Silhouette of a crowd with text: How Many Characters Do We Need?

This week I have more posts inspired by questions people asked me. Yay! I don’t have to think of topics. Love that. *smile*

Actually, this topic is interesting because I received three different questions within two weeks that were all related. All three readers had questions about characters, specifically about numbers, point of view, and descriptions.

So let’s start with today’s question about how we can find the Goldilocks number of characters for our story. Not too few and not too many…

What’s the “Right” Number of Characters?

Kim wants to know if there’s an optimal number of characters to include in a novel. That’s a great question because, as she says:

“It seems that one character is too limited; the novel can become claustrophobic, but too many characters can confuse things.”

The second part of Kim’s question brings up another issue, however. She says:

“I’m not talking about the extras, but characters who have character arcs and who we care about.”

Kim is right that there’s a balance between the claustrophobia of too few characters and the confusion of too many characters. She’s also right that there are different “levels” of characters. So before we talk numbers, let’s first define some of the terms.

The Different Types of Characters

We can label characters depending on whether they have an arc, whether scenes are shown from their point of view, how much they drive the story, and their story purpose.

Main Character(s)/Protagonist(s):

  • Protagonists usually have a full arc over the course of the story. They have goals and change in some way to overcome the obstacles.
  • They typically “make things happen” during the story, and their driving of the plot is often their purpose in the story (i.e., the protagonist’s purpose for being in the story is one and the same as the story goals).
  • Much (if not all) of the story is told from their point of view (POV).
  • Some genres (such as the romance genre) have two protagonists, but most have only one protagonist.

Secondary Characters with Point-of-View Scenes:

  • Some stories include scenes from multiple POVs.
  • A secondary character might not have what we’d typically call an “arc” (with a sense of change), but if they have a POV scene, we’d usually include at least a hint of their goals (even if they fail abruptly with their death at the end of the scene).
  • The arc of these non-protagonist characters might not continue throughout the entire story, but instead stop and start as needed for the plot.
  • These characters may or may not “make things happen” during the story. If they do make things happen, their actions often directly affect the protagonist.
  • The use of these other POVs often depends on the genre:
    • Mysteries or thrillers might include POV scenes from the villain or a victim.
    • Epics of different genres (from literary fiction to political or fantasy) might include scenes from five or more characters to increase the scope of the story world.
    • Some epics might not have a main protagonist driving the story at all, and instead gather the stories of several major POV characters between its covers.
    • The story purpose of these POV characters depends on the genre, but they typically fulfill a goal that’s smaller than the story at large.

Secondary Characters without Point-of-View Scenes:

  • With rare exceptions, all but the shortest stories include secondary characters.
  • Like above, these characters often have goals, but might not have a full sense of an arc, where they change over the course of the story.
  • When they make things happen, the underlying purpose is to move the story forward and affect the protagonist.
  • At their essence, these characters can be categorized by their function for the story:
    • mentor who teaches the protagonist an important lesson
    • best friend who forces the protagonist to look at the situation from a different perspective
    • antagonist who creates obstacles
    • bumbler who sets a plot event in motion, etc., etc.
  • It’s because of those clichéd categories that we try to round these characters out with their own goals, dreams, and changes, but we still wouldn’t include them in our story if they didn’t serve a story purpose.

Extras:

  • Extras are characters who exist only for their purpose to the story.
  • They may or may not have dialogue, but we give no sense of their own goals beyond their story purpose.

What Causes Us to Use the Wrong Number of Characters?

Now that we have all that defined, we can take a closer look at what Kim’s question really means. When it comes to too few or too many characters, not all of those labels are created equal.

We’re not typically going to have issues with the number of extras we use. No one cares about them, so it doesn’t matter if that restaurant scene in our story has 10 extras filling the other tables or 100 extras. We decide strictly by the needs of the story.

We’re not typically going to have issues with the number of protagonists we use simply because most stories include only one protagonist. Beyond the exceptions of sweeping epics or a dual protagonist story (such as a romance), we’d run into trouble only when we’re confused about the story we’re trying to tell.

However, where we often have issues is with secondary characters. As I mentioned, secondary characters can be major characters with lots of dialogue, POV scenes, goals, etc. If we do our job right, they’ll feel just as real to us as our protagonist. As authors or readers, we do care about these characters.

And that’s why we run into trouble. We can do such a good job of defining these charming, funny, interesting secondary characters beyond the clichés or their story purpose that they can multiply or take over too much of the story. We can care so much that we want to hang out more with them. Those issues can lead to a loss of focus, plot tangents, etc.

Arcs, Arcs, Does Everybody Arc?

This goes back to the second part of Kim’s question. I want to point out that not every secondary character needs an arc, complete with a sense of change, in order for us to care about them. We can care about secondary characters simply because of their humor, bantering skills, insights, etc.

In fact, we don’t want to give our secondary characters an arc with change if it would distract or steal focus from this story we’re trying to tell. For many of our secondary characters, any sense of change will be limited and might center only on the protagonist or main story (such as changing from disrespecting the protagonist to respecting them).

We do want our secondary characters to have goals and a purpose beyond this story so they don’t feel like cardboard puppets, but it’s okay if we only hint at those goals (such as with a disagreement with the protagonist, or even just a disagreeing tone of voice), and it’s okay if they don’t change much (or at all). If their story is that compelling, we can save it for the sequel. *smile*

How Can We Tell How Many Characters We Should Have?

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any “golden rule” to decide on the right number of characters because there are several variables:

  • Word Count:

Obviously, shorter works usually have fewer characters. A short story may have only one character. Novellas are likewise going to have fewer characters just because they have fewer subplots. But novels are big enough to support many characters if we wish.

  • Genre:

As I mentioned above, genre can affect our number of protagonists, POV characters, and other secondary characters. A sweeping family epic needs a lot of characters to create the sense of scope.

  • Style:

Similar to genre, some stories want a broad cast to create a far-ranging style. Other stories, like romances or cozy mysteries, might want a more intimate mood brought on by smaller-scale casts.

What’s the Right Number of Characters for Our Story?

Step One:

Determine the number of protagonists. In most cases, this would be “one.” Certain genres like romance default to two. However, even in that case, one protagonist is usually primary. So if we have more than one protagonist, we want to answer the “whose story is this?” question.

As a romance author, I can tell you that even in dual protagonist story lines, one protagonist typically drives the story more. One character’s arc might be stronger than the other, or one’s goals might be more directly tied to the plot and overall story than the other.

Keep that difference in mind when developing scenes. Too many scenes driven by the other protagonist, when they aren’t connected to the primary protagonist’s goals (i.e., the story goals), can slow the pace or cause the story to lose focus.

(Edited to add: Emerald’s comment below made me think of a way that multiple protagonists can share ownership, one for the external arc and one for the internal arc. So there are many ways to ensure that our story stays coherent, even with multiple protagonists. Read my reply to her for more details.)

Step Two:

Determine the number of “cast openings” based on the story. Remember that all secondary characters, with or without POV scenes, exist for a story purpose. Any character who doesn’t have a purpose in the story should be cut. Think about how each character moves the story forward, kicks off a plot event, or helps, hinders, enlightens, or confuses the protagonist.

Step Three:

Determine whether any character can overlap and fulfill multiple story purposes without breaking the story. Can our protagonist’s best friend also be their mentor? Or would it be better to keep those functions separate?

Step Four:

Determine whether we need more characters to evoke the proper style or scope. For some stories, where we want a large cast to create an epic feel, we might need to add subplots or twists to create more cast openings for secondary characters.

A good rule of thumb might be:

Include as many characters as needed to tell the story and evoke the proper style and scope—and no more.

For intimate novels, this number might be as small as 2-5 secondary characters, and for broader stories, this number might be 20-30. Obviously, the larger the number, the harder it might be for our readers to remember them all, which is why we want to make sure that every character is there for a reason.

If we have thirty major characters, twenty of them with POV scenes, it will be difficult for readers to pick up the book and re-immerse themselves in the story after a pause. Or we might need to include a “Cast of Characters” in the front or back of the book, which can make our story look intimidating to some readers.

On the other hand, if we need 20 or more characters to juggle all the pieces of a giant Game of Thrones chessboard plot, that’s what we need. The point is to determine the number the story needs for plot and style, while ensuring that we’re not allowing tangents or rambling events to steal the focus from the story we want to tell.

Step Five:

Ensure that all non-extra characters are the best, strongest, or most compelling we can make them. Our secondary characters need a primary purpose for existing in our story, but it shouldn’t feel that way to our readers. They should feel natural and organic to the story. Secondary characters can often be the glue that holds a story together, the comic relief creating a more entertaining read, or the spark that makes a story come alive.

Step Six:

Be smart about introducing characters to readers. This means that we should:

  • limit introductions to two (maybe three) characters a page
  • use varied names so we don’t have Joyce and Jane or Tom and Don, with similar initial letters or sounds
  • avoid using names for extras unless necessary
  • if appropriate, give characters a memorable feature, trait, mannerism, etc.

Thanks for the question, Kim! I’ve written stories with large casts and small casts, so hopefully these tips will help us all figure out the right number for our story. Everything we write is a choice, and how we populate our stories is no different. *smile*

What’s the smallest cast you’ve written? What’s the largest? Have you ever had to cut a character? How did you figure out they needed to go? Do you have other tips for knowing how many characters we need?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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NaNo Prep: Are You Ready to Start Drafting?

by Jami Gold on October 16, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Screenshot of a blank Scrivener project with text: Are You Ready to Start Drafting?

It’s almost time for NaNoWriMo, when thousands of writers will try to cram 50,000 words into a 30-day deadline. If you’re participating in NaNo and anything like me, you might be freaking out a little as November nears.

Yes, that’s right. I’m doing NaNo this year and feeling a little stressed. Although this is my third year with NaNo, this will be my first time doing it “for really-real.” *smile*

In 2012, I wrote 60K during November, but that was to draft Act Two and Three of a book I’d already started. In 2013, I only had 30K left to go on my work in progress, so I couldn’t even try for the 50K mark. But this year?

This year, I’m starting a new story from scratch on Day One of NaNo. Just the way we’re supposed to do it.

As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, this “from scratch” aspect is why I’m eager to explore my story idea through the method I’ll be teaching in my upcoming “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story” workshop. This time, I need to get ready. *grin*

Of course I am a pantser, so what I do to get ready for drafting by the seat of my pants is different from what those who plot their stories in advance do to get ready. But I figured now would be a good time to review two different approaches for starting any draft—NaNo or not—pantser or plotter—and update one of my posts about knowing what to plan in advance.

The Two Types of Story Planning

Posts abound this time of year about planning for NaNo so your story will end up as a decent first draft. But do you know what kind of planning will help you the most?

At their essence, all stories are about change. Most stories consist of (at least) two arcs tracking that change: a story/plot arc and a character/emotion arc. They start at Point A and things happen in a cause-and-effect, action-reaction chain to end up at Point B.

Story/plot arcs are about the “what” or the “why.” What happens to make things change? Why is the story happening now and not a year ago?

Character/emotional arcs are about the “who” and the “how.” Who is facing the obstacles and has to change to succeed? How are they changing?

Most stories are a mix of those plot-driven and character-driven questions. But we might not need to plan ahead with both. Some of us can write by the seat of our pants (pantser) with one type of arc more than the other type.

We don’t want to spend hours working through a character background sheet if we’re good at winging the character aspect of our story. Alternately, we don’t want to waste time completing a story outline if we’re good at making up the plot turning points as we go. So we need to figure out what style of planning will work best for us.

The Basics of Planning for Plot

If we’re better at making up characters as we go along, we might want to focus our planning efforts on the main story turning points.

  • What drags the character into the story and forces them to make a choice to get involved?
  • What raises the stakes and tension during the middle of the story?
  • What’s going to make the character lose hope before the end?
  • What’s going to push the character to change and face the obstacles at the end?

We can plan a lot more, obviously, but that gives us a starting point and an ending point. That Point A and Point B will give us a direction as we write. And even if we’re the pants-iest pantser, that much planning is less likely to freak out our muse than doing a full story outline.

Plot Planning Resources:

The Basics of Planning for Character

On the other hand, if we’re better at making up scenes and plot points as we go along, we might want to focus our planning efforts on the character arc. That means we have to know the character’s Point A and Point B.

Some people find character arcs harder to “see” because they’re more mental than physical. But in character terms, Point A and Point B means we have to know their destination (what they want) and their beginning (what’s holding them back).

  • What does the character long for and desire? (story ending)
  • What choices are they making that keep them from their dream? (story beginning)
  • What do they learn? (how they change)
  • What are they willing to do at the end that they weren’t willing to do before? (story climax)

Character Planning Resources:

Worried about Getting Stuck?

If you’re worried about getting stuck midway through your story, my “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story” workshop shares additional planning layers we can use at any point in our drafting process.

Many of us who write by the seat of our pants can get through the first part of the story by winging it. But if you’re anything like me, sometime in the middle of the story, we might slow down and get stuck for what should happen next.

The tools I share in my workshop help with planning both the plot and character arc, as well as seeing the conflicts and obstacles we can use in the middle of our story to kick start our writing again. When we have to get in 50K words in 30 days, we need to quickly overcome those times we’re stuck. *smile*

And I just have to share this testimonial from two days ago because it made me squee and then blush and then squee some more:

“This is the BEST online workshop I’ve taken … Using this method, I was able to fast draft THREE 100k manuscripts in 2-months a piece (over only 8 months). RECOMMENDED!!” — Jennifer Rose

I’m offering my plotter and pantser-friendly workshop in two weeks (October 28th and 30th), just in time for NaNo. But if the days/times aren’t convenient for you, note that everyone who signs up receives a full recording of the class and a thorough handout. And if you’re doing NaNo, come buddy me so we can cheer each other on.

Hopefully, these tips will be enough to get us all started. My beta buddy Angela Quarles and I had a brainstorming session this past weekend, so I have the basics ready for NaNo. But with every story, I still freak out that I don’t know enough. Luckily by now, I’ve learned to trust my muse, so I’m trying to hold the freak out to a minimum. Good luck to us all! *smile*

Are you doing NaNo this year? Do you feel ready for November? What do you plan or prepare in advance? Do you have a harder time with plots or characters? Can you pants one of those but not the other?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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OnDemand Workshops & Blogging Basics

by Jami Gold on October 14, 2014

in News

Starting line of a race with text: Blogging: How Do We Start?

Before I get into today’s post about blogging, I want to share a couple of announcements about my workshops. Last spring, I mentioned that I would be transitioning most of my workshops to “OnDemand” availability. Six months later, I finally set up my OnDemand store. *sigh* Deadlines, schmedlines…

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to present live workshops as frequently as I’d like, but the good news is that all but one of my workshops are now available as recorded webinars and detailed handouts. This reorganization also means that my most popular workshop, fondly known as “plotting for pantsers,” is now open for registration too. Woo hoo!

Registration Is Now Open for “Lost Your Pants?”

“Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story” teaches a minimalist approach to story development to accommodate “pantsers” (those who write by the seat of their pants) while still establishing the big picture for the plot and character arc.

“Lost Your Pants?” also offers Gold Level and Platinum Level admissions. Gold Level includes a phone consultation to discuss your story plan. Platinum Level includes a phone consultation and editorial analysis and feedback for your story plan.

This workshop consists of two live sessions:

  • Tues., October 28th, 9 p.m. Eastern (New York) time/6 p.m. Pacific time
  • Thurs., October 30th, 9 p.m. Eastern (New York) time/6 p.m. Pacific time

By the end of this class, students will have enough direction to make “Fast Drafting” techniques work for them, and the workshop happens just in time for NaNoWriMo in November. (Almost seems like I planned it that way, doesn’t it? *smile*) I’ll also be doing NaNo this year (buddy me—I’m Jami Gold), and I’ll be using this class to get my story ready as well.

The “Lost Your Pants?” workshop is an intensive class that includes oodles of exclusive materials and always goes over on time because I make an effort to answer every question and help people with their stories. Because of that, I don’t plan on turning this into an OnDemand class in the future.

In other words, while this class will be recorded for registrants, the recordings won’t later be made available for others. I hope to offer this workshop twice a year, spring and fall, so if you want to catch it before next spring, now’s your chance.

Announcing My OnDemand Workshops

The rest of my workshops are now all available OnDemand:

Beat Sheet Basics: Know Your Story’s Structure

OnDemand Workshop: Don't know what beat sheets are or how to use them? Don't want to plan your story in advance? Never fear—learn the terminology, uses, and ways to adapt beat sheets to our writing methods. More Info »

An Introvert's Guide to Twitter

OnDemand Workshop: How can we make Twitter work for us if we're an introvert? Learn proven techniques to join Twitter conversations and make friends. More Info »

A Newbie's Guide to Building a Self-Hosted Blog or Website

OnDemand Workshop: Are you ready to invest in a website (or blog) but don't know where to start? Never fear—learn everything about creating a website using WordPress and other Internet resources. More Info »

Develop a Free Author Website in 60 Minutes (or Less!)

OnDemand Workshop: Need a website (or blog) but don't know where to start? Never fear—learn everything about creating a free website using WordPress and other free Internet resources. More Info »

Every listing already reflects my usual “Jami’s friends and readers” discount too. No discount code required.

Okay, enough announcement promo. Let’s get to the post… *smile*

Blogging Basics

On social media, I often encourage people to ask me questions. That’s not a superficial platitude. I am pathologically helpful, so I enjoy supporting others in their writing journey, but I have a selfish reason as well. When people ask me questions, they often give me ideas for future blog posts. *smile*

So it is with today’s post. Dhun Machaya asked me on Facebook for my advice about blogging, specifically how we would start and when we should get started.

I already have several posts about blogging, but not one that addresses this specific question. So I’m going to combine several of my tips from previous posts into this Guide to Blogging and include lots of links to my other posts on this topic. Lets start first with…

Do We Need to Blog?

As with many things I discuss, the answer is: It depends. *grin* My goals are not your goals, and depending on our goals, a blog might be crucial for our success or just a distraction, That said, I do say we need at least a website.

The main difference between a website and a blog is that a website has several “static” (rarely changing) pages and a blog has a single page with the most recent post on top. If we simply want to be Google-able in case someone searches for our author name, a website is enough. If we want potential readers to find us when they search for things related to us, a blog will show up in wider search results.

The best way to make our website—and thus our author name—show up higher in search results is either to have a unique name or to attach a blog to our website. Like the proverbial squeaky wheel, Google pays attention to sites that change more frequently, such as those updated with regular blog posts. Check this post for more about how to decide whether you need a blog.

A side benefit of blogging is learning to wake up our muse on a regular schedule and how to stick to deadlines. But if our goals don’t require us to have a blog, we can stick with just a website too.

When Should We Start Building Our Platform?

Plagiarists and pirates do an insane amount of work to look legitimate, from fake personas to sock-puppet fans. That twisted level of dedication creates an issue for reviewers because their reputation is on the line if an author turns out to be a plagiarist.

Reviewers have every right to want some sort of proof to trust us. What will provide that proof? We need a platform built with real people (not purchased) and our real persona that can interact with others on a long-term basis. So we should start building our platform far enough in advance to have time to form real connections with people who can vouch for us or make introductions.

Agents and editors sometimes want to see that we have a platform too. I don’t like the inaccurate idea that certain numbers are necessary to be successful, but some kind of platform is definitely helpful. And the earlier we get started in building our online presence, the less we’ll feel the pressure to fake any of our numbers.

What Should We Blog About?

That’s a really good question. Four years into my blog, I still feel like I’m making up a plan as I go along (i.e., there is no plan). *smile*

I share things I’m excited about, from writing tips I’ve learned to life lessons that speak to me. And that general guideline of writing about our passions works for many of us, but the specifics again come back to knowing our goals for our blog.

So the first step might be to decide on our brand and decide who we are. Our author brand might not be exactly who we are in real life (after all, in real life I’m an introvert who would freak out about talking to all of you *grin*), but we should still be authentic and consistent.

In many ways, our brand is all about choosing which “facets” of the real us we want to make public. Our brand is us, but it’s also about showing the best and most interesting parts of us to give others a certain impression.

Once we know who we are and want to be, we’ll better know our goals. From there we can figure out our blogging priorities, as well as develop our author bio and a tagline.

How Should We Start?

Knowing our priorities will also help us with the next step: figuring out how much we want to invest in our website or blog. We can accomplish a lot with a free site, but any time we rely on others for pieces of our platform, we’re at risk.

On the other hand, if we decide to pay a hosting company for our own site, we have to be careful with our choice of a hosting company, or else we’ll face risk there too. Again, knowing our goals will help us make the decision of what kind of investment is worthwhile for us.

Once we’re ready, we want to pay attention to blogging best practices. All our work will be wasted if we include elements that make people want to avoid our blog, or if we don’t keep different access methods or readers who are disabled in mind.

Also, we might want to come up with policies for commenting and guest posters. We might want to decide if we’re going to use a commenting system. We might want to set up Google Authorship and learn how to use images to bring attention to our blog.

In short, there is a lot to do and figure out. So I don’t blame anyone for deciding against blogging or for delaying the inevitable.

Then again, all those links and posts for my blog here were developed over years, and that gives us a clue that we don’t have figure out every aspect right now. As I said, I still feel like I’m making things up as I go along. As long as we avoid major scandals that can cause big problems, we’ll usually be okay if we learn, grow, and make tweaks as we go. *smile*

If you don’t have a blog yet, what’s behind that decision for you? Have you decided against blogging, are you delaying it, or are you unsure how to start? Is a big “link central” post like this helpful for you? If so, is there another topic you’d like me to put together? Do you have any questions about my live or OnDemand workshops?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshop:
Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 10/28.

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Cause and Effect: Understanding Story Flow

by Jami Gold on October 9, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Waterfall with text: Don't Mess with Story Flow

In the real world, the cause of something happens before the effect. A light doesn’t turn on until we flip the switch, a ball doesn’t fall before it’s dropped, and we can’t eat until we’ve gotten our food.

But in writing, we can put words into any order we want. We can write craptastic paragraphs like: Her heart pounded, and she ran to her car. She thought she’d seen her stalker behind her.

Her decision to run to her car and her reaction of a pounding heart are obviously the effect of thinking she sees her stalker (the cause). But when we type those out of order, the reader gets confused. “Why did she suddenly bolt for her car? Oh, that’s why.”

Hiccups like that are sometimes called writing speed bumps. The reader is reading along, enjoying the flow of our story, and then boom!

Our readers are confused, and even after they understand, they have to reverse those events in their mind. That extra step means they’re no longer immersed in our story. Not good.

Yet there are times in our story when we may want to reverse the cause-effect order. Can we? Should we? Let’s take a look.

Why We Usually Want the Cause before the Effect

Some of you might be familiar with Dwight Swain’s concept of the Motivation Reaction Unit (MRU). MRUs are useful for analyzing the sentence level of a story. We can make sure that we’re not skipping a step in the narrative chain and that the stimulus precedes the reaction (not: “She yelped after the dog bit her.”).

MRUs are the smallest scale of actions and reactions, but we see the same importance of keeping our writing in the correct order on the bigger scale of scenes and story beats. We can’t have a character react to a plot event that hasn’t happened yet.

In the big picture, having A lead to B, which then leads to C, etc., creates forward movement in our story. Another word for “forward movement” is momentum. Momentum helps our story’s pace.

If we reverse the cause and effect, readers have to do a mental rewind. That rewind works against the forward movement we want. Again, not good.

In other words, we’d usually want the cause before the effect because reversing them can result in:

  • confused readers,
  • interrupted story flow (reads less smoothly),
  • less immersion for our readers, and
  • a slower story pace.

How to Recognize a Reversed Cause and Effect

Now that we know why we want to avoid accidentally reversing causes and effects in our writing, let’s figure out how we can find them. As with many things, feedback (especially from skilled editors and critique partners) can help us recognize this problem.

However, it’s best to learn how to find these errors on our own. They can be sneaky and hide among normal-looking words, but if we know what to look for, they’re easier to identify.

(Note: Don’t panic if you find any of these clues in your story. These words to look out for are just “suspicious footprints,” not “smoking guns.” *grin* We don’t need to eliminate every instance of these words.)

Clues to look for with a “Find” or macro function:

  • Sentences with “had.”

Not every sentence with “had” will contain a reversed cause and effect, but when we see one, we want to take a closer look. Sometimes “had” indicates events being referred to in the past rather than as they occurred in story time.

Check out the example in the introduction above: “Her heart pounded, and she ran to her car. She thought she’d seen her stalker behind her.” See the “had” (or technically, “she’d” for “she had”) in the second sentence? That’s our clue. In our story, the cause should have been given before the effect.

Tip: Search for “had,” “she’d,” “he’d,” “they’d,” and “hadn’t.” When the word “had” is used to explain something that happened in a previous sentence, we want to make sure that our “had” sentence contains a reaction and not a cause.

  • Sentences with “after.”

“After” is a perfectly fine word to use at the beginning of a sentence. “After she paid for her coffee, the cashier handed her the change.” That follows the order of real-world events. First, she paid, and then she received her change.

The problem comes when the word “after” is used in the middle of a sentence. “The cashier handed her the change after she paid for her coffee.” Here, the events are being referred to in reversed order from how they’d happen.

Tip: Set “Match Case” and search for “after” with a lower-case “a.” When sentences use “after” in the middle, we want to make sure we’re referring to events in the order they occurred.

  • Sentences with “before.”

On the other hand, “before” is sometimes a fine word to use in the middle of a sentence. “She paid for her coffee before the cashier handed her the change.” Those events are referred to in the correct order, so from a cause-and-effect perspective, we’re good.

(Note: “Before” is often a clue for telling instead of showing as well. For the example above, there’s not a good point of view to use that would explain how she would know the cashier was going to hand her the change before it happened. It would usually be better to show the action itself: “She paid for her coffee, and the cashier handed her the change.” We can run into that same “tell vs. show” issue with “after” as well, but “after” clauses at the beginnings of sentences can be a way to summarize unimportant actions.)

The problem comes when the word “before” is used at the beginning of a sentence. “Before the cashier handed her the change, she paid for her coffee.” These events are reversed from how they’d happen.

(Note: “Before” can be used with “could” to indicate interrupted thoughts or actions at the beginnings of sentences. “Before she could ask about her change, the cashier handed her the coins.” This usage doesn’t indicate reversed-order events.)

Tip: Set “Match Case” and search for “Before” with an upper-case “B.” When sentences use “before” in the beginning, we want to check for the presence of “could” or for reversed events.

  • Sentences with “as,” “when,” “because,” “once,” or “until.”

These words (and there are probably other words that can fall into a similar usage) often indicate problems similar to “after” and “before,” in that we get the reason for something after the reaction. “The other car honked at her as/when/because she ran the red light. She gunned the engine once she heard the beep. She didn’t stop until she got her breathing under control.

(Note: These words are also often clues for telling instead of showing. During editing, we can often look for both telling and reversed events at the same time.)

Tip: Search for all the above words. When sentences use “as,” “when,” “because,” “once,” or “until,” we want to check for reversed events (and telling rather than showing).

When Might We Want to Reverse the Order of Events?

Just like how we might want to tell or summarize events occasionally, we sometimes might want to reverse the action and reaction. I can think of two situations off the top of my head.

Using a Reversal to Create a Hook

In journalism, reporters often reverse the cause and effect to create interest at the beginning of an article. They pose a question with the effect and then answer it with the cause.

At the beginning of our story or scenes, we can also use this technique to create a hook. In story openings, readers are already looking for clues to understand where they are, who they’re with, and what’s going on, so they’re in the right frame of mind to ask questions and wait for the answer.

The first example I gave in the introduction could be reworked (removing the cheesy, craptastic aspects) to create a story opening:

Sally crept alongside the cars parked on the curb. Her key shook in her fist, the point extended from between her thumb and curled fingers, ready to stab. Just a few more feet to her car. Maybe that hadn’t been her stalker across the street, but she wasn’t going to take any chances.

The very first sentence creates a question: Why is she creeping along the curb? Questions like that at the beginning of stories are a good thing. They pull the reader to the next sentence and the next.

But that technique won’t work for the whole book. *smile* We’d usually switch to the normal cause-and-effect order within a paragraph or so to start our forward momentum.

Using a Reversal to Improve Story Flow

(I feel like I’m telling you a shameful secret with this one. Warning: This breaks “the rules.”)

Another time I purposely reverse the order of sentences is for dialogue cues. I make the conscious choice to break this rule for dialogue cues because I think it helps the flow. But follow my example at your own risk. *grin*

For dialogue cues in non-omniscient point of view (POV) stories, the cause-and-effect rule would have us indicate how a character says a line of dialogue after they say it. Our POV character couldn’t know another character was going to whisper until after they started whispering. So technically, the sentences should be in the order of dialogue and then cue:

“I don’t want to go with you.” Her voice was barely a whisper.

However, to my thinking, this order creates another story flow issue. The reader finishes the dialogue, “hearing” a normal voice in their head, and then they get to the dialogue cue telling them that they should have been hearing a whisper.

That cue creates a completely different tone to the dialogue sentence too. In this example, readers might assume the line was spoken forcefully, only to discover in the next sentence that it was actually tentative.

In other words, that correction to how they heard the dialogue in their head forces a speed bump, and readers need to rewind the line of dialogue to fix their assumption. As discussed above, rewinding is bad for story flow.

So I’ve made the conscious choice to ignore the POV and cause-and-effect rules for these types of dialogue cues. I would instead write:

Her voice was barely a whisper. “I don’t want to go with you.”

Obviously, there’s no way the POV character or the reader could know that she was going to be whispering before she even opened her mouth, but to my mind, the flow is better.

The reader now knows how to read that dialogue, and they don’t have to do the mental rewind. No mental rewind equals better flow. Better flow equals better forward momentum. This is one time where I know I’m wrong (according to the rule), but I don’t want to be right. *smile*

As with all things writing, there’s no rule that’s always going to be right or always going to be wrong. Sentence fragments are against “the rules” too, but many fiction writers consciously choose to ignore that one. Ditto for starting sentences with a conjunction.

The best way to muddle through confusing advice is to learn the rule and the reason for the rule. Once we know why the rule exists, we’ll better know when it’s okay to break it. In writing, we can break rules if we have a reason that outweighs their purpose. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. *smile*

Have you noticed reversed causes and effects when reading? Have you ever accidentally reversed causes and effects in your writing? Do you have any other tips for how to find those errors? Have you ever purposely put causes and effects in the wrong order, and if so, why? Do you agree or disagree with my decision to break the rule for dialogue cues?

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Sheep blocking a road with text: Warning: Slow Progress Ahead

We’ve probably all been frustrated with slow progress at some point in our writing career. Maybe we’re frustrated with the slow increase of our word count. Maybe we’re frustrated with an apparent lack of improvement in our writing. Or maybe we’re frustrated with our sales numbers.

The point is that frustration happens to all of us. My brother was released from the hospital this past weekend following brain surgery for removing a tumor. Even though we’ve assured him that he’s doing great (“You just ‘gave birth’ to a golf ball through your ear. Of course it’s going to take time to recover. It hasn’t even been a week yet, and you’re already out of bed—that’s awesome!”), he’s impatient and frustrated that he’s not completely better now.

We can probably all relate to his impatience. I remember reaching a point in my early writing career where I lamented the fact that the learning curve seemed like it’d never end. (Note to Past-Jami: It doesn’t end because there’s always something new to learn or try or experiment with. That’s a good thing. *smile* Luckily, the learning curve does get less steep.)

So how can we deal with that frustration? Let’s take a look at what might help.

The Importance of Realistic Expectations

One reason my brother is frustrated with his progress is because he had unrealistic expectations for his recovery. His surgeons told him to take a month off from work and warned him that he might be fairly immobile for most of that time. He’s on a bazillion medications with competing side effects, has 72 staples in his head, and had nerves and muscles cut for the surgery. Despite all that, he didn’t want to believe the doctors and planned several projects he could work on during his “month off.” Ha!

In the writing world, we’d call someone who expected that the rules wouldn’t apply to them a “special snowflake.” (*psst* Don’t tell my brother I said that. He just wants to be invincible like Superman. *grin*)

But the fact remains that unless one of you are holding out on me, none of us has access to Matrix-style learning to instantly become experts. We don’t have a magic wand to create an overnight bestseller. And we don’t have a time machine to get more done in a day than humanly possible.

How to Ensure Our Expectations Are Realistic

The best way to short-circuit our frustration is to ensure our expectations are realistic:

Goals:

  • Are the goals we’ve set for ourselves doable? Are they really? How?
  • Do we know others who have succeeded in meeting similar goals? Or do we think we’ll be the special snowflake who can bend the space-time continuum to change reality?
  • Are our goals based on wishes? Or facts of what’s possible?
  • Have we successfully met similar goals like these before?
  • Are we willing to do what it will take to meet those goals (changing behavior, sacrificing time, etc.)?
  • If we fail to achieve our goal, what will we do? Give up or try again?

Priorities:

  • If we overreach and can’t complete everything by a deadline, what are our priorities for the time we have left? Which activities are a better step toward our goals?
  • Create a ranked to-do list. (Saying “I’ll get it all done” doesn’t count. We can give the most important things Priority A, but we still should rank them for Priority A1, A2, A3, etc.)
  • Think about why we have our goals or expectations. Where did they come from? What purpose do they serve?

Time:

  • What can we really accomplish during X amount of time?
  • If our usual word count is 800 words per hour, we shouldn’t set a goal for 2000 words an hour without first making changes and working up to that amount.
  • Will we really be able to set aside the amount of time we think we will?
  • What other aspects of our life might suffer from that prioritization? Are we willing to make that trade-off?

Control:

  • The goals we make should be within our control. Otherwise, we might “punish” ourselves for things beyond what we could do.
  • Even if we self-publish, we won’t be in control of whether our editor or cover artist meets their deadlines.
  • Do we have a Plan B? Or do we have extra time built into our schedule for dropped balls?
  • If we traditionally publish, we’ll have even less under our control, everything from choosing our editor or cover artist to publisher marketing support, etc. That eliminates whole facets of our career from our goal-making ability.

Energy:

  • Would we have to push ourselves to the point of sickness or no sleep to meet those goals?
  • What if work-life or family-life has an emergency and takes up more of our time or energy?
  • Do we have extra time built into our schedule for if we do get sick or have to deal with personal emergencies?

Life Balance:

  • Can we meet those goals and still have the life balance we want?
  • Will we still have the time for family, friends, TV shows, and hobbies that we want?
  • If not, will reaching our goals really make us happy? Or will we feel that we’re missing out on the rest of our life?
  • Do our family and friends support us in our goals? Or do we need to set aside extra energy to deal with a lack of support or any interpersonal issues we create by pursuing our goals?

Realistic Goals Can Still Be Stretch Goals

None of those tips are meant to discourage us from trying. We often want our goals to be a stretch. We might surprise ourselves with how much our word count increases when we push ourselves or stay more focused. And remember that we often learn just as much (if not more) from failure.

The point is that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we fall short, especially if we do show improvement. Any amount of improvement is better than we were before we pushed ourselves, so falling short does not equal failure, especially if we’re going to try again. (And maybe we learned something to help us succeed next time.)

Here’s a tool to help us come up with SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This tool walks us through each of those steps with questions to ensure we’re being as SMART as possible.

Realistic People Can Still “Dream Big”

Similarly, none of those tips are meant to say that we can’t dream big. Dreams are fantastic for motivation, and we don’t want to limit our dreams by boring practicalities.

But dreaming big is different from setting big expectations that make us feel like failures when we can’t possibly live up to them. Fantasies about being a bestseller (or whatever our big dream might be) are great for motivation, not so great for expectations.

As I’ve quoted before:

A dream is just a dream.
A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.

It’s that plan that needs to be realistic. Our dreams can be as big and as grand as we want. *smile*

Each Path Is Unique

We also need to remember that each of us is on a unique path. The holes in my knowledge that I need to learn for improving my writing are different from the holes in your knowledge.

So we can’t compare our progress with others. Maybe their grammar is better than ours, but we might have a better instinctive grasp of story structure. Maybe their writing is technically flawless, but we have a more engaging voice. Maybe they’re great with plots, but we excel with characters. Or vice versa for any of those.

In other words, we’re not in competition with others. We’re only in competition with how we were yesterday, or last week, or last year. Have we made progress since then? Yes? We win!

Recognizing Our Progress

I want to end with a note about how, just like with my brother’s situation, our progress might not be as bad as we think. Learning to recognize our progress can be the first problem, especially as when we first start writing, we don’t know what all we don’t know.

When we’re new writers, we can’t see how big the learning curve is ahead of us. Just when we think we’re “getting close,” we might learn about a new aspect of writing that we didn’t even know existed. Constantly feeling like a newbie can make us despair that we’ve made any progress at all.

But as long as we’re open to learning, we will eventually feel less like a newbie. It just might not be on the time scale we originally envisioned because our path might be longer or more zigzagging than we expected.

One way we can recognize our progress is to compare our current writing to our older writing. Sometimes I force myself to cringe through reading an old story or blog post of mine. Everything I see that I would now change proves I’ve learned. Every technique I’d use to improve it shows how I’ve grown as a writer. And every wince is a badge of progress. *grin*

Or if we want to see progress in increasing our word count, we could keep a chart of words and time spent. Or we could keep sales charts to compare one book’s debut week with the next book’s debut week. There’s usually some way to measure how we’ve improved.

Sure, writing can be frustrating when others look like they’re further along than us or progressing faster. However, we’re not all on the same highway. In fact, some of us might not be on a paved path at all. River rafting, anyone? *smile*

Do you ever get frustrated with slow progress? What aspects of your expectations create that frustration? Can those expectations be adjusted to reduce frustration? What’s the most frustrating aspect of your slow progress? Do you ever stop to recognize the progress you’ve made?

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Writing Struggles: Waiting for News

October 2, 2014 Random Musings
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Most of yesterday was spent with me biting my nails while waiting for news on my brother’s brain surgery. But that brought to mind how hard waiting can be, so I want to take a minute to recognize all the ways we wait, as writers, and hope that things beyond our control go our way. Believe me, I feel your pain. *smile*

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Why No Advice Is Perfect: Character Emotions

September 30, 2014 Writing Stuff
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There’s never going to be a ‘one size fits all’ guideline for any aspect of writing. Every story is different, so some advice doesn’t apply to us. What’s right for one genre might not be right for another genre. Ditto for the point of view of the story. Or the characters. Or the plot.

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Showing Emotions: Finding the Right Balance

September 25, 2014 Writing Stuff
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The ability to manipulate our readers’ emotions is a good thing (as screwed up as that sounds). Storytelling and keeping readers’ interest often comes down to creating emotions in our readers. So let’s take a closer look at how we create emotions in our readers and how we find the right balance.

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Banned Books? Or Freedom to Write and Read?

September 23, 2014 Random Musings
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This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association celebrating the freedom to read. Many have already blogged about the political aspects of this event, so I’m tackling this issue from a less serious perspective. Sort of. *smile*

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First Pages: Tips to Avoid Cliches and Weak Writing

September 18, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Many stories “strike out” with readers in the first chapter. So our opening pages are just as critical to sales as our book cover, title, back-cover blurb, etc. Let’s take a closer look at cliches to avoid and tips to make those pages work for us.

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