Ok, I got permission from Cool Guy to do this so let's go to work. First off: Big thanks to all contributors so far! Ok. This entry is getting some length on it; time to organise Contents General notes Lesson One: Sentence Structure Lesson Two: Dialogue Lesson Three: Character Lesson Four: Plotting and Pacing (Dons school mistress glasses and wig and anything else in a lady's wardrobe that helps a man get through the day). Ok, let me get the ego-tossery out of the way. I have a M.A (Graduate Degree) in Creative Writing from a meh-level northern British University and had some stuff (poems and short stories) published. I don't type this to impress (because it isn't impressive) but to show that I'm not a complete noob either. I am using this to help towards a teaching certificate, just so you know. This thread will contain help and advice on several things which will help the novice and intermediate writer to make (hopefully) your fiction easier on the eye. This will include sentence construction, grammar tips and characterization among other things. A few things that this thread is NOT: 1: A big ego trip for me. Anyone can put their tips onto this page. Even if its completely opposite to something I have written. I only ask that you give a good example of your advice, or a calm, well put argument instead. 2: An attempt to make everyone's fiction seem the same. Feel free to take none, some or all of the advice offered. This is not a class and nothing is compulsory. Oh, if you spot me not taking my own advice in anything I have written, I insist you point it out. Nobody finishes learning. OK as a kind of first mini lesson, Some things to remember: (i'll probably add to this list a lot) 1: It's a rare piece of work that is perfect, but it's also a rarer piece of work that is unsaveable. 2: Don't beat yourself up if things don't work out. You haven't made a mistake on an operating table. 3: A piece of work is not finished until the author says it is. (Some poets have completely re-written earlier works to reflect a different political opinion, for example.) 4: Writing is an art. Not maths. I mean, although there are guidelines and good practice, these can be inverted in as many ways as you can imagine for effect. But (and it's a big but), you must show that you understand the guideline before you can break it. 5: Read, read, read, read, read and read. Genres are like royal families, if they don’t get any new blood regularly they tend to get a bit in-bred and loopy. Read all sorts of fiction, like crime, horror, contemporary and (oh, cover your ears Maisie!) romantic fiction. Someone out there will be doing a new interesting thing that you can ’borrow’ for your own work. Right, more later. Ps: If you want something for SB'er to review, make sure it isn't longer than, say 10 lines in length (no need to post a thread link unless it's on another site, we'll see it) and don't post anything for review if you aren't able to cope with constructive criticism and don't help if you can't give constructive criticism, either. ****************************************************************** Lesson Number One: Sentences Yeah, yeah, I know this is more your English Grammar, but it’s all part of the cycle of life. This is an example of a badly structured sentence: Joey and his dog, who was called Roger, walked everyday, except Saturday when they went to the beach, to the park, where they met Julie and her dog, Butch, who was a golden retriever, well three quarters of him was, no one knew what the other part was, maybe collie, maybe terrier, thought Joey. Nb: this would be ok in quotes, if you wanted to establish the speech patterns of a breathless, hyper-ish person. Extreme example, but it helps if they are. No name, no pack drill, but I forget the amount of times that I have read this kind of sentence. Sometime entire paragraphs are just one sentence. Of course, you can go too far the other way. “Joey walked his dog. It was Friday. They went to the park. They met Julie.” Anatomy of A Sentence (and by no means complete) They come in three main types: Simple and without sub clauses (the bits between commas) Joey walked his dog. Compound: Two clauses er, compounded: Joey walked his dog, who was called Roger. Complex: Two or more clauses with a conjuction (and, but, etc) Joey loved walking his dog and meeting up with Julie in the Park. Note: A sentence needs an object (noun), an action and (optional) a subject, so Joey walked. (is a sentence) Joey walked his dog. (is a sentence) Joey and Roger. (is not a sentence – no verb (action). Some of you will thinking, ‘Cripes, I hate grammar, does that mean I can’t write?” Nope. You can always find a willing beta reader (or cross beta) and MS Word is ok (but far from perfect) on grammar. It is a good idea to brush up on this, if you can, as then you can put it in your ‘artist’s box’ as another skill. Once you get the hang of sentence structure you can start to do some of the really clever stuff, like matching it character or plot. I mean you can start having short punchy sentences for short punchy people and long elegant sentences for long elegant people. Finally, if you think a sentence has gone on too long, speak it out loud. Sure, your house people will think you’re nuts, but you’ll find it helpful. Remember a comma indicates a short breath and a stop is a longer pause. A dash or hyphen is midway. If you find the sentence a mouthful, trip over words or find yourself out of breath by the end, then you may need to work on it. Finally, if you really don't think grammar is important, look at the following two sentences and see what an apostrophe does to them. The dogs like Joey. The dog's like Joey. *********************************************************************** Lesson Two: Dialogue Dialogue reveals character. Character is Drama. You need proof? Look on threads at these forii. You can tell from their replies to threads (if we take what is typed as dialogue), who is a joker, who is serious, who is a fool and who is cute, thoughtful, spiritual, etc. We all know people who try to make a joke nearly every time they open their mouth and their polar opposite, the person who completely misses every joke (or chooses not to respond). Try, try, try to make every major character in your work (even if they're all military) distinctive in speech as well as deed. If they are all military, watch 'Aliens' for examples of variety in action. One of the signs of a poor writer is that all the characters sound the same or even worse, they sound exactly like the narrator. (Funny though he is, Terry Pratchett is notorious for this, though in his defence he is getting better and he's mostly reigned in his urge to get the joke out at all costs). Don't be afraid to use various well known tics sparingly. This is not a complete list: Stuttering Few words (the Silent Hero Archetype) Flowery, theatrical, camp language Use of street slang Malapropism (use of the wrong word, similar in sound to the correct one - i.e; 'See you later, elevator'. or 'It's a story meant to illustrate a point, you know, an alligator') Never speaking straight Constantly pointing out double entendres Answering questions with questions Constant attempts at irony/sarcasm Excessive cursing Completely 'proper' in every word Bragging and so on. Also bear in mind that people speak differently at different times of the day and to different people. You don't speak to a superior officer the same way (I hope!) as you do to a boyfriend/girlfriend, as you do the person who serves you coffee at lunch, as you do to your parents. Neither should your characters. Example. Captain Andrews walked onto the Bridge. Sam Uluru coughed and said; "Steady as she goes, Williamson. If I may say so sir, you did a great job back there. It's a pleasure to serve with you, Captain." "Thank you, Uluru." said Andrews, entering his quarters without looking up. The door shut behind the Captain with a woosh-fip. "For heaven's sake, Williamson! Keep her straight or it'll be a demerit! Understood?'" Not once did I have to write that Uluru is a 'Kiss up, kick down' type of character. The impression is there. It's up to the author to confirm that impression or show that it was out of character for Uluru and why. If you're confident enough, you can use dialogue against type. A good example is in the film 'Brazil' where the torturer villain, played by Michael Palin, speaks in a matey, down to earth, style. Avoid, at all times, clichés like the strong silent hero or the Shakespearean spouting bad guy or you may be hunted down and shot like the dog you are. Show Don't Tell As mentioned by Havocwreaker below, this is very important and one of the ways to show rather than tell is through dialogue. If you get the words right or describe their actions right, then the reader should be able to guess the character's emotions and personality. Example Sarge pointed at one of the rain soaked figures on the ground. "Private Thomas, shoot that prisoner." "Sir! No, Sir!" "What did you say, you snivelling piece of snot!" "Sir! No, Sir! I will not shoot an unarmed prisoner, Sir!" Bukowski stalked over to Thomas and barked in his ear. "By God, you will obey that order or I will drag you through every Court Martial from here to Tau Cygna VI!" Private Thomas remained still. The Sergeant took a long step back. "Private Gill, I will count three, if Private Thomas has not shot that prisoner on mark, I hereby order you to execute Private Thomas. Do you understand that order, Private Gill!" "Sir! Yes, Sir!" said Gill, raising his weapon. "One!" The storm clouds crackled overhead. Thomas' snapped the rifle up to his eye line, the rifle shaking as he pointed it at the kneeling Orion before him. "Two!" Gill smiled and put his good eye along the barrel, waiting for the three to come. The moment stretched and stretched. "Put that gun down, Gill!" The Sergeant put his hand on the Thomas' trembling rifle. "Stand down boy, easy, easy. You did good." He patted the Private's shoulder. He turned to the other members of the squad, before settling his gaze on Gill. "Remember the lesson Thomas has given you, men! We are the Marine Corp! We are not gutless murderers! Now, gear up and let's get these miserable sumbitches back to camp!" Gill and Thomas exchanged glances, before turning to their packs. Tense, huh? (I hope) Not one word explaining how each of the four people in this scene felt. I hope I also managed to get some idea of Thomas', Gill's and Bukowski's characters across too. Dialogue and Exposition Exposition is explaining stuff to the reader. It's hard to avoid this entirely in Science Fiction and Fantasy, where it is assumed at least some of the readership will need to be brought up to speed. Exposition is not necessarily a bad thing, but do try to avoid the 'First Episode Syndrome'; "Ah, you must be my new First Officer, Partrick Murphy, whose family was murdered by Klingons on Moon Alpha Two?. I'm sure you still harbour a grudge, yes?" "That's right! I do, but I try to resist it, sir. And you must be the brave Captain Smith, hero and sole survivor of the battle of Saturn I've heard so much about. I'm sorry you lost your wife in that action. May I introduce you to Commander Thomas, he's half alien you know, etc....." This is just about forgivable when a scriptwriter has to bring the viewer into the story as quickly as possible. There is no forgiveness available for someone who has longer to explain. Below are some of the more common ways of getting around Exposition, feel free to use more than one in your story if you can or post your own on this thread! The Hitchhiker Method: Have the character carry a small device around that explains new stuff to him (and the reader). You could, say, use a technical manual instead. The Proxy: A new character that represents the reader, learning what they learn. Think Dorothy in Oz, Covenant in The Land, that guy in Farscape and about a ton of others. The Footnote: Or the Pratchett. Can be good, can be distracting. Either use sparingly or consistently. Footnotes can go at the bottom of the page, the end of the chapter or at the end of the piece. Also used by MacDonald Fraser in the ‘Flashman’ Books and C. Tolkien in the Lost Books. The Glossary; A big thing in the 90’s when books were mighty and the back end had ten maps and Genealogies of Kud, son of Thud, son of Thrud, etc. Useful if your universe is unique, but try not to over-egg the pudding. The Detective: Like the Proxy, but the character has some knowledge of the world and the Reader discovers new things with the Character. No Exposition at all. The ‘Man’s’ option. Be a good idea if everything else about your work is top notch as this option requires the reader to do all the work themselves. Note for Fan Fic Don’t make a Mechanics Manual (unless you can get a version of the ‘Hitchhiker’ above in, of course). It can kill the pace and tension in your work. Example set in Trek Verse If someone dies in a Transporter malfunction, then some explanation of how a transporter works would be acceptable, but less is better than more. If someone doesn’t die in a Transporter malfunction, then there is no reason to explain how this item works at all. Everything must move the story along. **************************************************************** Lesson Three: Character Character is Drama. Try writing a novel without them. You'd have a book full of arresting visual imagery and no interest at all. If you can imagine it, your plot is the skeleton of your story and your character's provide the meat. Physical Description I leave this to you, develop your own style. You can either 'press pause' on the plot while you lovingly describe every feature of your character before moving on or you can drop descriptive lines in as you go along. A mention of hair colour here, a skin tone there. Finally, you can leave it at simply 'a man' or 'a woman' and let the reader provide their own description, via their imagination. One caveat: make sure it doesn't affect the pacing of your story. I mean, do not stop in the middle of an exciting battle to describe someone's boots. Try not to make everyone attractive or fantastically skilled, unless it's absolutely central to the plot, as it was in, say, 'The Stepford Wives'. If I come across a book that describes someone (in a bald line) as the most beautiful woman on the force, or someone as the greatest fighter pilot in the squadron/of his generation, I throw the book across the room and go and make a cup of tea. Much cursing of the the Author will be involved. Donaldson, in the 'Thomas Covenant' novels, tied up the physical (and moral) corruption of the main character (he has leprosy) with a corruption in The Land he visits. If you get confident, you could use this technique. Think also Vader's physical deformation mirroring his moral degeneration. I repeat for emphasis, try not to have all your 'goodies' lovely or all your 'baddies' ugly, though. Making your Unique Characters Unique Historically, one of the charges made about Sci-fi is that it spends to much time on the plot and ideas n the story and not enough time on the people in the story. Fortunately, with the likes of Gibson, Iain M Banks and others, this is (generally) no longer true. It is a good idea to have a least a skeletal idea of your main characters. If you want to make a bio for your main characters, that's also a good idea too. I would add the caveat that it can be a good idea to have certain traits left vague. If the character surprises the author, then it will surprise the reader too. Anything that keeps their responses consistent is a good thing (perversely, if they are inconsistent, keep that inconsistency consistent). If you have any experience of creating role playing characters, (as long as you don't constantly make half-dragon azzzzzazzzzzinzzzz, that is), then use this experience to build your characters from scratch. Think of all the people you know. This can be people in real life, on T.V or in other fiction. I want you to look at them as if you have never seen them before. What do they do when they are happy? Do they bounce? Do they seem quietly smug? Do they tell everyone their good news? Is it impossible to tell? How do they act under stress? Shout a lot? Climb under a duvet until it goes away? Grit their teeth and get on with it? Some exaggeration of character traits is permissable, but remember your character should not look out of place in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Contempory Fiction, a musical or working at your local deli. Only the situations and thus their reactions should be different. Most, if not all of your dramatic situations should come from different people rubbing up against each other, like tectonic plates creating earthquakes. The Plot should play the part (in this analogy) of the earth itself. Actions and Reactions This is how you describe your character's.... character. Characters are nothing but actions and reactions. I say reactions are even more important in describing a personality than actions. Actions may not be deliberate (they could be accidents, or forced upon a person), but reactions nearly always are. If a character causes a lot of the activity in your story, they are described as 'proactive', if they react to threats, or situations then they are 'reactive'. Pro-active people tend to come across as more dynamic, re-active as passive. Using the 'Show not Tell' convention, try not to make a bald statement of what a person is like. Example Johnson sat in his chair, rocking back and forth, holding his head in his hands. "What are we going to do, Walter?" Walter picked up the pistol, looked at it for a moment and shot Johnson in the head. He put down the weapon and returned to his novel. is better than (imho); Johnson was a wreck, as he normally was. He sat there nervously rocking back and forth and hiding his cowardly head in his hands. "What are we going to do, Walter?" Walter, hard hearted as usual, said nothing. He picked up the weapon that he loved more than any person and coldly, psychotically, shot Johnson in the head. Heartlessly, he put down the gun and started reading his novel as if nothing had happened. Alternately, ask some random questions about how your character would act in certain situations like the one below; Your main character is driving alone when he or she hits, but does not kill, a pedestrian in a quiet area. Are they most likely to (one of my patented 'incomplete lists'); a) stop immediately, rush to help, take the pedestrian to the local clinic. Keep in touch afterwards. b) stop immediately, flap, apologize profusely, need to be reminded to take the pedestrian to the local clinic, feel guilty for the rest of their life. c) stop immediately, think about the consequences before deciding to help. d) drive on for a while, stop, reverse and help, giving false details so there are no consequences. e) drive on for a while, stop. Wiegh up if the pedestrian needs help. Shrug, drive on. Maybe give 911 a call. f) drive on. Hope the victim didn't make a note of the licence plate. Spend a lot of the immediate future looking out the window., waiting for a knock on the door g) drive on. It's a stolen car anyway. h) stop, reverse over the victim, make sure there are no witnesses, worry about what to wear at tonight's dinner. Use a couple of these as one situation does not make an entire character. Darth Vader, for example, might stop and help if he had nothing better to do on one day or drive over the victim again, the next. This kind of exercise, by the way, could make up the beginning point of a story. Motivation Not only actors, but all characters have one or more. They don't always have it at the exact beginning of the story, but they will have it fairly quickly or the character will just look like scenery. Common motivations are staying alive, greed (all the seven deadlies, really), love, maintaining honour, making a reputation. etc. There are billions of the buggers. You can even be mean with your characters and give them conflicting motivations. For example, love blossoms between a policeman and his prisoner. Does he take her in or set her free? An imperial soldier must fight against his rebellious homeworld. Does he abandoned his friends and comrades or defend his family and territory? Motivations are either obvious, like a soldier's need to follow orders, or more subtle. Of course, hidden motivations can be made into great twists, but they must be coherent and probable. Don't have Luke Skywalker suddenly killing Hans and Leia and cackling 'The Empire is mine, muhahahahaha." at the end of Star Wars. Heroes and Villains It is a general rule of thumb that your main character be likeable. You are, after all, expecting strangers to enjoy his or her company for hours on end. Likeable, by the way, is not the same as 'Good' or 'Nice'. You can, for example, make your main character sufficiently interesting in other ways and drop a little 'niceness'. Generally, this is the 'Anti-hero'. If you do it well, you can even make your lead character an utter B"stard and still keep the reader/viewer with you. Examples of this include Blackadder, Flashman, Mal (on ocassion) from Firefly and Commander Vimes, et al. If you do want a 'saintly' character, try to make them flawed in at least one way - i.e, dismissive of modernity, a mild drug habit, a liking for a horrible music type. Anything, anything to make them recogniseably human. Remember Sherlock Holmes' horrible violin playing? Alternatively, don't make them your main character, make them the external conscience of that character (think Tripitaka in 'Monkey'). Similarly, don't make your bad guys so blackhearted that they have no redeeming feature. Even Vader sang the blues. The only exception to this (and that's because they are not really characters) is the bad guy that absolutely, definitely, will not stop. (The Terminator). Although they are (mostly) in human form they are really forces of nature. A kind of implacable, oncoming storm that you know the principal characters are going to have to face, sooner or later. They may as well be, erm, machines. This is my personal opinion, but I find good people vs evil people stories not nearly as interesting as good people vs good people stories or even (though they are incredibly rare) evil people vs evil people stories. I saw a good little non-genre movie once called "The House of Sand and Fog' about two people fighting over a house (no! wait! come back!). Both characters were good people and everything they (and supporting characters) tried to do had good intentions behind it, but things spiral downwards to an inevitable tragic conclusion. Oh, and Jennifer Connelly gets her kit off. Finally, try not to go down the 'Star Trek' route of laying humanity on (former) bad guys with a trowel (Hugh, Klingons, etc). Keep it subtle. A Word about Fanfic Most of your work is done. Some poor sleb as done all the work of creating the person for you. Don't write about these existing characters if you not familiar with them intimately. Someone with a big nose will notice mistakes. Make new characters. Not only will it bring freshness, it will also give you an opportunity to practice character creation. Concentrate on using one or two characters from the 'verse involved (or per 'verse of multiverse) as this will keep your writing tight and you are less likely to make a personality error. ******************************************************************** Lesson Four: The Dark Arts of Plotting and Pacing At its most basic, a plot is the skeleton of a story. It is the 'what' that happen to the 'who' and 'why'. How much work you put into plotting is entirely up to you, from none at all to ten page synopsis. Actually, if you are serious about being published, you have to get used to writing synopsis as Publishers and Agents would rather look at three chapters and a synopsis rather than a 1200 page manuscript. Try not to emphasize plot over character or the actual writing though. Heavy plotting and light plotting both have their pros and cons. Heavy plotting is good for those of us who are not naturally organised. It lays out important events in the story, so we feel that the hard work is done. It also gives us some things we can aim at, thus helping with writer's block. It can stop you from over writing too, as you don't want to wander too far from your plot thread. The downer of heavy plotting can be predictability, underwriting and a certain stiffness or lack of spontaneity. Light plotting can be useful. If the author is constantly surprised, then so will the reader. The flaws may be a lack of focussed writing, over writing and over-complicated stories that may not knit together as a whole. I'm not here to tell you which is better or worse. Find a method that works and stick with it. That's all I can say. Different ways of Organizing Plot 1-2-3 The most common plot structure is 1 2 3, that is; Beginning Middle End. 99% of all stories are like this. 3-2-1 This is having your end at the beginning of your story, then the story works backwards to reveal why what happened… happened. Remember, you are 'God' in the world of your novel, with mastery even over time. The most famous (I think) use of this device is the film 'Memento', but there are others. 2-3-1 or 2-1-3 Very complicated this. Basically, the reader comes into the events in the middle of the story and. through devices such as Flashback and Flash-forward, the story unfolds. You need to have heavily plotted this or you may get lost. 3-3-3 This is when there is one event seen from a multitude of viewpoints. It can be an exploration of experience or the reliability of memory, so there doesn't need to be a 'satisfactory conclusion'. Imagine 5 characters recalling the same 'First Contact' experience or a disaster upon a spaceship. The most well known example of this is 'Rashomon', which itself has been ripped off a thousand times. Most of your favourite TV series will have at least one episode based on this idea. A-B narratives. Beloved of ST:TNG, this is having a major story with a minor (seemingly unconnected) story running along side it. It may or may not involve the same characters. You can, with imagination, get some very satisfying results from this. Try it with two different written forms, say a description of how a poison works, against a description of a funeral, or similar. Relay Stories Usually centred around an object that gets passed from one person to another. It triggers a different story with each before moving on. Stephen King did one with a cat, and there was a film called 'Handgun'. The most famous one may be an old story called The Decameron, about lovers. Note: It was getting near midnight when I wrote the below, so I will probably flesh it out at some point Pacing This is writing so that the action either speeds along or goes slowly, depending on the needs of the story. Most of this is fairly simple. If you are writing a battle scene with lots of spaceships whizzing about, you don't want to keep stopping to explain how their engines work. On the other hand, a moment of strong emotion that may need you to slow down the story would not be helped with: "I love you", "Yeah, I love you too" "Yeah, but sometimes you annoy me." "Well, I'll stop that" "Well, OK, let's get married." "Yeah, alright." This is fine in "Romancing the Stone' or similar, when the heroes are hanging off a rope, but not in a book when you've got time on your hands. Try not to make your story one paced. If it's fast all the time, it can come across light weight and inconsequential. If it's constantly slow then it can feel like walking through mud. How to make things faster There are a few ways to do this. Make all your sentences simple and undecorated. Take away unnecessary grammar or description. If people are speaking use the example above and take away all indicators of who is speaking. or slower Concentrate on every small thing. This is not an excuse for unnecessary writing, but instead turning the camera into a microscope. ********************************************************************** Lessons Five and Six can be found on page 3 (as of time of writing).