Zigzagging in Writing and Life

I walk in the desert, sometimes on straightaways, sometimes on hills. I learned something from the hill walks: she who goes up, must come down. And sometimes “down” means a very steep grade. I discovered that it was much easier to get to the bottom of these steep hills if I zigzagged from one edge of the path to the other. By descending diagonally, I can cut the steepness of the hill and am able keep my footing.

This seems to be a good metaphor for plot. While writing, we zigzag down an increasingly steep slope, never quite letting our readers know what direction they are traveling, but always keeping them on the path to the end. Or perhaps they are going up a hill, but the point is still the same: zigzagging.

I sent More Deaths Than One to hundreds of agents and editors, and the consensus was that my writing style was too matter-of-fact for the overly complicated plot. This from people who never read more than a few chapters. (Luckily for me, I finally found a publisher — Second Wind – who read the whole novel and understood what I wanted to accomplish.)

It could be that as readers head down the steep slope of my story, zigzagging from side to side, the plot does seem complicated, but when they reach the end and look back, they can see that the story is very simple. A straight path. A man discovers that what he knows about himself is a lie, and he sets out to discover the truth. Very simple. All the complications are simply the zigzagging path.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Questions About Writing Stories

I received an email the other day from someone who wanted to interview me for a class project. I think he’s for real, but some of the requests I have been getting recently are questionable, so I thought I’d post my responses here to stake my claim. Feel free to respond to any of the questions. If the interviewer does, in fact, read my blog as he said he did, I’m sure he’ll be glad of the additional input.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

The most essential quality of a good story is the ability to take readers somewhere else and make them glad they went. It’s also important to make the writing easy to read, which means the writing must be grammatically correct. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than having to decipher convoluted sentences with improper punctuation. Ideally, a story should leave readers a bit better off than they were before, either because of what they learned about the world and themselves, or because of the respite from their everyday lives.

Do you keep those qualities in mind while you write?

The only one of these qualities that I keep in mind while writing is to make sure what I write is readable. Other than that, I focus on the story, setting the scene then developing plot and characters into a cohesive whole.

Which of those qualities do you think is the most important, if there is a ‘most important’ one?

Some people think character is most important, others think plot is the most important, but you really can’t separate the two. Plot is what happens to a character, what a character does, or both. You cannot have a character without a plot. To show who or what a character is, you need to show the character acting, and that is plot. You also cannot have a plot without a character. If an asteroid falls to Earth, that might be newsworthy, but it’s not a story until you have characters interacting with the asteroid. Who found it? What did they do with it? What happened to them as a consequence of their actions? That’s what makes a story.

How much of a story do you have in your head before you start writing it?

I know the main characters, I know the beginning of the story, I know the end of the story, and I know how I want the characters to develop, but I don’t flesh out the individual scenes until I start writing them.

Do you do any research for your writing? If so, how do you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)

The research for Light Bringer, which will be published mid 2010, took me approximately twenty years. The research for my other novels took two to five years each. Sometimes I consulted maps or guidebooks, sometimes people told me what they knew, but mostly I read books on the various subjects.

How do you prefer to start a novel? For instance, do you try to start it out with a ‘bang’, or do you prefer to start out with a low point?

I start with a good hook, sort of a small bang, and I work up to a bigger bang.

How (or when) do you decide that you are done writing a story?

A story is done when it is published. Otherwise, it is never finished. The more one writes, the more one learns, and the more one learns, the more one sees how earlier works can be improved. The only thing that stops this cycle of learning and rewriting is getting published.

Do you have any specific pattern of writing, however subtle it may be, when you write? (Using specific plot devices consistently, for instance)

The only device I use now (though I did not do it in the beginning) is a theme. If I know the theme of a story, I can keep focused on the main concept and not go off on tangents. A story needs to be tightly constructed without extraneous scenes or exposition. If not tightly constructed, a story loses its power and impact, sort of like a comedian who tells a rambling joke without a punch line.

The term ‘well developed characters’ is extremely vague and the definition differs depending on who is asked. What, in your opinion, does it mean?

A well-developed character gives readers a sense of that character’s personality, feelings, and struggles. A well-developed character changes and matures as a result of all that the character experiences during the course of the story.

What is your goal for the story to be when you write? That is, how do you want your stories to say what they say?

My only goal is to write the stories I want to read. If my books do have a message, it’s that nothing is as it seems. We are not necessarily who we think we are, history did not necessarily happen the way we think it did, and what we see is not necessarily the truth. But all that is more of a side effect. Mostly I just want to write good stories with good characters.

Draggy Dialogue? Reeking Repartee? Why the Chit-Chat Can’t Be Idle

Tracy Fabre is guest hosting my blog today. Fabre is the author of Evan’s Castle, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Stonegarden Publishing. Fabre says:

Dialogue (unless your novel manages to avoid it entirely) is something both difficult and essential to get right.  It serves two key purposes in fiction: it furthers the plot, and helps the author build the characters.  (It can also entertain, frighten and inform, as characters joke, threaten, and sometimes pontificate, but we’ll keep it simple for this post.)

Here are a few things which must be taken into consideration as you write your dialogue.

It must be believable and natural.  It must be plausible that your character would speak, shout, wheedle, cajole, or threaten with the words you choose for him.  Are you writing about a twelfth century cleric?  Then he’d better not say, “Dude, that habit is, like, so five minutes ago.”  Are you writing about a teenaged NYC prostitute?  Then she’d better not say, “Fain would I fathom the nature of a bespectacled pigeon, forsooth.” 

It must fit the scene, and the words you use to describe how it is uttered.
        “I am so extremely happy,” Lulella intoned.
But intoned implies dull, flat, ponderous–okay, so does her speech–so if you were trying to show she’s actually happy, none of it works.
        Roderick stated, “I love you.”  Does that seem right?  No.  Stated is another word which implies flat, dull, boring; if that’s not how you meant him to sound, you need a new qualifier.  I could write a whole book on how said is really the perfect word, much more so than physiological impossibilities such as:
        He smiled, “Hello!”  
                No, he didn’t.  He said it.  He smiled while he was saying it.
        “Baby,” he rushed into the room carrying vermicelli, “you’re here!”
               No, he spoke as he was rushing; there’s a difference.
Don’t be afraid to use said.  It becomes invisible, and the speech itself takes precedence, as it should.  There are places where other impossibilities such as purred and barked do work, but limit your use of qualifiers such as laughed and smiled because, kiddo, you can smile your dialogue all you want but it’s just going to sound like a buncha mumbling.

Don’t feel you must use any variation of said at all if the speech explains itself.  
           “I think I’m going to have to slather you with butter.” He smiled.
           She smiled back.  “I think that would be very interesting.”
I think we know what’s going on there… unless of course he’s really about to kill her, in which case I’m sure you’ve written the rest of the scene to show her being brave and clever and escaping unbuttered.

Make it clear who’s speaking, but don’t over-do it in a heavy-dialogue scene. 
         “I don’t like gazpacho.”
         “You’ve never had gazpacho.”
         “Yes, I did, in Boise,” Velmarine insisted.
         “I don’t remember that.”
         “You weren’t there. It was a Tuesday.  Where’s the butler?”
         “What butler?” Claude looked around, puzzled.
         “The one I hired last Tuesday to clean the gutters.”
         “We don’t have gutters. This is a condo.”
         “Oh, that explains the snooty people in the lobby.”  She sipped her tea.
Also, make sure the first pronoun to follow a bit of dialogue refers to the person who spoke.  In the above lines, it should be clear that Claude said “What butler?” and Velmarine mentioned the snooty people, without a single said being present.  Remember that readers generally take things literally, in order, so keep your curve balls to a minimum.

Say it out loud.  Really.  If you know your characters well (as you should), then say their dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds right.  It’s okay, you can whisper it; no need to alarm the neighbors.  But say it. 

Cut what you don’t need.  Some dialogue isn’t necessary: you don’t need every greeting, every farewell; you need to concentrate on the key elements of plot advancement and character development.  You may have written some incredibly profound bit of pontification but if it doesn’t fit the scene or the character and adds nothing to the plot, cut it.  You may have written the funniest freakin’ bit of repartee the literary world has ever known, but unless you need it… erm… you don’t need it. 

Speaking of cutting, I’ll stop here. 

What have your challenges been as you write dialogue? 
What do you consider your successes? 
Would you be willing to post to the discussion short samples of your dialogue which you either love or hate?

On Writing: More About Character

Creating characters is one of the challenges and satisfactions of writing. We need to devise lifelike personalities for our story people, and we need to figure out why they act the way they do. Characters’ motivations for their actions are more important than their personality type. That WHY takes the character out of the ordinary.

In Practical Tips For Writing Popular Fiction, Robyn Carr states, “Some of the most common failures in motivating characters or plots occur from the following:

1. Foolish and or spontaneous actions.

2. Arbitrary decisions and/or behavior (making the behavior purposeful instead of arbitrary makes the motivation believable.)

3. Actions prompted by passive needs or emotions.”

We learn much about characters from their actions, but what the character does is not the defining element. Like with personality, the defining element is WHY the character does what he does. Characters can do anything, though they must be psychologically true and consistent. A character who is cowardly but does not hesitant to rescue someone from danger without any reference to fear or a believable reason for the action is not a well-written character.

Characters do change, of course, but the motivation for that change must be shown. Some basic personality traits do not change under ordinary conditions, so if a smart character becomes stupid or slow, he has to suffer some sort of trauma, as in Regarding Henry. Nor can a slow character suddenly become smart without intervention. The movie Phenomenon is a good example of how that can happen.

When it comes to storytelling, character is all. The plot and the character should be so intertwined that we never see them as separate. Character motivation, in many instances, is the plot — what the characters do and why.

In Story Robert McKee writes: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.” And often, in that hidden nature, we find our character’s motivation.

On Writing: How To Use a Character Profile

Lately I’ve been coming across many different character-building worksheets, both online and in how-to-write books, but one point most fail to mention is how to use the biographies you create.

Knowing your characters’ families, friends, education, jobs, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, goals, regrets, fears, desires, needs, might help you define your characters, but the real benefit of character biographies is to help you create the story.

It’s not enough simply to know what your hero believes, for example. If the belief doesn’t add anything important to the development of the story or the development of the hero’s character, it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s not enough simply to know the hero’s background. If it isn’t important for the reader to know, if nothing is gained by its inclusion, if nothing is lost by its omission, then that, too, is barely worth mentioning.

On the other hand, if your story goes stale halfway through the book, you can mine both the hero’s beliefs and background for additional conflicts.

More than that, though, a well-constructed character biography can tell you what your story is and where it is going.

When you know your hero’s main goal, you will find the beginning of a plot line. When you know what will make the goal’s attainment the most difficult for the hero, you will find the central obstacle in the story. And when you know your hero’s greatest strength, you can figure out how your hero will eventually overcome the obstacle.

By exploiting your character’s greatest fear, you will be able to draw the most depth from your character because, of course, your hero must confront this fear or else you miss the point of your own story.

Through knowing your character’s weaknesses, regrets, needs, desires, vulnerabilities, you will find inner conflicts, subtexts, subplots, and all the bits of drama that pull readers into your world.

As your story progresses, you may find in your hero’s biography untapped wells of strength, previously undisclosed facts that might alter the situation, even characters from the hero’s past who might take unexpected and relevant action.

Most of all, a biography can help keep you focused on your character’s goals. It can help you avoid annoying little inconsistencies such as hazel eyes on page ten and blue or brown on page one hundred and ten. It can help you create a character arc because you will know which traits are static (an intelligent person doesn’t suddenly become stupid for no reason), and you will know which traits can show the character’s growth (perhaps a fear of commitment that becomes a willingness to commit).

But most of all, the biography tells you the story because character is so entwined with plot that it’s impossible to create one without the other.

Click here for a character questionaire to help you create a profile for your character.

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The Setting Should Be Integral to the Story

Characters interact with the setting as much as they do with the plot and other characters. In fact, setting can be used as another character, one that is implacable and without reason. Like a character, the setting can have scars, weaknesses, moods, even a personality.

The setting should be integral to the story. It needs to be more than a backdrop for or an introduction to the events. A static description adds nothing to the story’s purpose. The setting should not be any old place, but a unique place that has meaning for the character. Setting can work for or against the character, but either way, it must be dynamic, otherwise it’s just filling space.

Setting can create a mood. It can suggest the character’s motives. It can predestine character in the same way we are all creatures of our environment. A person who grew up in the shadow of mountains is different from someone born by the sea. A child living in a mansion is different from a child of the streets.

Setting can help move plot along. Whenever things slow down, the introduction of a real or perceived change in the setting can deepen the character’s conflicts. Maybe the character sees things he never noticed before; maybe those familiar things now seem menacing. Or perhaps the weather can take a disastrous turn.

Every description of a place should have a memorable quality that hints at the story’s meaning. In Story, Robert McKee wrote, “The irony of setting vs. story is this: the larger the world, the more diluted the knowledge of the writer, therefore the fewer his creative choices and the more clichéd the story. The smaller the world, the more complete the knowledge of the writer, therefore the greater his creative choices. Result: an original story without clichés.”

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The Most Powerful Tool at a Writer’s Command

The most powerful tool at a writer’s command is not a computer or word processing program. It is not even a pen, though the pen is said to be mightier than the sword. (Frankly, though, I would prefer to go into a fight armed with a sword rather than a pen, but that could be a personal quirk.)

So what tool am I talking about? The power of three. Three is a mystical number that shows up repeatedly in mythology: three fates, three muses, three graces. Three is a prime component of fairy tales: three wishes, three little pigs, three bears. Three creates a series, a pattern of cause and effect. There are three stages of truth: first a concept is rejected, second it is violently opposed, third it is accepted as self-evident. Three is a basic structure of life: carbohydrates, protein, fat; electron, proton, neutron; past, present, future. And it is a basic structure of stories: beginning, middle, end.

The power of three is so pervasive that you can use it to plan a functional wardrobe. Before buying an article of clothing, think of three things to wear with it, three places to wear it, and three ways to accessorize it.

Three is a symmetrical number that satisfies something deep within our psyches, and if we use it in our writing, we can find a way into our reader’s minds, hearts, and souls.

To use the power of three in articles: Set up your premise, prove it, conclude it.

To use the power of three in a mystery: Give one clue to tantalize; two to suggest a direction of discovery; three to create a pattern.

To use the power of three in a story: Create tension, develop it, release it.

To use the power of three in description: Mention three attributes.

To use the power of three in devising a plot, following the storyline of The Three Bears. The first time Goldilocks tries to reach her goal, she fails but learns the risks. The second time she tries, she confirms that she’s doing things wrong, but she learns from her mistakes. The third time she tries, she gets it right.

To use the power of three in giving a speech: First, tell the audience what you’re going to tell them. Second, tell them. Third, tell them what you told them.

Because my work in progress has evolved into a story of a mythic journey, I have been paying particular attention to three. Instead of one mentor, my hero will have three, each of whom gives him a gift. He will meet three women; the third will be “the one.” He will have three chances to cross the threshold into a safe place. The story will be divided into three parts, like a play, and the hero will have three opportunities to accomplish a goal in each part.

Perhaps the power of three is formulaic, but life is a formula, and the power of three seems to work for it. So, when in doubt, I’ll think three.

Filling the Needs of the Story

Almost all novels tell the same basic story: a character wants something and someone or something prevents that character from achieving his goal. While telling the story, many authors throw in incident after incident to fill out the book. After a while, these incidents seem incidental, as if they are simply filling space and not filling the needs of the story.

Writing instructors and how-to-get-published books remind authors to hook readers with a great beginning. The hook should be captivating, but that’s not the end of it; the rest of the book needs to be rewarding, too. If the author fills the book with insignificant incidents, readers feel as if they are wasting their time.

I am concerned that my current work in progress is becoming a series of incidents that go nowhere. My hero keeps reacting to the world changing around him, but he isn’t proactive. He wants to be left alone, to be free, but that is a passive goal. I keep thinking he should be acting, planning, taking charge, but what can he do when each day, each hour the world is different?

Eventually, of course, he will take charge of his destiny when he escapes the human zoo, but first I have to get him there. His world needs to become so threatening that he will give up freedom for safety, but it hasn’t reached that point yet. And the only way I know to reach that point is for him to continue reacting to the changes around him. And to do that, I need to keep adding incidents. Round and round it goes.

These incidents serve the needs of the theme, they serve the needs of the story, and they serve my needs as a writer by allowing me to stretch my imagination, but I don’t know if they are significant enough to offset the hero’s lack of resolve to do something. I would hate to have future readers finish the book simply because they don’t want to waste the time they invested.

In the end, I suppose, I need to concentrate on the flow. If the story flows smoothly, then everything else will fall into place, seeming as right and as inexorable as the sun rising in the east. And if by chance an incident disrupts the flow, I can edit it out later. Or perhaps I can have the sun rising in the west. Hmm. Could be interesting. I wonder how my hero would react to that?

Creating a Character — Part III

To be real, a character must have strengths and weaknesses. I have been creating a profile for Chip, the hero of my work in progress, and I know some of his strengths: he is independent, can cope with adversity, has high ethical standards. The only weakness I know about so far is that he is distrustful of women, which women see as a failure to commit.

Strengths and weaknesses are arbitrary. Independence can become an inability to depend on others, an ability to cope can be seen as indifference, high ethical standards can become intransigency. Which is great for the book: the resulting misunderstandings can cause conflicts among characters and the plot or subplots to thicken.

I can already see that Chip’s high ethical standards and principles will be a driving force in the story. He is a vegetarian and an animal lover who will be forced to kill to feed those dependent on him. His independence, exemplified by a need for freedom, is also at stake. He will be forced to decide how much of his freedom he is willing to give up for safety, and how much of his safety he is willing to give up for freedom.

So far, I haven’t been able to come up with a special strength or weakness that would set Chip apart from any other character, but since plot and character are so closely related, this may not be a bad thing. It does no good to assign a special strength or weakness to a character if it is not going to be tested during the story, and I don’t want to Chip to be constrained by a particular trait before he even begins his adventures. If he needs a special strength, I will write it in when necessary. The great thing about writing is that we are not stuck with what is past. We can always go back and recreate it to answer present needs.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if life outside the pages of our novels worked that way?