Sunday, September 23, 2012

Make Your Reader Hold Their Breath

From this post, number two reads like this:

When your character trips and stumbles and stops to question themselves, the readers will hold their breath.

So, you’ve got your story arc (or something that remotely resembles some sort of an albeit questionable arc). Maybe you’ve outlined, maybe you’ve jotted down some rough notes, maybe you’ve got the whole damn detailed and coherent synopsis, or maybe it’s all still stewing in your head. Whatever the case may be, cool. This is a good step.

What about your character arc?

First of all, what is a character arc? It runs in tandem with your rising action, and it’s also referred to as character growth/change. Whatever your character is missing in the opening, they obtain it by the end. Your character at the beginning of the story will not be the same character by the climax of your story. This is good. Static characters that are impervious to change won’t resonate with your reader.

Maybe this sounds a bit daunting, but don’t worry: characters tend to take on lives of their own. As soon as you drop them in the story, your character should come alive. Don’t try to control them. They’ll resist. And if they do, let them. They’re real people, and I know this sounds hippie-ish, but treat your characters like real people. If you’re having trouble caring about them, then stop and remember that they’re real people. Make sure you understand their conflicts, their desires, and how these things will be revved up by your story arc.

But the journey from the beginning to the end can’t be easy-peasy. If resolutions and answers are coming to your character without any form of trial or struggles, rethink the story arc. You’re not challenging your character.

How does someone challenge their character?

Bad example:

Cindy wanted a candy cane off the tree. So, she reached up and grabbed a candy cane.

Good example:

Cindy wanted a candy cane off the tree. Pools of lava bubbled at her feet, and she had no shoes. A bottomless mote with a ravenous alligator encircled the tree, and she didn’t know how to swim. The presents were actually bombs in disguise, and she could make out the sound of ticking. She crumbled to her knees and stared at her plastic-wrapped goal, gleaming against the pine needles.

Replace Cindy with your character, replace the pools of lava and the alligator and the bombs with trials, and the candy cane with your character’s goal. Challenge your character. Bring them to the very edge of their abilities and make them teeter and sweat and hesitate.

The despair, the questioning of oneself, the doubt, it’s all part of the growing process. “I’m scared, I don’t know if I can do this” makes the reader think “Try, just try, come on and become awesome.” When a character has worked so hard, earning our respect (in one way or another, no matter how simple or twisted), and they fall, the reader urges that character to get back up and come out wiser and stronger. The reader wants the character to be challenged and to earn their goal, and every trip and stumble along the way is part of that process. And when you come to one of these moments, don’t cheat your character or the reader.

Bad example:

Cindy crumbled to her knees and stared at her plastic-wrapped goal. It was hopeless. Oh, but wait, she had learned how to make a hang glider out of twigs and palm fronds, so she set to work and flew over the traps and plucked the candy cane from the tree.

Good example:

Cindy walked the entire perimeter four times. Her feet burned from the scalding rock. The air was thin in her lungs. She pulled at her hair and stole glances of the path back home. It was hopeless. She couldn’t do this on her own. Maybe the candy cane wasn’t meant for her at all, and maybe the mocking of the kids who had doubted her would wear off after some time. After all, there was nothing she could do.


This adds to the relatable human element of a character, and it’s in these moments that we see the character arc shine through. Even if your main character is the antagonist, readers need that connectable human element – it will make a fan out of your readers, make them bite their nails and turn the page to find out what happens next.

(Also, find part one here!)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Make Your Reader Root For Your Main Character

This possible series will expand upon this post, where I had slapped down some ideas to consider in regards to hitting your reader in the gut.

Number one reads like this:
  1. Make your reader root for your main character(s). Make your character stretch out their arm toward their goal, as far as they can to reach, until their fingertips barely brush it. Make your character want something so much that your reader wants it, too.
Now, this is a lot to unload, but easy to grasp. First of all, if you’re having trouble getting your character motivated to make the steps forward that you need in order to continue as you’ve planned, then this might be one of your problems: your character is without a goal.

That’s not good, but relatively an easy fix.

First of all, your character’s goal should tie into the plot. If you’re the type of writer that creates a plot before the character, be sure that you weave your character and your plot together. This is what will create your premise. Think of the little passages that you read on the back covers of paperbacks, or the inside flap of a dustcover. This is the premise. The premise asks the big question of “What will happen when…?”

If you’re the type of writer that creates the characters and then the plot, your duty is still the same. You’ve got to give your character a desire—a driving force—that propels them headfirst into your plot (or feet-first, depending on what you’re into, you know). This desire can be anything, whether it’s as commercial as wanting to find the right guy from a dating website, or atypical like a man who desires intimacy with a young girl. The desire doesn’t have to be positive, and it doesn’t have to be negative, but it nevertheless must drive your character.

So, once you’ve got your premise and burning coals under your character’s bare feet, how do you make the reader care?

Let’s start with this:
A girl is put in a frozen sleep with her parents to take a ship three-hundred years to another planet?
Well, okay.
A girl who is conscious throughout the entire sleep and is accidentally awoken fifty years too early while her parents are still frozen?
I’m not much of a ships-in-space sci-fi type of reader, but I picked this up and burned right through it because I was sucked in by the human element.

In the early years of Superman and Captain America, people wanted a superhero. Times were bad. War was in the air. People were looking for something, well, super. Nowadays, people want super characters—that are relatable. This is especially crucial in YA (young adult)/teen fiction. We like a character that we can identify with, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to see ourselves in these characters, but we need to be able to connect with them. We need to understand where they’re coming from, whether protagonist or antagonist.

How do you do this?

My favorite way: through suffering.

If you have a villain as a main character, your readership can find themselves rooting for this individual if you give meaning to what they’re doing—if you show that they’ve struggled to get where they are, or are continuing to struggle.

A reader is drawn in by a person who has suffered, but continues to fight for their desire. We want to see people succeed. When someone stands up in front of class to give a speech, we want them to do well, especially if their quivering hands or timid voice reveal they’re scared shitless. We as the audience send them stronger vibes, perhaps smile bigger, or relax our postures to be more open, or laugh a little louder when they attempt self-deprecating humor.

(Am I recalling some sort of traumatic moment in front of class or something?)

We’ve all been there, after all, so we can associate with this fear of failure. We connect with the struggle to succeed. We want people to succeed.

So, whatever your character wants, regardless if they’re the good guy or bad guy or neither of the two, make them work for it. Throw obstacles in their way, force them to struggle, reveal how much they need this ultimate goal, whether they’re aware of their need or not, whether it’s a tangible thing or a fractured idea.

If they fall, make it hurt. If they get back up, make it hurt more. It’s in these moments that your character transcends the page and becomes a real person.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Super Special 250 Word Smash! #5

Sarah and I have had the best idea, and you readers are hopefully going to love it. It's no fair that we get all of the fun and you have to endure our awful stabs and backhands and endure the mean bullets we shoot at you when we trample all over your work and decide it looks better that way, right?

So we're about to change that.

In this newest edition of 250 Words, I will be smashing up Sarah's opening!

That's right, this is the first 250 words to Sarah's project Dance in Shadow and Whisper. This is tough, I'll have to pretend I haven't already read five different incarnations of this book and that I don't already have very personal relationships with all of the characters, so personal that I speak to them on a daily basis and have nicknames for them.

Oh god, this is tough. I don't know if I can do it.

Yes I can.

Author/Not an Editor this time: Sarah
Editor: Victoria

My chest tightened with one final deep breath. I stared at the door handle, simple brass and weathered from its once gossamer brilliance. This whole mission was a joke. I was the joke. There were so many others much more capable than me, others who could handle the foreign outside world. Damn it, I was lucky if I could handle silencing an incoming call on my brother’s cellular telephone gadget.
The doorbell chimed. A disarming melody lulled throughout the house and echoed shrilly in my brain.
It was too late now.
My arm lifted, but my moist palm stopped just short of the sweep of the handle when I saw how my fingers quivered. I hadn’t noticed until then.
There was no reason to be afraid—concerned, perhaps, for my personal wellbeing, but afraid?
Certainly not.
If I had to, I could hole-punch this guy through the chest with my fist.
For now, I settled with clamping my fingers around the cool handle and very deliberately twisting. The door popped open. The fresh, crisp light of early morning flooded the hallway.
There he stood, the embodiment of my fear and apprehension and sweaty palms. He stood nearly half a foot over me, tall for something that had once been human, but his skin was so white that he could pass more for a glowstick than any human I’d ever seen.

(She gave me another version that stopped with the door opening, but I chose this one because the other stops short of introducing my favorite character obviously)

Strong Points --
You've done what you love best, and that's starting us with one hell of a hook. All of these questions, little tidbits of background information woven into Kali's thoughts so seamlessly, they're very natural. I'm not being pounded over the head with all this background information, I'm put right into the story.

Also, we have a great idea of Kali's voice and how she speaks. We already know some about her just from these first words, we know she's super strong, we know she isn't very comfortable with the world outside of her comfy little home, we know she has at least one brother. You've fed us just enough information to keep us wanting more, like WTH is this mission thang? And why'd she answer the door for a human glowstick that's no longer human?

I may be biased, but I also believe you've done a wonderful job with making Kali likable right off the bat. I mean, I'm already endeared to her, just from hearing her silly Kali thoughts. But perhaps this is a question for the readers instead.

I know it's not the action-packed opening you're used to, but I think you began this story just where it needs to begin.

Some Tips -- You did a whole lot emphasizing just how nervous Kali is, you could probably pull back on that or disperse it some. I see her sweaty palms mentioned twice just within this short passage. I get that she is positively freaking out, you do a wonderful job already in communicating such through the little gestures of her shivering fingers and her self doubt, and I know for a fact you can get a little more creative with describing her terror than just a double mention of sweaty palms.

Also, why is she standing at the door before it's rang. I know. I know Kali might have heard him approaching--then again, she might not have. Either way, it seems silly to start with her ready for action at the door before the action has entirely begun.

After that, my problems are nitpicking problems, things like "lulled" and "shrilly" contrasting each other too much to make sense (and, in all honesty, Kali's family might have a doorbell that's more friendly on their ears).

Would I keep reading?

I already have! Yes! This is one hell of a solid opening if you ask me. You've already started to build some tension and gotten me asking questions like why my favorite character hasn't spoken yet. It's not an explosion or something openly flashy, but this proves that a good introduction doesn't have to be in order to grab your reader's attention. <3

First 250 Words Smash! #4x2

Most Wonderful Author: Kendra || Hintsloveswords @ tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
History: First submission

Original Post:

The keep was burning.

House Morier, the most powerful house in the kingdom besides Marlow itself, had fallen.

The true culprit of the act will never be determined, but anyone with any mind knew that Syson was behind it. Syson, the man who made it very clear that he hated his brother, King Rogan, and wanted the throne for himself.

It was well known to the people of the kingdom that House Morier was very close with House Marlow. Why, the young prince himself was betrothed to Morier's infant daughter. It was really no surprise that Syson chose Morier as his first victim.

The screams of the dying could be heard for miles. All of the servants and minor nobility who lived in Keep Morier were burned alive. Lord Raffin and Lady Tara were already dead, of course, killed by Syson's assassins before the fire. Their three children, two adolescent sons and one very young daughter, were said to have been forced to watch their murder, and then killed themselves.

This was not certain, however. There was much confusion that night, and the next morning the keep was silent. Smoke drifted from the blackened ruin of the once magnificent structure like fingers reaching for the sky. The nobility wanted nothing to do with the place, and the lower class kept well clear of it.

Only one strange old woman approached the fallen keep that day, drawn by the weak, pitiful crying of a child.


Tavia clutched the hard hunk of bread and dried meat strips to her chest as she darted through  the countless pairs of legs, her small mouth stretched in a grin. Nothing could dampen her  excitement, not even the few people swatting at her when she bumped into them. The bronze and copper coins jangling in her pocket made her do a little skip in delight. She felt rich. The  coin, along with the food, was going to feed the two of them for at least two weeks. Jorah was  going to be so proud of her!

She was heading into the most crowded part of the market street now, and she had to slow  down in order to get through. Merchants and workers alike shuffled through the street, eyes  downcast and dull, faces drawn and streaked with dust and dirt. Their clothes were tattered  and dirty, just like Tavia’s. Her own sturdy coat had holes worn in the elbows and her trousers  in the knees. The men and women around her paid no attention to the little beggar girl running in their midst, and Tavia liked it that way. Jorah always told her that the less notice you got, the  less likely people would hurt you. Tavia was glad that she was so small, able to slip through  crowds without so much of a second glance.

Finally Tavia happened upon the small abandoned building that she and Jorah called home.

Strong Points
This is much better! Right away I'm drawn into the world you're creating, and as a reader chasing after a character, this is a natural opening and easily lures me into your story without really thinking about it. The questions in the opening are good ones, "Who is Tavia and how did she acquire her hull and what will Jorah think?" Starting out your opening with questions is key, and you've done this well. It's definitely much better than your initial prologue as the beginning!

Also, I like the small sips of world-building you give, what with the coins jangling and the merchants and the workers. You've managed to sneak some atmosphere in there that I really liked without cramming it down the reader's throat! That's tough to do in 250 words.

Some Tips
The passive voice is still getting to you. You've got some moments of it that work, such as: "Their clothes
were tattered and dirty, just like Tavia’s." This is an organic usage of passive that works in context and doesn't take away from the strength of the narrative.

Here's an example that you can tweak:

"The coin, along with the food, was going to feed the two of them for at least two weeks. Jorah was going
to be so proud of her!"

A basic fix for this is very simple:

"The coin, along with the food, would feed the two of them for at least two weeks. Jorah would be so proud of her."

Fewer words, and more power in each word. Also, I eliminated the exclamation point. The emphasis of Tavia's joy is already taken from the context of the sentence. Children are happy when parents/guardians are proud of them. Most of the time, exclamation marks aren't needed in narrative outside of dialogue, because if you're pouring the requisite emotion into the passage, then the exclamation can be inferred.

(I've been told not to use exclamation points in dialogue either, but pfff, I like my exclamatory dialogue!)

Also, be aware of inconsistencies. In the first paragraph, you note that Tavia gets swat at. The second paragraph, no one notices her.

One last tip: repetition. A way to trim down the fat of your manuscript is to look at whether or not you're repeating yourself needlessly. Here's an example:

"Her own sturdy coat had holes worn in the elbows and her trousers in the knees."

The above is implied when you mention the following beforehand:

"Their clothes were tattered and dirty, just like Tavia’s."

I used to have this problem too, and I spent a long time trimming down unnecessary fat from my manuscript. What happened in the end was a quicker, sleeker pacing. I suspect this is a MG (middle grade) or early YA (young adult) novel, in which case pacing is key.

Would I Keep Reading?
I actually caught my eyes moving on looking for the next lines before I was like, "Oh, that's it? Is that really only 250?" which is a good thing. So, in this case, I would have tested the next few pages. Your content is solid so far, all I'd recommend are a few tweaks to your style, which are easily fixed.

Good luck! Lots of ♥ ♥ ♥!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

10 Ways to Hit Your Reader In the Gut

One of the strongest bonds that link us to our favorite stories is the emotional tie, or books that sink a fist right into our guts. If ever you’ve found a book that you couldn’t let go of after the last page, chances are, the author successfully punched you in the spleen. If you’ve ever wondered how to do just that, here are some of my favorite methods:

  1. Make your reader root for your main character(s). Make your character stretch out their arm toward their goal, as far as they can to reach, until their fingertips barely brush it. Make your character want something so much that your reader wants it, too.
  2. When your character trips and stumbles and stops to question themselves, the readers will hold their breath.
  3.  Push your character to their very limit, and then a little further.
  4.  When your character hits the bottom, they should scrape themselves back together and get back up. Give readers a reason to believe in your character.
  5.  If your character is challenging your plot, your plot should challenge your character.
  6.  Leave a trail of intrigue, of questions, of “what if?” and “what next?”
  7.  If a character loses something (a battle, an important memento, part of themselves), they must eventually gain something in equal exchange, whether for good or bad.
  8.  Raise the stakes. Then raise them higher.
  9.  Don’t feel pressured to kill a character (especially simply to generate emotional appeal). A character death should serve the plot, not the shock factor. Like anything else in your story, only do it if it must be done and there’s no other way around it.
  10.  What’s the worst that can happen? Make it happen. Just make sure that the reader never loses hope.