Creative Writing: Turning a Yawn-Maker Into a Page Turner

Okay, so I’m a day late on this, but yesterday was my daughter’s thirteenth birthday party, so cut me some slack.

I just recently started reading what I would term a suspense thriller. And although it’s jam-packed with problems–conspiracy theories, whistle-blowing, threats of nuclear war, a hint of romance–it didn’t grab me until around page 90. Other books, like Vannetta Chapman’s A Simple Amish Christmas, or Stephanie Gallentine’s Refuge, hooked me almost from page one. So what was it about these books that drew me in while this other one sent my mind adrift? I think the answer lies in characterization. In Vannetta Chapman’s Amish romance, there weren’t any exploding cars, smoking guns, or raging tornadoes–okay, so maybe there were a few hail-producing storms, the emotional kind anyway. But in both of the novels, what hooked me was not the outer conflict so much as the inner turmoil the outer conflict revealed.

So I guess it all boils down to effective characterization. How does the conflict affect your character? How does it stand in the way of their ultimate goal? In my latest novel, Impossible Choices, Alice Goddard’s ultimate goal is to gain love and acceptance. This is her driving need, and it colors everything she does. It taints her perceptions and wreaks havoc on her rationale.

And Trent, her husband? He aches for success, because in gaining it, he will finally find value in himself. Or so he thinks, but in his attempt to slay the dragon lurking within, (Plato reference, here.) he becomes what he fears the most. In his mind, he is the provider, Alice’s knight in shining armor.  And this desire, the desire to perform and provide, colors all he does. It’s what drives him to the poker table. Everything hinges on that next big win, that next promotion, that winning campaign.

And what about their inner demons? Like Alice trying to be that perfect daughter, to fulfill that image of womanhood that has been ingrained in her since she was old enough to talk, and Trent trying to fill the deep void his father’s alcoholism created? And what about their spiritual needs? Their insecurities, fears, phobias? All of my characters, even the minor ones, have enough emotional baggage to fill an entire library worth of books. But because the typical women’s fiction novel only has around 80,000 to 100,000 words, I must choose the action, and responses, that propel my story further, leaving the other baggage for another day. And another book. (Book number two. grin.)

Think about your own life–the things that annoy you, hurt you, anger you, or bring you anxiety. I would suspect that most of your reactions have little to do with the actual event and more to do with your interpretation of the event. And your interpretation is often largely due to the emotional baggage you carry. If you are apprehensive about going to the gym, that is likely due to insecurities based on appearance. Or perhaps a faulty body image. If you are frustrated by your children’s mess left all over the house, this may be due to an overall feeling of being taken for granted. When a commercial makes you cry, it’s probably evoked a memory or exposed a longing.

To write a great story, we need to know our characters deeply. And as they interact with one another and deal with the storms that come their way, each scene should reveal one more piece of their psyche. Not in words: “She has always longed for her mother’s approval.”

But in action:

“She straightened her shirt, tucked her hair behind her ears, and rang the doorbell. Her stomach fluttered at the sound of approaching footsteps. A moment later, her mother opened the door. As usual, her hair was swept back in a french roll and her lips, which curved slightly into an appropriate smile, were painted to match her long fingernails.

“Jane, what a surprise.” Her eyes darkened as her gaze swept over Jane.

Jane tugged on the hem of her blouse and looked past her.

Okay, so I’m not going to write an entire scene here, but truthfully, it often takes an entire scene, an entire book, really, to accurately portray a character. But the scenes used should also propel your story forward. Characterization and plot development go hand in hand. Your story should revolve around your character and your character must react, on an emotional level, to the story.

Some great questions to ask while developing your characters:

What is (your character) most afraid of?

What do they long for most?

What was their childhood like?

What was their relationship with their parents like?

What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to them and why was this embarrassing?

Where are they most comfortable?

How do they relax?

What situations cause them anxiety?

What types of clothes might they wear? Do they wear make-up? How much time do they spend on their hair? Do they paint their nails? For males: shave regularly or sporadically? Wear cologne? Frequently wear dirty/stained clothes. lol

Are they spontaneous or do they plan ahead?

Are they risk-takers or are they more cautious and analytical?

Neat and tidy or messy?

(These are just starters.)

I like to visit various psychology sites when I’m developing my characters. Here’s two of my favorites: Personality Pathways and HumanMetrics.

Then, once I’ve uncovered my characters’ basic personality traits, I get more specific and research that trait more fully and whatever quirks they have. For example, Trent Goddard is a risk-taker. Once I’ve determined that, I visit other sites like Psychology Today to find out more about risk-takers. Then, as I write various scenes, I ask myself: “How would a risk taker drive?”  “What would a risk-taker’s dialogue sound like?”, ect.

And, because Trent’s an alcoholic gambler, I spent a fair amount of time watching “Intervention”. I also visited numerous gambling and alcoholism-recovery chat rooms and websites. Because Alice, his wife, is an enabler, I visited Al-Anon and other similar sites. What I learned both created scenes and deepened them. Although, much to my husband’s chagrin, it also created rooms worth of post-it notes, scribbled sheets of paper, google-image print-outs, and partially filled spiral notebooks. And just when I thought I was ready to clear away the clutter, book number two invaded my mind, quickly spilling over into the office.

Creative Writing: Descriptions, A Little Dab’ll Do Ya’

I must have a very short, easily distractible attention span. Hand me a newspaper and I’ll have it read in ten minutes. Jennifer-read, that is. Which means I’ll skim the headlines, maybe glance at a few paragraph headings, check out the photos and captions, and call it good.  And then I let my imagination take care of the rest. Probably not the best idea, I know, especially when it comes to politics or world events, but it certainly is anything but boring. I’ve always been like that–quick to retreat into a world of my own making. Perhaps it is the childish side of me, or maybe I suffer from some kind of personality disorder. Regardless of the cause, I have found the images and scenarios created in my mind are much more entertaining than the real life version. And when I read a book, even more so. I don’t want to be given every detail of the forest as the heroine hikes through it. I want to be given just enough to allow me to relive the forest I hiked through as  a child, or the forest I’ve always dreamed of visiting. Basically, I want my imagination to be sparked, not dumped on.

I started reading a new book the other day and the first two pages were filled with details. Lots of details. Every character was described, even the ones I met in passing, and most of them were given very unusual traits. Seriously? Does every character have an eagle like nose or elf ears and some sort of unusual gait? Honestly, I started envisioning a side show and not the small town environment the author was trying to portray. And I did a lot of skimming. It’s pretty sad when you can skip large portions of a novel and still follow the story. Luckily the book got better as I continued, but honestly, if I hadn’t been reading it for a review site, I probably would have tossed the book aside after page two.

It is the same with characters. I’m not sure how other writers do it, but characters fill my imagination long before they make it to the page. Which can make it hard when I’m trying to find an image to portray them. (I like to have printed images of my characters, their houses, the areas they visit, on hand when I’m writing.) Nothing on istock photo or google images quite fits the visual painted in my mind, so usually I’ll have to print out multiple photos for one character with little notes to myself explaining which feature is being portrayed. I imagine my readers are similar. After reading a few details, and seeing my characters in action, their minds have already formed a visual. (And then three chapters in we pile on more details, shattering the image they’ve come to know for the past three chapters! Ouch!) So what’s the solution? Give just enough to trigger images, then leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.

Knowing our details should be used purposefully ought to motivate us to choose those that evoke strong, or telling, images. For example, if my heroine is hiking through the forest and I want to convey a sense of peace or solitude, I might focus on a gently flowing stream or a Blue Jay resting on a nearby branch. If, however, my heroine is frightened, or lost, I’ll focus on the shadows caused by thickly clustered trees and the thorny, intertwining blackberry bushes blocking the partially hidden trail.

The same goes for characterization. If my character is snootty and superficial, I may focus on her nail polish, jewelry, or hair style. You would be surprised how many other details your reader will fill in, especially if descriptive dialogue and emotion-invoking action is added. Show them a lady with long, painted nails and four-inch heels–ah, you’re already picturing her, aren’t you? Okay, what if I add that she has bleached blonde hair with black roots? A slightly different picture, perhaps? How about a woman with long, painted nails and her hair swept back in a french roll? Given those details, do you really need to hear about her pants, blouse, and purse or has your mind already filled in the rest?

And yet, at the same time, lack of details can sap the imagination just as quickly as an overabundance of them can. One afternoon I was reading someone’s work in progress about a man who had fallen on some ledge that led him to a secret passage. Very little detail was provided, and when it was, it was in such general terms, images weren’t evoked. I heard there were jewels and stairs–in much that way. “There were jewels and a long stair case cut from stone. A passage way led outside. He followed the passageway.” What did the jewels look like? And what kind of stone? Was the passageway dark? Were the walls also made from stone, or was this tunnel cut from crumbling dirt that felt gritty to the touch and left a film on your fingers? Was it even a tunnel or more like an arching exit/entry way? What if they had said, “To the left of the large, arching cavern, rubies and grape-sized topaz glistened in the pale light of his torch. A narrow stairwell, made from thick slabs of limestone, disappeared into the darkness, beckoning him to follow.”

Here’s two opposing examples.

TMI: (Although I’m tempted to tell you to consult the urban dictionary on this, I’ll explain it. Too much information) The sun trickled through the Western Hemlocks which stood like towering giants, their thick, heavily barked branches extending on either side like giant arms. The few rays that managed to penetrate through the trees warmed the otherwise shadowed forest floor, adding splashes of light much like a two year old would add splashes of color to a canvas. Thick clumps of brown pine needles hid most of the path from view. They crunched beneath Kaitlyn’s feet as she walked. Every once in a while patches of dirt, covered by brown, green or black moss, poked through, revealing what once had been a well-trodden trail. The branches, heavy with pine cones, bright green needles, and the occasional nest, were still in the mid-afternoon air. More pine cones littered the ground and lay in clumps around smooth, gray stones and partially rotting logs. Mushrooms and dried sap covered many of the logs, signaling decomposition. Kaitlyn paused to study one log in particular and watched as a colony of ants scurried across it. In the distance she could hear the soft bubbling of a stream, the kind that flowed gently over smooth stones and tugged at the moist, rich soil. Blackberry bushes wove their way around emerging seedlings and old-growth trees, their thick, thorny vines choking the very life out of the tender shoots, devouring them in a tangled mess of green. Plump berries glistened in the sun, filling the air with the scent of fresh baked pies. More lay clustered on the ground like giant blobs of spilled paint.

Now,

Using a little dab, interspersed with dialogue and action: The sun trickled through the Western Hemlocks, warming the otherwise shadowed forest floor. Kaitlyn paused to orient herself. Thick clumps of pine needles hid most of the path from view. In the distance she could hear the soft bubbling of a stream, the kind that flowed gently over smooth stones and tugged at the moist, rich soil. She licked her lips, already tasting the cool liquid on her parched tongue. Pausing to pluck a ripe blackberry from a nearby vine, she popped it in her mouth and closed her eyes as the sun-baked juices exploded across her tongue. Yes, taking a morning to herself had been a great idea. Perhaps if she had done so earlier, she and Devon would not have quarreled.

Notice also, the trees were named, hopefully evoking clearer images. (Example, instead of flower, say roses or lilacs. Instead of trees, say adlers, elms, or hemlocks.) And in the second paragraph, some details are provided through action, hopefully action that helps characterize as well.

Why don’t you try it? Use details to help the reader paint a picture, instead of painting the picture for them. I know you all like photographs, but I’m not going to provide one. I’d rather you provide one for me! Using your words. And remember, our visual image will be sparked by action, description, and dialogue. Use all three to spark (not overpower) the reader’s imagination.

First: An old man at the barber shop. That’s all I’m going to say.

Second: A teen girl at a county fair.

And as always, you can add your story as a comment, send it to me in the body of an email or send it to me on fb. I can’t wait to take an imagination vacation with you!

Creative Writing: Characterization

We like the age-old cliche’, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”, but in many ways, you can. Our body language, how we dress, and the words we use speak volumes. The other day I was listening to my daughter and one of her friends talk about their favorite colors. Her friend, an ambitious, adventurous athlete, likes bold colors. Red and black were her favorites. As I listened, I started to think about how I would feel if I wore red. I’ve done it before. I have a red dress that I used to wear whenever my husband and I would go out on a hot date. Why? Because it made me feel playful and daring. But for the most part, I wear tans and blues. In the summer, I like pastels and peaches. Already you’ve got me pegged, right? A conservative, predictable Missouri housewife who prefers long walks in the park to loud social events and afternoons in the mountains rather than a day at the mall. And for the most part, everything I do reiterates the same basic story. This story is retold every time I meet a friend in a restaurant, talk on the telephone, or attend a social function.

Have you ever watched people eat? How we present ourselves in a restaurant–even our food choices–can speak volumes! And effective characterization, the kind that melds the reader’s heart with your hero or heroine’s, allows the reader to discover, for themselves, what makes the hero tick. The other day I was reading a book that felt very much like a biography. The entire first two pages were spent telling me about the character–what he did, what his personality was like, what motivated him. I barely made it past the first page. My commitment to the author pushed me to page two, but as more information was dumped on me, I finally contacted the author and, politely, told them I was done.

Information dumps are for formal interviews, not relationships, and reading is very much an intimate relationship between the reader and the hero/heroine. For those of you who are married, think back to your first few dates with your spouse. Do you remember the way you used to latch on to every word, your mind working over time as you processed and categorized all the personality cues thrown your way? Do you remember the excitement of discovering for yourself, through intimate involvement, your spouse’s favorite song, restaurant, quirky fears, and deepest longings? Part of love is the continual unveiling of one heart to another, peppered with the anticipation of discovery. But what if there had been no need to discover? What if, upon the first date, your spouse had handed you a list of all their likes and dislikes, followed by a three page essay explaining all of the momentous events in their life? Wow, how romantic that would be–not! Information dumps are total passion-killers. In fiction and in life. So why kill your reader with monotonous prattle?

Assignment: Use decorations and items in a house to create a basic personality style. You can post this as a comment or you can send it to me via facebook (Jennifer Slattery using the following email to help narrow your search) or email (slattery07@yahoo.com). Make sure to include “creative writing” in the subject line so your email doesn’t join my daily spam. Then we can all try to guess, using the comments section of this blog, what messages and personality traits you are trying to convey. Make sure to pop back with responses periodically so we can see how close our guesses were.

If you need a prompt:

Option one: A middle-aged risk taker. For this one, you could place him at an event that would display this aspect of his/her personality. How would a risk taker drive? What type of events would they participate in? How would they mentally process things? Would they prefer crowds or privacy? Nature scenes or bars? What type of clothing might they wear?

Option two: A rebellious teen who feels unloved. You could go far with this one. Perhaps she/he watches a friend’s family longingly, or is spurred to anger. Why does he/she feel unloved. Remember, don’t tell us, “Her parents never have time for her.” Show us by having her/him pop his head into his/her dad’s office only to be brushed aside. Or maybe they wake up to a post it note and an empty house.

Option three: A love-sick newly wed. What would a newly wed do on their first day of “married life”. I can remember how excited I was to dust our new apartment. I also loved the sound of my new name. Mrs. Slattery. I’d repeat it to myself again and again. Mrs. Slattery. Perhaps fresh cut flowers would be placed on the dinner table or furniture would be dusted twice.

Option four: Surprise us. <grin>

Mine:

Despite the heavy cloud cover outside, the temperature in the quaint cottage was 78 degrees and climbing, the heat from the previous day still radiating from the walls. She’d turn the air on at noon, for an hour or so, just long enough to circulate the air before her son got here. Although she knew even a cool house wouldn’t keep his lips from flapping. For twenty years she’d made his bed, washed his laundry, scheduled his doctor’s appointments, and suddenly she was incapable?

Frustration seeped into her neck as she shuffled around her cluttered kitchen. Her knees crackled and popped in rebellion and a sharp prick shot through her hip. She gritted her teeth against the pain and deliberately picked up her pace. Her carefully arranged pills sat in the cupboard, untouched. Fish oil, Glucosamine, Plus-Sixty  Vitamins, and about five others she couldn’t remember, all placed in their daily compartments. She would have tossed them, pill holder and all, if it wasn’t for Jason. No, that would be the first thing he’d check. He’d probably count out each pill, too. To make sure she’d been following his instructions. Leila snorted. Instructions? More like daily demands, neatly typed and taped to her cupboard, fridge, and bathroom mirror. The important details were highlighted in bright orange ink. And they were reiterated, verbally, with every visit. Good thing he only came by twice a week.

*                                  *                                   *                                      *                                       *

Obviously, you are just getting to know Leila, but hopefully you can see she’s aging, that she lives alone, and that she longs for independence. I think you can also visualize some key character traits of her son. If I wanted to go further, I could describe her house in more detail, perhaps have her glance at a picture of her deceased husband or of a sun-bleached, slightly tattered photo of her feeding a toddler sitting in a high chair. Bills scattered across an old desk would alert the reader to financial problems. I could have used body shape, hair style and clothing to describe her further. I’d love to know how you visualize her at this point. I’m thinking your imagination started filling in details almost immediately.