Cut Through Writing Myths

At the start of a school year, teachers experience a rush of excitement.  We also experience an avalanche of work that wasn’t there just a few days ago.  Schedules, standards, paperwork, student names, grading, lesson plans, paperwork, classroom setup, and paperwork drown out anything else going on in our lives.  It is a joy and I am thrilled to be in education.  I am also grateful for my short break from writing because it has given me a chance to look back on some really terrible common myths I found in most “how to” writing books.

Myths about Perspective and Point of View

Myth: Limit your point of view characters to three but never have only one.  Too many characters confuse the reader and having only one will lack depth.

My Truth:  Use however many perspectives it will take to tell your story.  Kevin Anderson’s Saga of the Seven Suns and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones have a dozen POV characters.  Jeff Lindsay wrote five Dexter novels from within his main character’s mind.  Side Note: You should always keep a single perspective within a scene or you WILL confuse a reader.

Myths about Grammar

Myth: You should always write using correct grammar.

My Truth:  Learn correct grammar and punctuation.  This way, when you need to write dialogue, dialect, or artful prose, you know what rules you are breaking.  Failing to learn doesn’t make your writing quirky or unique.  It makes you seem illiterate.

Myths about Exposition

Myth: Avoid exposition in the form of information dumps.

My Truth: Exposition is important.  Information dumps, like the opening paragraphs in a Star Wars movie, rarely work well.  If you find yourself explaining too much, you probably missed an opportunity to hint at your topic earlier in the story.  Go back and plant seeds in the first few chapters if you want a garden in the final scene.

Myths about Sequence

Myth: Always write in a logical progression of thought and avoid flashbacks.

My Truth: Tell this to the writers of the Highlander or Once Upon a Time TV series.  I know that television is a different medium, but good writing is good writing.  Whatever structure best fits your story is the one that you should use.

BOOKS WORTH READING

In the end, there are only a few good books on how to write well.  Stephen King’s On Writing is the most useful. Another worthy mention is: Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence, by Roz Morris. This is a great book for structure and manuscript resuscitation.

Is Your World Believable?

Realism is the key factor when creating a setting for your characters.   Readers need to feel as though they share a space within the experience of a story and the only way to do that is to research your setting well.

THE EASY WAY

If the story is in a modern city or town, then most of your work is done.  There are so many nuances of life that escape our notice because we live them every day.  Even so, if your city is in a foreign country, then you still have work to do.  Their customs and norms will shape the environment (and vice versa, depending on what articles you read).

SCI-FI/FANTASY

The more remote your setting, the more work you will need to do to make it believable.  One of my biggest hang-ups is the single-biome world.  Star Wars is famous for this.  Tatooine, the desert planet, would have no breathable oxygen, as would the ice world, Hoth.  Conversely, the forest moon of Endor would be too oxygen rich for human life.  This doesn’t even go into livable temperature ranges or anything else that should be considered.  Kevin Anderson’s careful work in the Saga of the Seven Suns series balances realism in his off-world settings.

QUICK TIPS

  1. Find a model location.  This will give you a starting point.
  2. Read everything you can about the types of plant and animal life that are common as well as typical weather conditions.
  3. Visit if you can.  Experience is the best teacher for any writer.  If you can’t afford a ticket, you can afford a YouTube search.
  4. Get creative.  Now that you know the area, isolate defining signatures of the location.  For general fiction, that may be all you need.  For the fantastic, you will need to exaggerate your jungle setting to include extremes like in the “Avatar” movie.

When is it a novel and when is it a short story?

Aside from the length of the work, there are many factors that separate a short story from a novel.

RIGHT FROM THE START

The first line of a short story should bring readers right into the action.    The opening of a novel has more to accomplish.  Even though the plot doesn’t have to be introduced in the first chapter, there are world-building tasks that normalize the setting, introduce characters, and establish tone.

CHARACTERS

There are fewer characters in a short story than in a novel.  In general, short stories are limited to one point of view with under ten people running around.  Since these characters populate a tight space, each one has a specific job to do and run the risk of becoming caricatures of their roles.  Novels can dedicate whole scenes about character development without pushing the plot along.

PLOT COMPLEXITY

Since length is the prime difference maker between short stories and novels, it is no surprise that the plot structure is affected.   Plot, much like characters and setting, have to be laser focused in a short story.  No detours.  No extensive red herrings.  At best, there is room for one or two good twists that are directly related to the advancing plot.  This is a blessing as much as it is a hindrance because it is as easy to stray too far from the plot in a novel as it is to be overly simplistic in a short story.

Using these touchstones, you can better gauge whether your idea is best told as a short story or as a novel.

The Tools of a Fiction Author in Three Minutes or Less

Every now and again, it is good to review the basics.  

Fiction writers have an advantage over authors of other mediums in that they have complete control over their stories.  Theater and television authors work with directors, actors, and producers, but the responsibility of total ownership means that a writer of fiction has to do the job of bringing the idea of the story to life. 

This is a short list of tools that the fiction author uses.

DIALOGUE is the act of having two or more characters speak to one another. It is the most easily recognized device because it is used in fiction, plays, movies, and television. A lot can be done with dialogue, but even more can be done to it.

DESCRIPTION, ACTION, THOUGHTS, and EXPOSITION are devices that playwrights and screenplay writers don’t have access to because these jobs are taken by the actors, directors, and producers I wrote about earlier.

DESCRIPTION is what an author uses to color a scene. This can be about the setting, the action, or a character’s thoughts. Without me advocating for the overuse of adverbs, description tells the reader whether a piece of dialogue was said casually, calmly, angrily, or giddily.

ACTION shows the reader what is happening. Remember, no one has to get punched in the face for it to be considered action. All movement is action and how it is written shows as much about a character’s mood and intentions as any dialogue could.

Character THOUGHTS establish perspective and orient the reader to the point of view with which you want them to identify. This helps make your lead characters more sympathetic, especially if they are difficult to like in the first place.

EXPOSITION tells the reader what is happening instead of showing them. This isn’t always best, but it works if there is a lot of information that a reader needs to know to understand the scene.

Armed with these basics, the fiction author shapes every aspect of his or her story.

Building a Better Fictional World in 3 Minutes or Less

Step one is complete and you have a full view of the world in which your characters live and die.  Maps and genealogical charts hang over your desk.  Social hierarchies are established.  Palaces and alien races are named and given histories of their own.  Now comes the hard part.

How do you present this world to your reader in a way that isn’t boring?

CHARACTER TYPES

An easy technique is to have the reader learn about the world alongside the characters.  The process of discovery works for coming of age characters, strangers to the world, and discoverers.  The type of characters you choose for your story shapes how the world is viewed, however.  A twelve-year-old mutant teen is going to have a different perspective than a retired cop.  

STORY STRUCTURE

Understanding point of view helps with structure.  First person narration allows for asides and gives an intimate emotional connection to events.  These reactions tell the reader how the character feels and (more subtly) what the character feels her feelings should be in a situation.  Meta-emotions are the stuff of great internal conflict and tell the reader about that world’s societal norms.  On the other end, the sprawling multi-character epic is a point of view choice that gives the reader smaller chunks of the world.  This helps spread the burden over multiple characters’ shoulders.  

CHARACTER DIALOGUE

Slipping exposition into dialogue is a great technique if done well.  In order to pull this off, a character needs a reason to talk about a topic.  This has to be more than a simple explanation.  I am a teacher, but I won’t randomly talk to the teacher next door about her grading system.  It is a topic we both know too well too be interested in unless we’re challenged.  Perhaps the new principal has a system that he prefers and insists that all of the teacher use.  That is a great reason to compare the new system with the old one and build the world of that school climate.

HIGH-CONTEXT AND LOW-CONTEXT CONVERSATIONS

There is a difference between high-context and low-context conversations.  High-context conversations happen between characters with a rich common history.  There is usually little that hasn’t already been said between these characters and an information dump would be awkward.  Examples of these relationships are older married couples and long-time co-workers.  Conversely, low-context conversations are between characters with little or no history and are in a “getting to know you” stage of their relationship, whether friendly or antagonistic. Either of these relationships can be manipulated to give information about the greater world, but both should be recognized.

AVOID PAGES OF EXPOSITION

If at all possible, try to use these methods to build the world around your characters.  To read more about this topic, try my earlier post on World Building.