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Obscure ideas about dialogue

Balloons2I mentioned in an earlier NaNo post that while descriptions of scenes, characters, and actions is not my strong suit, dialogue is. I can write dialogue like nobody’s business. I may forget to have that young woman push that stray lock of black hair behind her ear when she says something, but I tell you what, I can make her talk in a way that reveals all of the emotions behind her words. I can bring that conversation to life and usually capture all the nuances. It’s  just something I’m good at.

People have sometimes asked me how I do it, and unfortunately, my usual answer is, “I don’t know.” Which is not remotely helpful, but it’s true. This is one area where I’m not sure I can give a lot of advice.

Yet there are a couple of things that I have gleaned over the years that might be useful. I’ll start with the most useful (and probably somewhat surprising) one first, because it comes from an author who not only published several novels but who also taught English at university.

DON’T BE TOO AUTHENTIC

I’m sure you did a double-take when you saw that heading, because it probably has to be the weirdest piece of advice you’ve ever heard, especially since people usually try so hard to make their plots seem plausible and make their characters valid and realistic. But this really struck me when I read it. I got this from a book called The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by an author named Oakley Hall. I gather that he wrote several westerns and mysteries, so he had some authority in the novel writing department. I really enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it, but what he said about dialogue struck me more than almost anything else.

Knight

“Hi thee hence, after yon miscreant!” “What?”

Too authentic?

Have you ever read a book where someone is writing a story, say, about knights in armour and ye olde kynges and qweyns? And everybody’s speech is full of “forsooths” and “prithees” and that sort of authentic talk? Or how about some kind, seafarin’ fisherperson who speaks a dialect of English that you can barely understand, yet the writer tries to repeat his quaint dialogue faithfully, word by word, with every line of speech full of apostrophes and dropped consonants and half-words until it looks like someone dropped a bunch of broken branches along the line?

I know that some people actually enjoy climbing over and around those piles of cracked branches. I even like some of it myself, when I’m in a certain mood. But Oakley Hall made a good point when he mentioned that it’s a lot of work to read, decipher, and interpret difficult and unfamiliar speech, no matter how authentic and true to a period or location it is. It might be amusing to speak of “ye olde kynges and qweyns” for a line or two, but imagine trying to plow through that for paragraphs and paragraphs and pages and pages. For some readers, there really can be too much of a good thing, especially if it requires them to work really hard just to get through your novel.

Bog

Don’t bog your reader down

Two questions result from this issue. The first is: do you really write a novel so a reader has to work to read it? With some philosophical or modernist novels, that may be exactly why the writers write them, and if that’s the case with your story, that’s cool. You are writing for a very particular audience, and as long as that audience is content to read writing of that nature, you are doing exactly what you should be doing. But that’s not necessarily the audience that most NaNo writers (or even most writers) are aiming for. Most writers are going for a more general audience, and the story itself is somewhat more important than the clever crafting of the narrative itself.

So the second question becomes this: do you really want to write a novel that’s so “authentic” that your reader may simply decide not to do all that work and decides instead to put the story down and search for one that he or she finds more readable? It all comes down to why you’re writing the story you’re writing. If there’s any danger that your reader might find all this “authentic dialogue” just too damn authentic to deal with, you may unfortunately need to give up on all that authenticity.

Just a sprinkling

WordsSo what does that mean, then? You give up on trying to make your characters sound like they really belong in the era you’re writing in, and instead, you make them talk exactly like we do?

Yes and, actually, no. What Mr. Hall suggests is that you do use a bit of authentic language, at least at first. Don’t use too much, but sprinkle just enough words and idioms from that era into your dialogue that you create the atmosphere of the era you’re writing in. That will establish that atmosphere in your readers’ minds, and everything they read after that will be read with that atmosphere as a backdrop. Your readers themselves will supply the “authenticity.” But they’ll keep reading too.

Rather than saying, “I prithee, fair lady, attend to my speech,” you might say, “I pray thee, fair lady, to listen to what I have to say.” That sort of thing. And as you continue writing the dialogue, throw in a few “authentic” words or phrasings along the way, just a very light sprinkling here and there, rather than pouring out a thick, unreadable soup of them. You will maintain the exact atmosphere you’re looking for, but you will also keep your readers with you and save them from having to wrestle and struggle with your text.

And of course, while you’re doing that “sprinkling,” be sure not to use any modern-day words that are not part of standard English language. If your characters live in some kind of medieval era, I can guarantee that your authentic atmosphere will be totally shot if any of your characters ever says “duuude!”

WRITE HOW THEY ACTUALLY TALK

This is my own particular secret, and I realize that it may simply not be as straightforward to others as it feels to me. The reason I seem to be able to write genuine and real-sounding dialogue is that I don’t actually think of it as “dialogue” at all. I never “work on dialogue,” as some writers describe it. And I wonder if perhaps that’s not the key to things. It seems to work in my own stories, anyway.

What happens is that I live quite a bit in the minds of my characters. While I’m contemplating the story, even if I’ve only just thought of a scene for tomorrow and I’m mulling it over the evening before, I have usually lived through that scene several times by the time I actually write it. And if it’s spur of the moment, I still usually know at least my main characters well enough that I know perfectly well how they would react and what they would say in certain situations or if they were experiencing certain emotions.

Minds

Be in your characters’ minds

So I just write down what they would say, and I write it down the way they would say it if they were real people. I’ve never really been able to understand when someone writes kind of stilted or unnatural dialogue. (And don’t worry; my apologies if that sounds like a criticism of anybody who has a hard time writing dialogue. This is just my own mind and how it works.) To me, it’s pretty glaringly obvious when someone is talking the way a real human being wouldn’t talk. What I do is just imagine how real people would be saying these things to each other in an actual situation, and I kind of transcribe the conversation. I never feel like I’ve actually “created” or even “written” a conversation; what it feels like is that I’ve sort of eavesdropped and recorded the conversation, and now I’m jotting down what I heard. Or else, being in my characters’ minds, I’m having the actual conversation myself. With myself as each character in turn.

If you know what your character needs to express, try to imagine how you would say it if you were her or him. If you were in a really emotional situation, would you stutter as you tried to get the important words out? What if you had to admit something that was excruciatingly embarrassing? You’d probably stumble over your words then, too, wouldn’t you? And I bet you’d say “um” a few times, while you tried to get up your nerve to keep going. (Except, of course—don’t throw in too many “ums.” They can grate on a reader’s nerves as much as a bunch of “prithees.” Again, there is such a thing as a bit too much “authenticity.” Throw in one “um” in a sentence and perhaps another one two paragraphs later, and after that, let the character’s body language continue conveying the embarrassment. The reader will supply all the “ums” where they’re needed, after that.)

I’m probably repeating this rather too often, but the basic trick, for me, anyway, is to write like people actually talk. If “the way people talk” is not something you’ve ever actually thought about, so you feel kind of lost and aren’t sure you can imagine it, just start listening to people for a while. Not in the sense of eavesdropping around corners or listening in on private conversations. Just hear the way people say things when they talk to you or around you. Where do they hesitate? How does it sound when they are rushing their words? How does their language and attitude change when they are speaking more intimately or more formally?

Here’s a week experiment. Of the two following choices, which statement do you think sounds most like something you would say, 1) “Please excuse me, but I have a most urgent message that Chris requested me to convey” or 2) “Hey, Chris really wanted me to tell you this”? You’d probably pick the second one, wouldn’t you? Doesn’t that sound a lot like something a real person would say? The first version sounds very stilted and stiff. It’s kind of textbook English, but few people would be likely to talk that way.

Meanwhile, if you (or a character) were in a somewhat more formal situation, you still probably wouldn’t pick the first choice. Instead, you’d probably say something more like, 3) “I’m sorry to interrupt, but Chris really hoped I could tell you this. He seemed to think it was important.” That’s a little less casual than the second choice, and it conveys some deference and a tone of formality, but it’s nowhere near as stiff as the first one.

How should you write dialogue? I could say “I don’t know,” and it wouldn’t help you much. Yet all I can really suggest is that you write things down the way a real person would say them, either to a casual friend or to a boss or a parent. And for gods’ sake, don’t make your reader swim through an ocean of “authentic language” that will get him or her concentrating on trying to decipher and grasp it. It’s your story you want the person to read, so do not let your dialogue get in the way of that.

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Writing with the senses

There is one piece of advice that I give to a lot of writers who want to enrich the narrative they produce when they write. I call it, “Writing with the senses.” This is especially useful for people like me, who have difficulty writing descriptions of people’s surroundings and to some degree, even of the people and their actions themselves.

Hut

How do you create such a scene in your readers’ minds?

Here’s how it works. You write your basic description of a particular scene, and then you go back over it five times, once for each of the five senses, looking for things related to those senses that can be added to make the scene more real. It can be a lot of work—and when I did this for a few stories, I finally realized why many writers talk about how much work it is to get a story right—but when you read the results, you will be astounded at how much richer and more vivid those scenes are.

I’ll use an example of a fanfic I wrote for the first anime series of Fullmetal Alchemist. It involved a complete (but ancient and utterly empty) city that was discovered in a gigantic underground cavern. It had some buildings on the flat surface at the bottom of the bowl of the cavern, but the streets and buildings also climbed quite high up the curve of the bowl. I had several characters walking through it, exploring it to see how intact the buildings are and how the streets were laid out.

HEARING

EarI had written the basic scene, but I went back and asked myself, “What would the characters hear as they walked around in that dead, empty city in the cavern?” You might think, “Well, nothing. On to the next step.” But that’s not true at all. In fact, in a place that empty, even if there were none of the usual sounds of a city, even the tiniest sounds would be magnified.

So no, the characters did not hear even the small sounds you might have expected from little animals moving around in the place. This was in fact an indicator of how dead the place was. But the main character, standing in the central square by himself and turning and turning, looking around and up at the streets rising all around him—his leather boots made the slightest squeak as he turned. A character farther up the side of the bowl grew uncomfortable at the sound of his own soft footfalls and the rasp of his own breathing. And when he came farther down, even though he was still some distance away, he could hear what two other characters were saying to each other, even though they were speaking very quietly.

And in between these things was the heavy, endless hush of a city that had no other life in it.

TOUCH

HandYou might think that there wasn’t really much to touch in a situation like that dead city in the cavern, but this situation illustrates just how real you can make your scene. The character who walked up higher in the city had to undo his collar because the place was warmer than he expected (there’s an issue of feeling with the skin, right?), and the collar began to rub his throat uncomfortably. He found a tiny patch of fenced-in dirt that was once obviously a little park, and there was even a park bench still there. But as he touched it, the ancient wood crumbled under his fingers and he felt it turn to dust that collapsed into a heap under his hand.

He also touched the stone wall of a building, feeling it solid and firm and still whole, despite how everything made of less strong material had dried out and either turned to dust already or was about to turn to dust at the least touch.

Ask yourself what your character’s skin would feel like. Would it feel dampness? Heat? If your character ran a hand along a fence as she walked, how would you describe the feel of the fenceposts under her fingers?

SMELL

SmellThis was a hard one, but this is the sort of situation where you really get to put yourself right in the scene and use your imagination. Just what would you smell in a place like that? Anything? Nothing?

Think about it. This is a city that has been sealed away and eerily preserved in an underground cavern for several hundred years. Nothing has turned moldy; anything organic has long since died and turned to dust. Doesn’t that remind you of places like the ancient Egyptian tombs? If things that are not made of stone (or the occasional bit of metal) are crumbling and turning to dust, that means the place is dry.

And if it’s dry, might there be a faint, almost acrid smell? Not a strong smell, because of how dead everything is, but it would probably be there, barely underlying everything else. A dry, acrid smell where even the air you breathe feels utterly sterile in your mouth and lungs.

And speaking of lungs, one of my characters, the one who was eavesdropping, stood some distance away and had a cigarette. One thing that had alerted people to the cavern in the first place was that someone had burst through its roof, creating a small hole through which both the sun and some fresh air were starting to come through.

This meant that there was now just enough movement of air that the two speakers this character was eavesdropping on became aware of him—because the slight movement of air wafted the slight tobacco aroma toward them despite his being hidden.

TASTE

TasteI’ve left this one almost to the last, because this is often going to be the sense that you think you can’t possibly add to the scene. I mean, it’s not as though all of your characters are going around sticking objects into their mouths, you know, unless most of your characters are babies or toddlers. And unless your characters are either very weird or perhaps somewhat kinky, they also are not going to go up to every object in the vicinity and lick it.

So are you stuck only being able to write about this sense when you place your characters in a scene where they’re eating lunch, attending a banquet, or, at the very least, quaffing a tasty, satisfying beverage. Not necessarily. It is surprising how much you might be able to use taste in scenes in which you thought it could contribute nothing.

Take my story about the cavern. Sure, I had one chapter in which two characters met at a restaurant and shared a really tasty lunch, and later on, all of my characters attended a banquet. I had a wonderful time describing the food (and I took great care about what they ordered, and I read quite a bit about the ingredients, so I could describe the sensation of those tastes in the characters’  mouths). But what about when some of the characters were in the cavern itself? Nothing to taste there, right?

Oh, really? If the air is so dry and acrid, maybe there is the faintest dusty taste when a character breathes. Or a sterile, almost metallic, sharp taste as the atmosphere of the place descends and begins to affect the characters’ sensations. And that character having a clandestine cigarette while he was eavesdropping? He could certainly taste the hot smoke as it passed through his mouth.

You’d be surprised what you can add to a scene, even if it involves very tiny sensations, when you ask the question, “What sort of things might a character begin to taste in this situation?” Sometimes, it might really be nothing much. But there may be faint tastes that would be associated only with that particular situation (like that sharp, dry air that seemed to suck the moisture out of everything), and you can let the reader feel like she’s almost there, just by making brief a mention of that taste.

SIGHT

EyeI left this one to the very last, almost for the opposite reason that I left the previous sense: you might feel like sight is actually the easiest one of the senses to deal with when you’re writing descriptions. After all, that’s what most people think of when they think of writing a description. What does the location, the scene, the surrounding area, the setting for the next act in the story look like? Where are the characters situated? What is to the left and right? What do they see when they enter the room? What are they wearing, and what are their facial features? All of that type of description is what people see when they are in the scene.

And of course, that is all true. I’ve already written about ways of working some descriptions into the action. The purpose there is so you don’t have a big, heavy block of descriptive text sitting there like a lump of dinner your readers have to digest and allow to diminish before they can go on to the action again. So you might be worrying that I’m now suggesting adding all that description back in, in a big block, in the name of writing according to this one of the five senses.

Not necessarily. You can work much of the visual detail into the action itself, to make it less heavy and an organic part of keeping the story moving. But it’s what sort of visual detail you include that is addressed by this fifth extra pass through the text you’ve already written. Here’s where you can add smaller details or more details about something you have thus far only covered broadly. In my city-in-a-cavern scene, I had a shaft of sunlight coming down into one part of the city through the gaping hole in the roof. But it wasn’t that the sun was shining into the cavern; it was slanting into the cavern (remember how that crack snaked across the wall?), thick with tiny dust motes that seemed to sparkle like fireflies and create an illusion of life in this dead city. I could have just written about the slanting shaft of sunlight, and that would have been sufficient. But those sparkling dust motes added something that actually accentuated just how lifeless the ancient city really was. Not a big visual detail, but a really helpful, vivid detail.

You don’t have to describe every tiny detail of every single thing you see in a scene. Marcel Proust might get away with that, but if you do it, your readers will abandon your story by the second paragraph. But you can add some extra details to your description of the visuals, and if you pick the right details, they can really enrich and add to the living, breathing story you create.

Landscape

Use the five senses to bring your scenes vividly to life

The same applies to writing with the other four senses. Go over your scene five times, concentrating on only one of the senses and looking for small details you might add that accentuate something important or just make the scene more real and vivid. It does add time and work—and maybe this really isn’t something you want to do during the NaNo but can do when you’re back to writing at your normal pace. But when you do this work in your story, you will be thrilled at the rich story that results.

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More on the non-novel side of things

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed the nonfiction type of NaNo project. It’s one of the more unorthodox types of NaNo, but if that’s what you’re writing, you are not alone in your “rebellion.” In fact, that’s what these unorthodox NaNo writers have been nicknamed in the forums of the official site: “NaNo Rebels.” That has a nice sort of ring to it, doesn’t it? Let’s have a look at some of the different approaches to doing the NaNo.

STRAIGHT NONFICTION

Academics

Doing some academic writing?

This one is already familiar to those reading this blog. It’s the NaNo that is written strictly as nonfiction, where you’re working on a report or some kind of description perhaps of an academic topic. Or you could just have decided that you didn’t know enough about anteaters, so you were going to research them and simply condense the information you’d gotten into a nice lengthy paper about them.

We’ve talked about trying to do some of your research in advance as well as doing a little bit about organization. As a further note on organization, remember that another approach is to try to establish your chapter topics before you begin. If you start organizing your information into chapter topics ahead of time, it may help you begin to see the logical progression of the information. If you’re writing about cats, for example (which would be my first choice of topic), you may notice that your information falls into three or four main sections: breeds and types of cats and where to get one; proper feeding, exercise, and care; and characteristics of a cat that make it a great pet, including a section on great cat stories. Then you can break your information down into smaller topical sections within each larger one, and you’ve got the basic outline of your chapters and the places in which you will do your actual writing. Then add an introduction (why does this matter to begin with?) and a conclusion (what are the implications of everything you’ve written?), and there is the skeleton of your nonfiction NaNo.

This type of project will probably involve a fair bit of research, unless you know your topic quite deeply and thoroughly. You may spend more time researching than you actually do writing, in fact. This is why it’s advisable to get the main body of your research done and noted before November.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

business graphics, as though in a comic book

What kind of graphic novel is this supposed to be??

This was a category I had never even considered, since I’ve always thought of NaNoWriMo in terms of word count as well as narrative. If you want to be a “NaNo Rebel,” you probably can’t get more “rebellious” than this category.

But of course, even graphic novels generally have words (though not always). These types of novels are conceived in different ways (some, I’m sure, that I don’t know about). Some people create a basic storyboard with a few thumbnail drawings that sum up or remind them of where they want their story to be by a certain point in the timeline or page count. Other graphic novel creators actually write out a complete script first, which I presume includes not only the dialogue within the story itself but perhaps also an outline or description of what the important scenes should be and what they will look like. (I imagine that some of them could almost read like the script of a play, while others may look more like an outline.)

If you’re doing a script, of course, that may involve you in word count again. Depending on how long your story is going to be, the script itself may add up to fifty thousand words by the time you’re done. Some graphic NaNoers are therefore doing more or less the same thing that their novella-writing fellows are doing: writing a story with words. Their words, though, may also include words that talk about the final story without being words that will actually appear in the story once it’s drawn.

Other graphic NaNoers are taking into account the amount of work that goes into creating a single page of their story and are aiming for a certain page count per day instead of a word count. So depending on the size of a page, you might aim for two pages in one day, including all the graphic panels plus any text that appears in them. The work of drawing a page can easily be considered the equivalent to the work of writing a certain number of words in a novel. There will be no way to “verify” such a project using the official NaNo site’s verification process, which is based entirely on text, so unfortunately, you won’t get the usual “Winner” badges and banners and special deals on writing programs.

A graphic novel “rebel” must be prepared just to be rewarded with the knowledge that he or she completed the project that was planned for the NaNo. But then, they’re already rebels, so I’d say they’re prepared, all right.

MEMOIR AND HISTORY

Aquaduct

Want to write about history?

These types of NaNo project straddle the two worlds of fiction and nonfiction. That is, they are essentially nonfiction, but they are telling a story. Writing history will certainly involve as much research as any nonfiction project, and unless you’re writing your autobiography, a memoir will also require you to research your subject well enough to write accurately about them.

Many NaNo memoir writers are writing either their own personal histories (some major events that happened to them) or are writing histories of their families. Often, the latter histories involve how the family first immigrated to North America from Greece or Brazil or South Africa or Vietnam, or whatever. Sometimes, although the immigration is described, these stories involve going back to visit the “old country” and discovering certain roots there—whether that involves distant family members who have never been met before or going back to the scene of some major event that provided the impetus to leave.

Some use the writing of their personal histories as a way of working out their grief or making sense of a tragedy. Some have just lived a really interesting life and would like to get it down in words, perhaps to leave to their children.

History proper usually involves writing about larger events in the world, either writing a sequence of cause-and-effect events in the life of a country or a smaller locality or perhaps writing an in-depth examination of one major event. An example of the first would be a brief history of the reign of the Plantagenets in England. An example of the second would be, say, a look at the most recent election in Canada.

POETRY

Book of poetry with a rose inserted

Write some poetry

Why didn’t we think of this before? 🙂

Of course, I’m sure that many have thought of this type of NaNo from the very beginning; it’s not their fault that my own imagination was limited because I’m not a poetry writer. I suspect that I never thought of poetry because I would have been thinking in terms of writing fifty thousand words of poetry in the month and 1,667 poetic words in a single day. And frankly, I’m not even sure that anyone other than Homer would have been able to accomplish that.

But from what I’ve seen as I’ve peeked at the poetry thread in the NaNo forum is that the people who are doing poetry for the NaNo have a less limited view of things than I do. Some simply talk about doing one poem per day. Remember that a really good poem requires a great deal of thought and work; it’s not something that you just dash off in a few words, like a few simple rhymes that are essentially nursery rhyme types of poems or Hallmark poems. Serious poetry involves thinking carefully about the play and sound and rhythm of words as well as the picture they are creating. Some of my friends who are poets can wrestle for an hour with a single line.

So just like the drawing work on a graphic novel, the writing of poetry can easily involve just as much labor in a single day as any of the work that goes into writing 1600+ words that day.

OTHER NON-STORY NANO TYPES

There are all sorts of other options for writing a non-story NaNo. Again just glancing down the list of topics in the forums at the NaNo site, we see things like journaling or blogging or even the world-building for the later writing of an actual novel. Journaling gets close to the “memoir” type of category, though it’s more like a daily diary than outright memoir. Blogging, well, here I am, doing a blog myself.

Futuristic science fiction buildings

Do some world-building

Interestingly, a lot of people have talked about doing a travel blog, recounting many of their experiences in going to other places in the world. And of course, they’ve undoubtedly got a lot of pictures to include in the blog as well. Pictures are another thing around which people’s ideas pivot and differ, though. Some seem to be counting the insertion of photos as the equivalent of inserting a certain number of words, while others are viewing the photos as extra accessories that don’t really get to be considered as part of the word count. (The latter would be me. I doubt I’d feel differently even if the photos I’m using were originally my own photographs rather than [for the most part] pictures I’m finding on Pixabay.com.)

Others are writing out the details of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Doesn’t that sound cool? That is actually a sort of subsection of general world-building, which others are doing. World-building is an interesting case. So maybe you want to write a novel, but you don’t actually want to try to cram it into thirty days, and you don’t want to write just la part of it in that time and feel yourself under the pressure to produce. You can still get ready to write it later, more thoroughly and at your own pace. But if, say, it’s a fantasy world and you need to get some information settled about the various countries in your world or the laws and practices of magic or the types of creatures that exist in the world—what better time to do it than during this month? You can still build up the required word count, but while it’s contributing to your eventual work on your novel, it’s not putting you in the position of perhaps writing the novel too sloppy a way. You can be less picky about how you put the words together when you are just writing a history of your countries or describing creatures.

And then there’s the sort of project I did last year, writing encyclopedia entries for an anime world. If you feel rather limited by the idea of “just” writing a story (and don’t feel that the challenge of the constraints of NaNoWriMo justify trying to write one), you can be a “rebel” if you want to try something else. Poetry, history, academic writing, journaling, and even graphic novels—you can join with the whole NaNoWriMo crowd and do a nonfiction, non-story, or non-text type of NaNo.

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Got a problem? Talk to someone!

Have you suddenly noticed a big plot hole that you don’t yet know how you’re going to fill? Have you realized that your main character is deadly flat, and you’re not sure how—or if—you can fix the problem? Do you need some quick information on, say, how you’d destroy a gigantic killer robot, because you have to get rid of that sucker within the next two days or your whole story falls behind?

Plot hole

You need to talk to somebody—and fast! I’ve talked before about how you can get help of this nature by talking to friends, being part of some group whose members are all doing the NaNo together (or who are at least cheering on the people who are), or signing up at the official NaNoWriMo site and visiting the discussion forums with your problem. So I thought I’d take a quick cruise through the official forums and give you an idea what sorts of help people are getting.

PLOT PROBLEMS

Statue of AthenaSay you need to establish that your main character isn’t alone in the world but has some family. So you write a couple of scenes in which a family member appears—yet those scenes contribute nothing at all to the plot. Do you really have to choose between 1) including useless scenes just to show that there is family and 2) letting the reader think your character sprang full-grown and solitary from the head of Zeus? Is this really an either/or situation?

Not necessarily. If you pose that question at the NaNo forums, someone’s going to respond with possible ways around the issue. Is there any way to make those “useless” scenes somehow contribute to the plot? What if the family member who appears for a page or two just happens to casually mention something she saw on the news or something her coworkers were talking about on a break, and that tidbit of information is the last piece of the puzzle your main character was wrestling with? Or what if the family member says that a stranger asked him to deliver an object to your main character, and it turns the whole plot around? (And then you’d have to find out who the stranger was, and you might involve the “extra” family member in that search, making his scene less “useless” than you thought it was.)

Or say you needed a way to smuggle something into a building, but you’ve got some extra vigilant security guards at the loading dock, one of whom actually suspects that something is going on? How do you get that character into the building unscathed and without creating a big uproar, even if that second security guard tries to take some action? There isn’t supposed to be any alarm raised either. How do you do it? I don’t know what I’d suggest, myself, but other helpful NaNo writers and moderators are sure to come in and make suggestions.

There are NaNo writers in the forums asking questions about soap opera plots. Or pirate politics. (Let me say that again: Pirate. Politics. Just trying to figure out what that might involve would be a story in itself!)

fairy with a wand, surrounded by flames

Even magic has to follow the rules

There are, of course, the obligatory fantasy plots where you really need to figure out how to solve a problem with magic, but you also need to keep the magic consistent with the magical laws of that world. And yes, there had better be laws and things you can and especially things you can’t do with magic, not even because it will get you out of a fix. If you’ve never heard of the phrase, “deus ex machina,” now would be a very good time to look it up. (Just as an aside, my younger brother and I went through this sort of exercise together, many years ago. We were both writing fantasy stories, and we would read them to each other. And then we’d pick apart the magic, showing each other where something seemed to contradict a rule that was previously established, or where something suddenly appeared and became important that had never even been mentioned before. Both of us made our magical worlds consistent and plausible as a result of these sessions, and our stories were very much the better for doing this. So as I’ve said before, as long as you can brainstorm with someone, it’s going to help you get out of sticky problems.)

Back to the forums, though, and the plot issues. One thing I’ve seen in plot discussions as well is where someone comes in and says, “I’ve got these various elements floating in my head, but they aren’t pointed in any direction.” And they list elements such as a mysterious object, a demon-conjurer, three little scenes that don’t seem connected, a woman who can’t remove her silver bracelet without dire consequences, and a dog. And a couple of other people come in and say, “This suggests this sort of plot to me” or “I see a character facing this particular type of situation” or “Add a magic quill in a wall safe in a tycoon’s office, and you’ve got a plot that goes like this…”

Remember that people who are standing outside the situation might see patterns that you are oblivious to. Or they have imaginations that run along quite different lines, so two objects might suggest something to them that might never have occurred to you. It’s a good thing to ask for help if you have a plot that you just don’t know what to do with. There are many people out there with brilliant suggestions, and you can just take your pick and run with it.

CHARACTER PROBLEMS

Character

Who is your character?

This is another really tough one, and I think I’m going to go even further into characters in a later post. But this is another place where the official NaNo forums really shine. For example, you can get opinions on how many characters you should really have. Or you can ask for advice on how to write specific types of characters. If you are male, can you write plausible female characters? And vice versa?

Some writers aren’t even sure whether they need an antagonist for their main character. Is that absolutely necessary? If you were to ask that question, you would likely get people asking questions about the type of story you wanted to write; the direction you wanted to take your story might perhaps determine the types of characters you should have. For example, if you didn’t want an antagonist, as such, should the story even have conflict? What if, instead, you created a story where there was a struggle, but it was not so much a “conflict” as it was an attempt to reach a difficult goal? In that case, the “antagonists” might be more along the lines of the obstacles to the goal rather than people or a person resisting and working against your main character.

You might need advice on how to make a seemingly bad character be likable to your readers. Or you may even be finding that a character who is supposed to be liked is turning out to be quite detestable. I had a queen like this in a story once. She was supposed to be the main character’s love interest, but the more she acted in the world, the more dislikable she was. I was eventually able to turn his marriage to her into a kind of tragedy for both of them, with all sorts of consequences that actually made a very good story, even if it had a sadder ending than I had planned. But this was after I had tried to reform the young woman to make her more likable, and it just didn’t work.

HelpPeople you ask for advice might be able to suggest ways of writing a character that can change the direction they seem to be going. So you might be able to salvage that character and take them in the direction you originally wanted them to go after all. Or, like my queen, who just got worse and worse no matter what I did, your character may be unsalvageable. But as people make suggestions, you might find that this is kind of a godsend, because it makes you take your story in a new direction. With some help, you might discover a whole new subplot or an even richer main plot, despite your character refusing to be fixed.

What if your main character dies unexpectedly, and it’s a surprise even to you? It’s an understatement to say that that’s sure going to affect your plot. So what do you do? First off, you run to your cheering section or your fellow writers or the “Character Café” forum on the official NaNo site and yell, “Help! My main character just died, and it’s November 14! What the heck am I supposed to do now??”

And into the fray leap several of your fellow writers or some of the NaNo moderators, and a discussion ensues about how you need to handle the plot from hereon in. Perhaps you will need to use flashbacks now to keep your main character as part of the story, at least until the end. Perhaps the role of the main character must now be passed, like a relay torch, to someone who’s been playing second fiddle to the main character up to this point in the story. Or perhaps—and you knew this had to be one of the possible options—perhaps your main character isn’t “really” dead after all. And if that’s the case, how are you going to work the plot so that this person can eventually—and plausibly—come back again? Was this death deliberately staged for the main character’s secret purpose? Or are you writing a story in a world where resurrection is possible. Or—again an inevitable question—is this a world where your character might return as one of the undead?

TalkYou might just want help with making your characters more realistic. Some people are great at writing scenery or developing a plot, but they are lousy at writing plausible characters. Other people can craft characters so real and plausible and lifelike that they feel like they’re going to leap off the page, but they can’t think of anything for these characters to do that would constitute a plot.

Don’t try to go this alone. If you don’t do it on the official NaNo forums, then talk to somebody, at least. You don’t need reminding, but I’ll do it anyway: you’ve got just thirty days to get this all completed. So if you have a major plot problem or character problem, you need to get these issues sorted as quickly as possible. Don’t be afraid of the NaNo forums; they are full of experts, fellow writers, and people with rich imaginations that can help to supplement your own. And if you see someone else with their own plot or character problems, you might be able to help them too.

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