Showing posts with label David Farland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Farland. Show all posts

Monday, September 23

Thee Ways To Create Strong Characters

Thee Ways To Create Strong Characters

I don't want terrible, gut-wrenching, things to happen to my characters. I've spent many hours crafting them and I know them inside and out. They're my friends, my creations. My babies.

Nice Writer Syndrome

Janice Hardy has an apt name for this reluctance to bring one's characters low: Nice Writer Syndrome. In her article, Do You Suffer From NWS?, she writes:
"Stories are fun when readers get to watch the struggle. They want to see someone overcome a terrible problem and win. To do that, you have to put your characters in terrible situations. You have to be mean, be evil, be cruel. If it breaks your heart to do it to them, then you're on the right track."
If you think you suffer from NWS head over to Janice Hardy's blog (the link is above) and take her quirky quiz.

A Recipe for Creating Characters Readers Care About

1. Be merciless.

I've just mentioned Janice Hardy's advice, but I want to say one more thing. As Robert Wiersema says, don't flinch. Fiction writing is finding the truth within the lie. And truth hurts, so writers must be courageous and not flinch in the telling of it.

2. Make your character interesting.

This comes from David Farland's article, A Recipe for Great Characters.

How can we make our characters more interesting? David has a few suggestions:

a. Use mystery/concealment

Everyone loves a mystery. We want to figure people out, why they do what they do, 'how they tick'. Give your character

- a secret from his/her past
- a hidden agenda, or even
- "a secret about himself/herself that even the character doesn’t know"

The last suggestion is my favorite! I love writing stories that employ this as well as reading them (changelings, etc.).

b. Make your character conflicted.

Incorporate opposing traits in your character. For instance, Indiana Jones was brave, extraordinarily so, but he was also deathly scared of snakes.

David Farland's advice is right on target, so much so I feel like highlighting it with red and making it blink. He writes:
"Give your character a major internal conflict. By that I mean, pick a word that describes your character. For example: He’s compassionate. Then find another word that can also describe your character, but make it a polar opposite—terrorist. Now, look for ways to reveal both sides of your character. For example, your protagonist might be at a French Restaurant. He sees a mother and a baby, and tries desperately to drag them away from the restaurant—just before it blows up. He saves them! But how did he know that the restaurant would explode? Because he set the bomb. Giving a character a dual nature creates an instability, a lack of balance, that probably can’t stay forever."
Let's try this out.

I'm starting on a new story today (Yes! I'm very excited) and I haven't completely nailed down the main character, but I do know she loves her (somewhat obnoxious) best friend--the one who, more often than not, gets her to do something she's not comfortable with and then toddles off leaving my main character to deal with the consequences.

Here's a word that describes my character: Caring.

The opposite of caring: Neglectful.

(Tip: can help you find antonyms.)

The problem: How could a caring person be neglectful?

My protagonist could have an important, time-consuming, job. She could be a doctor, nurse, judge, lawyer, etc. In general, I could give her a career which forces her to choose between being a person who cares for her friends and family and a person who, despite what she wants to do, must neglect those she cares for the most.

Yes! I like that.

c. Give your character a special ability or skill.

I've heard a number of successful writers give this same advice. Give your protagonist (and perhaps each of your characters) a special skill, something that only he/she can do.

This doesn't always have to be a useful skill--it could be something trivial like being able to tie cherry stems in a bow with one's tongue or making one's eyes roll backward in one's head. The point is they can do something, and do it well, that no other character can.

That's it for today. This is my second post about the nuts and bolts of characterization, the first is here: How To Create Extreme Characters.

Photo credit: "Say hello to Spike (aka "Butch" and "Killer") from the Tom & Jerry cartoon series" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons License 2.0.

Thursday, August 22

Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down

Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down

Keeping in mind that rules are made to be broken, here are 3 tips from various pros on how to keep readers from putting your book down:

1. Lee Child: Ask a question and make people wait for the answer.

According to Zackary Petit's Writer's Digest article, Lee Child Debunks the Biggest Writing Myths, bestselling author Lee Child holds that suspense boils down to "asking a question and making people wait for the answer."

At ThrillerFest 2012, Lee Child said he believes that:
"[H]umans are hard-wired to want the answer to a question. When the remote control was invented, it threw the TV business through a loop. How would you keep people around during a commercial? So TV producers started posing a question at the start of the commercial break, and answering it when the program returned. (Think sports—Who has the most career grand slams?) Even if you don’t care about the answer, Child said, you stick around because you’re intrigued."

.  .  .  .

“The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning, and answer it at the end,” he said.

"When he’s crafting his books, Child doesn’t know the answer to his question, and he writes scene by scene—he’s just trying to answer the question as he goes through, and he keeps throwing different complications in that he’ll figure out later. And that very well may be the key to his sharp, bestselling prose.

“For me the end of a book is just as exciting as it is for a reader,” he said."
Lee Child expands on this method of building suspense in his New York Times article, A Simple Way To Build Suspense. Also, here is an engrossing read about how and why Lee Child became a writer. It's a short and well written biography: The Curious Case of Lee Child.

2.  David Farland: Front-load the conflict

David Farland, in his article Opening Strategies, suggests there are two main ways to create conflict.

One, which we've just read about, is to "create a mystery in the opening pages, taking perhaps a dozen chapters to reveal the main conflict".

The other is "to front-load the book, giving the reader a massive conflict on the opening page".

Great! But how do we do that?

3. Eileen Cook: Increase your conflict by turning conflict resolution techniques on their head

Eileen Cook, a fabulous writer and all around lovely person, wrote an article entitled, helpfully: 5 Ways To Increase Conflict. Here are a few of her tips:

a. Atmosphere: Pick a place that's uncomfortable for your characters

Eileen writes:
"In real life you want to choose the right environment to have a difficult conversation. You want to choose a place where the individual can focus on what you are saying and not instantly feel defensive or uncomfortable.  In fiction, try and have the conflict happen in the most uncomfortable place possible for your characters.

"Imagine a man telling his fiancĂ© that he doesn’t think he can go through with the wedding. Now imagine him telling her in the back of the church just before the wedding, or worse yet, right after the ceremony, or as the flight takes off for their honeymoon."

b. The more the merrier: causing characters to clash

Add characters who will make an already conflict-ridden situation worse. Eileen gives us these questions:
- "Who does your character want on their side in an argument?"
- "Who is the person your character least wants to oppose?"
- "In the wedding example above it’s bad if the groom is in love with someone else, it’s worse if it’s the maid of honor, or her sister, or his best man."

c. Rather than focusing on what is said, focus on who said it and what they may have meant by it

In other words, just do the opposite of whatever a good conflict resolution manual tells you! Eileen gives this example:
"For example, there are two teen girls.  One finds out that the other went to a party with another group and didn’t tell her. What might she accuse her of? You don’t want to be my friend. You’re embarrassed by me."
How this applies to your manuscript: "Look at your manuscript, what meaning does your character put onto what is said/done? What can they accuse the person of?"

d. Push your character's triggers

What are your characters "hot buttons"? What will set her/him off? Get your characters to fight dirty, that's sure to increase conflict!

Eileen's exercise: "Look at your manuscript and make notes where the characters can have an “oh no you didn’t” moment."

Rather than focus on what your characters have in common, focus on what makes them different. Eileen writes: "If your character perceives giving ground means they lose something, they will fight to win rather than compromise."

Eileen's pointers:
- "What does your character stand to lose if they lose this conflict? What is at risk?"
- "Can you set up two characters with opposing goals?"
- "Do you have a character that wants two opposing things at the same time? I want the big promotion at work and I want to spend more time with my family."
Here's her parting advice:
"When in doubt, go big.  Drop a plane wing, add a zombie, have them realize that the two things they want most in the world can’t both be had at the same time.  Your characters may hate you for it, but readers will love it."
I've attended several of Eileen Cook's writing workshops and they are fabulous. If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak, think twice before you pass it up.

As Bugs Bunny says, "That's all folks!" Happy writing.

Photo credit: "STHLM #8" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Copyright 2.0.

Tuesday, April 9

Help Raise Money For David Farland's Injured Son, Ben Wolverton, On Wed April 10

Help Raise Money For David Farland's Injured Son, Ben Wolverton, On Wed April 10

Help Ben Wolverton

Many of you know David Farland, both through his many books and his wonderful blog David Farland's Writing Tips.

David's son, Ben Wolverton, has been critically injured and is without health insurance. Ben's family released the following information:
Ben Wolverton, age 16, was in a serious long-boarding accident on Wednesday the 4th, 2013. He suffers from severe brain trauma, a cracked skull, broken pelvis and tail bone, burnt knees, bruised lungs, broken ear drum, road rash, and is currently in a coma. His family has no insurance.
The picture at the top of this post is of Ben Wolverton in happier times. Here's a picture of Ben now:

How We Can Help: Wednesday's Book Bomb

A 'book bomb' occurs when a bunch of people purchase a book on the same day in the name of a good cause. On Wednesday, April 10th, Ben's family is putting on a book bomb to raise money to pay for his medical treatment, click here for details.

To learn more about Ben’s condition, or simply donate to the Wolverton family, click here:

Also, a website has been set up for Ben ( and will be updated with the latest on his medical condition as well as provide a way to make donations to help fund his recovery.

Resource links:

- For updates on Ben Wolverton's condition as well as information how to donate: Help Ben Wolverton.
- Information about Wednesday's Book Bomb: Books for the Book Bomb.

Friday, April 5

The Strange: How To Hook A Reader's Interest

The Strange: How To Hook A Reader's Interest

I've been writing about hooks lately, especially in openings, but the fact is that we need hooks all through our story, hooks being little things that keep our readers curious, interested, wanting to turn pages to find out what happens.

Hooks build and maintain narrative drive.

In the third part of his Storytelling as a Fine Art series, writer extraordinaire, David Farland, talks about the role of The Strange in creating and maintaining reader interest. (You can find the first two parts of his series here and here.)

How To Engage A Reader's Interest: Offer Something Strange

As I wrote this post one of the songs from the soundtrack of The Lost Boys started to play in my mind: People Are Strange. It's true. And strange people are interesting. Exciting. Look at the dictionary definition:
-    Unusual or surprising in a way that is unsettling or hard to understand.
-    Not previously visited, seen, or encountered; unfamiliar or alien: "she found herself in bed in a strange place".
I think that's the key: hard to understand. We want to be challenged, we want to read something that will make us curious, beguile us, that will make us excited. Engaged.

David Farland mentions that J.K. Rowling wrote her books at a 9th grade level when a lot of adult literature is intentionally written at a 6th grade level. That was part of their draw: readers of any age want a challenge (Robert Sawyer talks about withholding description to make reading interactive).

Here are David Farland's examples of beguiling strangeness:

Visit a strange new world, visit a fantastic setting

- I think one of the many reasons I, and so many others, fell in love with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books was the fantastic and fabulous places he took us to, the kinds of critters--Trents!--he introduced us to.
- Recall the iconic bar scene in Star Wars, the one that takes place in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Not only are there all manner of exotic creatures but most of them are pirates and smugglers.


Someone who "thinks, speaks, or behaves in an unpredictable fashion". I'd Say Han Solo fit that bill nicely (he did shoot first, after all! ;).

Surprising Language

Use language in surprising ways.

- J.K. Rowling: "Muggles", "Severus Snape".

- Neologisms, modern slang, regional dialects.

Modifiers, nouns, verbs

Leslie Norris: "Try to avoid using modifiers or nouns or verbs unless they're surprising in some way."

David Farland's example: "A brief, desolate smile flashed like summer lightning across Serena’s lips."

(This is also the sort of thing I've been calling a hook. Since smiles generally aren't desolate this smile is strange, different. That makes us curious. Why is this one different?)

Less Is More


Sometimes you want the pace of your story to fly. For instance, in a climactic fight scene. In that case you want your prose to be spare.

Another example. David Farland gives us a scene where characters discover love. He writes:
... I’ve seen those moments where a young woman suddenly gushes with newly discovered love, and the author will seek ways to convince us that her love is purer, larger, and nobler than any love that has ever blossomed within a woman’s breast.

That’s nice, but it doesn’t work. Your goal is not to describe how your character feels, but to create an experience that makes the reader feel the desired emotion. Your goal isn’t to describe how your heroine feels, it’s to make the reader fall in love.

Very often, it is not the overwrought description of an incident that arouses the emotion, but a nice spare depiction that simply makes the reader feel as he or she should feel.

Sometimes, less is more.
How about you? Have you used the power of The Strange in your work lately?

Other articles you might like:

- 3 Elements Of A Great Story Opening
- Kris Rusch: Don't Accept A Book Advance Of Less Than $100,000
- C.J. Lyons Discusses Whether Amazon KDP Select Is Worth The Price Of Exclusivity

Photo credit: "Raiders Of The Death Star" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, June 20

10 Reasons Why Stories Get Rejected

why stories get rejected

It's always nice to learn why a story was rejected and, although it hurts, the greater the detail the better. David Farland's latest article gives 10 reasons why he rejects stories. I'm just going to summarize them (well, that was my plan), so I recommend you read his article for the details.

1) The story is unintelligible.

2) The story is unbelievable.

3) Too many adverbs and adjectives.
I hadn't meant to comment on these, but I can't resist. The first time I heard someone say that, as a general rule, a writer should avoid using adverbs, especially those that ended in -ly, I thought they were daft. (And yes, I'm painfully aware of the -ly adverb I just used, but I think it adds something to the sentence that goes toward my point so I'm keeping it. Isn't irony grand?) It took reading Stephen King's book, On Writing, for me to see the wisdom in this.

If it helps, think of it this way: Instead of using -ly adverbs, use strong verbs. Rather than making a word more interesting, or more meaningful, by modifying it with another word, try making the word itself everything you need.

For instance, rather than writing,

a) "I won the lottery," she said happily.


b) Waving her lottery ticket above her head, she jumped up in the air and screamed, "I won the lottery!"

I think that the advice to steer clear of -ly adverbs goes hand-in-hand with the advice to show rather than tell. I don't think the above example is very good, but hopefully it is enough to give you the sense of what I mean. For the purposes of the example, I should have used one strong verb rather than the adverb ("happily"), but perhaps you can suggest something better in the comments.

Also, there is a change in tone between (a) and (b). I think that (b) hints at the speaker being an extravert and fond of screaming, especially at concerts.

In any case, moving along.

4)   Nothing happens.
Make something happen and make it happen earlier rather than later. Try to grab the reader with your first sentence and don't let them go until the last one. I'm sure there are many names for this quality of can't-put-it-down-edness but I think of it as narrative drive.

5) Don't confuse your readers.
You may know the story takes place on the 5th moon of Dovan, but your readers won't unless you tell them. After a while folks are going to stop guessing, get irritated, and find something else to do.

6) Remove the boring bits.
I can't remember who said this first, but it's true. If it doesn't absolutely have to be in your story toss it. Ask yourself: does this further the story? If yes, fine. If no, lose it.

As David Farland says, this also applies to writing sentences like, "They shook on it," rather than, "They shook hands on it." If it's clear from the context that what they're shaking are hands (rather than, say, flippers), then you don't have to include that information. If, on the other hand, the "they" in question are squid-like personages living on the dark side of our moon then you might want to specify which appendages they used.

7) Have a story and tell it.
If a piece of writing is, say, 2,500 words long and has a title that doesn't mean it's a story.

Although there are no rules for what makes a story a story--including the rule that says there are no rules--people who judge story contests generally appreciate it if there is a beginning and an end. You get bonus points if there are characters things happen to and if these events put your hero in danger of not reaching their goal. I've written a bit about story telling here.

8) Don't cheat
I'm not talking about plagiarism (but don't plagiarise), I'm talking about including something like violence or sex when it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. To be clear, I'm not saying anything for or against using sex or violence in your stories, but everything in your story, everything, has to be there for a reason and if that reason is simply to shock or titillate then your story will be weaker for it.

8b) Understand your market
Let's say you're writing a paranormal romance. Including a scene in which a character has something done to them worthy of the movie Saw means you run the risk of alienating the editor who will make the decision whether to buy your work.

9) Non-formed stories.
See point 7, above: Have a story and tell it.

10) Don't irritate your readers
This is in the same vein as 5, above: Don't confuse your readers. For instance, although I don't believe there are hard-and-fast rules about how many points of view your story should be told from, if you have 5 in 2,500 words you'll confuse your readers.

Dave Farland gives the following example: "John raced out the door, after brushing his teeth." After I read this sentence I parsed it as, "After brushing his teeth, john raced out the door." If a story was filled with sentences like that I would become irritated.

To read the rest of David Farland's awesome article (alliteration can, occasionally, be tolerated ;) click here: Ten Reasons Why I'll Quickly Reject Your Story.

This ends the list of 10 things which will will send your story to the proverbial dust bin of obscurity, but of course (and unfortunately), there are far more than ten. But take heart, Mr. Farland has just published the next article in this series: Why Editors Reject Your Story. In that post he discusses what separates stories which receive honorable mention from stories that win.


Related reading:
- The Starburst Method: How to write a story, from one-liner to first draft
- Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story
- How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher

Photo credit: A Writer's Journey

"10 Reasons Why Stories Get Rejected," copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward.