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.


“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: Politics

Oh dear, what have I done? Why did I ever even write this topic down? What was I thinking? And then I picked it?

Actually, it’s not that bad. Some of you readers may have had similar reactions to seeing this topic, considering what it could discuss … and let’s be honest, that is a topic I could discuss, and likely will at another time.

Just not today. No, today’s topic of politics isn’t going to be involved with the real-world, thankfully (because that’s a mess). No, instead I want to talk about the politics in your book. No, not those “social politics” of the theme and whatnot. Not that at all. That’s the other topic, the one most of us dread because it’s so overblown these days.

No, I want to talk about the political sphere of your story. The politics in your story, that the characters are part of. Not the reader.

Now, because I’ve seen this topic broached before at conventions, writing classes, and the like, I can imagine what the average response is to this topic. Either a confused expression (fairly common) or a deadpan,  bored look coupled with the thought “Well, my book doesn’t involve politics or anything like that, so I’m just going to zone out” (which is equally common, in my experience). But … you’re wrong. If you’re thinking that right now, you’re wrong. And here’s why.

Almost every story, no matter the subject, will involve politics of some kind. In some way, from some angle. Politics will be there.

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Being a Better Writer: Don’t Neglect Your Backdrop

Apologies for the delay. My other job scheduled me for several Mondays in a row, and I wasn’t able to get this post done well enough in advance to make the release date. Next week’s post should be done more in advance, however.

There was a post I made here, once, where I brought up the “painted on backdrop.”

If you’ve not seen a lot of old movies, this may take a small bit of explaining, but not much. But in the days before computers, if you wanted to shoot a scene someplace and make it look like somewhere very different (say, your desert lot was perfect for the shoot, but didn’t have the canyon-filled background you needed), you didn’t need to travel somewhere expensive. Instead you would just use a cleverly design backdrop, a piece of canvas with the background you wanted painted over it. Carefully, mind you, so that shadows and whatnot lined up.

Now, sometimes, especially for a film that had either lower production values or was designed to mimic a stage production (such as a musical, where backdrops are a part of the charm), you could clearly see that the characters were interacting in front of the backdrop. But for a lot of other productions, sometimes you would be hard-pressed to tell that what you were seeing wasn’t real.

None of this is news to anyone who’s seen an old movie, or has any familiarity with practical effects. Oftentimes it’s very impressive to see the “how it was done” for an old film and discover what was a special effect, or a model, etc, etc. It’s impressive how often we were all fooled by something!

Okay, okay, so what does this have to do with writing? Good question! Obviously we don’t have painted backdrops.

Or do we?

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Being a Better Writer: Empty Details

Today’s topic is a bit of the inverse of the one I wrote last week. I didn’t intend for this at first—in fact I had no plans for an inverse article when I sat down last Monday; the appearance of this one is entirely coincidence brought about by something I was reading.

But coincidence aside, it’s a worthwhile topic to discuss, because it’s something that can crop up all to easily in fiction … even among experienced authors. For example, while I tend to notice empty details occurring pretty regularly among young writers, I also occasionally find them in finished works as well (one such notice being the result of today’s topic). Given all the time that I’ve spent on this blog discussing the importance of little details and how we can feed things out to our readers, I feel that it’s important, then, to discuss the inverse: empty details.

Empty details are the result of trying to add too much detail to one’s writing. It can stem from a number of sources. Maybe the author in question feels that the isn’t enough going on and tries to liven a scene up by adding more detail. Maybe they’re worried that their dialogue seems sparse (this is one area where this issue seems to crop up most often). Or maybe they’re just trying to reach an arbitrary word count for the day.

It could be any number of reasons. Well, the end result is that they fill their scene with these empty details.

Right, I’ve used that term a couple of times now. What do I mean by it?

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Being a Better Writer: Story Bibles and Other Forms of Story Organization

Well, after a wild weekend consisting of both roller coasters and more viewers in a day to the site than I normally see in six months, I’m back! To those of you who are regular readers, hello again, and to any of you who are new, I hope you like what you see and stick around!

Right, down to business, or brass tacks, or whatever other work-based colloquialism you might be able to think of. Today I’m tackling another reader request topic, but before I do, I’ve started to notice a trend with these. Lately, a lot of the requested topics have been—How to put this?—mostly on one side of the writing spectrum. Dealing with structural topics, such as organization, motivation, or the like, rather than close-in topics like characters, tropes, or plots.

I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ve noticed the trend, hence I’m not going to be using requested topics all the time as I’d like to keep BaBW from focusing solely on one aspect of writing like that. As important as things like motivation, goals, and other bits “surrounding” the act of writing can be, I don’t want to write solely about them for a long period of time because there are readers out there who want to hear about characters, pacing, tropes, and other fun topics that you’ll run into in the act of writing. So in the future I’m going to try to make sure to balance that a little better, as I feel that lately a lot of the topics I’ve discussed have been that “infrastructure,” for lack of a better word, surrounding writing that doesn’t as commonly prove to be an issue with writers.

That said, this week’s topic probably rests somewhere in the middle between those two points. Story bibles, along with other forms of story organization, are a particularly common tool in the toolbox of most writers, even among those that are primarily the “write-as-you-go,” pantsing sort. No matter what someone is working on, there’s usually a point where it can’t hurt to have a little bit of a reminder sitting there to help them keep track of what they’re working towards. Or to have something to serve as reference material.

Now, this is actually trickier to write about than most would probably expect (and certainly moreso than I expect the reader who requested this topic guessed), and not because of how tired I am (pretty tired) but more because this is one of those topics where so much of it boils down to both individual preference between authors and the story itself, changing from project to project. For example, while I usually create a story bible for most of my works, there have been times when I have not. The forth-coming Colony, for instance, despite being a juggernaut of a book and universe, never had a story bible. No, the most I ever wrote up for it was a few lines about one of the main characters back when I was starting out, and a simple checklist timeline of “This needs to happen by the end of the book.” And Colony is one of my longer epics to date.

But it didn’t need a story bible. Though to be fair, it was also a book where I wanted to see how I did pantsing a story, so not having one was deliberate (Knowledge gained from this experiment? It took me twice as long to write Colony—six months—as it did the similar-length story Beyond the Borderlands I wrote right after it which had a full story bible).

My point is that there’s no “right” way for me or anyone else to follow here. There’s no set “proper method” for doing a story bible. There’s no right way to do an outline. At the end of the day, whatever assists you in getting your story written is what you want, and that can be anything from a large, complex story bible to a simple checklist of events you want your story to wind its way across.

No, in this case, the only thing that could be said to be “correct” is that the outline, checklist, bible, or whatever else you create does its job in helping you formulate and write your story. As long as it does that, its good. That’s all it needs to do!

Right, now, that all said, there are undoubtedly a few readers out there who are looking for a few pointers on where to start, so let’s go a bit past the name. Let’s look at story bibles, but also a few other other frameworks of organization and planning that various authors make use of.

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Being a Better Writer: Static Backdrop

You ever watch an old movie? Not like black-and-white, pre-talkies era, but forties or fifties-era flick. You know, color, but early color, surprisingly regular inclination to break into song and dance?

It was a thing.

Anyway, if you’ve ever sat down and watched one of these older flicks with friends, family, or even on your lonesome, it’s likely that at some point during the runtime of the film, a comment similar to the following was made:

Hey, you! Don’t walk into the backdrop!

For those of you among my readers that are younger, or perhaps haven’t watched a lot of older movies, this comment comes about because in older films, they didn’t have the amazing special effects we have today, where different scenes can be easily stitched together with computer composites and the like. No, in the old days there were much more difficult tricks for creating certain shots. If you wanted to have your characters come around a road and into view of an ancient city, for example, you couldn’t just throw together some awesome CGI and call it a day. That just wasn’t an option. Nor was building a real “fake” ancient city from scratch (though a few over-the-top productions did their best to get close).

No, what these old movies had to do was find another solution. A popular one was using a model (if you’ve ever seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a certain line may be coming to mind right now lampshading this effect). The studio crew would make a detailed model replica of the ancient city, and trick photography would be used to place the actors in front of it at an angle that made everything line up correctly (or they’d use an early form of “green screen,” there were many methods of pulling this trick off).

Of course, a model costs money. And so for many, a much cheaper, easier solution was used, one which had served stage plays for centuries: the painted backdrop.

It was pretty easy to do. Get a large cloth and a bunch of painters, describe the scene and the angle at which it’ll be shot, and then hang it in the back of the scene. Have your actors walk around in front of it and act as if it’s the real deal, and boom, problem solved.

Well, almost. As you can imagine, it’s usually pretty obvious to the audience what the backdrop is. Any number of little details can set it off—and the lower the film’s budget, the more likely that you’ll notice them. The background rippling in some unseen breeze, for example, is a little telling. Or the fact that much of the film is three-dimensional right up until a certain point where everything becomes slightly flat. Or maybe it’s that the lighting isn’t right, and you can tell that the character is about to run into a “background”. It can even be something as simple as a backdrop of a bustling city that is—often without comment—completely stationary or suffering from sudden, jarring movements.

Now, my point here isn’t to disparage old films. They did what they could with what they had … even if sometimes it made it look like an actor who was “riding off into the sunset” was about to slam headfirst into it.

So then, some of you may be wondering, where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with my writing? Well, let me tell you a little story about this weekend.

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Being a Better Writer: Sidekicks

The original concept for this post, or rather I should say request as that’s what it was, was for information regarding a comedic sidekick. But I’ve decided to expand on that a little for two reasons. First, dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Really hard. I envy those who can write comedy, like Adams, Prachett, Taylor, or Korman. It’s a serious talent. The art of regularly keeping a comedic tone, building things up for comedic beats not just every once and a while, but with a regular rhythm? That’s really hard to pull off, to start. It takes a lot of practice and understanding.

Second, because a comedic sidekick isn’t exactly a great point to cover. It’s like looking only at one side of a building. Sure, a comedic sidekick is great an all … but what about the other sides, those other types of sidekick? What about the foundations of having a sidekick at all? What makes a sidekick different from, say, a partner character?

See, I consider these questions just as valid and important to consider as the original question of a comedic sidekick. Also, I can answer many of them to my satsifaction, or at least give a much more concise, clear opinion on things. I can’t really do that with a comedic sidekick in more than a glancing manner. After all, comedy is not my specialty. I can give a few pointers, but that’s a pretty short post.

Sidekicks, however? I can talk a bit more about that. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

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