Classic Being a Better Writer: Some of the Small Things

It’s time for another Classic Being a Better Writer post! Rejoice, newcomers and old fans alike, and get ready to travel back in time to an older day, a day wherein writing topics were discussed!

Which really doesn’t make this post that different from what currently goes up the site, except that the BaBW posts you’re about to see here are old rather than new. Because Classic posts are all about returning to some of the posts of old in order to introduce newer readers to the admittedly bogglingly-large archive of BaBW posts. At four years with a new post almost every week … it is a bit of an archive dump.

This week? We take an in-depth look at some small but surprisingly vital elements of character design and writing in your works,  things that may seem unimportant, but can really provide that extra polish to make your story shine. In other words, some of the small things.


Underpowered and Overpowered Characters—
The real question that they want to ask, I feel, is this: how do I create a character with enough skills and talent to overcome what I place in his path without giving them too many skills and talents?

Because you see, that’s the real challenge that these writers are worried about. They want to create characters that can survive everything that the plot is going to throw at them, but they don’t want their character to just magically have the skills to survive everything. And of course, they don’t want a character who survives off of dumb-luck either. Both of these approaches will—while they work at first—gradually eat away at the reader’s enjoyment of the story. They may not ruin it (after all, there are plenty of other moving parts to enjoy), but they certainly will lower the expectations.


Showing Character Through Dialogue—
So, to start off this week’s writing guide, I have a question for all of you. What’s the difference between these two sentences?

“No thanks,” he said.

and

“No, thanks,” he said.

At first glance, any editor can tell you what the problem is. The first sentence is grammatically incorrect, while the second is grammatically correct.

Except therein lies our problem. Because while the second is grammatically correct, contextually, it’s incorrect.


Worldbuilding Colloquialisms—
See, the thing is, colloquialisms and slang are one of those things that we don’t often think about unless it’s pointed out to us, because by definition a colloquialism is not something formally recognized (except in title) nor literately correct. A colloquialism is just a quirk of day-to-day dialogue, an odd phrase or word that has taken on a new—and often temporary—meaning. They’re rooted in culture. Deeply rooted in it, in fact. So deeply rooted that most of the time, we don’t even think of them. We just use them, lose them, and pick up new ones.


 

 

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Being a Better Writer: Tragedy and Hubris

“All the honors go to the tragedian for chewing up the scenery, while the comedian, who has to be much more subtle to be funny, is just loudly criticized when he doesn’t come through.”
Attributed to Edmund Gwenn

Welcome back, readers! It’s Monday here, which means that it’s time for another Being a Better Writer post! Even better, today’s topic, Tragedy and Hubris, is the last topic on Topic List IX! Which means we’ll be moving to list X next week! New topics, new things to discuss …

Anyway, that’s for next week. But while we’re on the topic of not being quite on topic yet, don’t forget that the Rolling Sale is still going strong with Colony up for grabs at 63% off. As long as you’re reading this article in the week it released, that is. If you’re not well … check the book out anyway. Check the books tab!

Okay, so that out of the way, let’s get into today’s topic: Tragedy and hubris. Some of you might be wondering why I started a discussion on the topic of tragedy with a long-form version of the famous saying “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” since such a quote is usually used to discuss comedy (and in fact, I have listed it before as a reason for not yet being comfortable discussing comedy). And yes, while is is often associated with comedy for what it says, I think there’s some value in looking at what the original attribution says about tragedy as well, even if in jest.

Yes, make no mistakes, while it roundly mocks tragedy … it does make a good point about a popular perception of tragedy anyone who wants to write tragedy should consider: That it’s easy. Which, in turn, is why you see tragedy being an extremely common theme among young writers. Especially in fanfiction. Oh man, go to any fanfiction site that uses tags as a way of sorting/categorizing stories and select their “tragedy” tag and you will be flooded with stories bearing the mark. Enough to drown yourself in a sea of salty, melodramatic tears.

Now, those of you who are familiar with some of my prior postings may have noticed a “red flag” in that last sentence that may have brought pause: Melodramatic. Yes, that term that describes overblown, overdone, over-emphasized sadness and suffering that’s just so sad you really should be sad and why aren’t you sad yet! Yes, I use that term, and I use it here with purposeful intent, because quite honestly, 99% of those tragedies you find by using a tag search like that aren’t tragedies. They come back to this misconception that “tragedy is easy.” A new writer wants to write something “good,” and whether acting consciously or not, decides to write a “tragedy” because it’s easy.

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Being a Better Writer: When Characters Fail

Welcome back, readers, to another Monday Being a Better Writer post! Today we’ve got a request topic, one that hopefully I’ll be able to do justice to the satisfaction of the one who asked. In addition, it’s also one of the last topics left on Topic List IX! We’re close to Topic List X, and I’m glad, because I’ve already got some pretty neat topics on there to go over.

But that’s in the future. For the now, let’s get going on today’s topic: When Characters Fail.

I’ll admit, I bounced around a bit on topic titles for this one, and not without good reason. For a moment it was “Failing to Succeed,” and then almost became “Letting Characters Fail.” But finally, I settled on When Characters Fail, rather than on letting, and I think that distinction is important.

See, if we go into our characters failing with the mindset that we’re “letting” them fail (and in fact, are), then we might be approaching our story in the wrong way. Sure, we’re giving our characters the “try/fail” cycle that they need, and they’re going through it, but here’s the thing about “letting” them fail. When we “let” our characters fail, then they’re not the ones acting on the try/fail cycle. We as authors are. We’re looking at our story and going “Okay, you can fail here, this is a good spot for it,” and letting the failure happen where we decide it works, rather than simply letting the characters be free to fail when their own choices drop it on them.

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Being a Better Writer: Showing Character and Setting with Small Details

First of all, I apologize for how late this post is (it’s Tuesday). Turns out, I’d almost forgotten that I had a meeting at my part-time Monday. Now, I can’t work currently, but I can attend a meeting. So I did, forgetting until Sunday night that this automatically conflicted with the Monday morning Being a Better Writer post. I then got up a little early to try and work something out, but didn’t get too far before I had to head off to work.

Side note: The knee is still recovering. Trying to get my back pay for the several weeks worth of work I was unable to do. We’ll see what happens. Wish me luck!

Anyway, so today’s topic. I want to dive right into this one headway, because it’s a good one. Often here before I’ve talked about show versus tell, right? And yes, that’s show versus tell, not show don’t tell. The first is proper (all things in balance). The latter is overblown purple prose taught as a guideline to push writers into showing, but then unfortunately not untaught.

Anyway, there are, if memory serves, several blog posts on that very topic here on the site. But I want to go one step further and tackle something that usually comes right on the heels of telling someone to “show” something.

The question of “how?”

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Being a Better Writer: Order of Operations

Hello again, readers, and welcome to yet another Being a Better Writer post with an ominous, math-based title!

I know, I know. Forty percent of you clicked away after reading that sentence. Another fifty percent didn’t make it past seeing the title. And the twenty percent that are left? They know what’s wrong with that last statement.

Actually, if you’re quick on the uptake, you might have realized that there’s more than one error in that last paragraph. The first most probably spotted, but the second …? Well, it has to do with our title, which means that this is as good a point as any to dive right in and get into things.

So, let’s go ahead and start then. Except … unlike normal, I actually want to start today with a bit of a hands-on moment. A writing prompt, if you will. You may have noticed that there’s a scenic picture below. See it? You might need to hit the jump. Anyway, it’s a picture of the Kennecott Copper Mine ghost town in Alaska. This particular picture was shared to Reddit, IIRC, so hopefully it’s all right to use it here. I didn’t take it, is what I’m saying, and the goal here is to use it for educational purposes. You can click on it to see it in all its glory (which I recommend).

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Character Growth

Trying something new here today. It used to be, back when I was transferring over posts from my old blog to this site, that Thursday or Friday would be home to a Blast from the Past post—essentially an excuse to go back to one of the old Being a Better Writer posts that wasn’t on Unusual Things yet and transfer it over (albeit with a little editing). Those posts ran for a little over year, if memory serves, but inevitably had to stop, as I caught up with the present day.

But … that left a large gap in my posting schedule. Now, I’ll admit that I’m not a frequent blogger like a lot of other authors, mostly because—no offense—I spend that time writing on the books rather than writing on the blog. Monday’s BaBW is the only regular exception. Otherwise I don’t have much to say unless something catches my attention. But that leaves dead-time on the blog, and on the internet, dead-time is kind of a literal term.

So, the solution? Classic posts!

Okay, it’s not a perfect solution. And I don’t think I’l throw these up every week, but here’s the idea: BaBW has a pretty big backlog by now. At least 200 articles on all sorts of writing topics. So, from time to time, I’m going to pick a topic, then gather three BaBW posts on that topic and post about them in one of these “Classic BaBW” posts. That way newcomers can easily find older articles that they may not have clicked through the archives for, and recurring readers can get a nice moment of “Hey, I’d like to reread that!”

So, that’s the intro. Now onto the post! Today’s topic: Character Growth! Three articles about developing characters from the archives of Unusual Things!

Character Development and Character Growth—
Characters. There’s no force more central to any story you tell. Be it a run-and-gun thriller or a dramatic love dodecahedron, a tale focused around a lone wanderer exploring a crumbling city or a baker expanding her rivalry with a butcher (that last one sounds like a potential rom-com, doesn’t it?), your stories are going to have characters. Characters that laugh, characters that scream, characters that live … Well, you get the picture.

Exploring Character Growth and Conflict—
So, to begin with, I view character growth as having two distinct types. The first is the growth of the character to the reader, and the second is the growth of the character to themselves.

Showing Character Through Dialog—
Now let’s put this in a scene. We have a grizzled FBI man, undercover on a train, sitting in his seat and pretending to be a newspaper. His passenger, a woman who has no idea who he is, turns towards him and asks “Would you like some gum?”

Now, let’s look at his response. The grammatically correct response is “No, thanks.” However, what differences does this imply about his character over “No thanks,” without any pause? One is timely, implies a pause and perhaps some thought. The other is brusque, pre-determined, almost dismissive, and can be more so based on what action he couples with his statement.

 

 

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Being a Better Writer: Detailing Characters

Whoa. Did I wake up late today. Noon, in fact. Wow.

But you know what? I feel excellent! Last night marks, I think, the first full night of sleep I’ve gotten in since … crud … Since I returned from my quick Alaska trip. And even there I was playing catch up. I think that today I might almost be caught up.

So … today’s post is a little late. Sorry. But I really don’t feel bad. I feel really good. Crud, I might even go get some exercise today!

Also, really quick before we get to today’s topic, don’t forget the 24-hour sale hitting on April 19th! Even if you already own a few books, it’s a chance to either complete your collection or share your favorites with someone else!

Okay, all that out of the way? Let’s get down to business with today’s topic of choice: Detailing characters.

Hopefully, that title has done its job properly and drawn most of you in. Made you think. Many, I expect, upon seeing the term “detail” and “character” in the same context would assume that the topic of choice would be about how to create or write detailed characters. Which, to be  fair, is a very good topic. Hence why I’ve made a number of posts on it already. And yes, this topic does sort of align with that. It’s definitely going to get the tag.

But … I didn’t say “detailed characters.” I said detailing, which is just a little bit different. Detailing is something a bit more specific.

It can also be a verb, describing an action instead of being a thing. So, for example, I can talk about detailing as a concept … but I can also say “Oh, I was detailing X” and the statement still works.

Right, right, enough background. So what is detailing, and what does it have to do with your characters? Simple. Detailing is the act of adding small, decorative features to a building, sculpture, painting, or other piece of art. Hence the name. You’re adding small “details” to an item in order to enhance the whole. Like molding along the edge of a room, or a slight upwards crease to the lines around a sculpture’s eyes. Small, tiny details that enhance the whole when pulled back.

Most of you can probably see where I’m going with this now. Maybe. You’re thinking about the small details of your characters, right? How to add them in to enhance what the reader already knows?

Well, that’s good. In fact, I think I wrote another post that touched on that at one point. Maybe more than one. Which is good, because I’m not repeating that today. No, I’m not going to be talking about your primary characters at all.

No, today I’m stepping in another direction with our detailing. I’m talking about secondary and tertiary characters. And just like that, the whole situation has changed.

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