Tag Archives: Character

And the character ran away with the story (or, my story wandered off track). . .


Hey diddle diddle

the cat and the fiddle

the cow jumped over the moon

the little dog laughed to see such a sport and

the dish ran away with the spoon

Okay, it’s all fun and games when the dish runs away with the spoon, but not so much when it’s your character who’s running off with your story. Or at least what you thought was your story.

As a discovery writer, I tend to have my stories overtaken by events. I’ve had a character yell at me that while he could be a cold blooded killer, there was no way he was going to kill that girl for that reason. When he refused, it changed everything. I have to say he was right when I looked at it, but still, what do you do?

Moments like that when my characters talk to me, heck, when they rebel are part of the reason I’m a discovery writer. For the most part, I let them take me for the ride and then see what I ended up with in editing. But sometimes the tangent the characters want to travel down isn’t one they should. Or, as often happens to me, my short story becomes a novella, becomes a novel, becomes a trilogy. Sigh. I’m in the middle of that now with New Bohemia: Just One Night.  When I started that story, it was a short that kept interrupting my ability to work on a novel. So, I figured what the heck, I’ll write the short and get it out of my system. That was months ago. At 60,000 words, the story isn’t so short anymore because I decided I needed to kill off my main character’s parents in a way she’s going to feel responsible for the deaths. The story didn’t derail so much as I added a twist to make my characters’ break-up make sense.

 As I see it, the trick is knowing when the diversion adds to or deepens the story and when it doesn’t. If in Chapter 12, Rafe is suppose to have a have a fight with the love of his life and the relationship is supposed to look like it’s over, but, instead, if Rafe decides to go hunting with the guys and finds a magic sword that happens to be Excalibur, you might have a problem or, at least, be writing a different story than you thought you were.

If you’re an outliner, you probably know almost immediately when your characters stray and can assess whether in the overall plot arc if the diversion is a complication that should stay or navel gazing that needs to be cut. It’s a bit harder for us discovery writers. After all, we often don’t know where the story is going. (Yes, I acknowledge that this is the way to madness for some.) It could be that the first 100 pages is wrong and not the “diversion”. Been there, done that and it stinks.

So, you have a couple of choices when the characters try to run the show.

1. Go with it. Since the characters are only the writer’s unconscious mind, they might be on to something.

2. Assess the detour and see if it’s a path the story should travel. If not, stop or see #5 below.

3. If it’s a main character mutiny, write it and worry about whether it works in rewrite. This is often what I do.

4. If it’s a minor character, cut, paste and save the “new” story for a sequel or related story.

5. Cut, paste and save in another document, and keep on your plan or outline.

Sometimes when your characters decide to turn left instead of right, you discover wonders. Sometimes it results in the never ending story. The latter isn’t good. You must finish the story. Any story. Every story.

Remember, you need to choose what’s important for your story. If the track your character wanders onto doesn’t advance the story you want to tell, stop, hold a character intervention and get back to the plot line you want. If the path through the forest isn’t well defined, don’t be afraid to leave it and smell the flowers along the way. Just watch out for the big bad wolf, and Hades.

Book Review: Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson & Peter Economy

This book is for you if:
You’re new at plotting and you don’t know where to begin;
You want a concise yet usable refresher course on plotting, character and world building;
You’re revising your novel; and
Especially if you’re a pantster!

Writing Fiction for Dummies is all about making sure your novel has all the right components for success. As author Randy Ingermanson says in his opening notes in Snowflake Pro, a design program for novelists:

Good fiction doesn’t just happen, it is designed. You can do the design work before or after you write your novel. I’ve done it both ways and I’ve found that doing it first is quicker and leads to a better result for me. But you may find that doing your design after you write your novel works better for you. It doesn’t really matter when you do your design work, as long as you do it.

And this book covers all aspects of the writing from finding your target audience, to choosing your creative paradigm, using the principles of powerful plot, editing and getting published. However, it’s not for dummies – it gives credit that the reader is intelligent by succinctly providing information and tips. I like that I don’t have to read an entire book on character or plot or revision and then have to distill the information I need. Plus, the book has great examples to illustrate each point.

These authors are masters in taking you through the steps logically. For example, Part II: Creating Compelling Fiction takes you from building your story world, to creating compelling characters, plot layers and examining theme. Part III gives you the tools to edit and polish your work by analyzing characters, story and scene structure and then editing scenes for content.

Truly, I always thought I was a panster at heart until I realized that I was simply plotting and outlining in my head. Writing fiction for Dummies has given me the tools to put those points on paper. Now my plots are multi layered, my characters are deeper and I don’t have the headache from keeping all that information in my head! I still can’t write a detailed outline – it’s just not me. But, I’m a more organized pantster now who has lots more fun brainstorming the deeper “what if?’ scenarios.

I’ve started a new series and I can’t keep five books worth of information in my head. Chapter 8: Story Line and Three-Act Structure is my starting point for the basics and I brainstorm from there. I planned the big picture first – key points for the beginning, murky middle, climax and ending for each novel. Now I have an idea of plot arc, character arcs, emotional arcs and where each story in the series needs to end. I still have lots of room for random creativity as my characters take me on unexpected turns in their journeys and I can let them do that with confidence because I know I have enough of a plan so that key story elements aren’t derailed. Most importantly, I know that if the novels grow in unexpected ways, I can revise the plan because as our characters evolve, so do we as writers and so must our plan.

Whether you’re writing your first or tenth novel, revising your draft or reviewing, Writing Fiction for Dummies is a resource every writer must have. It’s a quick reference guide filled with checklists and thought provoking questions on critical elements … and I can hardly wait for the revision process because now I know what I’m doing!

Happy writing and revising! It’s always a joy to create!

To learn more about authors Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, visit their sites at:

Book Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

It seems every author has at least one book on writing they feel every other writer needs to read. For me, this one rises head and shoulders above all the others. Larry Brooks‘ often blunt and always brilliant exploration of what he calls the physics of storytelling is game changing.

I actually read two of Larry’s e-books that were wrapped up into his final, polished product known as Story Engineering. They were Story Structure – Demystified, and The Three Dimensions of Character. They can be downloaded separately as PDFs from Larry’s site for only $3 each, but just buy the full Story Engineering book. You won’t regret it.

What makes Story Engineering so brilliant? It’s clear, it’s easily understandable, and it works.

I’ve read several other great books on writing, but never did any of them strike me with such power as this one. The journey toward becoming a professional writer is much like climbing a high mountain. We hit peaks in our journey that only reveal another peak rising behind it, a peak we couldn’t see before. We can get stuck on those smaller peaks, not sure how to proceed or to climb higher.

That was where I found myself when I discovered Larry Brooks’ physics of story telling. I had already completed two manuscripts, but I was stuck. I knew there was a problem with my story, even though it was so much better than anything I’d ever written before. Unfortunately, I couldn’t identify the issue, so I couldn’t fix it.

Then I learned about the underlying structure that needs to exist in any successful story. Larry lays it all out: The four-part structure, which I had heard of before, but with the mission and context of each part clearly explained, and the reasons why the story must shift at specific points to maximize its power. I’ve never found another explanation that so clearly lays it all out in a way that any story can be measured against it.

Some things the book answered for me were:

Why can’t we have the first plot point in chapter 1?
What needs to exist after the first plot point, where the hero learns his true mission, the stakes involved, and what force of opposition stands in the way?
What needs to happen at each of the other major milestones of the story to maximize its power?
How do I know if a scene really belongs in the book, and where it should be placed?
And much more.

In his Story Engineering book, Larry adds to the foundational structure, or physics, of a great story, by explaining what he calls the other ‘core competencies’ of writing required to make a story great. These include:

Scene Execution
Writing Voice

If you can’t explain exactly what each of these are, particularly in context to your manuscript, you need this book. As he points out, the first 4 are elements of a great story, the raw material you craft your story with. The final two are the process of execution, where the art meets the physics.

Larry is clearly a proponent of story planning and outlining. I’ve moved in that direction myself and found I can reduce the amount of rewriting substantially. However, for authors who are free-writers or discovery writers or ‘pantsers’, this knowledge is still vital. The early draft(s) for discovery writers are the search for story, just like story planners’ outlines. Only when they know the story they need to write and understand how all these core competencies fit into their story can they finally write a draft that will work.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

Another aspect of craft that Larry explores in his Story Engineering is found in the Three Degrees of Character. I’ve read other great books on character, but again I found Larry’s blunt, clear style incredibly powerful. He drills deep and lays truth bare in a way that authors can use it instantly. Within each of those three degrees of character are seven categories that need to be defined. Once an author understands these, they can be mixed and combined in almost infinite combinations to produce memorable, unique characters.

The three degrees of character are powerful. He explains them as:
1st degree: Surface Affections and Personality – what we show the world externally.
2nd degree: The inner landscape, the reasons why the character chooses to express themselves as they do to the world externally.
3rd degree: The very inner soul of the character, perhaps not known even to them in advance, where they show their true nature under extreme pressure. This is the dimension that ultimately defines character.

For example, if anyone has watched the Firefly SciFi series, the captain of the Serenity is a great example of a complex character.
1st dimension (the face he shows the world): He’s a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense character who will kill without remorse, and engage in illegal activities for a living.
2nd dimension (why): He fought against the empire that rules the galaxy, but his side lost. He does what he does to stay free and gain little victories against an enemy he still hates.
3rd dimension (true character): He will risk his life to save people he could easily justify sacrificing. He’s a man of honor who will risk everything to save those he loves or to fight tyranny. But he’ll punch you out if you say that to his face.

This is powerful stuff, and liberating when an author understands it. I need to review it again since character development is still one of my weaker skills, but the toolchest is there. I just need to train myself to use it.

For any author who really wants to master the toolbox we use to craft great stories, get Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering book and study it carefully. It will open doors of understanding and illuminate the path to the next peak in your writing career.

What Does Your Dialogue Say About Your Characters?

Sometimes life has a way of sitting you down hard, making you take stock and reevaluating what you took for granted. During one of these angsty periods, I found myself rethinking life goals and roles. Then came the hard part – articulating it. Somehow I had to find the words to define my feelings but I also needed the proper ones to express in a meaningful way what I was learning.

That got me thinking about dialogue in fiction and how we use it to convey information about characters like how they truly see the world.

The tendency is to make our protagonists the hero with a few issues who overcomes them and saves the day. As they are the point-of-view character, we learn a lot about how the character sees his world and reacts to it. With good writing, all the senses can be engaged. But, what about dialogue? Good dialogue is a window to a character’s soul. It is an opportunity to reveal, not tell.

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

Who can ever forget that one famous line from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens? Not only does it convey a little boy’s desperation, his starved state and his courage, it also informs us about the society in which he lives. The repetition of that simple phrase first by Oliver, then by Bumble who runs the workhouse and finally by Limbkins, Chairman of the Board of Guardians, firmly places Oliver’s words in our minds thus forcing us to live the horror of the statement from several points of view. This one simple piece of dialogue allows us to see and feel several aspects of a society.

This is followed by an equally simple phrase uttered and repeated: ‘That boy will be hung,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. ‘I know that boy will be hung.’ There are no exclamation marks and no grandiose gestures, yet that simple statement followed by the simple speech tag said leaves us horrified.

There is a tendency to want to make characters appear smart and witty with that great comeback we would have liked to have when we ourselves were in an awkward situation. As writers, we must take care not to be helicopter parents, hovering over our characters, making them experience their lives the way we’d like to if we were them. Helicoptering can lead to sitcom dialogue – flat, witty characters without real depth – with purpose perhaps but not with depth.

Of all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen, my favorite dialogue, all 131 minutes of it, comes from the screen play of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The first time I saw it, I was a kid off the farm in first year university. I was appalled. For over two hours, these characters did nothing but fight. To me, it was simple, ordinary, and all too familiar. How could this movie be critically acclaimed?

Yet, it is the one movie which I remember vividly. That script keeps me spell bound. Using simple dialogue, Albee captures failed marriages perfectly. The characters are vile – definitely not sympathetic – yet I’m riveted to the script. The dialogue is not mannered, not witty – it is ordinary yet perfectly captured. It rolls quickly. It’s fast paced. The reveal, the show, are perfectly executed as demonstrated in this exchange between Martha and George:

M: (swinging around) Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want … so don’t worry about me!|
G: Martha, I gave you the prize years ago… There isn’t an abomination award going that you….
M: I swear … if you existed I’d divorce you….
G: Well, just stay on your feet, that’s all… These people are your guests, you know, and…
M: I can’t even see you… I haven’t been able to see you for years….
G: …. if you pass out, or throw up or something…
M: …. I mean, you’re a blank, a cipher….
G: …. and try to keep your clothes on, too. There aren’t many more sickening sights than you with a couple of drinks in you and your skirt up over your head, you know…
M: …. a zero…
(Script excerpt from: C/file/view/Script+for+Who’s+afraid+of+Virginia+Woolf.pdf)

Take the time to understand not only what motivates your characters, but what their fears, their disappointments, their hopes and aspirations are for that will not only determine their actions and reactions, but it will give them unique and strong voices which will reveal more about them than any well written prose can tell.

Happy Writing!