Category Archives: writing tips

opening hooks

When writers begin a new piece, our first instinct is that we need to fill our readers in on what went before, so they are prepared for the story that is starting now. Sometimes our first instincts are not correct—and opening with back story is not the way to invite the reader in.

We need to hook our readers first. We must compel them to read on. There are a number of ways to incite the reader forward:
● Focus on one character, and make that character specific and unique, so the reader gets curious (second example, below)
● Raise a question, a problem, a situation, or a theme that the reader needs to have answered (first example, below)
● Answer or raise, or both, some of the questions of who, what, when, where, why
● Soon after, or in the opening itself, something must occur that raises the question of how things might turn out.
Do all novels or memoirs fulfill these specific hooks? No. But there must be something in the writing to drive the reader forward, to forget that he or she is relaxing in a recliner, and that the laundry really does need folding.

Look at this example, The Invention of Solitude, by Paul Auster:
“One day, there is life. A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be. He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him. And then, suddenly, it happens there is death. A man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death.”

This opening paragraph seems general, but as the reader, aren’t you convinced that soon, in just a few pages, you will find out what man has died? And why? He’s not even old! What happened?

And from Waiting to Exhale, by Terry MacMillan:
“Right now I’m supposed to be all geeked up because I’m getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party that some guy named Lionel invited me to. Sheila, my baby sister, insisted on giving me his phone number because he lives here in Denver and her simple-ass husband played basketball with him eleven years ago at the University of Washington, and since I’m still single (which is downright pitiful to her, considering I’m the oldest of four kids and the only one who has yet to say “I do”), she’s worried about me.”

MacMillan develops voice and character in this opening paragraph with “simple-ass husband” and “downright pitiful.” The reader wants to get to know this character better.

I encourage writers not to worry about the opening at beginning of writing. New writers can get stuck, writing and rewriting the first page. Often, it is not until the novel or memoir is finished that we come to understand the full arc, and where the story actually needs to start.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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Many beginning writers find dialogue daunting, so they try to avoid it, by not bringing their characters on scene. However, there are a few simple ways to strengthen the conversations your characters have, and make them believable to your readers.

Lewis Turco, in his book, Dialogue, gives an example of weak, overstated dialogue:

“Hello,” he croaked nervously, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.
“Hi,” she squeaked uncertainly, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams,” she said blushingly.
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace declared. “I’ve been watching you for about an hour,” he offered with a quaver in his voice.

Turco calls this an example of author intrusion—the reader is over-guided, and the illusion of reality is lost. Here are steps to avoid unbelievable dialogue:

  1. When giving dialogue attribution, generally use “said.” Occasionally you may use “added,” or “replied.” The “he said” and “she said” fall into the background—they guide the reader, but do not intrude.
  1. Sometimes tags (another word for attribution) aren’t needed at all. If the person speaking is already identified in the paragraph, you can eliminate tag, as in this example from my novel-in-progress:

Moss’s heart turned to stone in his chest. “Aw, jeez, no. Please! You know how I feel about this dog. I worked hard to save her; I want her to be my dog now.”

  1. Allow the strength of writing to eliminate most adverbs, such as “nervously,” “uncertainly,” and “blushingly,” in Turco’s example. Your readers are smart! If you handle dialogue well, they will glean subtleties that are only implied on the page. You can show those same adverbs with body action, instead.  For example, instead of “blushingly,” you could say, after the dialogue, Her face pinked up, or Her hands jumped to her face, now hot. Something like that.
  2. When you have a long stretch of dialogue, you don’t need to identify (tag, or attribute) who is speaking each time. Hopefully, each character has a unique way of talking that is identifiable. Include tags now and again, as in the example below #5.
  3. Start a new paragraph each time the dialogue switches to the other speaker.

In the following example from my own writing, notice how little attribution is used, or required, to guide the reader:

“Mr. Moss?”
“Carol?” A man’s resonant voice.
All her life, people had mistakenly called her Carol. “No, it’s Carolina.” She hated when people were careless with her name.
“Just Moss, no mister. Have you lost a dog?”
“Yes! Oh my God, have you found her?” Unsteadily, she slid down to sit on the floor.
“Describe her,” he said.
“Do you have her?”
“Tell me what she looks like. I have a right to make sure she’s your dog.”
“Let’s see. She’s impossibly tall and skinny, with a wiry, gray coat. Her hair hangs over her eyes. What else do you want to know?”
“Her name.”
“Zephyr. Her name is Zephyr. Do you actually have her with you?”
“It’s your girl. She needed surgery, and I’ve been nursing her.”
“What happened? When did she get hurt? We need to come, right away. My daughter’s been frantic.”
“Daughter? How old?” His voice had stiffened a bit.
“It’s her dog. Rowan’s eleven.”
“Nope.” Lengthy silence. “You can’t bring a child here.”
His tone was implacable and … something else she couldn’t quite place.
“What do you mean, I can’t bring my child?” Carolina’s voice rose. “Are you a pervert or something?”
“No! Good heavens, nothing like that.”

Strong dialogue is much sparser than the way people actually speak—and yet it is the spare quality that makes it seem real. Also, dialogue is strongest when it illuminates conflict between two people, and avoids the trivial patter that is found in much human conversation.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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characters’ inner thoughts

At my weekly critique group, we’ve been discussing the issue of identifying characters’ inner thoughts: put them in italic, or not?

First: inner thoughts, or inner dialogue, are when a point-of-view character is talking to him/herself. We all talk to ourselves; it’s part of being human! Our characters do as well. However, thoughts are private to that character—the others who populate the story are not privy to what our point-of-view character is thinking. These thoughts allow the reader to understand the character more deeply. Perhaps she is showing a lot of angst on the outside—but if the writer doesn’t take us inside her head, we may not learn what’s driving that behavior. Perhaps she wishes she could murder her husband. Or wring her daughter’s neck. Or have sex with someone other than her partner. Inner thoughts are intimate, and private. We’re glad, in real life, that our family and friends don’t know what’s going on inside of our heads. But in fiction, the writer can take us there–and in doing so, gives the character a voice that is different from all the others in the story.

Traditionally, private character thoughts were put in italics, to clue the reader. However, if the thought were tagged with “he said” or “she said,” then the italics were not needed. But today, many writers are not italicizing inner thought, whether it has an attribution or not.

When I went to desktop publishing school in the mid-1990s, we discussed typography and readability. For example, we were taught that italics are not as easy to read as Roman (standard) type. I think it’s fine to italicize the text when there is no attribution if the thought is short. But a paragraph of italic type is tiring for your reader.

Whatever choice you make, to italicize thoughts or not—there is no right or wrong–be consistent throughout your manuscript. Not only does this look more professional, it is also a subtle guide for your reader. They will appreciate the consistency.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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scene and sequel

Fictional time usually unfolds in either scene or sequel. Sequels are also known as summaries.

Scenes are generally short, occur in real story time, and include action and dialogue. Scenes are necessary! They are how your reader experiences the story through your character’s eyes. Scenes are significant to the movement of the story—crises, turning points, showdowns and tension between characters happen during them.

Here is an example of a small scene from a novel in progress:

Rowan dug into the stew. She stopped as soon as the food entered her mouth. “What is this?”
“Venison,” Moss said.
“Venison, you mean like deer? What store carries deer?”
“I shot, dressed, and froze it.”
“You shot it? An innocent deer?” She set down her spoon. “How could you do that?”
“Rowan!” her mother said. “Where are your manners?”
“Where is his … his kindness?” She frowned hard in his direction. Moss tried to keep a straight face.
Carolina shook her head at her daughter, but didn’t say anything.
“Do you eat meat at home?” Moss asked.
Rowan twisted her spoon in the stew. “Yeah.”
“Well, how do you think it got on your plate? Did it walk there of its own accord?”

Sequels often describe in narrative form (no dialogue), the character’s reflection on the scene that just occurred, or may cover a longer period of time. Sequels may also give the reader character background, provide overall story information, and perhaps most important, transition the reader through time: a short leap (such as Two days later,) or decades.

Here’s a short sequel from a different point in the story:

In moments like these, Carolina admitted to herself that she was hungering for a partner again. She longed for the day-to-day rubbing elbows, conferring about small decisions, bumping into each other as they invented some new concoction in the kitchen. She hardly ever let herself think about it, but she missed Rafe. Badly. Missed him in that secret chamber of her heart, but she’d slammed the door shut from the blunt-force trauma of losing him. Rafe. Oh, Rafe. If only he could see Rowan now. Rowan missed him too—he’d died when she was seven. Of flu. How could a strong, young man just up and die of flu?

This sequel is through the awareness of one of the main characters, but there is neither dialogue nor significant action. It simply relays information so the reader knows Carolina’s history better.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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first, second, or third person?

As a writer, you need to make a decision about whether to use first or third person to tell your point-of-view character’s story. Authors have used second person, but it is rare, and it takes a skilled writer to make it work. It has the effect of distancing the reader.

  • First person: Example: “I had heard my mother say “black sheep” about other people often enough to know that I would pay a family price for believing the doctor’s faulty pronouncement.” Memoir is generally told in the first person, and sometimes novels, as well.
  • Second person: Example: “You had heard your mother say “black sheep” about other people often enough to know you would pay a family price for believing the doctor’s faulty pronouncement.”
  • Third person: Example: “She had heard her mother say “black sheep” about other people often enough to know she would pay a family price for believing the doctor’s faulty pronouncement.” Third person is commonly used for novels–it is what readers are most familiar with.

In each of these choices, the writer is limited to describing only what the “I,” “you,” or “her or she” character can taste, touch, hear, see, smell, know and feel. This limitation also brings a strength: the reader identifies with the point of view character, and feels intimate with them.

You can also tell a story from an omniscient point of view–flying high above the characters. I’ll address this in another post.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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