Lazy post this week but I wanted to say that the subreddit I usually post in is on Writer’s Digest’s top 101 Best websites for writers!
What is an Elevator pitch? It’s a summary of your story you can tell a person while in a short elevator ride. I usually put the limit on a single line of 15 words. But what goes into those 15 words? It’s pretty simple, the main character(s) and the main conflict. I’m sure some of you are already questioning me on this idea. How can any story be summarized in a single sentence? What about Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, or even longer works? It seems impossible to be able to narrow down a 5000+ page work (the current count of Asoif) to a single sentence. But its not, and doing so helps to focus your story if you’re having trouble finding where to start.
Let’s take A Song of Ice and Fire as the first example. It seems pretty challenging looking at it since there are many different characters (31 PoV characters in total) and many different conflicts running through the novels. However, there is a single underlying desire in the majority of the main characters. To control the Iron Throne, the seat of power for the Seven Kingdoms. Who are the main characters? Well, they’re all associated with a powerful house of the Seven Kingdoms. So our one line summary can be:
“Powerful noble families fight for control of the Seven Kingdoms”
Does this encapsulate every single aspect of the books? No, of course not. Does in summarize the main aspects of the novels, characters and conflict? Yes. Every main character in the books are either a part of one of the noble families or directly associated with one or more. And the families are all about taking power in one form or another.
For something on a smaller scale, let’s put this to Hamlet. Our main character, Hamlet, and our conflict, revenge for his father.
“Hamlet seeks revenge after his father’s ghost tells him he was murdered by his uncle.”
“A psych ward rises against their controlling nurse after the arrival of a rebellious patient.”
I’d say every story can and should be able to be summarized down into a single sentence. First off, it provides focus. You may have an entire world thought up but not many people will care unless you have character and conflict. The single line will highlight those elements since that is all you have room for. Secondly, an elevator pitch can narrow down where to start the story from. Where do you start in Hamlet? With the ghost telling him he was murdered. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Right before the rebellious patient arrives (to see the original status quo). A Song of Ice and Fire? Roughly the same at the previous, right before the fighting starts. Finally, having a single sentence on hand provides an easy method to explain to people what you’re writing.
Once you have the single sentence down, you can start to expand off of that. Take the single sentence and grow it into a paragraph, then three paragraphs, etc. The single sentence summary is the first part in the Snowflake method of novel outlining. Check it out if you need guidance on novel writing!
For quite a while on the writing subreddit, whenever a topic of “how to do something in writing” comes up, one person posts a correct answer then someone replies to the person who is correct saying either “no” or “yes but…”. The mentioned replier proceeds to state the explanation for their response. These explanations are usually how he/she has read works where they do not follow the original answer, even though the answer is essentially correct. But what the replier fails to take into account is the original, correct answer is a standard and what they are arguing is a minor occurrence in written works.
To make an exaggerated point, let’s say I reply to a thread claiming every story needs a character. “No they don’t! I’ve read a few novels without character” and proceed to list a few examples: Example 1, Example 2, Example 3. Does this make my point correct? Can the majority novels just drop character completely and go through the story with what is left and still remain a good book? No. With the exception of example 3, the joke example, “This Is Not a Novel” and “The Interrogative Mood” are experimenting with what can or cannot be in a novel. It doesn’t mean the norm of “novels need characters” is wrong, just that 99% (or more) of existing novels follow this rule. Unless you’re trying to write something experimental, you’ll probably be having a character in your story.
Now that example is on a large, ridiculous scale, and probably would never come up past an example in some dude’s blog post. But even on a smaller scale this comes up. For example, a month ago I replied to a thread asking “What not to do in the first 50 pages”. I posted, somewhat backwards, “Please start the story in those 50 pages”. Someone replied to me with saying, a lot of books he liked didn’t start in the first fifty pages…but the point is most books do. The person never got back to me with examples, but I’d say the majority of books, unless they have a specific reason, will have their main character’s goals and the main conflict setup by the time 50 pages rolls around.
(Yes, there are books I like which don’t start until after page 50, The Name of The Wind for example. Even then though, while reading the book, I almost put it down because nothing was happening.)
In any art form, there are always exceptions to the standard. Is the standard bad? No. Is the exception bad? No. But the majority of what people are creating follows a set, standard form. Saying “well that’s not entirely true” is correct, but unless someone is specifically going for experimenting with those standards (unlikely if someone is asking r/writing about it, and even then the person should know the standards to experiment with them) the rebuttal applies to a tiny percentage in the topic. It’s similar to when I make a blog post about some aspect of writing, I always try to emphasize “this is not true 100% of the time”, there are always exceptions.
A few days ago, I went to another workshop of only short stories (there was one novel excerpt but the author didn’t show up) and there seemed to be a similar issue through almost all of them. In these pieces, the story either happened in the past and the character is remembering it (two of the stories) or the character is imagining something (the 3rd story). This post will focus on the two flashback stories.
Now, there can be good stories doing the same things, but these didn’t work. Why? My thought is the protagonists did nothing up until the end of the story when a single dramatic “decision” happened. The flashback stories were centered on traumatic things that had happened to characters in the past, while the actual present moment in the story was simply them remembering those events.
I think these are poor stories for two reasons. One, the events being flashbacked upon were things out of the character’s control. In both stories, the character didn’t make a decision in the past which directly affected them in the present (arguable for one of the stories), stuff simply happened to them. If you’re going to base a story solely on flashbacks, there needs to be some decision making in those flashbacks, not just things happening to the person. If there isn’t, we are reading about a character sitting and remembering things out of his/her control which is just plain boring. What’s exciting is someone making a decision, and in the context of these types of stories, how that decision has affected their life.
Second point. The characters don’t make decisions in the present nor do they do anything until the very end. Getting a common theme yet? As said in the previous paragraph, the characters are sitting and remembering up until the very end when things “happen” and they sort of make a choice. If nothing is happening in the flashbacks, things need to happen (preferably) in the present time through-out the story or else nothing happens at all. If things don’t happen in the present moment, why are we reading about this character in the time we are and not set in the flashbacks when things could happen (based on my first point).
Characters need to make choices throughout the story, not just held up until the ‘big’ ending when a dramatic moment happens. When characters don’t make decisions, it’s usually indicative of them having no motivation (Yes, there are stories based around the point of not having motivation). Most of the time no motive makes for a boring story though where we are distant from the main character. It’s akin to bad world building in fantasy, which I call history booking, since we’re getting information about the world, in this case the character, when we don’t care about it. If you’re going to write a story based around a character remembering things in the past, either have them make decisions in those flashbacks or make decisions in the present moment.
I recently had a story’s first section critiqued by a freelancer editor. The results weren’t happy but instead of wallowing in misery I decided to take note about many of his criticisms. Here we have five line edits he made throughout the piece with examples from the story and what they should be changed to. These points are to reduce word usage, smooth out the sentence, and make sure the sentence is clear in meaning. I’m sure, as with everything, these will not apply to 100% of sentences 100% of the time.
- Don’t be vague when you can be specific
Ex-“I have to leave for the weekend. My mother seems to be getting worse”
Should be: “I have to go to Portland this weekend. My mother thinks her cancer is coming back”
There is no reason not to have specifics when you can have them. With the original sentence, you don’t know where the character is going and you don’t know why. Adding them in makes the information more real than glossed over.
2. Appendages don’t move, people do
Ex- “His hand patted the baby’s back”
Should be: “He patted the baby’s back”
Removes a single word from the sentence and makes it more connected to the character.
3. Avoid double verbing
Ex- “He continued to stumble over lines…”
Should be: “He stumbled over lines…”
Removed two words from the sentence and makes it flow better. There are sentences where you can say ‘He started to…’ for good reason such as an interruption, but most of the time it’s avoidable.
4. Eliminate “was” where possible
Ex- “The only response from the baby was more crying”
Should be: “The baby responded with more crying”
Takes the would-be subject of the example sentence, the “response” and puts it as the verb instead, deleting three words in the process. Obviously, there are some verbs which you need “was” though.
5. Less is more
Ex – “Two weeks of practice didn’t help him accomplish it”
Should be: “Two weeks of practice didn’t help”
The extra three words at the end didn’t need to be there since we already know the practice “didn’t help”.
(Apologies for the inconsistent format. WordPress is dumb with numbered lists.)
I’ve always enjoyed how George R.R. Martin handles his world building and exposition in A Song of Ice and Fire. The way he pulls it off feels seamless and natural when the narration would touch upon the history of the world. How does he do it so well? One thing I noticed when rereading a couple chapters of A Game of Thrones is he puts world building in paragraphs, which for most writers, wouldn’t have world building in it.
For example, the topic of the below paragraph is character description of King Robert Baratheon (there’s another paragraph of more description before this in the book):
“Now it was perfume that clung to him like perfume, and he had a girth to match his height. Ned had last seen the king nine years before during Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, when the Stag and the Direwolf had joined to end the pretensions of the self-proclaimed King of the iron islands. Since the night they had stood side by side in Greyjoy’s fallen stronghold, where Robert had accepted the Rebel lord’s surrender and Ned had taken his son Theon as hostage and ward, the king had gained at least eight stone. A beard coarse and black as iron wire covered his jaw to hide his double shin and the sag of royal jowls, but nothing could hide his stomach or the dark circles under his eyes.”
The first and last sentences of the paragraph are purely character description, mostly centered on appearance. But look at all the information we get within the other two sentences of the excerpt.
- “Ned had last seen the king nine years before during Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, when the Stag and the Direwolf had joined to end the pretensions of the self-proclaimed King of the iron islands.” – We have three different character’s histories in this one sentence; Ned, Robert, and Balon Greyjoy (who we don’t see until book 2). World history in the form of describing Greyjoy’s “rebellion” spawning from Balon declaring himself a King. And a tiny bit of geography by saying “King of the Iron Islands”.
- “Since the night they had stood side by side in Greyjoy’s fallen stronghold, where Robert had accepted the Rebel lord’s surrender and Ned had taken his son Theon as hostage and ward, the king had gained at least eight stone.” – More world history as we find out Robert and Ned won the war plus the fact Balon is still alive (implied by accepting his surrender). We see the origin of Theon’s history becoming a forced ward of the Starks. Finally, we have more of Robert’s description and how he has changed in the past nine years since the rebellion.
Keep in mind this paragraph is four sentences and 127 words long. In these sentences, we have history of four characters, appearance description of one character (Robert), world history, the political situation of the Iron Islands (previously defeated in war, son of their leader hostage), a bit of geography, and timeframe. All of this is embedded in a paragraph describing how the King had changed.
The way GRRM does this is to give the full amount of information regarding Ned noticing Robert’s change. He could have just said “He’s gained eight stone since last Ned saw of him” and moved on, but instead he uses specifics of the last time Ned saw Robert. Names, time, places, etc. It comes off as natural, as a person truly remembering the last time he saw his friend.
One last point, the way we are conveyed this information is through a character, Ned, who has experienced the history of this world. Often times in Fantasy novels we are presented with fish-out-of-water explanations since it’s easier. One experienced character explaining things to the less experienced one. This goes to show a writer can definitely get world building in when a character already knows everything.
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, namely because I was busy most of the time last year. I finally got back to a workshop this past Wednesday however. We covered four short stories as there was no novel to critique. While none of the four had a single consistent problem, two of them made a prime mistake that unfortunately happens a lot in new writers short stories. A mistake that I have come to call the Unscene.
What is an Unscene you ask? Well, it’s an opening scene that establishes nothing about the main character, conflict, or setting but resorts to throwing information that we don’t care about, or have no notion of, at the reader. It’s a scene that’s not a scene. This problem is mostly based on short story examples since one needs to get the story going right away—if you spend five out of twelve pages talking about random information before the story even starts, that’s a problem—but can be applicable to novella or novel length works as well. I’m sure there are acceptable stories that do this, but for the most part you want to get the story started as quickly as possible. For fantasy or science fiction stories, this normally comes from heavy amounts of up front world building (aka writing a history book).
Now, the information in these sections could be useful later in the story, yes, but there is no point to having this information presented first. If we have no notion of the story’s conflict why would we care about this opening information? What relation does this information have on a character that we don’t know yet? Why do we care about this world we’re getting a lecture on without knowing who we are rooting for? Bring this information up in later scenes besides spilling it all on our lap when we’re not ready for it. The way we get ready for the useful bits of information is by having a concrete opening scene where we can get to know our main character.
When it comes time that we will need to be told the information in some fashion, it should be in a polished form since we will need only a tiny amount of the big chunk of information. Small snacks throughout the piece, not one large meal at the start. The beginning should be occupied by showing us the character, setting, and potential conflict. Have the character sitting in an area talking or performing some action, something other than shovel feeding us unappetizing information. This will give us the foundation with which to work in the information presented at the start.
Avoid the Unscene in a story, especially short stories as they take up way too much of the word count. Again, there are quite possibly stories that work with doing this. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’m sure someone has read some story that works even with presenting a large amount of pure information at the start. Unless you have a good, exciting, and useful way of presenting the information to the reader without establishing the basics in a story first, I’d say avoid it. Instead, give us a scene with a character, a setting, and something for the characters to do before all of the unhinged information.
I’m sure there are writers who utilize character sheets in a beneficial way, and that is perfectly fine. I, however, do not like them at all.
There are many thousands of character creation sheets online for aspiring writers to “get to know their character better”. These sheets can have up to 390 questions (the most I have found off of a quick google search) for you to answer for your character. Some even offer links to other sheets with less questions for “less detailed characters”. The big thing I have against them is the vast majority of these questions—I’d say on the big ones that’s 95% of them—are ultimately pointless and will have no effect on the character or the story. If anything, these questions will make the story more cluttered with useless information about the character the author feels the need to force in. For a strong character though, there are only a few questions you need to ask yourself, the rest for the most part is aesthetics.
Character sheets exist to help people fully realize their character(s), giving them enough questions to know their entire life so they can better write about them. These questions range from the normal appearance questions to extremely obscure questions such as “baby weight” and “love style”. Again, the point of these questions is to not have them all filled out, they are to get to know your character more intimately through knowing every aspect of them. What their hair style is, what their favorite food is, their mother’s maiden name, etc. The problem is almost none of these questions will ever be useful in a story or affect the story’s progress in any way.
When will a character’s baby weight ever be brought up in a story? When will a character’s favorite ice cream have any effect on the outcome of the story? Most of these questions are formed at random by the creator, so what is the point of taking the time to mark them down when you could be writing the story itself? People say it helps them know their character better but I’d say it just clutters the vision with pointless information, never to be utilized effectively in a story. There are only a few question one needs to ask about a character:
- What does your character want?
- Why does he/she want it?
- What will he/she do to obtain those goals?
An argument could be made for general history of the character, any life events specifically, and questions surrounding subplots. Basically, anything that has a distinct effect on the story is good to note down.
Ultimately, the way to get to know your character best is to write stories featuring them and have them make meaningful decisions. Not write down random answers from random questions, the majority of which will never appear in the story. This is why motivation for your character is the most important aspect to conceive, which some sheets only have one simple question about goals. How would we know Walter White from Breaking Bad so well by the end of season 5 if he didn’t have complex motivation to make decisions? Yes, his appearance and mannerisms help show his character, but those are based on top of the foundation of motivation. They could be changed in many ways while still maintaining the true character of Walter White.
New Year, new goals. Goals to meet and abide by. Fresh motivation to move on them. Last year I didn’t have any defined goals other than “write more and read more”. I accomplished one of them by a fair amount, the reading part. I read something like 25-30 books in 2014, and in 2015 I read 40. Writing wise, I think I did better but not as good as I hoped. Calculated in total, with only counting completed short stories and not a page or two of partials, I wrote 81,000 words and change. That is counting the end part of the first draft of my novel at the beginning of the year, the 26k of a rewritten draft of that, and 8 short stories. Rounded to a daily count, that means I wrote, on average, 222 words a day. I find that count pretty weak. This year, I’m going to improve on this.
Off of inspiration from Shannon, I am going to switch from a goal of a daily 1,000 word count to a weekly one of 5,000 words minimum. This is for a few reasons. If I stick to this goal, 5k a week, I will end up with 260,000 words in total for the year. Over triple of what I accomplished last year. More so, it gives me a few days of leeway each week if I don’t feel like writing on a particular day or two. On the other hand, it gives me two days to push further past the goal or catch up on it. Finally, this will give me the motivation to complete the list of incomplete short story ideas I have on hand, those number around 16 at the moment, not even counting the novel rewrite, another novel idea, and a few screenplay ideas. I could keep very busy this year.
In addition to my my writing goals, I’m increasing my book’s read count up to 60 this year. I’m pretty confident I can get this done since this past year was low because I read mostly fantasy books, many of those were 700+ pages in total. This year I’m wanting to read classic/contemporary books. Authors like Hemingway, Kesey, Atwood, Whitman, etc. Things I should have read a while ago, to say the least. Those books tend to range a lot shorter than, say, a Sanderson book. Looking at you Words of Radiance… Of course there will be a fantasy book here and there, since there are a few sequels coming out in 2016 that I want to read, or completing series from this previous year. Other goals are to post on my website at least 3 times a month (one down for January, yay) and attend my writing group’s workshop at least 6 times in the year. I slacked off at the end of last year.
Did any of you make similar goals at the start of the New Year? Did you fulfill your previous year’s goals? What is different this year?
Happy new year everyone! Good luck on your writings.
In an effort not to crowd a bunch of posts on New Years, I’m going to post my reading list now (be it there are two weeks of reading left). Here are all of the books I have read in 2015. This has been a Fantasy heavy year as I wanted to get back into the genre. If I had to choose, my favorite is The First Law books (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, The Last Argument of Kings, Best Served Cold, and Red Country) by Joe Abercrombie. Though, Skin Game (the latest Dresden Files book) was amazing fun.
If I get done with any more books before midnight on the 31st, I’ll add them to the list.
Note: The “Critiqued novel” spots are novels I read for my writing workshop but not wanting to post the title/author.
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
- Critiqued Novel
- The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan
- Best Served Cold By Joe Abercrombie
- The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan
- Command and Control by Eric Schlosser
- Critiqued Novel
- Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
- A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
- Critiqued Novel
- The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
- The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
- The Republic Of Thieves by Scott Lynch
- Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
- City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
- Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
- King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
- Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
- Ghost Story by Jim Butcher
- City of Glass by Paul Auster
- Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
- Sharp Objects By Gillian Flynn
- Rise of Empire by Michael J. Sullivan
- Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
- Night Shift by Stephen King
- Cold Days by Jim Butcher
- Skin Game by Jim Butcher
- Billions & Billions by Carl Sagan
- Heir of Novoron by Michael J. Sullivan
- Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
- Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
- The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
- Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
- The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
- Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
- Mistborn: Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
- The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
- The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie