Monday, January 24, 2022

Character Change and Backstory

QUESTION: My main character used to be a bad guy, but now he’s not.  He’s gone elsewhere and changed his name.  How much of his past should I include?  Do I need to write scenes from his past?  Will readers believe he has changed?

If his past (backstory) is important, and it probably should be, you don’t have to include scenes of that past unless you think the reader wouldn’t understand him or his backstory is really complex.  Usually in a case like this, his past life must impact his present one, and backstory scenes are interlaced with the present day.  

Remember that every time a scene from the past is inserted, the reader stops dead to get his mind into the past then must stop dead again to get back in the present.  This kind of back and forth is not a good thing in popular fiction like fantasy.

Backstory can be inserted easily enough during present time scenes through dialogue, thoughts from the main character, and events.   

He could be in a tavern to meet another character and hear a drunk nearby talking about his former identity's bad-ass behavior and think — “He'd piss his pants if he knew he was sitting a few bar stools away from me."  Then you could have another character say, "But (insert former name here) was decent enough.  He'd never fight around civilians and that time he rescued the child from the burning house instead of taking the money.  You wouldn't see (insert new bad guy's name here) do that." 

Sooner rather than later, you’ll also need to tell the reader why he chose to change.  Again, it need not be a huge info dump.  

As to whether readers will accept a bad guy as a good guy, part of this is determined by genre expectations from its readers.  A truly despicable character would never be accepted as a hero in a romance, but, elsewhere, readers have a lot more forgiveness about this.  In your reading of the genre you are writing, do you recall characters who switched moral sides and did it work and why?  

Two superhero movies I can recall where the bad guy turned into the good guy are MEGAMIND and DESPICABLE ME. The change in their characters was the story.  And who can forget Loki in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR?  

Also, think of Magneto in the X-Men series.  As a bad guy, he is morally and emotionally complex, and he's helped his former friend Charles Xavier more than once to save the day for everyone's sake. 

Usually, bad characters who change sides have already shown they are capable of good behavior with the bad behavior.  That makes it more believable.  A psychopath who changes to become a hero is totally unbelievable.

The trick is making your character's choices and changes believable.  If you do, the reader will accept them. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Too Much Or Not Enough Information

 QUESTION:  Is it okay to leave the reader a little confused so that later on, when I reveal the secret to them, it’s surprising?  My main character withholds secrets from others and from the reader.   

It depends on what you mean by confuse.  If you are leaving out information so that what is happening makes very little sense or the main character is behaving in a bizarre manner with no real clue why she is, that’s a very bad thing.  If you give the reader more than a few “what the heck is happening, and why is she behaving like this?” moments, then the reader stops reading.  

If you mean not giving the reader all the information, that can work, but it is a tricky dance between giving the reader enough information and lying to the reader by withholding too much.  

With a major viewpoint character it works to leave out information if that character isn’t thinking about something. Readers don’t feel cheated if there’s really no reason for that character to be thinking about this subject, but, if this subject is up front and center in her thoughts, then the reader would feel cheated if important information is left out.

As a very broad example, imagine the heroine thinking about attraction during her first meeting with a guy who is attracted to her, but later, it is revealed she’s lesbian.  That’s leading the reader astray in a dishonest way.  If, however, she was married to a jerk who beat her, this information doesn’t have to be revealed until later unless there is a reason for her to fear the guy who is attracted to her.  

If it feels dishonest not to tell the reader something, then the surprise isn’t worth it because you may have lost the reader before the surprise is revealed, or the reader feels betrayed and lied to.

If you are confused about what to do, do it the way you feel works then trust your beta readers or critique partners to tell you if this works or not.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Fourth Wall

In playwriting and stage performance, there’s a convention called the fourth wall.  Think of the stage as a room with three walls that contain the action.  The fourth wall is the invisible wall between the room and the audience who views the action through that invisible fourth wall.  The characters on the stage are unaware of that fourth wall and that they are observed.

If a character addresses the audience, they are breaking that fourth wall and acknowledging that what the audience sees isn’t real. Shakespeare broke the fourth wall many times at the ends of his comedies to ask for the audience’s applause.  

The fourth wall is often broken in today’s sitcoms and, occasionally, in TV dramas in a playful manner through dialogue directed at the audience but spoken to another character.  On a few rare occasions, I have seen a character actually wink or smirk at the audience/camera breaking the fourth wall for a few moments before the fourth wall comes back.  This is usually done when a show is making fun of itself and its conventions.  CASTLE and a few playful episodes of SUPERNATURAL used this method during metafiction moments. 

Metafiction: Literary/performance techniques that draw the viewer/reader’s attention to the fact that he is reading/watching.  For more detail, go here:  

Early novelists had a problem with the concept of the fourth wall and the use of narrative and viewpoint to tell the story.  Novels like Richardson’s PAMELA were told in the form of letters to make up for no narrative voice.  Later novels used an omniscient narrator who saw all the action, the character’s thoughts, and dialogue and related it to the reader.  Sometimes, the narrator spoke directly to the reader with such comments as “Do not despair, gentle reader, for soon, Becky shall have her comeuppance.”

Over time, the omniscient narrator has all but disappeared, particularly in genre novels, and the story is now told in the close viewpoint of one or more characters.  

In some stories, the character looks back on the past and reflects on what has happened as they relate what happened.  This method is particularly popular in older style mysteries in the “had I but known” style.  

Had I but known that going to that party would destroy my happiness, I wouldn’t have gone, but I did and here’s the disaster that happened.  

Writers like Dick Francis, Gothic romance authors, and earlier romantic suspense authors have employed this story retold method to good effect.  

Most novels now have the reader inside the character’s head in the present moment so she’s privy to thoughts and what the character sees and hears, but the narrative element is invisible.  The reader can only see and know what the character does.  

To break that invisible fourth wall has always been considered bad writing because it pulls the reader from the story.  

Recently, however, I’ve read several novels where the author deliberately breaks that fourth wall at some moment in the story by letting the viewpoint character talk directly to the reader.  

Since the writer has, until that moment, written a competent book, I’m assuming this is a deliberate narrative choice.

Is this a good thing?  I don’t think so because it pulls the reader out of the book.

Is it a probable change in narrative technique?  That remains to be seen.  

Monday, January 3, 2022

Suddenly, a Pirate Ship Loomed Over the Horizon

 QUESTION: In action scenes, I use the phrases "suddenly" or "all of a sudden" a ridiculous amount of times when describing fast-paced action scenes. What other words or phrases can I use?

If you write the scene correctly, you don't need "suddenly" or any other synonym or phrase. The reader is smart enough to know the fighters in a physical battle are moving fast so everything is "suddenly" unless we say otherwise.

The trick is to get into the head of one of the characters and stay there. Let the reader see what the character sees and feel what the character feels.

You don't say, 

Suddenly, the other fighter pulled out his knife and jabbed at him.

You say, 

Sam dodged the other man's fist. The hand that should have been blocking his next blow moved downward toward the man's knife sheath. 

A flash of steel. 

Throwing himself backward away from the other man's knife, Sam slammed into the ground on his back. 

Or, if you are describing a battle of many men, you don't say 

Suddenly, a line of cavalry surged over the top of the hill toward them.

You say, 

On the hill just above the soldiers, the drumming of many horse hooves and the Rebel yell of hundreds of men warned them. 

The Yankees spun around as the Confederate cavalry charged toward them.

Monday, December 27, 2021

So You Want to be a Writer --Quiz

 Do you have what it takes to be a fiction writer? Here's a true or false test to find out.  

Be brutally honest. The only person you will be cheating is yourself. Choose TRUE if the statement describes you or what you believe, FALSE if it does not.

1. I don't need to know grammar and spelling. That's the job of the editor. My job is to tell the story.

2. Most authors make lots of money. That's why I want to write.

3. I want things NOW. I'm just not a patient person.

4. Friends or family want to watch a movie you really want to see, but you haven't written your quota for the day. You usually stay at the computer and write.

5. If I don't write every day, I get grumpy or edgy.

6. There's one secret to writing a publishable story, and when I learn what it is, I'll succeed.

7. Criticism really hurts me. If someone criticizes my work, I feel like a failure.

8. If someone criticizes my work, I will change it immediately.

9. I love to read a certain kind of story, and that's what I want to write.

10. It's easy to write and sell a novel. All I will have to do is sit down and write it, then I will sell it.

BONUS POINTS QUESTION: I dream of stories to tell, or characters demand their stories be told, or I envision whole scenes, and I want to find out what happens next.


1. FALSE Editors are busy people, and they don't have the time to correct simple mistakes. Simple mistakes indicate a poor writer, as well, and usually brings a fast rejection. WORTH 10 POINTS

2. FALSE Most authors are very poorly paid, expenses are high, and the time required is intense. The average writer can't support herself or her family on several books a year from a major publisher with good distribution. A few self-published writers do but most don’t.  WORTH 10 POINTS

3. FALSE Traditional publishing is an excruciatingly slow process. First you write the book, then you wait for months as you send out queries, more months for them to look at a portion of the manuscript, and even more months to look at the complete manuscript. And if they want to publish it, it will take a year or more to see print. Even self-publishing a book, if you do it correctly with an editor, etc., takes many months of work.  WORTH 10 POINTS

4. TRUE You have to create writing time and that means you have to give up other things. You have to want to write, or you'll never succeed. WORTH 10 POINTS

5. TRUE Writing is an adrenaline addiction. WORTH 10 POINTS

6. FALSE There is no one secret to creating a publishable novel. There are, however, a few things you need to do. The first is sticking your rear in a chair in front of the computer with some consistency and writing. WORTH 10 POINTS

7. FALSE A tough skin must be standard equipment if you want to be a novelist. Every step along the way will be filled with criticism and rejection. The trick is to realize that they are talking about your work, NOT you. WORTH 10 POINTS

8. FALSE Writing isn't a project by committee. You know your work best so you must decide if a suggestion has value or not. The trick is determining what changes are part of learning craft and what changes force your voice or story in the wrong direction. WORTH 10 POINTS

9. TRUE You have to enjoy, respect, and read the types of stories you write. This gives you a good basis for knowing what works and what readers want.

Nothing is more obvious to a reader or an editor than a writer who doesn't read in her field. This is especially true in romance. A reader can spot someone who is writing for the money really fast. WORTH 10 POINTS

10. FALSE Writing is a craft that must be learned. You are as likely to have the natural skills to be a publishable writer as someone who has never played basketball would have the skills to play professional NBA basketball.

The first novel rarely sells. Most published writers write several before they sell. Some can write up to a dozen novels before selling. WORTH 10 POINTS

Bonus Points Question: TRUE If this doesn't happen to you, you really aren't meant to be a fiction writer. All the other things above can be learned, but this can't. WORTH 100 POINTS


0 to 99 A writing career isn't for you. Do a happy dance because you have escaped such an evil fate and can go read and have a life instead.

100-145 If you're willing to change and work hard, you can become a professional writer.

145-190 Congratulations. You are completely insane and the perfect candidate for being a professional writer.

Monday, December 20, 2021

What a Christmas Carol Can Teach a Writer

 "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."  The only character more interesting than a villain is a villain who is redeemed.

"Oh, Holy Night.”  A powerful story is often best told simply.

"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”  Sometimes, something innocent can become creepy.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  A one-sided romantic relationship is boring.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  The underdog with a reviled talent makes a great hero.  

"Frosty the Snowman.”  A great character often deserves a sequel.  ("I'll be back again, some day." ) 

"Carol of the Bells.”  Driving rhythm can pull the reader forward.  

"Do You Hear What I Hear?"  You can tell a story through dialogue.

"Silent Night.”  A few simple images can create powerful emotions.

“Let It Snow, Let It Snow.”  The quiet, homey moments are often filled with the greatest emotions and memory.

"The Christmas Song.”  ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…." )  Setting alone can show strong emotion and story.

“Last Christmas.”  A bad romance character can’t tell the difference between love and sex.  

“Blue Christmas” sung by Elvis.  Some songs are meant for only one singer, and so are some stories.  

“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”  A fantasy plot makes much more sense with lots of details.  (“There's lots of room for him in our two-car garage.  I'd feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage.”)  NOTE: Best Christmas novelty song ever!

"Good King Wenceslas.”  Sometimes, a character is remembered more for kindness than power or glory.

"I'll Be Home For Christmas.”  Home and family are two of the most powerful goals within the human heart.  

"Baby, It's Cold Outside."  "This is for your good, not mine" is a great seduction.

“Is that You, Santa Claus?”  Every good thing may disguise a bad thing.

"Jingle Bells" and "Jingle Bell Rock.”  The times and tempo may change, but the story remains the same.  

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Sometimes, the character's emotions and the message aren't the same.  

"Santa Baby.”  With the right voice, even Santa and a chimney can be made into a double entendre.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You.”  Love is the greatest gift.  

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Camera Viewpoint as Pacing

In my blog entry on participant viewpoint, I talked about the dangers of using camera viewpoint in writing scenes, but the idea of a camera shooting the action can be useful when you are writing description.

As you describe a room from a character's viewpoint, imagine that the character is that camera as he scans the room as he enters. 

In a scene which doesn't start with high action such as a fight, he would scan right to left or left to right, and the important objects would be described in relationship to those near it. The character would see the piano, then the bar, then the poker tables on the far side. 

If some object or person is important--the character is looking for it or meeting him, etc., then that object or person is described first with the general impressions of the room then the details of the room can be filled in as needed. For example, if someone is coming at the viewpoint character with a sword, he won't notice the piano or the bar except as possible objects to hide behind.

When writing that description, the idea of the camera shot can also keep you from making a mistake in visual pacing.

For example, you are describing the room, then you put in a character's brief mental comment about something, then you go back to describing the room. That's the equivalent of beginning to pan the room with a camera then jerking the camera toward the main character's face, then the camera returns to panning. 

By thinking of the visual description as camera work, you are less likely to make mistakes in visual and action pacing.


NEW PUBLISHING SCAM:  In the last few weeks, I’ve been receiving phone calls about offering promotion, reviews, and printing of GUARDIAN ANGEL.  The same people have given me three different names of their service including tying it to Powell’s Books.  The caller has an accent that’s probably Middle Eastern yet gives a different American/English name each time.  So, it’s obviously a scam to sell services to ignorant authors.  Beware! 

THIS YEAR IN REVIEW:  Nathan Bransford, a long-time expert on traditional publishing, gives his opinions of where publishing has gone over the last year and provides links to some interesting articles.