The Great Escape

Image Courtesy  www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.
Image Courtesy www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

A subject that came up between writing friends… how do you deal with the “escape scene”? Imprisonment of some sort is a much loved staple of the classic adventure story. So what makes a “good” escape, and what makes a “bad” one? How much detail, as a writer, should you go into when putting an escape into the story?

Lets assume that the story in question is not Escape From Alcatraz, or the subject of this blog entry. The escape is not the story, but one of the obstacles in the story.

If the escape is important to the story, as a reader I feel like I need to have a little detail. On the other hand, if the character is a world-class thief escaping the same prison for the sixth time, I’d be okay with you glossing it over a bit. But that leads to the second dilemma… how do you make escape possible without making the captors seem stupid for overlooking things? Read more

When Characters Meet

Meeting new people can be awkward. It’s as simple as that. While writing fiction, sometimes we’re faced with the dilemma of introducing very different people under unusual circumstances. Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend who needed to do just that–but was drawing a blank on how to go about it.

Here’s what we came up with: Read more

Information through Scenes

I don’t care what they’ve told you–you can’t show everything. Some things you need to tell.

Exposition is necessary, especially for spec-fic writers who can’t rely on their readers to already be familiar with the story’s setting. The trouble for me comes when I’m trying to figure out what information is necessary, and how to communicate it without breaking the flow of the story and boring the reader (or myself) to death.

I’ve found it useful to think of my scenes as vehicles for information. The information gets broken up into digestible chunks, and I also have to justify the existence of every scene–it has to be pulling its weight by moving the plot forward and revealing character.

Before starting a scene, I’ll write down exactly what information I need to communicate. A lesson I’ve learned is that it’s better to work this out before I come up with the events themselves–otherwise I find myself trying to awkwardly stuff the info around events that I’m too fond of to cut, but might not be the best vehicle. 

Once I’ve worked out that I need to communicate this, this, and this, I can come up with a series of events that will best showcase the necessary information through action and dialogue rather than solid exposition.

Orson Scott Card has a great article about revealing information and backstory on his website Hatrack River (along with a lot of other good stuff).

An excerpt from the article:

Make sure you’re beginning the story in the right place. If you immediately have to do flashbacks, etc., chances are you simply began too close to the end and you need to let us see, in correct linear time order, the events that you’re flashing back to.

If you begin at the right place, but there is information known to the characters that needs to be told to the readers, you can often lay it in, piece by piece, right where it’s actually needed.

You can read the rest of the article here.

~ RM

Info Dumps

infodumpThe release of background information is one of the biggest things a writer (of any genre) has to struggle with. Too much, too soon, can create what is called an “info dump”. You’ve all seen them: a big, giant paragraph (or more!) of information that is probably important, but it’s boring.As a reader, too often I find myself skimming over these hefty passages in search of some actual story going on.

Info dumps are an especially big problem for writers of speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, etc) because more often than not we’re introducing entirely new worlds, cultures, systems of magic and alternate natural laws. This requires us to communicate a very large amount of information–whereas writers of other genres can usually depend on their readers to already know many of the “rules” governing the setting. Read more

Naming Woes

birthcertificate
One of the questions I come across the most on writing forums is ‘How do you name your characters?’ Naming can be especially challenging when writing fantasy and science-fiction, because often you’re creating names for a society or culture that doesn’t actually exist.

There are a lot of name generators around the web (which can occasionally spit out something suitable), but there are a couple other tricks I like to use when searching for names: Read more

Lying Fallow – On Seasons and Creativity

glacier

Growing up, I lived in a little fishing town in Alaska. Season is a very important thing in Alaska, perhaps the most important thing. It is present in everything we do, because in any part of that wild, often unforgiving country, there are times when simply surviving in the face of the omnipresent forces of nature is all we can do. This isn’t the hyperbole it may seem to be. Even with microwaves, TV, and modern medicine, survival—both physical and emotional—is a very real and conscious concern. Read more

Describing Characters

mirror
There are a few things that really make me groan and roll my eyes when reading a novel. One of them is the “creation story”. I’ve been reading fantasy since my age was in the single digits, and if I read “In the beginning…” one more time, I think I really might just shoot myself. Or, at the very least, put down the book and walk away.

Another thing that really grates on me is the “mirror description”. Many authors, wishing to quickly and thoroughly communicate their character’s appearance, resort to having their character check themselves out in the mirror. The character inventories their appearance with a great deal more attention to detail than people generally do, using a multitude of (often cliche) adjectives.

Most people when looking in the mirror think something akin to: “Damn, time to shave”, or “I need a haircut” or “Where the HELL did that pimple come from?”

Unfortunately, the characters of an embarrassingly large number of novels do this:

Karen stopped in front of the hall mirror before leaving for work. She had a small, oval face with even features and pillowy lips that rarely required lipstick. Glossy, auburn waves cascaded over one shoulder, accentuating her petite, hourglass figure….

… blah, blah, blah.

This is painful. Read more

More on Characterization

I’ve heard writing fiction described as “socially acceptable schizophrenia”. As writers, we attempt to create entire people out of whole cloth–each of them separate, unique individuals. This can be quite a feat, and here are a few tricks I’ve learned that help me keep my multiple personalities separate.

1. Give your characters a theme song.
The human brain loves to link concepts with music. This is one of the reasons music can be so powerful, why we have trouble listening to certain songs after a break-up, or have emotional attachments to music we heard as children. To help you mentally isolate your characters and keep them from melding together into sort of mushy, grey extensions of ourselves, find a “theme song” for each of them–something that represents the personality and temperament you’re trying to portray.

Once you’ve found your character’s theme song, only listen to it while writing or brainstorming about that character. This will create that mental link between the music and the concept, and the song will act like a little light switch whenever you need to get “in character”.

2. Consider your narrative voice.
This is most applicable when writing from a 3rd person point of view, which is the most common POV used for modern fiction. Going back to the characters I described in my earlier post on characterization: When writing Gideon, my quiet, reserved main character, I use a slightly more distant 3rd person. I don’t get too involved in descriptions of his thoughts and emotions, instead relying on dialogue and action to illustration what’s going on inside.

On the other hand, Tay (my loud, effusive, smart-mouthed secondary character) reads like a lively stream of consciousness. A third character, Sera, is a much more emotional, introspective character. I make an effort to illustrate her emotional reaction to the things that go on around her, and the conclusions she draws from those impressions.Varying your narrative voice when changing your POV can really help separate and define your characters.

~ RM

Developing vivid characters…

Sometimes it can be difficult to create a vivid, memorable characters who are all individuals in their own right. A cast of characters that comes from a single brain is going to feature the writer’s own personal preferences and bias–and this repetition can easily make each character seem very much like the last.

We often look at characters in a story as individuals, but I think it can be helpful to consider them as a whole, with each character a part of the “machinery”, with a defined role and purpose. Defining their purpose in the story is very important. Throwing in people willy-nilly creates a very confused background that can obscure the story you are trying to tell. Read more

Skill vs. Talent

Recently, on the FWO forums, the subject of talent came up–and how much it matters versus skill.

This is all generalization, of course… but I think that for the majority of writers, a large part of writing is acquiring skill sets–language, grammar, how to structure a story, and (perhaps most important) your own creative process. In my experience, just learning how to get inspired is something I’ve had to really grope after, not something that has come to me like some magically bestowed talent. However, I do think that seed of talent is essential–it’s what not only makes us predisposed to storytelling, but what makes us want it.

Here’s my take on the difference between the two. Read more