Auntie Deborah Advises on Writing Craft

Auntie Deborah is back at her advice desk…

I’ve been told that as a new writer I should write what I know. How can I apply this to writing a historical novel?

Auntie Deborah: First of all, that old saw about writing (only) what you know should be consigned to the dustbin of bad literary advice. If we all followed it, all fiction would be trite and unendingly boring. We’d write about writers staring at blank screens, unable to summon the enthusiasm to describe their morning cup of coffee. All our characters would be exactly like us. There would be no science fiction, no fantasy, no romance, no mystery, no historical fiction, no sweeping love stories across two continents…

Better, write what you are passionate about.

But do your research. If your main character is disabled, talk to disabled folks and read what they have to say about ableism. If your story is set in Regency England, head for the library (or better yet, the nearest university) and delve into the history, culture, social mores, language, everything you can learn to bring your story to life.

How can I create an amoral, despicable, sociopathic villain, without making him too cartoonish?

Auntie Deborah: Why would you want to do that when complex characters who do bad things for good reasons (or good things for bad reasons) are so much more interesting?

Look, no one worth reading about gets up in the morning and goes “Evil! Evil! Rah! Rah! Rah!” The best villains have heroic, majestic qualities with tragic flaws. They’re a whole lot harder to write well than cardboard characters, but if you put in the work, they’ll steal the show.

What can you do if your characters won’t do you want them to?

Auntie Deborah: The short (but brutal) answer is that your characters behave the way you created them. Their histories, personalities, goals, and motivations are all part of that creation. So if you — like so many of us! — find your characters resisting the demands of the plot or going off on their own adventures, it’s time to take a step back and delve deeper into what’s on the page and what’s in your creative imagination that isn’t explicit but nonetheless exerts a powerful influence over the character’s behavior.Looking at it another way, stories can be driven by plot (a series of actions where one leads inevitably to the next) or by character (the motivations and inner conflicts dictate the character’s goals and actions). (Other possibilities include ideas — mysteries, for example — or environments — where the world itself is the focus. But your problem really pertains to the competing demands of plot versus character.)

If you’ve conceived of the story as a plotline first and foremost, of course you want interesting characters but you also want them to follow the script. One way to do this is to work backward to discover what kind of person would make those choices and have what it takes to overcome those obstacles. You cannot simply plug any character into any role and have it work (unless your characters are all “cardboard.”) “Misbehavior” = mismatched personalities and roles.

If, on the other hand, you have a compelling, fascinating character with an agenda of her own that doesn’t fit your plotline, you can always chuck the script and see where the story goes when driven by this character.

But I have no idea what happens in the middle of my plot. Help!

Auntie Deborah: The key is the way you phrased the question as “what happens.” You’re thinking of a plot as a sequence of actions. Think instead of an avalanche, how it starts small and gathers power. If you’ve established your dramatic tension correctly, each action arises naturally and inevitably from what has come before (that’s called “profluence”), only with greater danger and higher stakes. The “middle” is a time of reversals, when things go increasingly wrong. So the answer lies in how you’ve set up your characters goals, weaknesses and strengths — and conflicts — and what imperils them. The latter doesn’t have to be the Big Bad; a hook can be a smaller threat so long as it kicks off the action and directs the character’s choices in the right direction.

Is it better to “just write anything” when I’m in a writing funk?

Auntie Deborah: Absolutely! Just keep the pen (or the fingers on a keyboard) moving! Don’t censor, don’t go back and edit, and don’t stop. You can write about anything — the funk you’re in, all the things you know about potatoes, the antics of your dog — just keep churning out one word after another. While you do this, watch your mind. Observe when words start to flow and catch fire. Once you’ve settled you can decide whether to transition to a day of work or to thank your mind (and your fingers) and begin again, funk or no.

How do you create dialog that  isn’t just “he said, she said”?

Auntie Deborah: This is an excellent question about writing craft. Some thoughts, in no particular order:

Not every line of dialog needs a tag (“he said”). If there are only two people, or if it is otherwise obvious who is speaking, omit the tag. But do use it from time to time to keep the reader oriented.

“He said” is invisible. Its repeated use bothers the author a whole lot more than the reader. In general, it’s not a good idea to get “creative” with alternatives (“he ejaculated” used to be common usage), although “asked,” “replied,” and so forth are fairly innocuous. It’s really, really not a good idea to use substitutes that are physically impossible. Ex: “Never,” he glowered. Or have a character hissing words without ssses.

My favorite method is to use a bit of action or description of expression instead of the tag. Ex: “Never!’ His brows drew together in a half-scowl. “It’s impossible.” Ex: She lifted her fan, covering the lower part of her face. “My dear sir, you flatter me.”

Dialog can do wonderful things: advance plot, reveal character, increase/decrease tension, convey information. But narrative can do these things to. It’s fine to summarize a conversation, rather than delivering it, blow by boring blow. If your dialog is bogging down, consider another literary tool.

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