Saturday, July 22, 2017

Know and Control Your Characters' Self-Awareness

Among the joys of writing is “flow”, when we’re so immersed in creating the story’s world that we forget we’re writing. But we can’t afford to check out on how much our characters, especially main characters, know at each stage of their individual arc.

First, what types of things do characters know? To some extent, they know themselves, what’s happening around them, their motivations and other characters. One element of creating a character arc is the character’s (typically) increasing awareness of these elements and their consequences. Sometimes characters are ignorant of these aspects of their world. However, there’s all the difference between intentionally keeping a character in the dark and achieving ignorance because we failed to realize that by now the character should know more than he does.

So how does a writer control, at each stage in the story, how aware a character is of these elements? First, we must be aware of what our characters already know. Then we must decide whether they should know more. To check your characters' self-awareness at each stage of development, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the main stages of development in the character’s arc? What might the character not know but need to realize by each point?
  • If the character doesn’t know something, such as his motivation for betraying someone else, is it due to a flaw that fits the character, or because you’ve forgotten to develop the character’s awareness at that point?

To add texture to characters and story, also note the consequences of what the character does and doesn’t know. It can be daunting to do this exercise for each character. So start with your main character. The very effort with one character often enables you to be mindful of him or her and of other characters from that point on.

What should your main character know by now that he or she doesn’t?

Do you have a writing question to share? Email WordforWords.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Joy of Discovery (Part 2) — You Can't Communicate Without Stories

Part 1 of this post gave an example of the importance of stories, based on an ESL class that was reading about author Amy Tan. When the class was queried about what they would ask Tan if they could, one student said, “I would ask which experiences led her to write her stories. After all, we can’t
communicate without stories.” This shed new light on why we encourage writers, “Show, don’t tell.” Today, we want to emphasize the joy of discovery part of this equation.

Previously, we noted that readers don’t want to be spoon-fed a plot or characters; the audience wants the joy of discovering the story en route because journey is as important to readers as destination. However, the joy—of discovery and of the journey—is not just for readers but also for writers.

When you, the writer, tell yourself a story and then read it, you learn from your work what the story is and isn’t, who the characters are and are not. You may reread what you’ve written and decide it isn’t what you meant to say, that your main character, for example, wouldn’t do what you’ve just written for him or her, or perhaps not quite as you’ve depicted the scene.

Even so, the gist of what you wanted to achieve is likely there waiting in the wings to be revealed. But this realization often won't come until you make the effort to write the scene you initially imagined. The insight you gain from what works and what doesn't, and why, then becomes part of your wisdom as a writer.

What have you recently discovered about your story or character that came as a result of the joy of discovery?

Do you have a writing question to share? Email WordforWords.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Joy of Discovery (Part 1) — You Can't Communicate Without Stories

A teacher asked students in an ESL class reading about author Amy Tan what would they ask Tan if they could. One student said, “I would ask which experiences led her to write her stories. After all, we can’t communicate without stories.”

The student’s observation, especially in that context, shed new light on why we encourage writers, “Show, don’t tell.” We don’t want readers to be spoon-fed a plot or characters; we want them to have the joy of discovering the story en route because journey is as important to readers as destination, maybe more so since the most intimate communication comes by experiencing the tale.

See us next time for Part 2 of this musing.

Do you have a writing question to share? Email WordforWords.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Grow Your Up Characters Through Voice

Does your story span generations, and do your characters go from youth to age in maturity or chronology? One way to accomplish this and emphasize their development is to grow your characters up by how they sound.

Typically, the closer the viewpoint the deeper the writer is within a character’s thoughts and feelings. Thus, we’re not always conscious of the age-appropriateness of the character’s voice as we write. But once the first draft is done, we can go back and listen to how the character sounds at the beginning versus the end of the story to see —and hear —how much he or she has grown.

It’s also helpful to realize that each character will vary in degree of development and/or devolution. To emphasize these changes, be deliberate in revealing the maturation of your character’s voice throughout the story, especially at pivotal points, such as when they achieve their dreams — or don’t. This will also help support for the story’s pacing.

Do you have a character who seems flat or stuck in a developmental rut? Listen to how he or she sounds at the beginning versus the end of your story. There may be room for growth.

Do you have a writing question to share? Email WordforWords.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Use of Rest in Fiction

In today’s busy world, no less the world of fiction, writers are always looking to up the stakes for their stories and characters, yet there’s something to be said for moments of rest.
A moment of rest in a short story or novel is a moment where the writer gives the reader time to pause and reflect on an element of the story, a character or both. Such moments offer a deeper dive into an aspect of the work from within and give the reader time to better appreciate the read, especially when a lot is happening or when the characters are many or diverse.
So how are such moments created? One general principle is the use of detail: about the setting, a character or a point of plot. Such details — the slanting sunlight through a forest glade, the softness in a lover’s eyes or the rumble of thunder heard by a child awaiting a parent's return — actually give the reader's mind a rest, as one might pause and appreciate a moment of beauty.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Prismatic Artistry of Varied Viewpoints in a Novel

As with the light that comes through a stained glass window, there is prismatic artistry in showing varied viewpoints in a novel. But how does the writer know whether this multiplicity will benefit his or her work?
A good example of multiple points of view is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Variegated views work well in McCann’s novel because of three key factors: topic, theme and scope.
The topic is New York City in the 1970s, its joys, sorrows, beauty and promise. While the theme reflects the spirit of a city and a nation in transition, it also includes a prescient sense of their poignant innocence. The story’s scope plays out over 300 pages.
or all these reasons, multiple viewpoints serve the work well, for they aim to convey the depth, breadth, height and soul of the city that never sleeps. If you’re wondering whether multiple viewpoints would serve your work, consider its topic, theme and scope. If these can sustain and would be enhanced by multiple perspectives, your work may be well-served by varied and variegated viewpoints.
For more on Let the Great World Spin, see “The Soul of a City.” For more on the author, see Colum McCann.