Tuesday, June 19, 2012

7 Writing Reminders

In my home office, I have large sheet of paper scrawled with vital writing wisdom I’ve acquired over the years. Whenever I’m working on a scene and get stuck, I look at this list to see if these points need to be applied in order to make the scene work.

There are many ways in which these tools are used, and they draw from each other to help build and deepen stories and drive character development. Don’t take my definitions as the gospel truth—these are my oversimplified versions of these writing reminders. Each one could be a blog post on its own.
I hope they come in handy to you as readers and writers.

1. Raise the stakes.

What do the characters stand to gain/lose if x happens? Why is it so important to them? I try at every step to keep the characters’ goals in mind, so that if they give up or lose, they stand to lose everything that is important to them. An example would be the police detective who finds out that the murder she’s investigating is part of a global human trafficking and child prostitution ring…and now, the kingpin has kidnapped her son. Here are some good posts about raising the stakes: 

2. Avoid coincidence, clichés and predictability: SURPRISE US.

Not only do I try to avoid clichéd writing, I also need to keep a vigilant eye out for deus ex machina, moments when key things occur coincidentally in order for the plot to progress, and anything that might seem a little too convenient. For example, characters repeatedly popping up in scenes and accidentally overhearing major plot points, magical solutions that appear exactly when they’re needed, and so forth. Whenever I catch myself doing this, I ask myself, how can I turn things upside down so that nothing comes easy? How can I surprise the reader and make things happen through conscious character action rather than coincidence?

3. Resist the Urge to Explain.

I learned this from my editor, Victoria Curran, during my first round of edits on my debut book, Her Son’s Hero. The readers can draw many of their own conclusions about a character’s past, their current dilemmas, etc. without needing to be told. This rule is also a reminder that I don’t need to write out every single detail so the reader can see what I’m seeing. Not every sentence needs a qualifier, not every question needs to be answered with a drawn-out explanation. I talk about RUE in greaterdetail on my blog: http://vickiessex.com/?p=43 and also here: http://vickiessex.com/?p=680


I learned this from literary agent and author Donald Maass at one of his fabulous workshops. Making your characters truly suffer and figuring out how to dig them out of their hole is much more gratifying for the reader than making things easy for the protagonist. In every scene, I try to make circumstances worse, stakes higher, conflicts tougher. One of the best examples I’ve seen is in the movie Children of Men, where the protagonist, played by Clive Owen, spends much of the movie running from danger through some truly horrible settings…and he’s not wearing shoes.

5. Conflict: 2 dogs, 1 bone.

The essence of conflict as described in Debra Dixon’s G M C: Goal, Motivation & Conflict (and credited to Dwight Swain) is that two parties are fighting, and one will lose. Whenever I have conflict, I try to ensure that the stakes are such that even the smallest battles add up to losses on both sides.

6. Give it urgency—put a timer on it.

Giving a scene or scenario a deadline ensures characters don’t drag out their actions. They need to make choices and they need the pressure on them to do so. Timers add conflict and tension, and can inspire your protagonists to make poorly thought-out choices, which lead to consequences that make things worse. An example is the spy who finds the time bomb and must cut one of three wires to defuse the bomb. In his nervousness, the first wire he cuts speeds up the timer.

7. When a character gets what they most want, make it the WORST thing to possibly have.

When I think of the hero’s and heroine’s goals, I think about the romantic conflict and how that goal will be the most detrimental thing to the romantic relationship between the characters. As Victoria Curran told me, “To love is to lose.” For instance, if the hero land developer really wants the heroine’s family farm and manages to get the bank to foreclose on her mortgage, he’s got what he wants, but he’s ruined her life and any chance at them being together. You can read more about romantic conflict on my blog post about romantic conflict: http://vickiessex.com/?p=42

Writers: what writing tips do you keep top of mind?
Readers: have you noticed any of these tools used in your favorite books, shows or movies? Comment below!


Mary Brady said...


The tip I use most is old and boring, but it's the best for me.


Thanks for all the reminders.

mary sullivan said...

Great post, Vicki! These are all fabulous ideas.

I really like Mary's advice. Some days that's the toughest rule to follow--to just sit down and get on with the writing.

As well, I really like #7, which also ties in with # 2--is a great way to surprise the reader--to have the reader learn along with the hero/heroine that what they wanted wasn't REALLY what they wanted. Or what they wanted at the beginning of the book has changed when they weren't looking--because of their contact and growing feelings for the hero-heroine, whether or not those feeling are consciously acknowledged.

So, here are a couple of my own ideas:

1) Preserve the writing. Make it more important than everything else that's going on around you.

2) Don't underestimate the reader's intelligence, which ties into Victoria's RUE.

Unknown said...

These tips came right on time for me. I woke up this morning with my book finished but about 40,000 less words than required. I feel like it's finished but not complete, there is definitely something I could add but I don't know what. I have read a lot of romance books with simpler plots than mines but a lot of words.

Kristina Mathews said...

These are all great tips.

I think # 3 is helpful for me this morning as I've been debating whether I should explain my hero's background early on, to explain his motivation, and explalin why he doesn't feel good enough.

I must resist.

Anonymous said...

Really valuable tips, Vicki and everyone else! Thanks! I also have to resist the urge to explain--once I get over that first hurdle of sitting down, that is. :-) I try to keep in mind that I want every scene to end in some sort of disaster--this helps keep my pace up. At least it's supposed to. :-)

Vicki Essex said...

Mary x 2: good advice! BICHOK (butt in chair, hands on keyboard) is my number one piece of advice to any writer!

Cedes: Sounds like you need to deepen the characters' POV and explore their motivations more thoroughly. Explaining the why of things is just as important as the how and what. I really recommend Donald Maass's books to help you in that arena.

Kristina: RESIST. It is not futile! As soon as I start barfing backstory, I cut it out at the edit stage and paste it to a different document so I know it's there, but not in the reader's sight.

Kathy: Ah, the cliffhanger. Love a good disaster!

Beth Andrews said...

Great reminders, Vicki! I have sticky notes taped to my desk. Some of my favorites say:

Books aren't written - they're rewritten.


Write hard, write fast. Don't look down.


Karina Bliss said...

Yep, the RUE (resist urge to explain) tip. Love that one.
I think I'll have to tape Mary's to my screen. Sit Down!...Hilarious but so true.
I like Elmore Leonard's tip. When you're editing, take out the boring bits.

Pamela Hearon said...

All of these are great tips, Vicki. Thanks for sharing them. Butt in chair is one of my hardest to follow. I'm a terrible procrastinator--way too many interesting blogs to read!

Sonya Heaney said...

I’m bookmarking this. Great tips!

Rogenna Brewer said...

Ack, sorry I miss your post. This is excellent advice.

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