Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When You Encounter Problem Characters

Most people find that the plot in their story comes fairly easy, or at least easier than characters. Sure, you know there's going to be a girl who's dirt poor, or a valiant knight, but then you have to figure out personalities, quirks, and beliefs. That's the hard part, especially when the character is the polar opposite of yourself. Obviously, you want your characters to be believable, and real peoples' personalities aren't black and white, so to speak. People don't hate things without reason, or love people because they're the designated love interest, like a writer sometimes wishes.

When you are developing characters it's important to a) figure out things that happened to the character before the story began, and b) figure out the things that happened before affect the character in the story. For example, Johnny grew up in the slums, had no father, and never had enough to eat. So in the story Johnny's tough, doesn't believe in the value of father figues, and enjoys a well cooked meal. When you figure out their back round it will help you determine how they will react to things, making it easier to write the story.

Another problem that I tend to run into (I'm sure other writers do too!) is when my characters are lose their spark. They're moseying though scenes with half-hearted responses, and out of character actions. I just lose who they are, and why they're doing what they're doing. If this has never happened to you, I hate to be a downer, but it probably will. Here's how to get those characters back into the game. Kill someone off. Minor characters are great for this. I know it sounds drastic, but it has a very good effect. When someone dies, people tend to examine their convictions, and purpose. It can also give characters a mission for justice, or revenge. Another thing a writer can do is have your characters ask hard questions of each other. Some questions can tie into their back round like "Why did you run away from home?", "How come you didn't tell me you were married?!". They can also be questions that deal with personality like "How come you hate France so much?", or "Why are you always so angry?" Whether you ask those questions for your, the writer's, personal understanding, or you can have other characters ask the question, either way it helps. To continue on with the "asking questions" concept, another tip is to use pre-formatted character sketches like this pdf, and questionnaires like the "Beautiful People" page I have on this blog.

The final thing that I've briefly touched on already is cause and effect. Characters just don't do things randomly. In real life people just don't decide to be "evil". Thats probably one of the biggest cause and effect problems in a beginner's writing. The antagonist can't just be evil because the hero(ine) needs someone to fight. He/she needs to have a reason, like revenge (cause), to kidnap the princess (effect), or they could honestly believe what they're doing is right (even though it's not). A strong piece of fiction needs to have cause and effect in its characters.

A summary: a character's past is key to current actions, killing characters off helps spur other characters into action, asking hard questions also does that, and cause and effect keeps characters in character. Hope you enjoyed this post, and it aided you in some way. I strongly encourage you to do character sketches, and also do the Beautiful People questions with me, as I've found both things very helpful. Anywho, this is getting much too long! Till next time!

EDIT: I just wanted to remind y'all about the features at the bottom of the home page, and the two separate pages at the top you can check out!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Once Upon a Time I Began a Story- Part 2

Recently, I've been taking a four week course on story writing for teens with a friend of mine. It's been extremely interesting, and I would recommend that you take advantage of any and all opportunities like this that you can get your hands on. However, all that is beside the point. The point is that two weeks ago at the course we talked about how to properly start a story. There are three ways that one goes about doing that; dialogue, action, and description. If you have a minute pick up the fictional book you're reading right now, and look at the first chapter. I can almost guarantee you that it will start with one (or a mix) of those three.

My personal favourite start is dialogue, just because it feels like you jump right into the book. However, you must be careful not to begin your story like this:
"What is your problem?!"
"My problem?! Have you seen yourself?"
"Just go"
Although that is usually fine in the middle of a book, it doesn't work out so well at the beginning, because you don't have any back round info, like who the two speakers are. When starting with dialogue you want to make sure that the dialogue has speech tags (said, yelled, ect.), and some sort of action, and thoughts from the main character. For example:

"What is your problem?!" Sally exclaimed throwing her hands up with a defeated sigh.
"My problem?! Have you seen yourself?" I yelled yanking open the dresser drawer, and shoving a pile of socks into my suitcase. Sometimes Sally just didn't understand! I needed a break from this "bonding vacation" that she had suggested we take before I moved away to go to college.
"Just go" She said quietly. I watched for a second as she sat down on the bed back turned to me looking despondent. I almost stopped zipping up my suitcase to apologize, but not this time. I wasn't going to let my sister guilt me into spending one more minute with her self-centered personality.
"Fine!" I yelled. I grabbed my suitcase from the bed and stormed out of the hotel room.

The thoughts are in normal print, the action is in italics, the speech tags are in bold, and the dialogue is in quotations.
You want to make sure you use these four things when starting off you're novel, because you are setting the first impressions of characters, the setting of the story, and obviously you're setting the plot in motion. An example of a published book starting off with dialogue can be found here (scroll down the page, and find expert, click on it and the first chapter should come up)

The second way of beginning a story is action. When you start with action like:

The fire shot skywards with a puff of smoke.

Starting a story with something like this makes the reader ask questions, which will make them want to read on. Let your scene play out, and try not to clog it up with lengthy explanations. For example, you might be opening the story with the main character's house burning down, and you'd want to mention that. However, you don't need to burst into a recount of how they bought the house, and how long they've been living there right away. Let the action finish than you can do some explaining. Resist the urge to explain during the action, because readers can make assumptions from dialogue, (ex. MC saying "All my things are burning!") and other things happening in the scene. Example of book starting with action (scroll down page and under the picture hit read expert.)

The last opener is description. I don't recommend this very highly, because there is a major threat of rambling. It's great that you know a lot about the story, but when you launch into description, especially of setting, the reader gets bored. Although many classics do start this way, those books were written in a different time where a reader wasn't constantly assaulted with distractions, like we are today. You must grab your reader right away, so if you do decide to begin this way don't draw out your description too for too long, and maybe mix it with some action or dialogue. I've found a pretty good example of a book starting with description here (pdf file), and take note how long the description goes on for before getting to the action.

No matter which one of these ways or combination of these you choice to begin your story with, the main thing is to engage your reader. The first few pages is where you pull them into your book, and make them thirst for more, turning the pages until the story is complete. A good start is ideal to writing a good novel!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Once Upon a Time I Began a Story- Part 1

You've got a brilliant idea bouncing around in your mind for a story, but now you've got to write it. Suddenly, a rush of fear and lack of knowledge hits you, right? Well never fear! Like most things, there is a formula to starting a story. The first thing that any writer will tell you, before you actually start the story, is to make up a plot.

Now, I've heard so many novice writers say "Well I don't want to plan the whole book out, because I want it to be a creative endevour without the restrictions of a plan." I can tell you from experience that this is a really bad idea! When you have no plan you don't know where you're going, and often it leads to the writer's block, the opposite of what you want.

Imagine this, a contracter -let's call him Bob T. Builder- is building a house for himself, and he wants his creativity to really show in the finished product. Bob doesn't make any blueprints, or plans, but instead picks up some lumber and starts building, so to really let his creativity shine through. Halfway through the project he realises that he wants his house to have a basement, but Bob's got a problem, the first level is already built. Now to draw the parallels between writing a story without a plot line, and Bob's little story. When you begin writing without a plan, like Bob began building without blueprints, you run into the inevidable problem of changing your mind. Let's say you decide that your protaganist needs a sidekick, now you must go back and create new scenes, and possibly rework the whole draft. You've just created a bucket load of work for yourself that could have easily been avoided if you had a plot line. The beauty of the plot line is that you can change your ideas around with pretty little to no effort. Another plus to having a plot line is that you aren't just writing random scenes that might mush together into a story. You have a purpose and know where you're going which ultimately makes a better story.

Now, down to how to come up with a plot line. I'm not going to repeat what others have stated in numerous webpages, so I found a few that offer a good set up for a plot. Find them here, here, and here.

If you decide to use a plot mountain, I recommend that you make one for the action (events), one for the main characters relationship(s) with another character(s), and one for how the main character's personality evolves. Regardless of what you might think, a good story has more than just events and action. For example: there's no way that a person can travel across the country to find their long lost parents with their best friend without a) developing a better/worse relationship with their friend, and b) learning something new about themselves, thus changing. If the character hasn't changed from the beginning of the story to the end, than it doesn't seem realistic and is a bit of a let down to the reader. Overall, a good story should have more than just the top layer of action, and the best way to organize that is to have multiple plot lines for the different aspects.

So to recap everything in this post. Plot lines are a must have in order to write a good story, and actually finish it. Another quality of a good story is to have more than just action. To keep track of your different "layers" make different plot lines.

Stay tuned for part two where I talk about what to do after all the planning; how to start the actual story!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


This is going to be a very brief post, due to a crazy week, but an an important one non-the-less. I've found myself googling the rules of capitalization time and time again, in particular when I'm working on a non-fiction piece. There are no set rules for capitalization, as you can refer to the capitalization of something part of the art of the piece (especially in poetry), but there are two main types that are generally accepted.

1. Sentence Case

This style is where you capitalize the title like you would a sentence. You just capitalize the first word of the title and the proper nouns. Also known as Down Style.

For example: "Capitalization: do's and don'ts" or "It's Sally's birthday!"

2. Title Case

This is the style that I prefer. It's where you capitalize all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs and subordinating conjunctions (ex. if, because, as, that ect.), and the last word of the title no matter what type.

You don't capitalize articles (ex. a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (ex. and, but, of, for, nor) or prepositions (ex."He fell off his bike") Also called "Headline Style" or "Up Style".

For example: "Capitalization: Do's and Don'ts"

It really doesn't matter which style you use as long as you're consistent. Although, I would recommend "Title Case" style. So go forth and capitalize titles properly!

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