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Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Orson Scott Card on Your Contract with the Reader

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Excerpt from Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card:


Whenever you tell a story, you make an implicit contract with the reader. Within the first few paragraphs or pages, you tell the reader implicitly what kind of story this is going to be; the reader then knows what to expect, and holds the thread of that structure throughout the tale. . . .

The rule of thumb is this: Readers will expect a story to end when the first major source of structural tension is resolved. If the story begins as an idea story, the reader expects it to end when the idea is discovered, the plan unfolded. If the story begins as a milieu story, the readers will gladly follow any number of story lines of every type, letting them be resolved here and there as needed, continuing to read in order to discover more of the milieu. A story that begins with a character in an intolerable situation will not feel finished until the character is fully content or finally resigned. A story that begins with an unbalanced world will not end until the world is balanced, justified, reordered, healed—or utterly destroyed beyond hope of restoration.

It’s as if you begin the story by pushing a boulder off the top of a hill. No matter what else happens before the end of the story, the reader will not be satisfied until the boulder comes to rest somewhere.

Work Cited:

Card, Orson Scott. Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing). Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1988. 54–55. Print.

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: William Noble on Subtlety and Misdirection

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Excerpt from Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble:

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: William Noble on Subtlety and Misdirection |

We speak of subtlety and misdirection because the story moves with veils and whisps and bare outlines, and there’s no attempt to ring a bell or blow a whistle so the reader’s attention can be lassoed like a runaway calf. What this type of writing requires is a careful assessment of how much or how little to offer the reader, keeping in mind that we don’t want to be unfair, and we don’t want to obfuscate beyond a reasonable point. It means we must come up with at least one plot-hyper [an element of uncertainty and tension], and we must plant the key somewhere in the text. It doesn’t do much good if we expect the reader to deduce things from vague clues because, then, we’ve exchanged subtlety for unreasonable expectation. Go back to Conan Doyle and Poe—both planted their plot-hypers in the body of their stories, the subtleties and misdirection came, not from obfuscation or vagueness, but from knowledge of the way we tend to think. How many of us are lulled by the steadiness of routine? The same thing done the same way at the same time and in the same place. Would we wonder about sinister consequences if the routine broke down once or twice? Human nature, we’d call it, nothing works perfectly every time!

Of course, Sherlock Holmes wasn’t quite so fooled.

Work Cited:

Noble, William. Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing). Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1994. 122. Print.

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Tom Chiarella on Silence

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Excerpt from Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella:

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Tom Chiarella on Silence |

There are moments when silence comes naturally to a character or scene. In these cases, silence seems the natural answer, an extension of the exchange between two people. . . .

There are moments when nothing can be said. Many things might stand behind this sort of silence. Pain. Conflict. resolve. Here, the person stops speaking because silence is the only answer. Silence is the response. . . .

Assume you’re writing a scene in which two brothers are arguing in a bar. They reach a moment during which the younger brother will reveal his secret. Say he stole money from his brother at a low point and since then he’s felt himself in a spiral. You lean back in your chair and decide to let the conversation make the choice. You wait to hear the words of the younger brother, to feel for the tension in what he says next. You expect it to come easily. The story has been building toward this for days now. But hours pass. . . . Hold on. What if the brother didn’t speak? What if he held the secret? What if he said nothing? . . .

Maybe there’s another way to continue this exchange. Work against your expectations of what should be said. Say less. Say nothing. Let the scene take the weight. . . .

When a character goes silent, holds back or turns away in a moment like that, much is revealed. That silence stands as an act in itself. That silence might heighten tension or provide resolution, signal a parting of ways or, by contrast, an agreement. Sometimes the answer lies in not speaking, in keeping quiet.

Work Cited:

Chiarella, Tom. Writing Dialogue. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1998. 80–82. Print.

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Eric and Ann Maisel on Fiction as Experimental Psychology

Monday, August 17, 2015

Excerpt from What Would Your Character Do?: Personality Quizzes for Analyzing Your Characters by Eric and Ann Maisel:

What Would Your Character Do

A writer gets inside his sleepless, blue character and discovers that she is blue because she has contrived a loveless marriage that made sense from one point of view, the security angle, but was a horrible mistake from the purely human angle, since her husband is a cipher. A clinician says it’s a major depression. A writer says, “Hmm. Given this inner conflict, given that she really does love her walk-in closet but hates her husband, what is she going to do? What if I bring in, not a handsome stranger, but someone she’d never look at twice under ordinary circumstances but who, by virtue of the fact that she is so conflicted, begins to attract her in an obsessional way? Wouldn’t that be interesting?”

A writer sets up his own amazing experiment: his work of fiction. He says to himself, “How would a guilty conscience play itself out in a character who thinks that he is entitled to murder but discovers he doesn’t feel all that entitled?” The writer runs his experiment: He writes Crime and Punishment. He may think that he knows how his novel must end, but he must still write the novel—run the experiment, as it were—to know for sure. Until he inhabits the landscape he has decided to investigate, he can’t be certain his characters are going to do what, at the moment of inception, he supposes that they must do. . . . The psychological legitimacy of the journey is the writer’s paramount concern.

Work Cited:

Maisel, Eric, and Ann Maisel. What Would Your Character Do?: Personality Quizzes for Analyzing Your Characters (Elements of Fiction Writing). Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2006. 7. Print.

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Nancy Kress on Taking a Wrong (Story) Turn

Friday, August 14, 2015

Excerpt from Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress:

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

Characters who overreact indicate that the situation itself isn’t interesting enough, so you’re trying to rev up the excitement level with histrionics. Out-of-character actions indicate either that your plot is wrong for these people or these people are the wrong ones to be inhabiting your plot. Long “this-is-why-I-behaved-like-that” speeches indicate a gap in characterization. If we know these people well enough, their actions should make sense to us without lengthy explanation. It’s only when you haven’t shown what your people are really like that we need after-the-fact explanations of their behavior.

In each of these cases, the solution is the same. Abandon the outline. It doesn’t work. You now have two choices. If your characters are taking off in directions you didn’t anticipate, rejoice and go with them. This means that even if your plot is now dead, your characters are still very much alive. Follow their lead and see if a new plot emerges from the unplanned actions you now prefer to write.

But if abandoning the outline and giving your characters their heads doesn’t get your creative juices flowing again, you’ll have to try something more drastic. Read over the story or novel. Where was the last place you were genuinely interested? Was it the second scene? Chapter three? Wherever that point occurred, discard everything after it. Then sit down and build a new plot on what’s left.

Work Cited:

Kress, Nancy. Beginnings, Middles & Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing). Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. 97. Print.

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Jordan Rosenfeld on Character-Related Plot Threads

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Excerpt from Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Make a Scene

At the same time as you establish that your protagonist is a smack-talking hooligan with seductive eyes and a mop of brown curls, or a lonely librarian who reads mystery novels and winds up investigating an actual crime, in this first section of your narrative, you also need to establish:

  • Involvement. What is your protagonist’s relationship to the events of the significant situation? Is the event his fault, centered around him in some way; did he accidentally stumble into it, or is he integral to it?
  • The stakes. What he stands to lose or gain as a result of the above-mentioned events will create necessary tension and drama.
  • Desires. What he desires, from material goods to deep and abiding love, will inform the stakes and his intentions.
  • Fears. What he fears, from bodily harm to not obtaining his desire, will also inform the stakes.
  • Motivation. What reasons does he have to act upon the events of the significant situation? What is he driven by?
  • Challenges. How does the significant situation challenge his life, views, status, other people, his status quo, etc.?
  • __________________________________________
    Work Cited:

    Rosenfeld, Jordan E. Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. 169. Print.

    Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Donald Maass on Humor in Fiction

    Wednesday, August 12, 2015

    Excerpt from Chapter 7, “Hyperreality,” in The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass


    It’s one thing to crack a joke or be occasionally witty; it’s another thing altogether to be funny for four hundred pages. But that is what it takes. Humor is cumulative. Laughter builds. Have you ever enjoyed a comedian’s routine? When do you laugh the hardest, at the beginning or the end? Toward the end, of course, because the comedian’s outrageous outlook takes a while to overwhelm you.

    So it is with fiction. For humor to come through in a novel, it needs to be bigger and more relentless than most authors realize. You can crack yourself up at the keyboard but barely raise a smile on your readers’ faces. To slay those readers, you need to hammer their funny bones like Noah nailing the Ark.

    The malnourishment of comic manuscripts is a shame, too, because the methods of mirth are so plentiful. They’re even free. Here are a few of them, on me:

  • hyperbole
  • wit
  • biting comment (think insults)
  • ironic juxtaposition and reversal
  • escalation of the mildly ridiculous
  • being extremely literal (“Who’s on first?”)
  • funny name and word choices
  • deadpan delivery of dumb remarks
  • deliberate misunderstanding
  • unlikely points of view
  • extreme personas or voices
  • stereotyping
  • __________________________________________
    Work Cited:

    Maass, Donald. “The World of the Novel” in The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. 169. Print.


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