Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: how to write great books

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Hmmm, what’s the story behind THIS?

There are all kinds of arguments about which area of craft is the most important for creating great fiction. Plot? Character? Voice? Theme? My opinion. They’re all organs in one body. Our brains will still work if our lungs have bronchitis, but maybe not at an optimal level. Similarly, there are people with brain injuries who have a strong heart. A body can “live” without everything operating in concert, and so can any story.

It’s ideal to hone our skills in all areas, and our goal is to be skilled at all of them. Can we be equally skilled? That’s another debate for another post.

I will say that plot (skeleton/brain) is very important. Our characters (heart) are only as strong as the crucible. Ultimately, all stories are about people. We might not recall every detail of a plot, but we DO remember characters. Ah, but here’s the sticky wicket. WHY do we remember characters? Because of plot. Stories are more than about people. Great stories are people overcoming great odds.

We don’t remember Luke Skywalker because he hung out on Tatooine waxing rhapsodic about his plight as a moisture farmer. We remember him and his allies because they went up against seemingly unbeatable odds and WON.

Yet, even if we come up with the coolest plot in the world, there are elements of character that should also be in the mix, lest our novel can become the literary equivalent of a CGI Star Wars Prequel NIGHTMARE. Characters should develop organically or the reader will call FOUL.

Additionally, if our characters are as deep as an Amarillo puddle, it will be virtually impossible for readers to emotionally connect.

Among many other reasons, I think this is why the Star Wars Prequels were like a bad acid trip at Chuck E. Cheese. Anakin was utterly unlikable and unredeemable simply because the writers were more focused on how many characters they could make into McDonald’s Happy Meal toys instead of sticking to the fundamentals of GOOD storytelling.

But Obi-Wan doesn’t take me seriously. Whaaaaahhhhhh! *SLAP*

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If we’re missing emotional connection between the audience and our characters, our story loses critical wattage. What are some ways we can help form that connection? Today…

The Wound

Real humans have wounds that drive our wants, needs, perceptions, and reactions and so should all our characters (even the Big Boss Troublemaker-Antagonist). Recently, I was helping a student of my Antag-Gold class plot her novel. She had a good protagonist who was a control freak. My question: WHY?

Yes, genetics will have a role in forging our personality, but genes do not a good story make. Having a character be a certain way simply because we need them to be or act that way will work, but so will a heart with damaged valves.

Wounds drive how we perceive our world, what we believe we want, and how we will (or won’t) interact with others. This is critical for generating story tension and character arc.

For instance, my father abandoned us, my mother was chronically ill, and my little brother was legally blind. I was left to grow up too fast and take care of far too much way too early. THIS is why I struggle with being a control freak. From MY wound, %#!* didn’t get done unless I did it.

Additionally, because I grew up in the wake of constant broken promises, I’ve had to work hard to trust. It’s been a challenge to delegate and allow others to fail or succeed without my meddling. Also in my growing up years, achievement=love/attention. That wound drove me to seek dreams that weren’t mine to please others. I had to “arc” to walk away from people-pleasing if I wanted fulfillment.

Wounds Don’t Have to Be Big to Be BIG

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.

Often, new writers will default to wounds like rape or death or some big tragedy to create the wound. To be clear, I am not saying these aren’t viable wounds, but never underestimate the “smaller” and more relatable emotional injuries. The more a reader can empathize with one or more characters, the deeper that connection becomes.

Not everyone has lost their family to a sudden alien invasion— 😉 — but they can empathize with maybe never living up to expectations, being bullied, or not fitting in. LOTR rests on a small band of Hobbits who believe they are too little to make a BIG difference.

Perhaps the character is the invisible middle child trying to forge an identity, the eldest trying to hold the world together, or the baby who “got away with murder” and “was handed everything.” Never underestimate family dynamics as sources for realistic and powerful psychic wounds.

For instance, my father was all play no work. Unfortunately, we suffered the consequences. Ironically, my grandfather was all work no play. Doubly ironic, my childlike father created a workaholic daughter (me); like thread, one loop feeding into the next weaving the “pattern” until someone changes “the pattern.”

Arc.

I’ve had to learn to lighten the hell up and balance The Force. But my workaholic, overachieving nature served up far more thorns than fruits.

Wounds Will Distort Happiness

Wounds generate illusions. Because I grew up poor and lived hand-to-mouth all through college, I “believed” that money and financial security would make me happy. At 27, I made more money than any person in their 20s should make…and I was miserable. I was eaten alive with emptiness. I’d achieved all that should have filled that hole—the college degree, the premium job and premium pay. And yet?

I was the person stranded in a desert gulping sand I believed was water from an oasis.

Am I "there" yet?
Am I “there” yet?

Character arc comes when a protagonist is placed in a problem strong enough to challenge the illusion and break it. The protagonist believes X=happiness/fulfillment. It is only through the story problem that the protagonist rises to become a hero, a person capable of realizing they were wrong and that they’d been coveting a shill at the expense of the gold.

Thus, when creating characters, keep the wound at the forefront of your mind.

How does it affect what he/she believes about their own identity? What do they believe will make them happy? What is it that you (Author God) know that’s really what will make them happy? What needs to change for that character to lose the blinders? What is the perfect problem (plot) to force the protagonist to see the hard truth of the unhealed wound?

What are your thoughts? Writing can be healing and therapeutic. Have you ever siphoned from your own hurt-reservoir to deepen your characters? Can you think of how even small hurts can become super-sized? What are some ways you’ve witnessed wounds driving people in wrong directions toward false happiness? Have you been there, done that and earned the t-shirt?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Winner for August is Lara McGill. Lara, please send your choice of 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. You can also choose to send a query letter (250 words) or a synopsis (up to 750 words). Congratulations!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Back to School!

Upcoming Classes: NEW!!! Going Pro Series

TONIGHT is Going Pro Craft, then Going Pro SocialMedia/Branding September 6th, Going Pro Business September 10th, Going Pro All the Way! (ALL THREE).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kevin Krejci...
Original image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kevin Krejci…

Writing a stand-out novel involves a lot of individual pieces working together in perfect concert. If there’s no solid plot? Readers get confused, lost or bored. If the plot is great, but the characters are all one-dimensional paper dolls? No one cares. If we butcher grammar, spelling and formatting? It’s a formula for dismal sales or even a long line of one-star reviews from ticked off readers.

Hey, the world may think writing fiction is easy, but we all know differently ;).

One of the best ways to move plot forward with increasing momentum and to create living, breathing characters is by harnessing the power of dialogue. As an editor for twelve years, I can tell you dialogue is one of the single largest components of writing great fiction, and it’s the part that’s most often butchered. The story can be great, the setting, the prose?

….and then comes this clunky dialogue with characters talking in ways only seen on bad soap operas or movies highlighted/slayed by Rotten Tomatoes. I call it Soap Opera Dialogue or Days of Our Lives Dialogue. Why? Because soap operas never end….EVER. The dialogue is written in a way that a viewer can miss the past seven months of the show and still catch up, so there is a lot of coaching in the dialogue.

Good novels aren’t soap operas. Novels actually END.

This type of dialogue can also be called, As You, Know, Bob…Dialogue, which is what we’re going to address. And just so you know, Stephano was NOT killed by the ice cream truck. It was a ruse to fake his own death, and he’s actually partnered with Victor to embezzle funds from the charity, but you won’t find that out for another three years….

Here today to talk about how to write superlative dialogue is one of our outstanding WANA International Instructors, Marcy Kennedy. This gal knows her stuff, but if you want some reassurance, I strongly recommend checking out legendary screenwriter David Mamet’s Letter to the Writers of The Unit. (Caution: Strong Language. But, in fairness, writers who are paid to write for a major television show should have known better, and they tanked a good show with bad writing and deserved the butt-chewing).

Take it away, Marcy!…

***

Dialogue is a great way to convey information, but only if you do it correctly.

In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says the key to avoiding info dump dialogue is to remember that dialogue is always from one character to another. It can’t sound like you’re manipulating it (even though you are). It must always be what a character would naturally say.

Let me explain.

Dialogue written for the reader’s benefit feels unnatural because you have characters say things they wouldn’t normally say or say them in a way that they wouldn’t (often using much more detail than any of us include when we talk).

Dialogue written for the characters fits the context, and is always from one character to another rather than from one character to the reader. It takes more work to achieve, but the result will be worth the effort.

Dialogue that’s written “to the reader” is often called “As You Know, Bob…” dialogue.

As the name suggests, “As You Know, Bob…” Syndrome is when one character tells another character something they already know. It’s done purely for the reader’s benefit, and it’s unnatural.

TIP: A character won’t say something the character they’re talking to already knows.

Example: A husband won’t say to his wife, “When we bought this house two years ago, we emptied our savings for a down payment. We don’t have anything left.” The wife already knows when the house was purchased. She knows they emptied their savings. She also knows they haven’t been able to replace those savings yet.

Her husband has no reason to say any of that.

Info-dumps won’t always be this obvious, but if you could add “as you know” to the front of whatever’s being said? Time to re-write.

TIP: If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation.

Example: Let’s say you have two sisters meeting to go out for lunch. One shows up at the other’s door.

Susie knocked on the kitchen door and waved to her sister who was mopping away in an apron she never seemed to take off. Her sister glanced up and waved then dropped her mop back in the bucket.

She ran a gloved hand through her messy hair that had fallen out of a ponytail and she let Susie inside. “Come on in. I’m just cleaning up the muddy paw prints left by our pit-bull, Jasper.”

Though the prose is good, it’s common knowledge among the characters that her sister owns a pit-bull named Jasper, which makes an otherwise good piece of writing suddenly clunky. Her sister wouldn’t feel the need to state the name of the dog. That’s soap opera writing.

Susie’s sister would be more likely to say…

“Come in for a sec. Just have to clean up the mud the stupid dog tracked in again.”

Even essential information needs to be given in a natural way. So if knowing that their dog is a pit-bull named Jasper is essential to the story, you could write…

“A flash of fur tore across the freshly washed floor and threw itself at Susie for a petting, and she shoved the dog down. ‘Off, Jasper.’ The muddy pooch dropped onto his back for a belly rub, pink floppy tongue lolling out of his mouth.

Ellen rubbed her tired eyes. ‘Sorry about that, Sis. Did he get you dirty?’”

Susie shook her head and rubbed Jasper’s belly with her foot. A little mud never hurt anyone. ‘Any more trouble with the anti-pit-bull crowd at the park? Rick said someone threatened to call the cops last week.’”

TIP: A character won’t say something that isn’t relevant to the conversation.

“A hundred years ago when the dam was constructed, this town was built on the dried out flood plain. If the dam breaks, it’ll wipe out the whole place.”

Did you catch the sneaky insertion of backstory in adding a hundred years ago? What regular person would actually say that? Who would care how long ago the dam was built when the real issue is whether or not the town is about to be destroyed?

Want to learn more about writing great dialogue?

On Saturday, December 7, I’ll be teaching a 90-minute webinar called Say What? Techniques for Making Your Dialogue Shine. I’ll cover the seven most common mistakes when it comes to dialogue and how to fix them, explain how to ensure your dialogue makes your story stronger, show you how to create dialogue unique to your characters, and answer some of the most frustrating questions about dialogue such as how to handle dialect, should we use contractions in historical novels, science fiction, and fantasy, and is it okay to begin a book with dialogue.

If you can’t make it at the time it’s scheduled but still want to attend, sign up anyway. The webinar will be recorded and sent to all registrants. Click here to register!

NOTE: WANA Mama (moi) has created a special page for classes and specials. Just click the new tab or go HERE.

All registrants also receive an ebook copy of the latest book in my Busy Writer’s Guides Series—How to Write Dialogue.

This class is being offered as part of a WANA 2Fer. Save $20 when you register for both my dialogue class and Lisa Hall-WIlson’s Internal Dialogue class. Register for the Two-Fer HERE.

Do you struggle with “As You Know, Bob…” Syndrome? Are there movies that have driven you nutso with this kind of dialogue?

About Marcy Kennedy:

Marcy Kennedy, WANA Instructor Extraordinaire
Marcy Kennedy, WANA Instructor Extraordinaire

Marcy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on craft and social media through WANA International. She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books, including Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her web site.