Author Archives: Sean Golden

About Sean Golden

After a degree in physics, then a 35 year career in Information Technologies, I am now focused on writing. My first epic fantasy series, "The War Chronicles" is available on Amazon.com.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Story Telling

Writing fiction is, at root, an exercise in attempting to expose some deeper truth about life through a filter of things that never happened, people who never lived, and, sometimes, non-existent places. It is a common joke for fiction authors to say they “lie for a living.” (Well, in my case it would be a lie to say I make a living at it, at least so far, but that’s another story…)

But it is important, especially for new authors, to understand that even within the web of “lies” that an author is spinning into a story, it is generally critically important for the author to never lie to their reader.

Wait, how can I “not lie” if my entire story is a “lie” in the first place?

There is an unspoken contract between the person who is telling the story, and the person who is reading the story. That contract goes something like this: “I know this story is all made up out of whole cloth, but I am still willing to read it, with the expectation that the story will be internally consistent, and that within the context of the story itself, the author will not rely on duplicity to deceive me into believing one thing, only to learn that something else is the case.”

While the story itself is a “lie,” if the author breaks that trust in order to create what they consider to be a “twist,” then the reader will view that not as a mere “lie,” instead that will be seen as a “damn lie” and once a reader encounters a “damn lie” in a story, they may never trust that author again.

Today, aspiring authors are frequently told that their story must have a “twist,” or something unexpected and potentially shocking to the reader. Of course, the easiest way to do that, is to spend the entire story making you believe one thing, only to contradict that thing at the end just to create a “gotcha” moment for the author.

I won’t lie, I hate books that do that.

“But wait!” you might be saying. “Isn’t deceiving the reader the entire point for certain stories?”

In a sense that’s true. But usually those stories aren’t about lying to the reader, they are about creating an impression by allowing readers to make certain assumptions, and then (sometimes, gently, sometimes abruptly) guiding the reader to realize, at some point, that their assumptions were wrong.

But, at that point the reader must be able to smack themselves in the head and say: “Oh, yeah! I get it now, the clues were there all along, and I just didn’t put them together.” Because if they don’t, their reaction will be more like “What the frack!? What the heck is this?”

The clues being there all along, and the reader finally putting them together, is the heart of story telling. That’s why story telling is not a one-way activity. For a good book to really reach and speak to a reader, that reader must put some effort into reading it, figuring out what the author is doing, and putting it all together at the end. And no reader wants to put that effort into something, only to discover that the author just broke the unspoken covenant, just for a quick “gotcha.”

Don’t Split the Party!

Yes, the title of this post is one of the most revered and honored tropes of role-playing games. I can’t even begin to count the number of stories I could tell about the consequences of an adventuring party going their separate ways and being systematically wiped out by frustrated Dungeon Masters whose carefully constructed campaign is being turned into a shambles by players who think it’s a grand idea to have everyone wander off on their own.

But this post isn’t about gaming. It’s about writing. Of course, like all “rules”, this one is frequently violated to great effect in numerous stories from “Lord of the Rings” to “The Avengers.” So as Barbossa would say, this isn’t a “rule” so much as a “guideline.”

But it’s a solid guideline if you want to create a story where readers can experience the rich interplay of characters that is really only possible when the reader has become not only acquainted with individual characters, but has also developed an understanding of the complex dynamics of interpersonal relationships between groups of people.

It is rare for any story to rely on a total focus on one main character. It is incredibly difficult for a writer to keep readers interested in a story like that anyway. So the vast majority of the world’s favorite stories usually have one main focus, but that main focus is surrounded by other characters whose stories weave their own threads around and through the main character’s thread.

In that group of orbiting characters, at least one should be a friend of the main character, not just a flunky, or a tool the main character uses to advance their agenda. Friendships allow the reader to see the main character as a living, breathing person. The more a writer can create a sense of true mutual love and respect between the main character and another character, the more likely readers will be to empathize and sympathize with the protagonist. In most cases we want to root for characters we like, and observing how the protagonist interacts with close friends is the best way for a reader to learn the normally hidden vulnerabilities that make them human and relatable. Sometimes these “friends” are also siblings, but usually not.

Creating close friendships does more than make a protagonist more human. It also gives the author opportunities to use that relationship to bring elements of the story to more compelling climaxes, and to explore emotions to sublime depths. What would the story of Frodo be without Sam? Would we really care as much about Lizzy and Mr. Darcy without Charlotte and Bingley? And Harry Potter would have been far less interesting without Ron and Hermione.

Building relationships like that takes time. It can’t be “told” it has to be “shown” in dozens of little details sprinkled through scene after scene. And that’s not easy to do if you can’t keep the party together long enough to build them.

Developing Tension Over Time

When I think about how to develop tension in a story, I think of the stories I’ve read that create a sense of anticipation in the resolution of a story element. Tension can be raw and primal, like the tension between the great white whale and Captain Ahab, or it can be subtle and somber, like the tension in “Flowers for Algernon.” There are many kinds of tension an author can employ, but for any of them to work, the tension must be compelling. And what makes tension compelling is consequence. When the story element is resolved, the character or characters involved must cross some line, and their lives should be forever altered. For better or worse, there is no turning back.

It is the anticipation of the consequence that drives the tension. If you want to create truly compelling tension, you have to make the consequences clear, and make them matter to the character or characters involved. The more characters involved, and the more severe the consequences, the higher the tension can be driven.

A good story will have multiple, simultaneous narratives, each with its own conflict and tension. Just as plot lines should intersect and diverge, tension also should rise and fall. A story should have a rhythm, a cadence, a variation of pacing that gives the reader a chance to absorb the story and increase the anticipation of the final climax.

Foreshadowing is one way to promote the anticipation necessary to create compelling tension in a story. But if you want to really push your tension to maximum levels, you should have the resolution of minor tension create new and more powerful consequences for the major tension you are developing. Ideally all of the tension should eventually coalesce into the final, dramatic resolution of the major conflict of the story, delivering all the resolution the reader has been hoping for, and tying the entire story together.

That all takes careful planning. It’s harder to do if you are a “seat of the pants” writer, than if you work from firm outlines and stick to them. When I am editing my stories, I look for any opportunity to adjust story elements to weave the plot more tightly. I do the same for tension, tweaking scenes and tying elements together so that every scene contributes something to the major elements of tension, driving the story to the ultimate conclusion where that tension is finally released.

An End to New Beginnings…

I’ve really enjoyed this month’s Fictorians’ posts on new beginnings. As I am typing this, I am sitting in my newly finished basement, in the new house we built in 2016, and am about to head to the Superstars Writing Seminars. I’m also starting a new novel and looking forward to a new year.

Some of the posts I found the most interesting and helpful were those where the author embarked on a new direction after deciding a previous effort was not working out. Taking motivation from rejection, using a new start to rekindle a love of writing, taking a leap into a new genre… All of them were helpful and entertaining.

I hope our readers found them helpful. It was my deliberate desire to provide new writers, or writers who were dealing with difficulties and lack of motivation some encouragement and ideas.

I’d like to thank all of the Fictorians who posted, and would like to especially thank this month’s guest posters. As far as I’m concerned, you all hit it out of the park.

Now, on to Superstars!