Building a Story from the Inside Out

Jordan Dane, national bestselling and award-winning thriller writer, is guesting my blog today. I know guesting isn’t a word, but I’m still pleased that she consented to be my guest blogger. She is also hosting a discussion on my Suspense/Thriller Writers  group on Facebook, so stop by and add your bit to the onion, or leave a comment for her here. Jordan writes:

Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out? (Come on. Humor me!!)

This little exercise of writing the dialogue first came from having to split my time between my day job and writing. On my special writing days, I’d grab lunch by myself and take a notepad with me. (I wasn’t really alone. Like Sybil, writers never are. Oh, I just scared myself.)

People would always comment that my scenes jumped right into the action with pace, sharp concise narratives and to-the-point dialogue. In trying to explain to another writer how I do this, I had to understand it myself. That’s when I realized how much my little lunchtime exercise had trained my brain to think this way-in terms of breaking down elements to any scene.

I had broken apart the dialogue from the rest of the narrative as a more efficient use of my time before I got home that night to finish the scene. Consequently, the dialogue got my full attention. And I usually tend to visualize the scene in my head as a TV program or movie. Visualizing it like a movie stirred my thoughts on the scene and helped orient me into the characters’ motivation too.

I later learned aspects of this method are called LAYERING. You can use it to build that onion as I describe below or use it to add more emotion or tension or atmosphere to your scenes-whatever you want more of-even after you think that scene or book is finished. Layering is one of the last steps I use when I’m doing my final edits on a novel. I read through the book and punch up the various scenes until I’ve come to the last page.

1. FIRST-Use dialogue as the framework for the scene (like a screen writer)

Consider writing the dialogue first so you can concentrate on it (Use this as an exercise only. Once you get this down, you won’t need to do this time and time again.)

Make the dialogue important-There’s nothing like witty banter or a clever verbal skirmish between two adversaries

If your character confronts someone at a high school reunion that they haven’t seen in twenty years when they buried a body after Prom, you better have them say more than, “Gee, nice sweater.” Chitchat would never happen in real life, given this situation, unless these two people are guiltless serial killers. Too much introspection can kill the impact of their first meeting. Personally, I like a challenge like this. And don’t get me started on the whimsical world of the serial killer. But think about it-what WOULD they say to each other?

2. SECOND-Body Language/Action

Body language can be fun, especially if it contradicts what the character is saying in dialogue-Use it! Manipulate it!

Be concise and not too wordy with action, but keep it REAL. If guns are blasting, remember your characters are dodging bullets, not witty banter. Bullets stop for no man…or woman!!!

3. THIRD-Mood & Setting-Use it to accentuate what’s happening.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the mood created with a great setting. It can embellish the emotion in a scene or add an underlying tension (ie an escalating storm or a well-placed gust of wind against a silk blouse or skirt). The beauty is in the details.

4. LAST-Emotional layering-Introspection

Give your character a journey through the scene. Don’t just repeat the same old thoughts over and over in different ways no matter how clever you are. Have their introspection grow or change.

Too much introspection, for me as a reader, slows the pace. But if an editor wants it, read my first point over again and build upon the emotional layers with new material. Insights into a character can be a wonderful gift to your reader.

5. THEN STAND BACK AND TAKE A LOOK-What’s there? Do you have a whole ONION or a lemon?

Make every scene into a tight mini-story with a hook beginning and a memorable page-turning end. Or end it with a beautiful image a reader will remember and feel long after they’ve put the book down.

Or stop in the middle of the action and continue it on the top of the next chapter.

You are in control of your story’s layout. Make it interesting.

NOTE: For more writer resources, please check out my website FOR WRITERS page for craft tips, promotion ideas, and other articles like my “First Sale” story or “How to Make a Book Trailer FOR FREE”.

On Writing: The Body Doesn’t Lie. Or Does It?

Body language is as important in writing as it is in real life. If you don’t want to explain what your character is feeling or doing, the best way to show it is by their body language.

For example, a person who is lying will often rub an eye, touch gently beneath an eye, put a hand up to the mouth, touch the nose or lips with a finger. Sometimes a liar will tug at an ear, scratch the neck, pull at his collar, jiggle a foot, blink more than normal. People tend not to look in the eyes of the person being lied to. And they hide their palms.

Showing the palms is a way of saying that someone has nothing to hide, and it is a gesture that we all subconsciously react to. But the gesture can be faked, and so can looking someone in the eyes. If you want to show that a character is lying, you can have your liar look another character in the eyes while showing the palms. By mentioning these two signals together, they become important, and can show that the first character is purposely lying. Of course, they can also show what they normally do, that the character is telling the truth.

That’s the problem with body language: it is ambiguous. Scratching the head can mean that a person is thinking or is confused, but it can also mean the person has dandruff. Rubbing an eye or covering the mouth can show that a person is hiding something, but that thing can be as innocent as hiding sleepiness or a yawn. Folding the arms across the chest can mean a person is defensive; it can also mean the person is cold.

Certain signals are subtle in real life, but when used in a scene, they can telegraph the truth. A person generally crosses their legs toward a person they like and away from a person they are not interested in. If you write that a character smiled and crossed her legs away from him, it’s obvious what is going on, even though in life we seldom catch on as quickly.

The same is true of pointing a foot toward the door. It’s a signal that the person wants to leave, and that seldom-noticed signal becomes obvious when written.

Another bit of body language that works well in print is mirroring. A subordinate mirrors the body language of a leader, so your band of characters might have a nominal leader, but their true leader is the one they ape. Interestingly, team members who works well together have the same posture and body language, which shows the rapport of the group.

The best way of learning body language is simply to watch people. Look at their hands and feet when they talk. Have friends purposely lie to you and see how they act when they do. Pay attention to your own gestures, and try to keep them at a minimum. Not only will you be harder to read, the fewer the gestures, the more intelligent and refined you will seem.

She Says, He Says; She Does, He Doesn’t

Writers often make men and women characters interchangeable, using only physical attributes to tell them apart, forgetting that there are differences between the two species. (I know, men and women aren’t two different species, but you have to admit it feels that way sometimes.)

Brain scans show that women have between fourteen and sixteen areas that evaluate others’ behavior, while men have only four to six. Because of this, women are better at juggling several unrelated topics in a single conversation. They also use five vocal tones to make their points. Since men can only identify three of those tones, they often miss what women are trying to say. So men accuse women of not being direct and women accuse men of not listening.

It’s amazing we manage to communicate as well as we do, considering that men and women have different reasons for conversing. Women ask questions to show interest in the person; men ask questions to gain information. Women find that talking about a problem provides relief; men feel that talking about a problem is dwelling on the negative. Women think that continuing to discuss the problem demonstrates support; men want to make a decision and forget it. Women provide peripheral details because they want to be understood; men just want them to make their point. Women think that talking about a relationship brings people closer; men generally think it’s useless.

Women are better at interpreting body language than men. Because of men’s inability to read body language, a crying baby often confuses them, though women know exactly what the infant wants. Women’s subconscious ability to interpret body language makes them seem more intuitive than men, but men (and women) can consciously learn to interpret body language, which evens things out.

There are differences in the way our eyes work, too. A study of nonnudists at a nudist colony showed that men had difficulty resisting the urge to look, and their gazes were obvious. Women, on the other hand, were not caught gazing, though they had just as hard a time resisting the urge. Does this prove that women have more self-control than men? No. It only means that men and women are hardwired differently. Women have better peripheral vision than men, so they can appear to be looking at a man’s face when in fact they are checking him out.

Men generally have poor close range vision, which keeps them from seeing what’s directly in front of them, but they are better than women at spotting targets over long distances.

I’m not sure how to use this information to make male and female characters non-interchangeable, but knowing some of the differences should help.