Character Craft

The Creative Penn is a website with a wealth of helpful stuff that every writer should take a tiptoe through from time to time.  There are articles, podcasts, links, books, downloads, newsletters…well, like I said, a wealth.  If you can’t find something there that’s useful to you, you already know everything.  I wish I was in that boat, but while dog-paddling around in the turbulent waters of wishfulness, I do find a log to cling to here and there.  Logs abound at the Creative Penn.

Here’s a great article from a guest writer who ties a lot of story aspects together while discussing characters.  Some writers focus their stories around character, and some around plot, but neither will get and keep audiences without compelling characters who have believable motivations and interesting conflicts that propel the narrative convincingly.

There are a lot of aspects that some people just don’t think about.  David Griffin Brown is a writer and editor who has a deep understanding of the factors you have to bring into balance within your stories to keep readers’ attention and give them satisfaction.  Give it a look and a ponder or two.

Writing Tips: Creating Memorable Characters

August 2, 2019

When we read, we may love well-plotted books, but what we are connecting with is the people involved in those plots. In other words, the characters. In this post, David Griffin Brown offers five ways to make your characters more compelling.

Fiction editors encounter manuscripts at all stages of development. A typical issue we see in early drafts is where one narrative element is given more attention than another.

For example, with works of historical fiction, it’s common for writers to showcase their research at the expense of plot and character. On the other hand, with a character piece, the plot often drags in the second act. And in high-paced, sharply plotted thrillers, characterization can lag behind plot development.

That being said, most manuscripts will benefit from close attention to character conflict, motivation, and relationships. But first and foremost, it’s important to let your characters act, react, and interact.

Drop hints and clues about personality and underlying emotion, put your characters on a stage, and let your intuitive readers get to know them.

Emotions in exposition

Let’s start with the basics. It’s a maxim that all writers have heard, but many have yet to master:

Show, don’t tell.

Imagine your best friend Jack, with a straight face, tells you: I’m really sad right now. Now imagine Jack doesn’t say anything, but instead bursts into tears the moment he sees you. The second scenario is bound to evoke a stronger emotional reaction.

What if it’s someone else updating you on whatever Jack is going through? The emotional distance in this case is even greater. Of course you still feel for Jack, you are still concerned for his wellbeing, but your personal emotional involvement will be greater when you observe Jack’s sadness through his actions, expression, and body language.

This is a simplification, but the concept is critical to effective characterization. When a narrator states how a character feels, the emotional impact is minimized. Even more, emotions in exposition prevent readers from getting to know the character on their own terms.

You could tell me all about your best friend Jack, but until I meet him myself, I won’t be able to grasp the essence of his energy and personality.

Where fiction meets real life

We come to love and despise people in our lives because we have spent time observing them, interacting with them, and then coming to conclusions about who they are and what motivates them.

The same is true in fiction. When a narrator states who a character is, what they want, and what they think about a particular issue, readers are not able to observe and come to their own conclusions. This means a lost opportunity for readers to bond with the character.

Consider the difference between a scene with a young man up all night studying for an exam versus a statement in exposition that he is very studious and hardworking. The statement can be taken as narrative truth, but it doesn’t get you any closer to the character.

However, when you observe the late-night cramming session, you can imagine yourself in that seat, pouring over those notes. This connects you to the character’s experience.

Always aim to show your characters’ emotions and personality through their actions, interactions, and choices. Let your intuitive readers observe, gather clues, and make their own judgments. Your story’s immersion and sentimental appeal will be all the stronger for it.

Read More…

Grammar Brush-Ups

English is complicated.  I get it.  Punctuation fluctuation, present tense vs. present perfect tense, homonyms vs. synonyms, weird spelling…all that confusion is enough to drive even pillars of the community to drink!  That’s a good excuse for some of us, but sometimes you want to just poke someone in the snoot when they correct your grammar, which is an awfully good reason to not go around correcting people’s grammar.  But, well, sometimes it makes my eyes bleed when I read some of what passes for proper writing out there, and I just can’t help myself.

On the other hand, only the Absolutely Perfect among us don’t have a little grammar bobble from time to time, and, regretfully, I haven’t found myself in that category.  So even I, Grammar Psycho that I am, need to brush up on it a bit from time to time.  Some need much more, as is obvious from a casual stroll through your Facebook feed.

To the rescue: Writer’s Digest has an article that explains TONS of little grammar tripping hazards.  It’s quick and easy, and pretty comprehensive.  And each of those little tips has a link to a more thorough explanation of each area if it’s not obvious from a glance what they’re driving at.  And some of them made me stop and think.  That’s good, at least in this case.

(Feel-Good Bonus:  #44 is grammatically incorrect, probably put in there on purpose so we lesser beings can realize that even the experts flub from time to time.  Even so, I should win a kewpie doll for finding it.  Or should I?  Alternate opinions are welcome!)

Good stuff…dig in!

63 Grammar Rules for Writers

Here are 63 grammar rules for writers to assist them with better writing skills. Each rule includes a quick breakdown and links to a post that goes into more detail with examples. This list will be updated with new rules as we add them to the site.

Robert Lee Brewer
Jun 12, 2020

If you’re anything like me, you have a love-hate relationship with grammar. On one hand, grammar rules are necessary for greater understanding and more effective communication. On the other hand, there are just so many rules (and so many exceptions to the rules). It can be overwhelming.

But fear not! We are here to share a plethora of grammar rules for writers that we’ve tackled over the years. If you have a question, we may have the answer. And if we don’t, be sure to share your question in the comments below.

So let’s dig into these grammar rules together.

Grammar Rules for Writers

63 Grammar Rules for Writers

Below is our list of grammar rules for writers. We give a quick explanation after each bullet point. But click on each link for further understanding and examples of correct usage.

  1. “A” before consonants and “an” before vowels is not the rule. Rather, the rule is that “a” is placed before consonant-sounding words and “an” before vowel-sounding words.
  2. A lot vs. alot vs. allot. “A lot” is either an adverb or pronoun, “allot” is a verb, and “alot” doesn’t exist.
  3. Affect vs. effect. “Affect” is usually used as a verb, while “effect” is usually a noun.
  4. Allude vs. elude. “Allude” means to suggest or hint at something, while “elude” means to evade or escape.
  5. Alright vs. all right. “All right” is a commonly used phrase for okay, while “alright” doesn’t technically exist.
  6. Analogy vs. metaphor vs. simile. A “metaphor” is something, a “simile” is like something, and an “analogy” explains how one thing being like another helps explain them both.
  7. Are subjects joined by “and” singular or plural? It depends on if the subjects are independent of each other.
  8. Awhile vs. a while. If you can swap out the word “while” with “period of time,” then you’re likely dealing with “a while.” If not, then you’re likely dealing with “awhile.”
  9. Bi-annual vs. biennial. “Bi-annual” means twice a year; biennial means once every two years.
  10. Can I use contractions in my writing? While avoiding contractions may be proper, it can also be quite stilted.

Read More…

Donald E. Westlake and Plot Nots

This is not only an interesting article about plot in writing, but it’s also an entertaining read.  Donald E. Westlake was an amazingly prolific writer, and even better, a very successful writer.  That’s mostly because he was a delightful entertainer.  A good point to take, because that’s what all writers really need to be, right?  If you want to sell what you write, it needs to entertain people.

This is an article dug up out of the ancient archives of Writer’s Digest, and even way back in 1959, Westlake was only 26 and wasn’t writing full-time.  He hadn’t even published a book in his own name yet.  But he had been writing for years and had been an editor, and was deeply entrenched in the art.  Here he brings us 36 examples of plots you need to avoid if you’re going to sell your story.  That’s a LOT!  And you can read the list and know that you’ve seen all these stories a lot, and maybe understand why editors don’t want to see the same old, tired stories over and over again.  So this is some incentive to think of new twists and make your stories fresh.  A guy with that much success…well, he most likely knew what he was talking about.

Bonus:  The article also includes Westlake’s 5C Plot Plan!  Good thing to assimilate into your process.

Enjoy the read, and learn the perspective, and success is yours!  Well, let’s hope, anyway!

Vintage WD: 36 Plot Nots: Plot Clichés to Avoid

From our September 1959 issue, beware of these tired clichés that will kill your story’s chance for publication.

By Donald Westlake

No cliche is dead

This morning I received a story in the mail, a story that contained some of the most vivid, incisive, and clever writing I have read in a long, long time. But the story was the oldie about the man who murders his wife, drags her body into the darkened living room, the lights go on and a million relatives stand around shouting, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” The writing was wonderful, but the story wasn’t bought.

As Executive Editor of Mystery Digest and former Assistant Editor at a literary agency, I have spent too many hours a day reading and rejecting well-written stories because they are afflicted with Plot Formula, the “Tired blood” that kills an otherwise competent writer.

Definitions, please. A plot is a planned series of connected events, building through conflict to a crisis and ending in a satisfactory conclusion. A formula is a particular plot which has become stale through over-use.

My 5C Plot Plan

My own working definition of plot is what I call “5C.” First, a character. Anybody at all, from Hemingway’s old man to Salinger’s teenager. Second, conflict. Something for that character to get upset about, and for the reader to get upset about through the character. Third, complications. If the story runs too smoothly, without any trouble for the character, the reader isn’t going to get awfully interested in what’s going on. Fourth, climax. The opposing forces in conflict are brought together. Like the fissionable material in an H-bomb and there’s an explosion. Fifth, conclusion. The result of the explosion is known, the conflict is over, the character has either won or lost, and there are no questions left unanswered.

No matter what the definition, the essential ingredients are always the same, and the result is always plot, not formula. It wasn’t formula when Homer used it in The Odyssey, and it still wasn’t formula when Pasternak used it in Doctor Zhivago.

How to Tell the Trite From the New

A lot of writers, when told they are writing stale, cliché-filled, trite formula, cry, “How can I tell the new from the old” How am I supposed to read every copy of every magazine that was ever published?”

Something like that, yes. The writer should certainly read everything he can possibly find in his own field. It has always been my belief that no writer should expect to write a story for a particular magazine until he knows that magazine just as well as the editor does. And constant reading in your field will soon give you a pretty clear idea of what has already been done.

But here’s a head start: a list of story ideas to stay away from, and its purpose is to help you decide for yourself whether your rejection slips have been the result of poor writing or poor plotting. Included are twelve stale formula ideas from each of three fields, mystery, science fiction, and slick.

The Mystery Field

1. John Smith is sitting in his living room, reading the paper or watching television, and one, two, three, or four hoodlums, who are being hunted by the police, break into the house intending to lie low there until the neighborhood quiets down.

2. John Smith is sitting by the windows, and he watches Joe Doakes murder Jane Plain. The phone is out of order. John is bedridden, confined to a wheel chair, 10 years old, or too drunk to move. The murderer is coming to get rid of the witness.

4. John Smith is sitting in his office and a man from Why-Do-It-Yourself, Inc., comes in and offers to murder his nagging wife for him.

5. John Smith, private eye, walked into his best friend’s apartment to find the friend dead and Lieutenant Joe Doakes from Homicide standing there with a notebook in his hand. “If I get the killer first,” says John, “there won’t be much left for the law.”

6. John Smith, private eye, is sitting in his office when a total stranger staggers in, says, “The green jade – cough, cough,” and drops dead with a kris in his back.

7. John Smith wakes up with a hangover in his head and a smoking gun in his hand. Joe Doakes is lying on the floor, shot to death.

8. John Smith is sitting in the park, feeding the other squirrels, when a beautiful girl runs up, kisses him, and whispers, “Pretend you know me.”

9. John Smith, private eye, is sitting at his desk, when Marshall Bigelow, thimble tycoon, trundles in waving thousand-dollar bills and shouting, “My daughter has disappeared!”

10. John Smith, hen-pecked husband, fortyish, short and stout, meet and mild, has decided to murder his battle-axe, demanding, shrewish, and nagging wife, and he has this plan, see, which is foolproof. Only it isn’t.

11. Johnnie Smith, 16, decides to break with the neighborhood gang, the Golden Dragons, because Becky Thatcher, 15, was to be proud of him.

12. Fourteen people, one of them named Fitz-Warren, are all weekend guests at the mansion of cranky old John Smith. Suddenly, a scream pierces the plot, and the whole entourage runs into the study, to find cranky old John Smith dead at his desk, a kris in his back.

Read more…