Monday, December 10, 2018

Using a Letter in Narrative

QUESTION:  In my story, important information is revealed by a character reading a letter.  What is the most suitable way to write it?

I’ve written this kind of scene a number of ways.  

When the letter is being viewed by the viewpoint character and isn't terribly long, I've put the text in its entirety on the page but separated it from the regular text by having an extra space break above and below the letter and an inch-wide margins on both sides.  (The inch is from your normal margin, not from the paper’s edge.)  Some writers put this text in italics.

This method works particularly well when the content isn't highly emotional for the character.  It also works when the character is alone.

For longer letters, particularly those with emotionally charged content, I have a character read it aloud as dialogue to another character.  At certain important points where the character or characters are emotionally affected or the content changes things in a big way, I'll have the reading character stop and express an opinion, feelings, or questions.  A bit of dialogue/discussion between or among the characters will also break up a long monologue to make it easier for the reader to keep up and not be bored with too much information.  

When the character begins reading again, I say something like "Adam continued reading," or "Adam picked the letter up again and continued."

Normally, when a character quotes someone else, you use single quotes to denote it.

“Gramps always said, ‘You reap what you sow. boy.’”

If a character is quoting a letter, and the reader knows he is quoting it, you need only use standard double quotes.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Info Dumping and Modern Technology

I read a novel recently where characters researched other characters by using their smart phones to check out Facebook and search engines.

To a certain extent, this worked.  The information was given in a tidy manner without some character thinking about his past or offering too much information via dialogue, and, these days, it’s a very common way to check someone out so it was realistic.

On the other hand, the writer went overboard with this technique by giving too much time and attention to facts in a massive info dump at the very beginning and stalling the story for pages.  He also spoiled the reader’s fun of figuring out what makes this character tick and wondering about the dark hint some other character gives by mentioning the hero’s final Superbowl game.

Sure, the hero is a former NFL player, but the YouTube video of him accidentally killing another player during a tackle doesn’t have to be presented immediately if that information doesn’t inform the reader of what is happening at the present time.  Later, when the hero makes a comment about this moment changing his life, another character can watch the moment of YouTube.

Just because information is easy to find these days doesn’t mean that the reader needs all of it at the beginning of the story. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

No One To Talk To

After last week’s post on characters having conversations with themselves, I thought I’d talk about similar situations in my own writing.

In my novel, STAR-CROSSED, my hero had no one but the heroine to talk to in the first part of the novel.  To cover topics he wouldn’t discuss with her, I didn't want lots of internal monologue or flashbacks which tend to be boring.  

What I ended up doing was letting him have imaginary conversations with his best friend.  Since he was also stuck in one place, I put these conversations at interesting locations from their shared past that showed more about the hero and his past.

The first conversation, for example, was in a bar on a Wild West style planet where the two friends have rescued a sweet young thing during a bar fight.  The two characters shared a beer, talked a bit about the good ol' days, and the hero spilled his guts about what was bothering him.  

At other times, the best friend was the devil's advocate for one side of a choice that the hero was trying to make.  
If you do something like this, it needn't be as elaborate as an entire scene.  It could just be the mental presence of someone whose opinion the character either values or can't escape.  Most of us, for example, can hear our mom or dad in our head reminding us to do or not do something.  

I’ve also had a character talk things out aloud to a horse he was grooming or a cat she was stroking.  The animal’s actions, as if commenting with a purr, a snort, or the shake of the head, gave a nice light touch as well as making the scene more interesting than internal dialogue.

If you want the hero himself as the other character, you should choose some aspect of him you want to emphasize.  Say Dr. Indiana Jones--the scholar versus Indiana Jones--the adventurer.

Set up the use of the mental dialogue/scene fairly early in the novel or story so that the important scene when the character finally must make the big decision won't make the reader go "huh?" when the other side of his personality or an imaginary character shows up to discuss the matter.

In other words, have the mental character show up a few times so the hero can tell his other side to shut up or whatever.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Me, Myself, and That Jerk

QUESTION: I am trying to write a dialogue scene in which a character is arguing with himself yet it seems that there are two distinct persons talking, almost as if the good side of him is arguing with the bad side. What is a good way to show this?

You could do it like regular dialogue between two people.  The "real" character could give his better self some kind of snarky nickname which you could use as a dialogue tag.

Jon sneered at his other self.  "Why don't you shut up, Angel Fart. I stopped believing in virtue and nobility years ago."

"If you stopped believing, why am I here?"

Or you could do it like normal internal monologue but with the good Jon’s comments underlined/italics.

Jon fought to ignore his inner voice.  He knew what he had to do, and he'd do it.  He'd stopped believing in doing the right thing years ago.

If you stopped believing, why can you hear me?

Monday, November 12, 2018

Can You Say That in Elf?

QUESTION: I have several scenes where a man is around elves. I don't want to invent my own language, and I'm afraid to use Tolkien's elf language. What can I do?

You're right to avoid using Tolkien's language. I doubt Tolkien's estate would be too pleased about that.

The simplest way to write the scene without inserting the language is to use the viewpoint of someone who doesn't know the language. You can then write something like--

Adam listened to the two elves talking to each other. Their language sounded like the wind in dry oak leaves mixed with babbling creek water. 

Finally the elf who could speak English said, "Our king says we will not help you."

Or you can have the scene from the viewpoint of the elf who speaks English.

The king said in their own language, "I do not trust these humans. Tell them that I will not help them find passage through our mountains."

Mossbark nodded and said in English to the humans, "Our king will not help you."

These tips works with any language.

NOTE: I use the word “English” as a catchall, but you should use the term for whatever language your viewpoint character speaks.  

Monday, November 5, 2018

Pushing Humor Too Far

The mystery series was a cozy with a light tone and humorous moments, but the third book in the series started with the murder of the heroine’s closest friend and moved through the next days with sleuthing as well as the process of grieving for and burying someone you love.

I imagine most would agree that this situation is not a comedy waiting to happen.  Unfortunately, the writer was so desperate to bring the light tone in that she proceeded to add slapstick.  

At the family visitation, one of the heroine’s friends pretends to knee the heroine’s boyfriend, her heel breaks, and she really kicks him in the jewels.

The heroine receives a threatening phone call, then her bedroom door knob jiggles.  She slips as she reaches for a Taser and bangs her head, then, before she realizes it’s a cop friend, she shoots him as he enters her room and he slips banging his head.  They end up concussed together on the bed where her friend discovers them the next morning and has a fun time wondering what went on between the not-a-couple.

I could only shake my head during these scenes that so desperately tried to add humor to a situation that wasn’t funny.  Not only was the over-the-top-to-the-point-of-ridiculous humor displaced, it tried so hard that the book fell apart.  

Moments like this are what trusted critique partners, beta readers, and good editors are all about.  They should have told the writer that sometimes a light tone just doesn’t fit the situation, and that poor taste and slapstick have no place in certain situations.  

How can you judge this with your own writing?  Think of your novel as a movie.  If you are writing a mystery movie full of dark atmosphere and duplicitous suspects, a scene from DUMB AND DUMBER just won’t  fit, will it?  A light moment of character revelation or a funny story about a victim would.  

Stay true to the tone that’s needed and listen to your early readers.  That’s more important than trying to maintain the tone of the series.  If not staying true bothers you, then find another plot that will fit that tone. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Creating Witty Dialogue

Witty dialogue is found in most Regency romances, and the comedies of Shakespeare are rife with word plays and banter between clever characters, but it also has a place in other writing.

Put two clever characters with a sense of fun together and let them at each other so they duel with words, and the reader is in for a treat that requires as much attention to the word play as the characters must pay.

This is from an unpublished contemporary novel.

"You have the tail of an ass," Ariel said. 

David raised one eyebrow haughtily. "Women have told me I have a nice ass, but not one has mentioned a tail." 

"They told tales." 

"I am happy you are named for the sprite Ariel and not Puck. I could wake up with the head of an ass." 

“Don't toss Shakespeare at me, amateur, or speak of Bottom. Why change your head into an ass? It would be redundant since you act like one already." 

Witty dialogue, particularly in a romance, is emotional and personal foreplay.  It reinforces a sense that these people “get” each other and are equals emotionally and intellectually.  
Outside of romance, the most surprising and common use of witty dialogue is between the hero and the villain who also “get” each other.

Dueling with words can be just as much fun for the characters and the reader as dueling with swords, and just as dangerous.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Playing Against Type for Humor

Another type of humor that works well in fiction is having a character forced to pretend to be the exact opposite of what he is.  

The prissy heroine may don dirty jeans and boots and do an earthy cowgirl impression to impress a potential client.  This scene pushes the character out of her comfort zone as well as allowing her to see her own ridiculousness in both roles.  

If you can play against type as well as situation, you can give the reader a double treat.

In this scene from an unpublished novel, two heterosexual alpha males are escaping from a hospital although one of them is so badly hurt he should be admitted, not leave, and he had come into the hospital to kill someone so the situation is twisted, as well, into irony, another humor element.

Cole and Daniel staggered into the sanctuary of the empty elevator, and Cole hit the lobby button with his elbow.  

When the door closed, he let Daniel slump against his chest, and he held him up with both arms.  Daniel's legs buckled completely, but Cole was afraid to tighten his hold for fear of the fractured ribs.

 The elevator clicked, and a light came on above the door.
"Oh, lord.  We have company," Cole said.

Daniel tried to straighten his legs, but they bowed like a drunken cowboy's. 

"Stay where you are."  Cole pulled him back up. "And for Pete's sake, hide that famous face of yours, darling." 

Tittering drunkenly, Daniel buried his face in Cole's blond hair, then nuzzled his ear, his arms snaking around Cole's waist and neck. 

"Don't be fresh," Cole muttered as the door opened at three.  

A well-dressed, middle-aged couple walked in. 

"Hello," Cole gushed cloyingly and grinned, careful to keep his own famous face in shadow. 

When the graying matron saw the two men in intimate embrace, she backed into the already closed door. 

Cole purred proudly, "We're being married tomorrow." 

The gentleman shoved the next floor's button instead of the main floor. 

Cole fought to keep a straight face and Daniel on his feet. 

The elevator door opened, and the couple rushed out. 

"Damn, they've left," Cole complained. "I wanted to invite them to the wedding." 

"What will Penn and Lylah say?  They don't even know we're dating.”

Cole's laughter got them through the lobby and outside the hospital.  

Monday, October 15, 2018

Using Misunderstandings as Humor

I have never written strictly comic stories, my writing tends toward darker or more serious stories, but I like to add comic elements.  These elements are situational, not in the sense of a situation comedy filled with punch lines, but the humor lies in the situation.  

Humor changes the pace of the story, can reflect on what is happening, or gives the reader another side of a character.
One type of humorous scene has one character totally misunderstanding or not having the right information in a situation.  

This example is from an unpublished category romance of mine called COURTING DISASTER.  The hero and heroine work at the same sporting goods store during the Christmas rush, and they’ve finished a full day of work.  They chat in the parking lot at their cars.  Cody is very interested in Maggie, but she’s not interested in any man because she wants to remain true to her late husband.  For the first time, she’s beginning to see that maybe this isn’t quite as easy a life decision as she thought.  

The punchline for this misunderstanding is that Molly is Cody’s golden retriever puppy, but Maggie doesn’t know this.  The reader is in on this joke because Molly was in an earlier scene with Cody. 

Cody sighed loudly.  "On a night like tonight, I'm glad I don't have to go home to an empty house.  Nothing’s worse than an empty house and a dinner for one.”

Maggie’s heart twitched more painfully than her feet.  That was exactly what was waiting for her.  An empty house.  “You have a housemate?”

"No.  I was talking about Molly."  They stopped by Maggie's car, and Cody grinned inanely.  "I must admit Molly turns me into a pile of mush when I'm around her.  I never expected to be as crazy over her as I am.”

Cold settled in Maggie's heart.  "That's nice." 

"I really miss her when I'm working.  I promised her I'd spend tomorrow morning with her.  I can already guess what will happen.  She'll curl up against me in bed early tomorrow morning, rest her head on my chest, and stare at me with those big brown eyes until I wake up.”

Vivid images flashed through Maggie's head.  A beautiful woman naked against Cody, her head resting on his magnificent bare chest--he probably had curly auburn hair on it--and he'd..., and she'd...  Maggie fumbled for her keys in her purse, her head down to hide embarrassment and envy.

"Later, we'll go for a run in the woods and find some fallen leaves to play in.  She loves fallen leaves.  We'll play in the leaves, then I'll scratch her tummy, and her tail will really wiggle.  Then we'll snuggle."

Considerably more than her tail would wiggle if he scratched her tummy.  But she didn't want her tummy scratched!  Not by him, not by anybody.  She was an adult, she was Jeff's widow, she was....  She was jealous of Molly.  

Flustered by that knowledge, Maggie unlocked her car door.  "Well, have a nice day off."

"I intend to." 

I didn’t want the reader to think Cody was deliberately fooling Maggie about Molly’s identity so I had him tell her about his puppy earlier although he failed to mention her name which was an honest omission on his part, not a mean joke.

I also didn’t want Maggie to be an idiot about this mistake so I let her realize her error a few paragraphs later when Cody shows her the new collar he got for Molly.  This also allows her to question her own feelings about Cody and her determined decision to remain a widow.  

To make this light moment more than a throw-away joke, I made Molly an integral part of the plot through the novel.  

For a light moment to work in a novel, it should never be a throw-away joke.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Naming Your Character

Finding the right name for a character involves a number of variables.

*The period the story is set in.  Names must be authentic for the period.  A number of websites are available for different historical periods as well as recent years.  Do your research, and don't have a Medieval heroine named Tiffany. 

Here are a few sites to look at

Popular first names in recent years:

*The location of the story and ethnic background of your characters.

Popular first name by state:  

*The current impression the name gives.  Years ago, for example, men were named Leslie, but it has become a woman's name.  Naming your hero Leslie might be authentic for the period, but it will give your reader the wrong impression.

*How hard the name is to type.  I avoid some names because I can't type them.   If you must use a name that's hard to type, pick a simple nonsense string of letters then do a universal search and replace.  Be absolutely sure the letters are nonsense so you don't insert the name in the middle of words that have that string within them.


The right name for your hero or heroine is one of your most important decisions.  

For major characters, I don't just pick a name I like.  Instead, I wait until I see a name, and a frission goes through me to tell me I've hit the name for my character.  Most of my character names have been gifts of that sort.  Sometimes, the character will tell me his name at a certain point in the creation process.  

The name, in other words, is as much a part of making the character real for the writer as it is for the reader.  


Try to avoid  a secondary character's name that is similar to your major characters' names.   That includes names that begin with the same letter or look similar (Al, Sal, and Sally).
Before I start writing and after I have my main characters' names, I make a list of other names I can use in the book which fit the period, etc., as well as being different from the major characters' names.  This allows me to pick a name for that waitress who has a few scenes without having to stop my writing while I think up a name.  


I have used similar names deliberately in my writing.  In TIME AFTER TIME, my hero remembers all his past lives, and he's trying to convince the heroine they have been reincarnated lovers in each of those lives.  He restages and retells their past lives and their loves so I needed different names for them in each time period.  

I decided that I'd use the same first letter or letters of their current names for each past name so that the reader would recognize instantly when I mentioned a name even if they couldn't recall the period that name was from.  Each name would have to fit the historical period as well as the personality of the character.

Justin was earthy Jed in the Old West, and Alexa was Annie.   In the 1940s, Justin was sophisticated Jared and Alexa was Alicia.  Their other names also reflected character and period.


For main characters, particularly villains, it's a good idea to put the name into a search engine to see if someone out there shares the name.  Put the first and last name into quotation marks so you will only receive results with both those words close together.  If you find someone with that name, you may want to consider a different name.  If the name belongs to a serial killer, you definitely want a different name. 

Looking for the same name is also a good idea for book titles.


As you develop characters and names,  you'll discover a new fascination with names and their power, and you'll probably find yourself scanning obituaries and newspapers for that unusual name to add to your name list.  Enjoy this.  It's part of the fun of creating characters.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Demon Returns

"Psst. Psst. Over here!”
I ignored the tiny voice, leaned closer to the computer screen, and continued typing. 
"It's crap, you know. Total crap. No editor in the world will touch it."
I flinched but kept typing. "Go away."
"Boring, badly written crap. But I've got this great idea. A sure winner."
"That's what you said about this novel. Go away. I only have two chapters left. The final confrontation, the villain's glorious demise, the final love reconciliation, then fade to happily ever after."
"But I have a wonderful idea. You see the villain hires the hero to murder the heroine, and it's a South American country, and..."
I pushed my glasses back up my nose and straightened. The little demon, complete with horns, hooves, and curly black hair, sprawled on the WEBSTER’S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY by my computer. He twirled his forked tail in his hand and grinned with more seductive skill than a host of romance novel hunks.
I smiled back in spite of myself. "I dreamed that last night."
"Yeah, it was me. Great idea, huh?"
"I wrote copious notes when I woke up. Thanks."
He preened his horns. "Thought it was your style. Action. Adventure. Cliffs to shove the heroine off of. Why you wasting your time with that--"
"It isn't crap. I have to finish. I always finish my novels. I'm a professional."
'And don't it steam me." A puff of smoke drifted out of his ears.
"I appreciate the ideas. Keep them coming. Now go away!"
"But.... How about a planet where--"
"Aren't we desperate." I smiled wickedly. "It won't work. I know what you are and what you're trying to do."
"I'm your friend. I'm trying to give you a salable idea."
"You're a withdrawal symptom."
Sitting up indignantly, he straightened an imaginary tie. "I beg your pardon. I am your adventure muse. And you don't do drugs. Not even booze. I am not...."
"Adrenaline withdrawal. Nothing more," I insisted.
"Adrenaline's what your body pumps when you're afraid," he protested.
"Or when you're facing a challenge. And adrenaline is addictive. Ask any stage actor. Or rock climber. That mountain gets climbed, not because it's there, but because the climber is addicted to the rush of danger."
The demon rested his hand on his forehead and wailed, "Oh, the terror of paper cuts, the exciting rush of eye strain."
I chuckled. "You don't know fear until you stare at a blank screen and try to bring people to life, create a world that is as real to the reader as it is to you. Creating order and reality out of nothing."
"And you're throwing away all that to finish that garbage."
"It's finished already. In here." I tapped my head. "All I have to do is type it out. All the creating is done. That's why you've shown up as you usually do. The adrenaline's stopped pumping so my subconscious starts giving me new ideas. New sources of that wonderful addictive adrenaline."
"When your brethren show up, amateurs toss aside good projects and start something new. A pro knows what you are, takes copious notes of your ideas for the future projects' file, and finishes."
"You kink my tail sometimes."
"Go away, please, and let me finish. The sooner finished, the sooner started on one of your glorious ideas."
The demon grinned jauntily. "In that case...."
As he disappeared, I said, "And keep bringing me those great ideas."
With a thumps up gesture, he vanished in a wink of smoke.