Posts Tagged “writing”
May 30, 2019
This is the second part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This second part will explore chapters “The emotional craft of fiction”, “Inner vs. Outer”, “The emotional world”, and “Emotions, meaning, and arc”. You can find the first part on this blog.
The emotional craft of fiction
How can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own? Readers may believe they’re living a story along with its characters. Actually, they are having their own experience that is occasioned by what’s on the page. This experience can be elicited by a number of story elements (plot, setting, theme, mood, dialogue… and what characters feel).
Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way the readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook or outrage. They formulate their own.
Emotional impact is not an extra: it’s a fundamental to a novel’s purpose and structure as its plot.
Inner vs. outer
There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers: inner mode (telling of emotions), outer mode (showing of emotions), and other mode (making readers feel something the characters do not feel; it’s an emotional dialogue between the author and the reader). All three are valid, but they can all fail to work.
- Outer mode: tips on p. 16 (in short: write feelings for a character in a scene, including obvious and non-obvious ones, then imagine how the character could act out, exploring different possibilities, then delete the feelings and leave the reactions).
- Inner mode: writing what the character feels should be a shortcut to make the reader feel that way, but it’s actually the opposite. You have to play with unexpected feelings, thinking about the layers of feelings for a given situation. Example on p. 21 using analogy, alternatives, moral judgment, and justification. Tips on p. 22 (in short: think about what a character feels in a given scene. Then wonder what else they feel, then a third layer. Go through the four steps of the example, then write about the third feeling).
- Other mode: readers want to feel something about themselves. They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge. That they have been through something. That they have connected to your characters and their fictional experience, or think that they have. That is much more than just walking them through the plot.
The emotional world
The emotional life of the characters should be the focus, not a sideshow. Methods to make us feel as we read:
- Me-centered narration: Make characters talk about themselves. We open our hearts to those that do it first. That said, when characters say things about themselves, they say the opposite of what is actually true (tips on p. 34). It’s a good idea to describe the world not by explaining how it sounds, tastes, or smells, but by explaining how the characters experience the world.
- Emotional scale: Big emotions can be stirred in readers, but not directly or by force. It requires laying a foundation on top of which readers will place their own feelings. Small details and reminders that evoke situations preloaded with feelings. Tips on p. 38. Making characters struggle with their feelings force readers to wonder if they would feel like that, too. Tips on p. 41.
- Stirring higher emotions: Moral elevation: reading about good characters make us better people. Tips on p. 49.
- Moral stakes: Apart from the personal stakes for the characters, the moral stakes are very important, too. We want to read about good characters (when anti-heroes work, it’s a trick: they’re actually good), and we should establish that early in the story. That said, moral struggles that pervade the story makes readers get invested in it. Tips on g. 56 (in short: prepare a big change for a character, including three “anticipation” events to prepare for the last event in which the character finally changes).
Emotions, meaning, and arc
What shapes us and gives our life meaning is not what happens to us, but their significance.
Dry information can have a big emotional effect not because of what it means, but because of the personal significance for one of the characters. Tips on g. 67.
You might think your telling your characters’ stories, but in fact you’re telling us ours. Think of the universal significance of what happens.
Connecting the inner vs. outer journeys
Connect the plot and the emotional journey of a character by making the events in the plot (a) matter to them personally and (b) make them change. Also, make something outward happen when there’s an internal change.
Tension vs. energy
Pondering/reflecting/feeling vs. acting. Good stories make characters swing between those two modes. Tips on p. 79, 81.
May 29, 2019
This is the first part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This first part is very short, and will simply distill what I think are the main ideas in the book. Later parts will explore the book more in detail, chapter by chapter.
Edit: See the second part of the summary on this blog.
What I can see as the main ideas of the book are:
- Showing and telling are both fine, but they have to be used well.
- Personal stakes (longing and inner yearning) are more powerful than public stakes (external need, “bad things will happen unless they do this”). Characters changing is the most important part of a story.
- Readers don’t feel the feelings they read. Instead, what they read makes them respond and feel their own feelings. You’re not telling your characters’ stories, you’re telling us ours.
- Uplifting endings and the assumption of goodness (the world is a good place, or will be by the end of the story) work better than the alternatives.
These are ideas that I found surprising, inspiring, and/or that are repeating throughout the book and seem important for the lessons to be learned. They might not completely make sense without the context of the book, though. Stay tuned for the more detailed, chapter-by-chapter summary!
Jan 7, 2017
This is my (partial) summary for the book “Writing Monsters” by Philip Athans. It’s a book with advice and tips for fiction authors on writing effective monsters for your stories. Instead of following the book structure, I’m going to try to summarise a selection of its ideas.
Predictability is the enemy of horror
This is by far the most important idea in the book, and many of the tips stem from this principle. I have marked in italics everything connected to this.
What is a monster?
Uniquely strange creature that we instinctively fear. A distortion in appearance, behaviour or thought. Characteristics:
Monsters have a disturbing capacity for violence.
They are amoral and beyond our control: cannot negotiate with them, don’t seek or respect our opinion.
They turn us into prey, sometimes isolating us and/or taking our weapons.
Note that shape, appearance (hideous to beautiful) and size (giant to microscopic) don’t matter!
A strange, terrifying creature might not be a monster once its behaviour is understood.
Uses of monsters
Villains: Monsters don’t have to be villains, and villains don’t have to be monsters. If a character is both, build the villain facet first.
As transformation: We’re afraid of what we can’t control, including ourselves and other people (werewolves, Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, etc). Our psychological well-being is as important as the physical, maybe more, because otherwise we’re expelled from society and civilisation.
As “natural disasters”: They bring the best and worst in people. Useful to explore honesty, loyalty, vanity, etc., not just good/bad.
As obstacles: Simply what stands between the protagonists and some goal. Note that “defeating” a monster might mean understanding it, helping/rescuing it, or sending it home.
Defining Your Monster
When defining your monster, define its offence (why it’s dangerous), defence (why it’s hard to get rid of it) and utility (features that gives it “colour”, like Blair Witch Project making stick figures and putting victims in a corner). Make rules for it, even if they’re never fully explained to the reader. You can use a monster form as a reference.
Archetypes like vampires, zombies, dragons, etc., are useful, but you need to define your own twist to them, see eg. 30 days of night and 28 days later. Otherwise, they’re unoriginal and, worst of all, predictable.
Describing Your Monster
Show, don’t tell! Describe the visceral experiences of the protagonists/victims (eg. use of “shuddering” instead of “being afraid” in Lovecraft’s Dagon excerpt on p. 142), the monster’s effects on people, and its possible intentions. Not knowing what the monster is, or not seeing it, is effective.
Think of all the senses. Limiting one, or all but one, can be effective. We don’t have to be turned away by appearance, smell, etc: sometimes predators use good smell to attract prey.
Revealing Your Monster
Monsters should be revealed in three stages:
Initial contact: Announces there is something. It’s fast (uses few words) and dramatic.
Build-up: Reveals aspects of it, takes the most space: increasing the threat, leaves reader wondering where does it stop. Reveal no more than necessary (our imagination makes them scarier), use “red shirts” (side characters who die) to show the danger.
Final encounter: Play with expectations and wait as long as possible to show the monster. Don’t actually show the monster until the end.
There’s much more to the book than what I’ve written here: I just included the parts that were more interesting for me personally. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the book: it seemed messy, some of the ideas and examples I didn’t find enlightening or useful, and some ideas were repeated several times (didn’t feel like reinforcement, just messy writing/structuring). Maybe I had too high expectations.
That said, the book was interesting and useful, at least for a n00b like me. So I recommend it, just not wholeheartedly.
Dec 12, 2016
This is my summary of the book “2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love” by Rachel Aaron. It’s a very short e-book (also available as audio book) with tips for writers. It’s only $0.99 so definitely worth the money and the time if you’re looking for some writing advice and tips.
The book is divided in two parts: the daily process and the background work that allows for efficient writing. The second part is somewhat more subjective and personal and might not apply equally well for everybody.
Part one: Process
Many (competent, even!) writers equate writing quickly with being a hack. The author obviously doesn’t agree, and thinks that the secret of her method is that is removes dead times and waits. The method is based on three requirements. Improving any of the three is a win, but all three is the best.
Knowledge: The most important of all three. Know what you’re writing before you do it. No macro plot stuff, but exchanges in an argument or very rough descriptions. Five minutes is about enough to cover all the writing for a day.
Time: Record your word output per session for a while and figure out patterns. Do you write better/more when you write for at least two or three hours? At home? At the coffee shop? Without internet? In the morning or evening? Once you figure it out, try to make all of your writing sessions be like that.
Enthusiasm: Write stuff that keeps you enthusiastic. If you didn’t enjoy writing it, it’s likely that readers won’t have fun reading it. When planning the writing for the day, try to play the scenes in your head. If there’s any scene that you are not excited about, change it or drop it. Similarly, if you struggle to write one day, reflect on what you’re writing and figure out if you need to change anything. The process should be enjoyable.
Part two: Tips for Plotting, Characters, Editing
Plotting in 5 steps
To decide which book to write, choose an idea from the pool if ideas you have in your notebook, blog, or wherever. Signs to tell if an idea is worth the time/effort required for a novel: you cannot stop thinking about it; it writes itself (related to the previous point); you can see the finished product; and you can easily explain why others would want to read it.
Get Down What You Already Know. Characters, situations, magical systems, settings. Scrivener mentioned as the best thing ever.
The Basics. Start filling out the gaps from the first step, enough to figure out the bare bones of characters (main characters, antagonists and power players), plot (end and beginning, in that order, plus twists, scenes and climaxes you already know of; also the kind of story this will be), and setting (magic system if applicable, basic political system, general feel of places: technology level, culture, power).
Filling In The Holes. You already have the plot beginning, some interesting middle points, and the end. Tips for when you get stuck in page 28. This step is finished when you can write the whole plot, start to finish, without skipped scenes.
Building a Firm Foundation. Make a time line, draw a map, write out who knows what and when, memorise everyone’s particulars, write out a scene list, do a word count estimation, and do a boredom check (go through the whole plot: if some scene is hard to visualise or feels slow, figure out why).
Start Writing! Remember that no matter how carefully you have plotted, the story and/or characters will probably change dramatically.
Characters Who Write Their Own Stories
Characters with agency (that can make decisions that change the direction of the plot) write their own stories. They will help getting from a point in the plot to the next. Examples in pages 36 and 37. Basic character sheet consists of name, age, physical description, what they like, what they hate, and what they want more than anything. It’s filled during step 2 above. The rest of the character development happens as the novel is written, like a braid: this gives easier and better results.
The Story Architect
Most stories follow a three-act structure (Act I, put your characters in a tree; Act II, light the tree on fire; Act III, get your characters out of the tree). Act II is normally the longest. Act III is the climax, the big event. It has a lot of tension, and it shouldn’t be too long because the tension will fade. Don’t forget the resolution at the end: readers need a closure for the characters, enjoy their victory. Does not mean having to end the book happily: the point is tension relief.
The Two Bird Minimum
Scenes should do three things: advance the story, reveal new information and pull the reader forward. Sometimes combining several scenes into one can be interesting and add tension, plus makes the story leaner.
Editing for People Who Hate Editing
Many people dread editing and think they cannot do it, but it’s just a skill that can be improved. Tips on approach:
Change the Way You Think about Editing. The final destination of editing is reader experience: polishing the text so it doesn’t just contain the story, but it’s nice to read, too.
Editing Tools. Three tools to identify the problems the text has: updated scene map (tip: mark types of scenes, like love, main plot, and secondary plot, and make sure their distribution throughout the next is not too uneven), time line (includes important things other characters were doing “off screen”; helps find timing problems, when action too loose or tight, lagging tension, etc), and the to-do list (list of problems you have found).
Actually Editing. Take the to-do list and start fixing. Always biggest/hairiest problems first, never first page to last. Then do a read-through, making a new to-do list (typos and small things can be fixed on the spot), and possibly more read-throughs if the to-do list was big. Finally, read one more time, but from the reader’s POV (tip: use a reading device, not the computer used to write the manuscript). At this point you can involve other people, never before. Remember that involving other people means more rounds of editing. At least three more rounds is normal.
Here you have a pretty compact summary of the book, mostly useful for reference and to get a sense of what the book covers. Note that I skipped the chapter with advice for new writers and some other minor stuff, though. If you like this, go support the author (seriously, it’s just one dollah).