Category Archives: Believability

April: Grammar and Punctuation

Welcome to April.

We’ve talked a lot on this site about the art of writing.  We’ve covered characters, we’ve covered plot, we’ve covered setting and theme.  All of the big, large-scale things that make a good story great, and all of the artistic touches we, as artists, put into our work.

But this month isn’t about any of that.  This month, we’re getting really down to the nitty-gritty.  Watch as our members seize upon their favorite piece of grammar, and expound upon the proper and improper uses of that rule.  We’ve got Guy Anthony De Marco going on a tear about prepositional phrases.  Quincy Allen is going to talk to us about the importance of diagramming every sentence you write in detail.  I, personally, will be dealing with my trials and tribulations with the nefarious semicolon.  Greg Little has an eye-opening piece on all of the wonderful things he does with conjunctions.  And we’re going to end this month with a fight to the death between Nathan Barra and Kristin Luna over the Oxford comma–I’ll let you figure out who’s taking what side on that one.

So stay tuned, because this month is going to get past the art of writing into the true, deep, mechanics of the thing.  And at the end of the day, if you manage to stick with it, you’re going to be amazed at what you’ve learned.



If you’ve made it this far, you probably realize what day it is.

That’s right; April Fool’s.

No, I didn’t intentionally sign us up for a whole month of grammar and punctuation.  Yes, those things are pretty important, but I’m not about to make my first month picking a topic that boring.  (I await the swarm of e-mails disappointed that this actually wasn’t the topic).

No, instead our theme for April is much more insidious.  Our theme is the April of Fooling People.

See, it’s our job, as fiction writers to lie to the reader.  Any time we write that something “happened,” it didn’t.  That’s the fun of writing fiction; it’s all a lie.  But the trick is in being good at lying to people.

And, what’s more, having one’s characters be good at it is an art in itself.

So, this month will be a month devoted to the art of deception.  How to pull off a twist ending, unreliable narrators, scoundrels, and sleight of hand will all feature in the posts you see over the next month.  So buckle up, folks, because sorting out what’s actually true over the next month is going to become a real issue as the Fictorians begin the April of Fooling People.

Do It Again With Feeling

As an actor those are words you never want to hear because it means you’re not doing your job, you’re not performing the scene with enough emotion to make it feel real to the audience. As a writer we’re susceptible to the same mistake. Except it’s not necessarily our characters that might not feel real. It can just as easily be the conflict itself.

I realize that it may sound strange for a story’s conflict to be the thing that makes it real and interesting. It’s the reason we turn the page. We have to know if Harry Potter defeats the villain of the month! But if the conflict itself is only half of the equation. The other half — the half that makes it feel real and creates the tension — is how the conflict affects the characters internally.

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction is just as true in physics as it is in fiction. In a fight scene, when the villain throws a punch at the hero, if the hero doesn’t react, either by dodging or being knocked back by the blow when it connects, it’s not believable. Likewise if the young heartthrob dumps the heroine for no good reason. If the heroine doesn’t run away crying or punches them in the face (my personal favorite) then the whole scene falls flat. Without the reaction it’s like it didn’t happen at all. And the reaction doesn’t have to be physical. I’ll use the same examples again to illustrate what I mean. When the not-so-happy couple breaks up, their emotional reaction is just as important as the physical one that follows. Is the heroine angry? Is she in disbelief? Is her heart broken? Is the heartthrob sad? Are they defensive? Impatient? In shock that they’re about to get punched? It’s the same thing in the fight scene. Is combatant A frightened of their opponent or are they confident that they’ll win?

All of this detail isn’t just to fill out the scene and make it breathe. It also increases the tension in your story. All of that description and reaction takes time and that’s time in a critical moment of the story where your readers are waiting for big punch. All the while you’re bringing them deeper into the character’s mind. That punch isn’t being thrown at a stranger, it’s being thrown at them.

It continually amazes me how adding depth can solve so many problems at once. I almost want to call it the Swiss Army knife of writing. Granted, like any tool it helps having some experience using it. I mean you can’t cut cheese with a corkscrew…though it would be fun to watch someone try. Adding the wrong emotion or reaction will do more damage then good. But avoiding that pitfall is a subject for another day.

The Truth About Dark Fiction

The truth about dark fiction is very simple. It’s all about us.

I’ve always thought of myself, as a science fiction writer, clearly on the side of optimism versus doom and dystopia. As a kid, I was certainly a fan of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and their themes of human conflict, but I remember watching Star Trek with a different set of eyes. I only really appreciated Star Wars after traveling halfway around the world during high school. Star Trek pulled me in because it portrayed our current terribly flawed and imperfect society at its absolute theoretical pinnacle in the very near future. Even with the latest movies, in the alternate “Kelvin” timeline, that future world is a darker place than before, but that relentless optimism is there. If you look across the plethora of recent popular books and movies, there is a very strong lean towards darkness and dystopia. Why is that?

It’s very simple. We see the worst of the world every night when we turn on the news. Even the newscasts that end with that thirty-second “water skiing squirrel-type” video are full of dark, depressing themes. It’s no wonder that it calls to us as writers. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dystopias are easy to imagine because all we have to do is turn the creative knobs to eleven or twelve and our worst fears are easy to explore. The truth of dark fiction is very simple. It’s a reflection of our society, and in some cases, how we view our future selves in the worst way possible. And as writers, it’s pretty damned easy to wrap it around us like a blanket.

Let’s be clear, I’m not disrespecting dystopian, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic fiction. Nor am I saying it’s easy to write and build these worlds. I’m discussing something that writers sometimes fail to notice – our own attitudes seep into our writings. When we’re convinced the world is a terrible place, it’s a little easier to write dark fiction. When we’re happy, writing happy subjects is a little easier as well. Our own personal attitudes and emotions often come with us to the keyboard and until we understand it, there’s nothing we can do to mitigate their effects.

How do I mitigate those effects? Music. There are quite a few folks I know who couldn’t imagine listening to music while writing, but it really helps me leave things behind when I sit down to the keyboard. What music? Whatever fits the mood. For my novels, I usually create a playlist while I’m developing the early outline. Sometimes a song really captures the emotional vibe of a scene. Sometimes, I need a song (or three!) to get me into the mood to even look at the book again. Watching the blinking cursor of doom for a little while without music is almost certainly going to send me on a miserable writing time adventure. On those nights (when I do most of my writing), having that go-to playlist helps me put the day behind me and focus on the next 2,000 words I want to write. That focus, and understanding that the way negativity can crawl inside our heads, is critical.

But what about when I want to look into the darkness? Well, because of my own experiences, it’s even easier for me to capture that emotion than listening to music. I’ve blogged on Fictorians before about a life-threatening illness I faced in 2014. As I recovered, my own attitudes were dark and depressed and I wanted desperately to get back to polishing the draft of SLEEPER PROTOCOL, but I couldn’t. Writing just wasn’t a positive experience. Ironically, the two stories I wrote during my recovery were much darker pieces than I’d ever written before. When I need to get dark, remembering that experience and bringing that attitude to my writing is fairly easy. Experience, especially those that are dark and uncomfortable, helps us tap into dark fiction. I’d wager that our happy dreams and goals are equally powerful, but darkness tends to have a greater connection to us because we’ve lived through it or we are living through it at a given time.

But, we have to come up for air. Not everything is wine and roses in the real world, but we can’t let our miserable world drag us down on a daily basis. We have a choice to respond to every emotion, stimulus, and action we face daily. There are times it’s okay to delve into the darkness and craft the story that needs to be written. It’s human nature to explore the abyss, after all. Just don’t sit there staring for too long. The world needs you and your voice up here. Your characters need you. Dark fiction is all about us, but so is optimistic fiction. There’s no balance to it – it’s a continuum. We’re all out there somewhere. If you’re too far down the dark side and feel like you can’t slide back the other direction, please reach out. I’ll be happy to help.

The Difference Between Darkness and Murk

When I was in my sophomore year, we all had to write a short story about whatever we wanted.  Now, I’m not sure what I wrote; the assignment didn’t stick in my head because of what did.

No, the assignment stuck in my head because of what my buddy Jacob did.

See, Jacob went for the most gruesome splatter-based horror story he could.  It was the sort of story you’d expect from a tenth-grader, badly written and dripping in gore.  At one point a series of people got taken out by a snowplow.  Amongst all our friends, it was generally agreed that Jacob had produced a work of pure genius, to rival those of Poe himself.  He got a C-.

That story was so “awesome” to my tenth-grade self that I kept a copy of it.  And while I was in college a couple of years later, I stumbled across it and re-read the stupid thing.  I immediately concluded that “C-” had been generous.  Grammar errors aside, the story structure had less cohesiveness than an average porn movie.  Oh, the bodies were stacked up like cordwood, but that’s all the thing had going for it.  That sanguine veneer covered exactly…nothing.

Now, none of this should come as a surprise to any readers here, save perhaps the fact that I’m talking about a writing assignment from High School at all.  Of course it sucked-we were in the tenth grade.

But every time I sit down to try to write something dark, I remember that stupid story.  I remember how fascinated I was by it, and then how terrible it was.  Those two extreme reactions are interesting and paradoxical enough that they form the core of my thinking about writing dark.  And they’re the reason I rarely do it.

Dark writing is often used as a way to cover up bad writing.  And it should never, ever be.

There’s a lot of posts going on this month about pulpy fun.  And that’s fine, so long as that’s the contract between the reader and the writer.  Reader goes in expecting pulpy fun, reader gets pulpy fun, all is well in the world.  But doing an intentionally pulpy story is one thing; being dark because it’s a substitute for being good is another.

Let’s take this to cinema for a second.  You know why nobody liked Man of Steel?  Because Grimdark Superman isn’t a thing.  Zach Snyder took on the admittedly steep challenge of doing the Big Blue Boy Scout and completely muffed it.  Superman’s a tough character to write specifically because you can’t simply go dark to get a serious edge to your story.  You have to have a purely morally upright hero.  It can be done–and done very, very well–but it pulls that crutch out from underneath you.

Which should only serve to point out that there is a crutch here.

So, writing good dark fiction requires that one be aware of the fact that going dark can be a crutch.  Keep it in your head at all times, because every time you add to the body count there should be a purpose to it.  Every murder, every horrible monster; you need to look at the thing you’re trying to evoke in your reader.  If it’s pulpy, campy fun, then fine; be up front that you’re going to have pulpy, campy fun.  But if you want a really good, dark, horrific story then the first thing you have to do is stop thinking of it as a dark story and just think of it as a story.

Your characters still need to be well-rounded.  They still have to have real emotions, still have to think and be motivated realistically.  If you have a villain–even one whose goal it is to go about gruesomely murdering people, then that villain needs to have reasons for what he or she is doing.  Arguably one of the best horror villains written is Hannibal Lecter, and he’s not great because of his victims.  He’s great because his murders stand out in stark contrast to his erudite intellectualism.  He’s terrifying because we like him.

So, in short; the trick to writing good, dark fiction is to stop thinking of it as dark fiction.  Write your characters.  Give them a full life, and let the readers love them for who they are.  Watching some random, faceless murdered commit atrocities is fun.  Watching a character you love commit atrocities is terrifying.