Tag Archives: writing technique

Details Details

Nothing draws a reader of out the story like a glaring error.

(Did you catch that one? I bet some of you cringed at the sight of it.)

Despite my comments about Cinema Sins and other such critics that love to tear apart every film or TV show released, there’s a valuable lesson from seeing one of their reviews.

They point out glaring errors. These might not be glaring to you or me, but to someone it’s obvious that Katniss was holding the bow in her left hand, and suddenly it was in her right. Or Hawkeye had only one arrow left, and then he had four in the next scene.

They catch mistakes in movies where it was daytime when the main character arrived at a building, then suddenly it’s nighttime when the characters are near a window, then it’s day outside again when they leave.

Man, that’s a long meeting!

The reason I bring this up is because the same can be true in our writing… especially with the rise of self-publishing and a decline in use of services like professional editing.

When I write, sometimes there are facts I need to research, something I’m worried would expose my limited knowledge on a subject. More often, there are details I haven’t sorted out yet. Or there are names, places and descriptions I jotted down weeks ago (let’s be honest, months ago) which I don’t remember right now.

I normally deal with this, if I remember exactly where to look, by double-checking the applicable part earlier in the draft. Or I take advantage of being a “planner” writer–I keep lengthy spreadsheets and scattered files documenting all future plans and essential plot details.

I don’t know how “pantsers” do it (that is, those who write by the seat of their pants, no significant planning involved).

But that fact-checking kills momentum, and when I’m writing in the moment, I want to keep it going as long as possible.

So I leave notes. But I’ve ignored those in the past, so I leave notes in ALLCAPS, and yes, in bold, underlined italics… maybe even turned RED.

See? I’m not kidding.

I’ll type:

“a cool autumn day — IS IT REALLY AUTUMN??”

“Jo revealed her Gracebrand — is that what I gave her?”

“Lyllithe saw no sign of the Mudborn — check name”

I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve even sent out critique pieces with these included.

But the fact is, these details matter. People notice. Lazy writing throws off readers, who then throw out books (or give bad reviews online).

Since we all have to go back and edit anyway, might as well take the time to get the little things right.

What fact-checking / detail-noticing plan works best for you? Let me know in a comment.

Elements of Critique: Leads

I often joke about frustrating circumstances with my kids (or my fellow Airmen), claiming in a gruff Drill Instructor voice that their suffering “builds character.”

Oddly enough, that’s a truth about the relationship between plot and (at the very least) the Lead character in a piece of fiction. Stories are essentially about characters and how they change – or not – in response to events thrown their way.

What should one look for in a lead character? They usually have to be relatable and interesting. Relatable doesn’t mean that in order to read the tale of an assassin, I have to have killed someone in the past, of course. Relatable in this case means communicating to the reader a sense of who this main character is, whether through thoughts, powerful actions, or displays of emotion. I need something I can connect with, something from which to draw insight.

And I’m of the opinion that the lead must not only be relatable but interesting. I was going to say “likeable” except I think that’s not quite true and I always wonder whether the word has an ‘e’ before the ‘-able’ suffix. (Merriam-Webster shows it as a variant of ‘likable’ so I guess it’s OK either way.)

I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast the other day that discussed what readers look for in a lead character. They did such a good job that I’m simply going to summarize their point while providing the link.

When creating a lead character, a writer has three tools to utilize to secure reader interest: sympathy, competency, and proactivity.

Some of the writing books I’ve read claim we should go for sympathy. Paint the lead as an underdog, or show what a nice person they are, and readers will take the bait. Everyone roots for the little guy and the selfless hero or heroine. When Harry Potter gets treated like garbage at the start of the series, we immediately want to see him succeed. We’re invested.

But what if I want a lead who isn’t the nice guy? Let’s go back to that assassin earlier. Assassins are notoriously low on the sympathy totem pole. But they can be very interesting characters to read about, more likely than not because they’re competent.

Think of James Bond. He’s not particularly sympathetic. In a way, neither is he very proactive. Almost any Bond movie consists of him being called in to fix a problem and respond to whatever the villain is doing. It’s rarely Bond initiating the action. So why do we watch? Because his competency slider is turned up off the charts, and that makes it oh so fun to see how he handles all the twists and curves thrown at him.

The other option to consider is proactivity, and for this I’ll point to Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in The Dark Knight. I know, the Joker wasn’t the lead. But he’s a good example to point out what this looks like.

Joker isn’t reliably competent as he carries out his schemes. In fact, many of them fall apart even if Batman doesn’t directly stop them. But the Joker does make a point of doing things (in fact, that’s one of his speeches explaining his motivation), and the things he does are so crazy and so unique that they hold the viewer’s interest. “What is that guy up to?” We just have to know. So we watch to see how things unfold, even though this guy isn’t super competent, and certainly gets no sympathy.

As they say in the podcast, the trick (and the part to consider in critique) is considering how to adjust the story to the lead character based on these qualities. A sympathetic but often-incompetent character might at least try really hard to do the right thing. Think Spider-Man trying to figure out how to be a super-hero. Or they might be the underdog carried along by the proactivity and competence of those around them, like early Harry Potter.

The more sliders get turned up, the more the story needs outside conflict to keep interest going. When we’re watching Superman, who is sympathetic, proactive, and competent all rolled into one, we need some serious external conflict thrown at him that a different type of lead character wouldn’t require.

So, to sum up, when I look at the Lead, I try to see how the writer has used those tools. Am I supposed to like this character? Should I be impressed by them? And then I consider whether the conflict appears tuned appropriately to the qualities of the lead. Keeping all this in mind helps me point out where something doesn’t seem to fit quite right, or where something works well.

I recently had a couple chapters reviewed by a professional editor, and one comment spoke to this: “The lead character is sympathetic. I like her, I’m rooting for her.”

The idea of someone waving a little “Lyllithe” flag pleases me greatly. It’s what we all want for our leads when terrible burdens and crushing trials beat them down in our stories. And we know that’s going to happen.

It has to. That’s what builds character.