How to Write a Book in Your Spare Time, Even if You're Busy!
VI. Add and Double Check Mechanisms:
It’s important to know about adages and the correct way to use mechanisms in your writing. Here are just a few.
Show, Don’t Tell:
If you’re a writer—which you are or you wouldn’t be reading this book—then I’m sure you have heard the old adage, “Show, Don’t Tell” hundreds of times. However, many writers really don’t know what this means.
Mark Twain once said, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” What Twain meant by this was to put the reader in the action through well-written dialogue and action.
When a writer tells what happened in the story, he or she is essentially drawing the curtain across the stage for the reader and then telling the reader what is happening behind the curtain. As a writer, we must pull the curtain away and let the reader experience the action for themselves.
That isn’t to say that every scene must be verbally illustrated for the reader. But if a scene is important to the action, then, yes, it must be illustrated, so much so that the reader can experience it for themselves.
Here’s an example. You can tell the reader that a teenage girl, who cares for her younger brothers and sisters, comes home after work and rocks her younger sister to sleep. But, instead, show the girl walking in and the little sister crawls into her lap, then end the scene with her rocking the baby and forth in the firelight while singing to her until she falls asleep. The second is much more powerful and gets the message across to the reader with clarity.
Don’t rob the reader of the opportunity of experiencing your book, or your world, for themselves. Show the action with descriptive details and dialog. So, break down the door for the reader and bring him or her into your world to experience it for themselves.
My wonderful editor, Genevieve Scholl, brought up a valid point. She often tells writers, “Don’t write as if you are compiling a list of events. Write as if the events are happening right then and there. A book is not a grocery list.”
This is so true. Never list events in order, once after the other. Instead, the story line should go up and down, connecting the dots—or points—along the way. Never stick to just your main points in a straight line. Be true to your characters and let them lead you on the adventure that is your book. As life is not a straight forward, go from Point A to Point B existence, neither should be your book’s plot.
Flashbacks—showing action that already happened in the lives of your characters—should be used sparingly. When used, it should be clear to the reader that they are now going back in time with the character. However, make sure that the flashback is relevant to the story and moves the story forward. For that reason, flashbacks can be an effective writing mechanism when used correctly.
If the villain of the story is from the character’s past, then it’s necessary to go back to that time and show the reader why that person became the present-day villain. Keep in mind that not everyone is completely bad or completely good. Even a villain has a reason why he or she is after the protagonist, etc. In this case, it’s necessary to show the reader why. Just telling the reader that the protagonist had involuntarily offended the antagonist—villain—isn’t as good as going back in time to show what happened. Then, make it clear that the reader is now going back to the present. However, when they arrive they will have a better understanding of both the villain and the hero’s motives.
Here’s an example. In a vampire-fantasy, there is an evil vampire after the hero. However, the reason why is that the hero slept with his wife years before, even though she had seduced him. The hero lost his best friend in the process, which he always regretted.
In this case, the reader has a better understanding of the villain and the hero. The antagonist—villain—must have a reason why he or she is after the hero. Is the villain wanting to blow up the world and is the protagonist standing in the way, such as in the Die Hard franchise? A flashback of the villain’s brother being killed in Iraq by an American soldier could explain his motivation. Is the protagonist afraid of water? A flashback of a near drowning accident as a child could explain it to the reader.
But whenever the flashback is used, make it relevant to the story. It’s not necessary to show the reader every detail of the protagonist’s childhood. But showing the seventh birthday party of the protagonist in the movie Project Almanac was relevant to the story, hence, moving the story forward. In present day when the protagonist sees an image of himself as a teenager in his dead father’s old VHS recorder, the protagonist understands that time travel was possible. So, yes, a flashback to the protagonist’s seventh birthday party moved the story forward.
As I said before—and, yes, it should be restated—flashbacks should be used sparingly. This said, I once read a manuscript that was submitted to my publishing company and that was riddled with flashbacks, one after the other in a short time frame. Needless to say, I closed the manuscript and never finished it. I couldn’t see how the story was moving forward. In fact, if the past was that relevant to the story, then the story should have started in the past, say eight years ago to show the event, and then jump in one swoop to the present day. It would have been a much better read and much less confusing for the reader. In this way, beginning the story with the subheading “Eight Years Ago” in italics and then a few chapters later “Present Day” is, indeed, hence, moving the story forward. It’s also much less confusing to the reader. But the continual use of flashbacks, one right after the other, never works. Flashbacks should be used sparingly and with purpose.
Also, the use of too many flashbacks gives the reader the illusion of living in the past. Always, always, always keep the story moving forward. In the example from the movie Project Almanac, the flashback was necessary and definitely moved the story forward. After all, if the protagonist sees himself at an event in the past, doesn’t that mean that time travel is possible? In any event, this flashback has one purpose—moving the story forward.
On the other end of the spectrum, foreshadowing is the art of giving the reader subtle hints of events that will unfold later in the book. Foreshadowing can be done as you write the book or can be added in during the revision process after the first draft of the manuscript is finished.
But foreshadowing should be subtle and used sparingly. Foreshadowing can be just dropping small hints to the reader along the way or it can be a bit bigger, but it should always be subtle.
In my book Cambria, I used a reoccurring dream of the protagonist that changes a little each time that he has it to foreshadow events to come later in the book. This form of foreshadowing is more pronounced but is still foreshadowing and is effective.
Conversely, saying that the protagonist is afraid of water adds more impact later in the story when she jumps in and saves her best friend.
Also, foreshadowing events to come will keep the reader guessing as to what it means or what will happen. Good foreshadowing should be so subtle within the manuscript that the reader ends up saying, “So, that’s why that happened!”
Keeping the reader guessing will keep the reading right where you want them—reading your story. Horror films do this all the time. The scary music cues and the protagonist comes around the corner and … a cat jumps on her. Then, she turns around and the villain grabs her from behind and shoves a knife to her throat. You knew something was going to happen, but you didn’t know when. This was done well in the original Terminator movie. Sarah Conner is in the kitchen, the music plays, and an iguana jumps on her. Later in the movie, after Sarah leaves her apartment, her best friend is listening to her headphones while the Terminator is obliterating her boyfriend in the other room. She dances down the hallway toward the bedroom, none the wiser, until her boyfriend is thrown through the bedroom door right in front of her.
The whole time the girl is fixing her sandwich and dancing down the hallway wearing her headphones, the audience is saying, “No! Don’t go back to the room! Take your headphones off! Run!” This keeps the viewers on the edges of their seats.
Then, later in the movie when the Terminator and Kyle Reese see Sarah in the bar, the viewer has no idea which one is after her and which is going to save her until the action explodes—literally. This is the way Sarah Conner felt—and the viewer did, too, right along with her. James Cameron did a great job of bringing the viewer into the movie along with the protagonist. The viewer isn’t just watching the movie; the viewer is experiencing it themselves.
This is the way it should be in your books, too. Keep the reader guessing. Foreshadow, but don’t give away too much until it’s necessary for the reader to know. In real life, the hero has no clue of what’s happening until the events unfold. This is also how you should write. Treat the reader as on a need-to-know basis. After all, if the reader knows everything that will happen in the book before he or she reads it, why should they keep reading?
Equal Amounts of Dialogue and Action:
I recently read a manuscript that had a good story, but it primarily consisted of dialogue. This makes a manuscript flat, as well. What’s more interesting? Example A or B?
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“What’s the matter? Didn’t you miss me?”
“What’s the matter?” he asked as he flung his suit coat over a nearby chair.
She raised an eyebrow as she pushed out her lower lip into a seductive pout. When she slinked across the room, the silk fabric of her dress shimmered in the dim light with every calculated movement. She ran one of her long, red fingernails across the thin fabric of his white linen dress shirt. “What’s the matter? Didn’t you miss me?”
As you can see, Example B is much more interesting and reveals much more of the scene to the reader. It also reveals the characters themselves. In real life, people get meaning not only from what people say, but also from their actions or subtle facial expressions. These should be included in your writing, too. Not to include action within your writing is essentially robbing the reader of experiencing the world of your book.
Also, the actions of the characters can easily reveal their personality and motives, as well. In the above example, the reader will sense that the woman is up to no good or will make the effort to seduce the male hero. This is made clear through her actions, not through the dialogue.
Conversely, having too much action and not enough dialogue is problematic, as well. To tell the reader that the hero of your story enjoyed the banter as they sped down the expressway in her partner’s Porsche is not the same as actually experiencing “hearing” the banter for themselves. This is also a great way to develop the relationship between two characters.
Remember: everything that happens in your book must be for a reason and to move the story forward. And, yes, the characters must go from Point A to Point B in the story, so why not add some dialogue as they are driving? Just like you may banter in the car with your friend or partner in real life, you must have your characters do this in your novel, as well. But remember to show an equal amount of dialogue and action. This makes for well-rounded characters and a believable story, too.
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