scenes work out?”

Working as both a creative writing teacher and an editor, I have seen my share of first novels. Having seen so many, I can safely say first novels run the gauntlet from awe-inspiring to a little cringe-worthy (like my first novel was…), but no matter the inherent skill level, scenes often cause authors problems. How to start one, how to end one, it can be a bit of a headache.

Because starting and ending suddenly can feel unnatural, many beginning writers start scenes with a character waking up and end with them falling asleep. Besides being an easy way for critics to point out “new” writers (or at least ones that haven’t mastered that aspect of writing yet), the problem with this method is that you either end up with a lot of “filler” (things that happen that aren’t important) or something like this:

“I never want to speak to you again!” John yelled slamming the door in Sam’s face.

Really upset, John stormed upstairs, sitting on his bed as he tried to forget everything that had happened. When that didn’t work, he finally took a shower. Coming out ten minutes later, he was finally calm enough to sleep. He crawled into bed and turned off the light, closing his eyes.

While not bad for something like NaNoWriMo where you’re trying to up your word count, paragraphs like that are not especially engaging to read, meaning it can slow the pacing of the story at best, and lose you readers/get you slammed in reviews at worse.

So, if starting and stopping at the natural points of waking up and falling asleep are out, how exactly do you structure a scene?

Remember one cardinal rule: Start when the action starts. End when the action ends.

As far as prose goes, novels are the longest common form. Where short stories tend to clock in under 10,000 words, novels are often ten times that (if not even longer, like some epics). That does not, however, mean that there should be filler. Every scene in a novel should serve a purpose, be it introducing an important concept, serving as character building, or advancing the plot. If there is any scene (or any part of a scene) that doesn’t serve a purpose, it’s something that should likely be cut on the editing floor.

This includes summaries of unimportant things that happen between the actual action of a scene and some arbitrary cut off (the character going to sleep, class ending, etc.) There is absolutely no reason in the above example that you can’t end with John slamming the door. If something important happens afterward, you certainly don’t have to, but in the above example, all John does is sit, shower, and then go to bed. Not exciting to read, not character building, and certainly not advancing the plot, there is no reason to have it there.

But what if there’s a large chunk of time that’s going to pass between action? How will the reader know that things aren’t happening right in a row if you don’t explain time is passing?

Simple, you throw in a single line that time has passed at the beginning of the next scene.

For example, in my new novella, The Copper Rebelliontwo days pass between the end of chapter six and the start of chapter seven. Chapter Six ends as soon as the action is done (in this case, the character figuring something out with the ending line, “And that wasn’t good”). Chapter Seven starts:

“Adela took a deep breath, steeling her resolve. She’d let it sit two more days. And that was two days too long” 

That’s it. No summary of what had happened the past two days. No filler. With the second and third sentence, the reader knows that it has been two days since the last scene and can assume that nothing important happened those days (at least not to the story). Especially in a novella there’s no reason to waste space with “She sat around one day. Went out riding. Had dinner, etc. etc.” either as filler scenes or as a paragraph telling the reader these things have happened before the start of the important information, but even in a novel, the same holds true.

Similarly, if your characters are driving somewhere because they start in A and the story is actually in B–and nothing interesting happens on the way/nothing that is important to the plot–it is perfectly okay to have something like:

“Let’s go!” Jane threw the car in gear, pulling out of the driveway.

***

The New York Skyline came into view, Jane nearly ready to cry with joy. A week in the car with John and Miranda would be enough to make the Dali Lama snap.

Again, a week has passed. The characters have made it from their house to New York. The reader can assume they haven’t missed anything important by not seeing miles of road tick by or having a summary about how nothing, in fact, has happened.

As with everything else in writing, figuring out the perfect place to start and end scenes is something that becomes simpler with practice. But by approaching each scene looking for what’s important–figuring out where the action is–it becomes much simpler.

Write, Edit, Publish: The Best of The Jessica Dall Blog

June 17th is here once again, and that means one thing. It’s my birthday. And to celebrate, I have a gift for all you readers out there:

WEP

Write, Edit, Publish includes some of this site’s most popular blog posts compiled into a downloadable eBook, covering everything from staring with a blank page to working on getting a manuscript published.

Download for FREE right here: Write, Edit, Publish [PDF]

Or FREE on Smashwords: Write, Edit, Publish

(Soon available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble)

 

Write, Edit, Publish articles include:

Section One: Writing

Getting Started

Writing Prompts

Finding Time to Write

Writing through Writer’s Block

Inner Filters

Character Naming

What’s in a Name?

Historical Naming

Who are you, again?

Plotting

From Premise to Plot

“Accidental Plagiarism”

[X] Types of Plot

Characterization

Making Your Characters Believable

Character Flaws

“Plot Device” Disorders

Just a Pretty Face

Dialogue

You Don’t Say

Floating Dialogue

Narrative

Writing Shakespeare

Head Jumping

 

Section Two: Editing

Editing 101

Plot and Plot Holes

The Ever-Dreaded Plot Holes

A Wizard Did It

That’s Just…Wrong

Language

The Problem with Pronouns

The Unneeded Words

All of a sudden, he was suddenly there

Critique Groups

How to Take a Critique

Crises of Confidence

The Nitty-Gritty

Does Length Matter?

Eh, it’s not my style

“Intensive Purpose”

 

Section Three: Publishing

Self, Vanity, Traditional Publishing

Shoot the Shaggy Dog

Submissions

How to Get Published

Submissions 101

Wishlists and Trends

Word Counts

Word Limits

Copyrights and Contracts

Contracts

Novel Blogs

Toe Tappin’ Copyrights

Layout

Novel Layout Tips

Who are you, again?

To many writers, myself included, names are partially what make a character. I’ve touched on how a new name can completely change a character, but even after an author has found the perfect name for a character, there comes another problem: introducing the character to the reader.

Recently in the NaNoWriMo Forums, a writer asked for advice on, “how to appropriately introduce new characters and offer their names.” The poster acknowledged that there seem to be two ways to introduce names to the reader. 1) Using the character’s name whether or not it has been used before or 2) wait until the names come up in dialogue.

So which should be used? Honestly, a little of both.

Introducing characters is one of those moments when you really have to nail down who your POV character is. With first person and third person limited being the most popular POVs by far these days, writers will most likely be writing with one character relating the story/a scene (either as “I” or “s/he”) It is possible to change POVs between scenes, especially in third person, but each scene should follow one character (otherwise it becomes head jumping). Once you know who the POV character in a scene, it becomes simpler to know when to share names.

1) If the POV character knows another character’s name, use it. Since you are in the POV character’s head, there is no reason to wait for someone to say another character’s name if the POV character knows it. Would you really call your friend “the tall man” or “the blond man” when you know his name is “Tim”? It is forcing in awkwardness where it needn’t be. (Note: The same goes for using nicknames. If POV character calls someone “Tim” in their head, there’s no reason to use “Timothy” in the narrative. Just be consistent [you shouldn’t flip between Tim and Timothy in narrative if you start with one]).

2) If the POV character doesn’t know another character’s name, wait for it to come up. Hopefully, this won’t be a long wait, but it would be a POV slip to say a name when your character would have no way of knowing it. Luckily, people tend to introduce themselves pretty early on when they aren’t known to someone. Stalling some with “the blonde girl”, “the young girl” or “the happy girl” shouldn’t be a problem. As soon as the character is introduced or the POV character gets a name, you can switch to using the new character’s name (e.g. another character in the scene calls “the blonde girl” Sally. It is fine to use Sally from that moment on because the POV character now has a name).

The biggest thing is you simply don’t want to confuse your readers. The sooner you can introduce a name and use it consistently the better.

Finally, if you are using omniscient POV, you should use the names for your characters as soon as they are introduced, unless there is a specific reason not to. As your narrator is omniscient they know all of the character names to begin with. By withholding a name, you are saying there is something important about it. Suddenly using it without any sort of reveal comes off as odd/anticlimactic.

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Want to carry this and other posts with you wherever you go? Download Write, Edit, Publish for free today.