Anatomy of a Comeback

Comebacks— you can’t find them when you want them, but they abound when you’re alone.  Someone insults you, and in two hours you have the perfect thing to say.  Except they’re already miles away, and no amount of angry emails will make up for the lost opportunity.  Perhaps for this reason, it’s easy to include comebacks in fiction we write; we can make a comment burn as much as we like, for any character we want, and there’s no penalty for taking too much time to think.

However, comebacks can quickly become the cheesiest thing in your dialogue.  The more experienced a writer gets, the more they realize this, and the more they edit that comeback to be less cheesy— but by removing all the cheesiness, it becomes less of a “Burn!” and more of a “Huh?”  Create a comeback and it becomes cheesy, remove the cheese and it becomes incomprehensible, and thus worthy of deletion.  It’s a cycle that quickly makes for grey, utilitarian dialogue.

Comebacks are a tool.  A character wants to stand up for themselves, no matter the conflict; they use a comeback to effectively turn the tables on another character.  If you need more humor in a scene, a series of insults and comebacks is perfect— even characters who like each other will bandy about insults as their interests cross.  It’s what friends do, and a legitimate way of creating humor.  Comebacks are useful.

Unfortunately, they’re also easy.  Easy to overuse, easy to break, easy to drag on.  They easily become corny, undermine emotion, or turn a good joke into a yawn-worthy piece of dialogue.  Still, there are ways to fix each of these problems, either in editing or before you even write it down. Read the full post »

Guest Post: Sit up Straight, I’m World-building Here

Here’s to an amazing blogger, author of comments, and giggler: Shim, otherwise known as magicandwriting.  She’s been around for a while and has made her presence known, all but demanding a guest post.  (Okay, she hasn’t demanded anything, but she deserves it.)  She has an awesome post for you, and once you’re finished with that, check out her blog.  Both are well worth your enjoyment.

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I’ve done a lot of world-building lately, and while in the process, I noticed a little something. I’ve come up with a lot of random information, stuff that may never show up in the story itself; however, I realized that it actually still influences the story.

See, there’s this little thing called perception. It affects a lot of things, as is kind of obvious.  Anyway, let’s say you have a scene that happens in a poorly lit room, and you want to describe the room. Chances are, you probably want a better description than the one I just gave you, since that really tells you absolutely nothing. Read the full post »

The Unsaid

I recently read Ballad, by Maggie Stiefvater.  I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but it struck me hard.  One of the themes of the book applies to almost everything: the Unsaid.  Words people don’t say.

One of the ‘viewpoints’ of the book consisted of text messages from the protagonist of the first book, Lament.  While she had no true viewpoint in Ballad, her texts showed her character arc.  Each text, addressed to the viewpoint character, showed a bit of her soul— and each text, personal and short, remained unsent.  She never actually said anything she wanted to say.

The viewpoint character of Ballad, on the other hand, made his thoughts the analogue of the unsent texts.  Nothing he wanted to say, he said.  He thought everything, and made jokes to cover up the silence.

It was a powerful way to write the character dynamics, just between the two of them.  When combined with all the Unsaid between the viewpoint character and the other characters, it created an amazing weave of half-truths and assumptions that were too delicate ever to speak plainly.

Is Maggie Stiefvater alone in her understanding of the Unsaid?  I don’t think so.  This is a concept that finds itself almost everywhere— and I mean that.  But for the sake of my sanity, I’ll focus on fiction.  You can ponder the repercussions. Read the full post »

Momentum

I am enthusiastic about enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is like a muse, but you can synthesize it.  By knowing what enthuses you toward a certain type of project, you can lead yourself to be enthusiastic about that project.  You have to write an essay for school— finding a new angle or tying it to one of your hobbies, like snake wrangling or something, can raise your enthusiasm.  You have to do something monotonous, like raking leaves or shoveling snow— listening to music or making a game out of it can make it seem faster.  Based on your personality, you can pump yourself up.

But enthusiasm isn’t born of the void.  Enthusiasm is to the mind like energy is to physics— it comes from somewhere, and it goes somewhere.  It transfers itself from one project to another, or lends itself from one area into another.  Your enthusiasm for music raises your enthusiasm for chores.  Your enthusiasm for snake wrangling raises your enthusiasm for school essays.  But it isn’t always rising.  Your enthusiasm for your essay dies when you realize that, instead of writing about snake wrangling, you could actually wrangle some snakes.

Enthusiasm comes and enthusiasm goes.  It never dies, but it is always running away.  The only way to keep enthusiasm around, to synthesize it when it isn’t quite there, is to keep momentum. Read the full post »

How to Find the Purpose of a Scene

Why are  you writing?

Well, obviously because I had a traumatic experience when I was young with a pair of wild gophers, and ever since words have flown from my pen even when it’s capped (it’s rather creepy, actually), so I write as catharsis and to keep quiet the horrible gopher demons inside.

Ah… no.  That’s not what I mean.  When you’re writing a story, or a scene, or even a paragraph, what are you trying to accomplish?  Why are you writing those words?

With delicate things like humor and poetry, knowing your purpose can be as important as knowing how to tell a joke or create beautiful imagery.  A joke without purpose is a joke in the wrong place— it doesn’t add to the emotion, it doesn’t forward the plot.  Instead, laughter will often destroy your hard-earned effect.  (This is why laughing at an insult is so effective.)  In the same way, imagery without purpose is useless.  Imagery that creates a specific emotion is poetry, and readers call it beautiful.  Imagery that isn’t attached to any sort of emotion has no reason to be there, and readers call it purple prose.  Without purpose, both humor and poetry are lost causes.

So how do you figure out your purpose for a scene?  Generally, my purpose in writing a scene is to tell a story, and to tell it well.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell me how to use poetry and humor.  Indeed, trying too hard destroys your ability to tell a story well, so stated this way, my purpose tells me nothing.  But it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Your purpose for any scene is going to change from scene to scene.  That way you don’t just fill a book with the same scene, told the same way, over and over.  As the needs of the story change, your purpose for the scene changes. Read the full post »

Character-Based Humor

It’s hard to be funny when you’re trying.

With plot, you can practice easily.  Create a character (Bill), decide what he wants (a sandwich), and structure it around that.  You can easily gather your antagonist, a couple side characters, and a neat little Hollywood Formula from just that information.  You can decide your length, and use that framework to practice subplots, red herrings, and a million other things.

Practicing character is the same.  With the same framework as above, you can work on character development, introducing characters without too much exposition, and all sorts of wonderful dialogue.  With setting, exactly the same.  Brainstorm your setting a little, but don’t let yourself get carried away with either the brainstorming or the description.  Even prose is easy to practice, if you take a little more time to work on it.

But humor… ick.  It’s hard to be funny on command without falling back to a joke.  Something with a setup and a punchline…  Sure, it’s fine for dinner table conversation, but for a story?  You can’t just stick a couple puns in there and hope everyone will laugh.  People know when humor is forced, and that’s what makes it so hard.  If you can’t force it, but you want it, how do you include and practice it without, well, forcing yourself to?

You can acquaint yourself with all the humorous tools.  You can try subverting expectations.  You can try using silly words.  You can try everything under the sun, but it remains difficult.  Meanwhile, funny writers like Joss Whedon and Howard Tayler keep saying that humor has to arise from the characters, not from the situation.  Once you start making fun of the situation, the reader will no longer suspend their disbelief— you’ve destroyed their engagement with the story.

So how do you use character-based humor?  How do you practice it? Read the full post »

What I Learned from Revising a Stageplay (And Failing)

A couple months ago, I rewrote a stageplay.

It wasn’t my stageplay, originally.  It was chosen to be the focus of a musical theater class I’m taking.  Unfortunately, it was no Shakespeare.  A couple of my friends and I agreed we might like to see a revamped version: something a bit funnier, less corny, and more character-driven.  So, keeping the plot intact, I rewrote it.  I typed it into Scrivener’s stageplay template, added a scene or two, and edited the dialogue.  I figured out a character arc for the main character, one that destroyed the play’s corniness and strengthened several characters at the same time.  I added as many jokes as I could, without destroying the emotion.  In fact, several of my posts from September came from (or went into) this project.  I had to put my novel-editing on hold for a little while, but editing something else allowed me to return to my own work with a more objective view.  The project had enormous benefits.

However, the teachers of the class didn’t feel comfortable with the changes.  Each student already had a copy of the script— to change it now would mean forcing everyone to unlearn and relearn their lines, based on my changes.  Furthermore, the class was based, rather strictly, on a videotaped production by another group.  Thus, in order to change the script, we would be riding without training wheels, without the video to back us up.  And anyway, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the script, as it was.  In fact, the teachers were actually aiming for a script that would be easy to work with, in terms of acting.  My script required a bit too much skill, skill that some of the younger actors might not have been able to achieve in a short time.

So, my script was trashed.  It wasn’t the right thing for this class— they wanted me as an actor, not as a writer.  While a revamped script would have been nice for the older students, it wouldn’t work for all the students, the way the teachers wanted to teach. Read the full post »

The Right Word

Beautiful words are daunting.

Thankfully, beautiful words aren’t what we’re looking for.  Since beauty is subjective anyway, it’s difficult to find any one qualification that makes a beautiful word.  Think about it.  What makes something poetic?  Rhyming?  Not necessarily.  Syllables?  Nope.  Metaphors?  Not at all.  The only thing common to everything we call poetic is beauty, and that’s subjective.  What makes it poetic?

Simple answer: it’s the Right Word.

The Right Word could have many definitions and facets.  It could be exactly what it says, the correct word for a specific instance.  Or it could be a sentence, again perfect in that space.  Or it could be a paragraph, artfully short or vivid.  The Right Word is any selection of words that happens to be perfect for its situation.

Think about that for a moment.  Beautiful words are just perfect.  That’s it.  In order to write beautifully, you just have to write… perfectly. Read the full post »

On Writing Beautifully

Beautiful words are daunting.

Well, let me restate.  Trying to write beautiful words is daunting.  Beautiful words are beautiful— it’s the writing that gets hard.

Neil Gaiman.  Laini Taylor.  Patrick Rothfuss.  These people have beautiful words flowing from their pens on every page.  Maggie Stiefvater.  Cornelia Funke.  Miriam Joy.  (Yes, I’m including her, because, guys, her book.)  With all of these people, it seems like they roll out of bed spouting poetic prose.  Even their headdesks are eloquent.

Then there’s me, who’s still trying to get his protagonist’s head on straight.  I can maybe make one pretty word in a million, but a whole string of them?  That makes me headdesk, and that just emphasizes the point: I am not naturally poetic.  Those of you following the Teens Can Write, Too! blog might have noticed by now: John Hansen posted this exact complaint a couple days ago, about his own writing.  We have this in common, I guess.  Pretty writing is not natural to us.  In his post, John affirms that it’s okay to use Orwellian prose (prose as a clear window to the story, not distracting), and your personal style is always better than copying someone else’s.  He’s right.

Some of my favorite authors have very clear, Orwellian prose.  Brandon Sanderson is the most notable; several times on Writing Excuses, he’s claimed— even boasted of— his non-poetic style.  It’s true.  He tells his story plainly, without any of the frills or vivid descriptions that often characterize fantasies.  He writes what the story needs and no more, preferring to emphasize his setting, his plot, and his characters.  Personally, I set more store in those three things than the style of a book.  As long as the words are serviceable, I’m fine with them.  I’m not going to dock points for plain prose.

Especially at the beginning of a writer’s learning curve, I’d rather have a coherent plot and good characters than pages of brilliant writing.  Without purpose, those words are useless.  It’s more important for a learning writer to gain skill at creating and developing a story than at obsessing over the Right Word.

If I agree with everyone, why am I writing this? Read the full post »

Flesh and Blood

I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old advice about acting and reacting; in fact, I’ve echoed that advice several times.  Your good guys shouldn’t spend the entire book reacting— it makes them seem slow and apathetic, as if they’d lie in bed all day if there wasn’t a villain to trample their watermelon garden or blow up downtown.  Instead, they should, at some point in the story, switch from reacting to the villain’s moves to acting.  Instead of waiting for the next strike, they go after the villain.  Usually, the switch comes around the midpoint.  You can see it clear as day in superhero movies, or most action movies.

But there’s a different kind of reacting I’d like to talk about, one that doesn’t involve the grand scope of things.  It involves the little people, the walk-ons and the side characters, who so often end up as cardboard cutouts beside your vivid, engaging main character.  With all the work you put into your plot, setting, and characters, the side characters can fall through the cracks to become faces in a crowd, with speaking roles but nothing memorable.

Cardboard will not destroy your story, but flesh and blood can’t go wrong.  How do we make side characters real? Read the full post »

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