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Archive for the ‘Story Elements’ Category

Many writing-related books and blogs I’ve read suggest using sensory elements to make the setting richer and more realistic. The toughest one for me to convey in my writing is the sense of taste. I’ve included scenes where characters were eating, but have been stumped as to how to describe the tastes without making it seem like a deliberate writer’s ploy. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a foodie, and absolutely hate cooking, but tastes are normally not something I think about—which makes them awfully hard to write about.

Yesterday 2 of my sisters and I spent the day sorting through the remaining items in our mother’s house, deciding what was worth donating, what should be discarded, and what we would keep to use ourselves—or save as mementoes of a woman who had impacted our lives more than any other. Afterwards, we went to the Cracker Barrel restaurant where each of us had taken our mother on many occasions. The sights, the sounds, the entire setting of that restaurant brought back memories that are precious to me, but the tastes were what reminded me most of my mother. I experienced firsthand how much emotion certain tastes can trigger, and how food really can have an important role in our lives.

All 3 of us chose chicken and dumplings as our main course, with cornbread to go with it, simply because that’s what my mom always ordered at Cracker Barrel. I even ordered lemonade and country green beans (not together!) in honor of her. As we ate, we compared our meals to the ones Mom had prepared for us as children. Her dumplings were heavier, somewhat doughier, but had a similar taste. I recognized the flavor of lard on the green beans; my mom always and only used lard as a flavoring. She saved the bacon drippings in a pink can next to her stove, and used it in beans, mashed potatoes, and gravies. It wasn’t until we all left home, and my dad died, that she started using store-bought cooking oils (Crisco), and that was only because she had no one to cook bacon for.

Memories of her will always be with me even though she is not; and though I may not be any better at describing tastes in my stories, I know that dumplings and green beans will forever remind me of my childhood and my mom.

 

 

What foods or tastes carry special memories for you? Which of the 5 senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, vision) is hardest for you to include in your writing? Do you agree that including tastes or descriptions of food in a story helps convey emotions or can have special meaning, or does it seem unnecessary to you?

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Rest assured that this is not just a rant, though it is a personal opinion post. There are plenty of writing-related things that annoy me, so I’ve restricted myself to those. I’ve also limited my list to things I noticed in traditionally published books, so some agents and editors apparently weren’t bothered by the things that made me cringe.

 

1.  Quirks.

I keep reading about the necessity to make our main characters recognizable, identifiable, etc., and having a personal habit or quirk is touted as one way to go about that. But please. Use those quirks in moderation or you will annoy your readers and make them hate your characters rather than identify with them. Here are a few quirks I’ve encountered that have been used enough to become cliché:

Rolling the eyes . Some characters do it so often that I end up rolling MY eyes. Even worse is when more than one character does it. In a book I read recently, it seemed that someone rolled their eyes in every scene. I still enjoyed the story, but it was distracting enough that it inspired this post.

Raising one eyebrow. That may be a unique talent, but it has been overused in books. And every time I read it, I feel challenged to attempt raising a brow of my own. I can’t actually do it, and I know I can’t, so it’s really annoying to read about characters doing it so easily.

Twirling her hair around her finger. Lots of people do that, so how original is it?

 

2.  Deus Ex Machina.

God directly intervening to solve a problem the protagonist couldn’t possibly have figured out, especially when the protagonist doesn’t show any signs of a close relationship with God, is cheating. I want to be able to figure out what happened based on clues in the story, not witness a miracle (actually, I would like to witness a real miracle), but unless the story involves miracles as an integral part of the action, don’t end with one.

 

 3.  Explaining the ending.

Ending with page after page of people talking about what happened earlier in the book, even explaining things to minor characters who appear out of nowhere asking personal questions they are not entitled by manners or relationship to ask, is unbelievable. It is obviously a means for the author to reveal what happened in the book—in case the readers didn’t, or couldn’t, figure it out. This is a violation of the basic writing mantra of “show, don’t tell.” A good resolution will tie up loose ends, but shouldn’t have to explain the story.

 

4.  Stupid protagonists.

If the main character repeatedly makes bad decisions, doesn’t use common sense, or behaves like an idiot for no apparent reason, in my opinion she/he is stupid. (A time or two is excusable, as no one likes perfect characters.) We all do dumb things occasionally, but unless it’s a comedy I want protagonists to be people I can respect—even if I don’t like them. When stupidity is the basis for the story conflict, it feels weak and contrived. A good plot won’t need contrived behavior to keep it going.

 

5.  Poor editing.

I love words. I adore sentences that flow smoothly through my mind, leaving a vivid picture behind. But when words are misspelled, or the sentence structure makes it difficult to understand, I’m drawn out of the story and into reality. If I wanted reality, I wouldn’t be reading. So let me enjoy the world you’ve created—edit your work carefully. If you need help editing, get it.

 

What type of things pull you out of a story? What is your number 1 reading-related annoyance? What type of character quirks do you think are effective, and which ones do you consider annoying? Can you think of any “stupid” protagonists that are not annoying? Do you have any quirks?

 

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Whether writing or speaking, the words we use convey images to our audience.  The literal, dictionary definition of a particular word is its denotation; the implied meaning or perception associated with it is its connotation.  Selecting the right words for the thoughts we want to communicate requires knowing both their literal meaning and the emotional context surrounding them.

Many words have positive, negative, or neutral connotations that add color to their literal meanings. For example, calling someone a chef will generally imply more skill and prestige than saying they are a cook, even though both words denote a person whose job is preparing food to eat. Saying a woman’s hair looks nice can have a neutral, or perhaps negative, connotation even though the word “nice” is generally considered complimentary. Seeing the name of an inner-city gang scrawled across the wall of a building might make a gang member feel pride, but the same sight might incite anger or fear in other people in the community. Factors such as age, culture, education, and life experiences will affect how a person perceives certain words. 

Using words that connote more than their literal meaning can affect the tone and mood of what we write, and adds depth to both fiction and nonfiction by stimulating the reader’s imagination and invoking an emotional response.

 

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What are some words you react to based on their connotation more than their denotation?  What type of words do you view as “neutral?”  Do you think about the meaning of the words you are using more when you are writing than when you are speaking?

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I’ve frequently heard that writers are supposed to “show instead of tell,” but that isn’t always easy to do. When it comes to settings, I think it can be especially hard.

 

Setting is more than a location or time period. Among other things, it provides a frame of reference for readers, affects the tone, supports a theme, and adds to characterization. It can also detract from those aspects of a story if the setting isn’t appropriate or memorable.

Sometimes pictures speak louder than words, but unless we’re writing a picture book we must depend on words to convey our meaning. Long narratives describing the setting can be overwhelming and boring, and many people skim over those kinds of passages (me, too!). It can be more effective and interesting to integrate specific, important details of the setting into the story itself, allowing readers to imagine the big picture.

 

To illustrate my point, I’ve included a few photos from my recent vacation. With each, I’ve added a basic caption regarding the setting; underneath I’ve mentioned why the picture is memorable to me. I hope those comments will help you get a feel for the setting where each one occurred. (Plus this gives me a chance to share a few of my favorite vacation photos without violating my blog’s writing-related theme. :) )

 

Conservatory at the Bellagio hotel

Thousands of flowers blended with fountains, birds, and storybook characters in a fantastic panorama at the Bellagio hotel.

 

Bally and Paris hotels at night

The lights at night made even conservative structures like the Bally hotel appear amazing, while turning the beautiful ones into spectacles that took my breath away.  

 

Dinner on Thursday

This decorated chicken breast resting on a few pieces of asparagus was the main course in the most expensive meal I ever ate.

 

view from the plane before takeoff

I never expected to see palm trees lining the roads while mountains loomed in the distance. Nothing at all like rural Indiana.

 

 

Here’s one where the setting wasn’t important; it was the people I was with that made this one memorable.

Lisa and Carol

I don’t even remember exactly where we were, but I was so tired I couldn’t keep plodding along. Getting a picture taken with my daughter gave me a welcome break without having to whine that I was tired!

 

For more information on setting, I recommend these sites:

 

My post from 4/13/10 on the importance of setting.

Setting Is More Than Mere Time And Place    An article on setting. The site also covers many other writing-related topics.

Setting: Writing a Story With Atmosphere This article discusses setting in some depth. It also contains lots of helpful tips on writing novels.

 

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Do you focus on the setting as much as you do the plot and characterization? Is setting important in nonfiction? What details do you like to know about the setting when you’re reading a book? Have you gone anywhere interesting on vacation this year?

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Each event in a story takes place within a scene, showing the reader the action as it happens.

Short stories typically consist of only one or two scenes, while novels contain many. They vary in length, with some only a few paragraphs long and others covering many pages. However, most scenes follow a pattern similar to the typical story arc, beginning with a hook, building conflict or tension in the middle, and ending with a change in time/place, or a suspenseful moment (cliffhanger).

Each scene should serve a purpose in the story. It might:

  •   introduce or develop a conflict, theme, or character
  •   establish the setting (time period or place)
  •   create atmosphere (romantic, suspenseful, etc.)
  •   provide information that moves the plot forward

An author may use exposition to summarize what’s going on rather than including scenes to show all of the action as it happens. This provides a transition between scenes, and helps adjust the pacing of the story.

  

 

How do you determine if a scene is necessary? Do you like scenes that end on cliffhangers?

 

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In fiction the main storyline is the central focus, but there may be secondary plots involved, too. These subplots can pertain to the main characters or minor characters, and may be entwined with the larger plot. For example, the hero may be running for political office while also dealing with his wife’s alcoholism. Or, the heroine may have a brother who is involved in illegal activities that she is unaware of but which eventually cause conflict she must deal with.

Subplots should support the main plot but also be able to stand alone, with a beginning, middle, and end of their own. They may run through the entire story, or be resolved earlier. Often they’ll merge with the main plot at the story’s climax.

Subplots can enhance a story in several ways:

  1. Create tension or conflict
  2. Develop characters
  3. Help resolve the story’s outcome
  4. Give the story added depth
  5. Reinforce the theme
  6. Introduce characters or conflict to be featured in a future book
  7. Affect the pacing

Often subplots are incorporated into a story by using multiple viewpoint characters in alternating chapters. For instance, in the romance genre the heroine’s viewpoint is generally the primary one but the hero’s viewpoint is also used, giving depth to both characters. In many suspense stories, the author will focus on the protagonist’s viewpoint but include chapters from secondary characters’ viewpoints in order to create tension by revealing events the main character isn’t aware of.

Short stories typically don’t have more than one or two subplots, if any. Novels will have several that are of varying importance to the main storyline, but all subplots should support the main plot rather than overshadow it.

  

Can you think of any ways using subplots can be detrimental to the story instead of enhancing it? How many subplots is too many?

 

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In general, mysteries follow the typical story structure of an enticing beginning, a middle building tension to the climax, and a satisfying ending. Sometimes these stories feel more like a circle, though, as they may open with a crime (often a murder) or other event that needs investigating and end with that mystery being solved. Many of them are part of a series of books that have the same protagonist. Those books may end with an event that leaves open the possibility of a new mystery.

Mysteries tend to be somewhat formulaic, with subgenres that have characteristics readers can rely on. The protagonists range from hard-boiled detectives to amateur sleuths and can be any age. Though characterization and setting are important elements, the plot is always the central focus of the story.

Clues are interspersed throughout the story so readers feel involved in solving the mystery along with the protagonist. An occasional red herring to throw the detective—and readers—off track is fine, but the twists and turns of the plot must make sense when the outcome is revealed. Mysteries must be solved using logic rather than supernatural means or deus ex machina.

This is a genre that’s popular with readers of all ages. Some mysteries involve elements of romance, fantasy, or suspense, and the degree of danger to the protagonist varies. Factual accuracy is important, and certain types of mysteries require extensive research to create a believable story.

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Some common types of mysteries are:

The Cozy: usually involves an amateur sleuth in a small-town setting, with little violence involved

—For more on cozies, check out http://www.cozy-mystery.com/Definition-of-a-Cozy-Mystery.html

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Private Eyes: a hired investigator follows clues to solve the mystery       

—A good site for more info is http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/PI.shtml

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Hard-boiled Detectives: police investigate crimes involving violence, with a gritty feel to the story

—If you’re interested in crime fiction, you might enjoy http://www.crimeculture.com/

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For a more complete description of subgenres, check out http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/genres.shtml  or  http://ticket2write.tripod.com/id29.html

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For more tips on writing mysteries, here are a few helpful sites:

http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/genrefiction/tp/mysteryrules.htm  General mystery writing tips

http://www.right-writing.com/child-mysteries.html  Writing mysteries for kids

http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/floyd.shtml  Writing short stories

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What type of mystery stories do you enjoy? Who are some of your favorite mystery authors? Who is your favorite fictional detective?

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