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: Digging Deeper With Characters

Yes! Being a Better Writer has returned to Monday!

Honestly, I think I just got lucky this week in not being called into work today, but even so, it feels good to be working on BaBW on a Monday again! This is the day when it’s supposed to go down … Well, up, technically.

Today is also the first day we’ll be going off of Topic List IX! That’s right, new list, new topics!

Which brings us to today’s topic of choice: digging deeper with characters!

This is a topic I actually only added to the list recently, in light of some of my own reading experiences. You see, about a week ago I stumbled across a short story and blitzed through it, only to end up thoroughly nonplussed.

I’ll be frank. It wasn’t a very well written story. The dialogue was poor, the grammar even less impressive, the pacing nonexistent, tell instead of show everywhere, etc, etc. It was clearly someone’s first or second work … more likely the former. So lots of issues, both little and large. That’s just how a first work goes, though.

Anyway, the issue that stood out most to me, however, was the one around which the “crux” of the story itself resolved. The story was centered around two characters, one trying to get to know some secrets about the other in order to be less “alone” (essentially). But … it completely fell flat. And since this was the purpose of the story (these two characters interacting), everything else that was wrong with the work sort of fell by the wayside in the path of this largest omission. Sure, there were pacing problems, grammar issues, etc, but the core that the story wanted to deliver, nay, promised to deliver, that of a character-driven piece, was completely whiffed.

Why? Simple: It didn’t give its characters any narrative depth or weight. They were simply … pieces, for lack of a better word. Static markers being moved along a timeline. They reacted and they moved, but only in the same way that a game piece moves and reacts. They may have taken a position or “moved” from place to place, but they were still essentially markers for “Character A” and “Character B,” with little nuance or action outside of that.

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Being a Better Writer: Body Language

How do you show that a character is angry? Or nervous? How do you show that two characters are not on the best of terms with one another while they are on decent standing with another member of their group? Or that one of them is nervous? Jumpy?

Now, note my usage of show in the questions above. I didn’t ask how a writer could tell a reader of any of those things. No, I asked how they could show them. Once more, we come back to the old show versus tell discussion, except this time, I don’t want to focus as much on the mechanics of showing versus tell as I do on one small, simple question: How do you show a character being angry, nervous, or upset without simply telling the reader? How do you get those emotions across without simply pointing out to the reader that “Samantha was angry” or using the dreaded “ly” adverb? Especially if we’re writing from a perspective that isn’t the focal point of the emotion we want to get across?

Which is why today, we’re going to talk about body language in our writing. This might test our observational skills a little (after all, how often do you just watch conversation?), as well as our understanding of social graces and signals. And we’re going to look at what goes into a silent conversation.

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Being a Better Writer: Common Problems with Character Emotion

This post was originally written and posted December 1st, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

After almost a year of doing this, I’ve covered a lot of the more general subjects, so as I was considering what to cover next, I decided that today, I’d dive into some specifics. Something that I have a strong rapport with: realistic characters.

More specifically, we’re going to look how writers handle giving their characters emotions, and where a lot of the common pitfalls occur.

So right from the start, I’m going to assume we’re all on the same page here. We want our characters to have emotion. We want them to be well-rounded, well developed … real, in other words. We want characters who are complex, with multiple facets to their character who remind us of real people. We want a character who seems real. We do not want a flat character.

But the challenge is that writing such a character is quite difficult, and many authors fall into pitfalls along the way. And I’m not speaking of just novice writers out there either, plenty of long-term authors can still be guilty of making any number of these mistakes, falling into traps by either cutting corners or not realizing what they’ve done. And for it, their work suffers. Characters become “props” in a story, interchangeable parts that simply drop into scenes or events to fulfill a purpose.

So let’s look at the earliest traps first—the ones that trip up the youngest writers—before we move on to the more advanced stuff. These are errors that—make no mistake—experienced writers still make, but are more likely to be found in younger writer’s material. Errors that can be easily overcome with a little effort and work, but still manage to trip people up.

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Being a Better Writer: The Thought Process

So, today’s topic actually came to me only yesterday morning whilst on my flight home. I was at 30,000 feet (or whatever cruising altitude was for that flight) and suitably armed, as is my custom, with every type of boredom-defense I can fit in my backpack that will work on an airplane. At the moment, my tool of choice was two-fold: My Zune (yes, I have a Zune, and it has endured eight years and far, far more punishment than any other MP3 player my immediate family has tried), and my kindle. Which means that yes, I was a reading, and perhaps—okay, definitely—reading with a critical eye.

Anyway, I noticed something as I read through the first few chapters. It was something that I’ve observed before in other books, but because this book actually shifted its own stance as it moved into later chapters, my attention was captured by it all the more closely. I noted the absolute lack of “it” in the early chapters, and then as the story moved on, “it” began to appear more and more, changing the tone of the book as it came. The more “it” showed up, the happier with the book I became, as, I would hazard, did the author.

What was “it?” Well, to be honest, it was something quite simple. Something very straightforward and elegant, but something that still misses entire books.

It was the character thinking.

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