Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend


It’s hard saying goodbye to a 30-year-old friendship. Emotions run the gamut—sadness (moist eyes, a lone tear escaping onto the cheek), regret and disappointment (the I shoulda’s), anxiety (what will I do without the comfort they give?), anger (face heating up, hands trembling), and a heart-sinking melancholy.

Emotions are what drive people to act and think the way they do. You know this from your own life, and the emotional stability (or instability) should be apparent in your characters as well.

Yesterday we sold our 1971 VW pop-top camper, and lost a dear friend.

The first two paragraphs “seemed” to indicate the lost friendship dealt with a person, but instead, the emotions rattling through my wife and I related to a vehicle we owned and enjoyed while raising our children; as my wife pointed out, “We’ve owned the bus over half my life.”

Mystery and surprise within fiction keeps the reader turning the pages, all-important ingredients we must not forget—make the reader wonder, then shock them.

Emotions are real regardless of their source, and the same is true of your characters: an heirloom conjures happy memories of a grandparent, or a Purple Heart reminds an ex-soldier of friends who died on the battlefield.

Emotions are strong motivators, and every character needs a believable reason why they do the things they do.

The mystery of why and how a character acts—along with appropriate plot twists—fuels a reader’s interest as you dole out bits and pieces during the pages and chapters of your story. Why did they do that? What will happen next? How will they solve the problem? These questions and others should be imparted in small doses to the reader throughout the story.

Think of a TV drama; the lead character is faced with a dangerous situation, an event that jeopardizes their life or the life of a loved one—fade to commercial. This is known as a cliff-hanger, and within literature, is best used occasionally, and normally at the end of a chapter.

The reader sucks a breath, glances at the clock, realizing they need to get to bed, and turns the page to see what happens next. You have accomplished your job as a writer—kept the reader wondering, fearing, and hoping as you disrupt their sleep.

Keep your story mysterious and thrill the reader with surprises of unexpected outcomes to life threatening events.

I have been fortunate to have eight beta readers for my novel, The Returning; each has been valuable at showing what does and does not work in the story. Four of my readers were given only the first two chapters where my initial cliff-hanger took place following a monumental surprise for my protagonist.

Something crashed against the back of his head–blackness.

The response was unanimous: each of the four readers berated me (gently and with good humor) with comments like, “How dare you leave me hanging like that!”

Perfect—just what I wanted.

Keeping the reader on edge, wondering what will happen next, and then fulfilling their anticipation with an undreamed of resolution entices readers to the next page. Isn’t that the point?

Now go write your story, adding foreshadowing hints along the way, and then knock the readers from their comfort zone.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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Writing Time and Character Death

Our lives are rubber bands pulled taut, each day threatening to snap with the next unplanned event.

Some days spiral out of control.

Even without catastrophic events pounding our lives, the daily requirements are daunting: work to pay the bills (for me, 9 hours a day, including lunch), sleep (I’m old; I need at least 8 hours), then there’s spending time with family and friends, caring for one’s animals, preparing meals and eating, showering, staring blankly at the walls, and dozens of other “events” that require our attention.

Every day is a package waiting to be unwrapped. I wake at 5:30 AM and begin  peeling back the paper that is plot and characters before I delve into the package of my life. Much of the package’s interior consists of routine and monotony, the kind that sucks creativity like a vacuum—exactly why the first hours are so precious, alone-time when everything is fresh and full of hope.

I am also acutely aware that we only have so many packages to unwrap.

The day before the last post, I learned a friend of Linda and mine died weeks earlier. A car accident took his life, a sudden, spontaneous tragedy caused by an unlicensed driver smoking crack—the pipe was found still between his legs when emergency crews arrived. The young man spent a week or two in the hospital with a punctured lung, and upon release from the care of nurses and doctors, his cushy surroundings were replaced by a wafer-thin cot and bars. He will likely spend a portion of his life in prison. As for our friend, he is no more . . . . his rubber band snapped, and unbeknownst to him, he opened his final package when he climbed in his car that fateful day.

Richard was a year and few days older than me when he died. At the scene, he asked the emergency crews to make sure the other driver was okay—that was Richard, kind and gentle, and speaks to his character.

Death causes reflection, followed by questions, and adds an urgency to how best spend what days we have left. Whether religious, philosophical, or just from a human standpoint, death’s awareness is unique to our species. Keep that in mind when writing.

The same is true of your characters. Death shapes your character’s psyche—their fears and how they cope with the inevitability. Nothing ramps up a story’s tension like a character’s view of their impending death.

Death haunts each character. Some writers shy away from killing off beloved characters, others derive satisfaction in the emotion evoked when a highly-thought-of character succumbs.

J.K. Rowling killed off several popular characters, as did George R.R. Martin, only more so. Tolkien, on the other hand, kept his main characters intact for the most part. Each instance is different, but it is a decision we writers need to contemplate.

Whether they are to die or not, the probability the character will should take center stage, a veiled unknown huddling on the horizon, just like for each one of us.

How do you feel about death? Dig deep. I’m not saying perceive the end of life as a gloomy cloud, but as a reality. Ask others how they feel about death, and you will see a cacophony of perspectives, some riddled with fear, others brightened by hope.

One’s feelings on death impacts their life. Realize that each day Death’s Door opens a bit wider: how do your characters feel about that?

Often a character’s feelings manifest when one close to them, including a beloved pet, dies. Shock, sadness, helplessness, a dull mind haze: all are symptoms of grief. Reactions change, ebb through stages, heartbreak to anger, regret and joy (at having known them), laughter blended with tears of pain. Yes, we know these feelings, these sensations, and your characters need to as well. Make your characters hurt, and thereby show the reader their humanity and their passion. To cause readers to cry is a great gift, perhaps more so than making them laugh.

In all things, use life’s joys and pains as the lifeblood of your stories, and readers will be grateful.

Take those feelings about death, appreciate the day you have before you, and write a story to draw the reader’s emotions—their fear of what might happen to their favorite character—into your story.

Live the life you wish, and write what you feel. Don’t shy away from the topic of death as all readers face the same questions; it’s an excellent way to garner their attention and hold it throughout your tale.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Making of a Hero — Part 5

Description is a Silent Tool

The last several weeks I have written about The Making of a Hero, focusing on three of four ways a writer brings the protagonist to life: through action, dialogue, and thoughts. The fourth, and no less important aspect, is description.

Description—within the context of your hero—is the Silent Tool sprinkled through the narrative, interspersed between the action, dialogue, and thoughts in such a way that adds to the character’s personality.

The first thing to understand about describing the viewpoint character is not how they look. The reader will develop a mental picture of the character no matter what you say about their physical features . . . mostly.

The worst possible scenario is having a character look into a mirror or glassy pond and describe what they see:

Mary gazed into the bathroom mirror to see auburn-streaked hair falling around a face she thought too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

Some of the description works, but looking into the mirror does not. Instead, leave out the mirror and the words effectively tell the reader how Mary feels about herself:

Mary thought her cheeks too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

The physical features are the least important information revealed to the reader. What we want is for the reader to know the main character, feel what they feel, see what they see, and thus, what the character thinks about the world they occupy.

A man exited the bathroom and started across the basketball court. He wore shorts and flip-flops, with large tattoos on each calf—Wiley Coyote on the left, Yosemite Sam on the right—sunglasses pushed up onto his shaved head, and swaggered as if an exclamation point marking the words on the back of his shirt: Old Men Rule.

This description tells the reader as much about the viewpoint character’s perception of the man as the man himself. We “see” the man, but more importantly, the words “swagger” and “as if an exclamation point” speak more to the viewpoint character’s appraisal than the man himself.

Description can also be used to set the character’s tone. In the following example, the viewpoint character’s awareness of the world imprints his mood.

A dove’s mournful cooing broke the silence, followed by chirps and calls in a soothing musical symphony. A songbird’s lyrical, trilled melody beckoned a mate, silenced by a crow’s sudden cackle, echoed by other shrieking black birds until the calm morning lay shattered in angry tones.

Be cautious of using too much description within the narrative as it can pull the reader from the story’s forward movement. Some refer to too much description as Info-Dump or Back-fill Overload; the best way to avoid such problems is to sprinkle character description within the action of the story—an enhancer, not a distracter.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

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The Making of a Hero — Part 4

Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description

In the last post I wrote, “Heroes are not wimps, nor indecisive, and usually not overly inner-reflective.” Yet, people are all these things and more, so why shouldn’t the characters exhibit these traits?

Your hero (like real people) can and should have doubts, harbor prejudices, and even be a little self-absorbed . . . in their thoughts.

While the hero acts and speaks in ways demonstrating confident forward movement, inside their head they can be a tangled mess.

The contrast between “thoughts” and “actions” help illustrate a complex character, a person at odds with themselves, one rattled by internal conflict.

Conflict is critical within the fiction framework, and a superb way to show a character’s unsettled mental state is within the natural ebb and flow of confidence.

A person with internal fear and doubts about their abilities, the chance of success, or even a reason to continue, becomes a hero when they push aside debilitating emotions and battles to right a wrong, especially when one of the battles is against their very nature.

In my novel, The Returning, a disheartened and disillusioned immortal yearns to (finally) die the last time and sleep with the Fathers. The challenge was to show his inner struggle of having no purpose (that he recognizes), but still give him a strong constitution—the “hero touch.”

In the example below, the protagonist has died while a young soldier, and has just now realized he has “returned” to the body of a Prince.
——————-
Inhabiting a Prince, whose responsibility and future hinges on ruling an entire country. He wanted to run, to hide, to live this life—like most lives before—in seclusion, with the sole hope of dying one last time and leaving the emptiness of his pointless existence once and forever. Let me have rest.

He clenched his fists and forced his concentration outward. Thoughts shifted to what he must do to survive, what he had always done.
——————–
Inner thoughts are italicized. Even though much of the first paragraph in the example describes the character’s thoughts and feelings, I decided to only italicize the first and last sentence; I did this to make it easier for the reader. Reading an entire italicized paragraph can be tedious, and as shown, unnecessary—the reader understands the character is thinking “He wanted to run and hide . . . pointless existence once and forever.”

Although the story line is in third person past tense (He wanted to run . . .), the italicized thoughts are in first person, present. Using this altered viewpoint pulls the reader into the immediacy of the situation and the character, without the usual viewpoint-verb tense-switch distraction.

Another example of using italics to introduce the thought process, and how the “regular” type face that follows enhances the main character’s disposition:

What the hell am I doing? He shouldn’t have entered the bar, or even gotten out of his car, but knew it was too late now–Jared had spotted him.

Working on a character’s psyche can be great fun, and used intermittently, enhances the reader’s understanding of the “person” you created.

A warning: if the character’s “soul-searching” is explored too often or constitutes the same questions, your hero will (in the reader’s mind) turn into a brooding puddle of emotions whose actions will be derailed by the inner “poor me” syndrome, and nobody cares about heroes feeling sorry for themselves.

Make your hero strong, but vulnerable, and you are well on your way to making a character readers will identify with and cheer.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

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The Quest Story and Why It’s Important

Mossy River

Every story is a Quest Story, regardless of genre or type, and that includes literary and main-stream fiction.

My, that’s a sweeping statement, but I repeat, my speech rising:

 EVERY STORY WRITTEN IS A QUEST STORY

Understanding this fact makes writing your story easier.

Here’s why:

Embarking on a quest implies a problem, something or someone to find, something to be solved, a mystery filled with obstacles the character must conquer to reach their goal.

A Quest Story satisfies all the main points of what constitutes a story:

A character has a problem to solve, and after repeated conflicts (internal and external) that push the character to the brink, he or she either succeeds or fails to reach the goal (conclusion), and because of said outcome, is changed.

A mystery falls neatly into this definition: the quest to find the bad guy, either to serve justice or to stop him before he kills again.

A love story is the protagonist’s quest to find the one person who “makes her whole.”

The “coming of age” story is about a young person on the quest to find answers to life’s questions and their place in the world.

James Scott Bell lists 9 types of plot patterns in his book, Plot and Structure: Quest, Revenge, Love, Adventure, the Chase, One against, One apart, Power, and Allegory.

Although Quest Stories are normally attributed to fantasies—The Epic of Gilgamesh (written before the Bible, about 4,000 years ago), Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, the Arthurian Legend, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, perhaps the greatest quest story of all—every story must, at its core, include a quest.

The Quest Story is about a character shaken from a comfortable existence in search of something vital for his life, the lives of others he cares about, or to save the whole world, as in the case of Frodo Baggins.

Doesn’t every story strive to answer and satisfy this ultimate need? Can you name a story, novel, play, or movie that does not?

Go ahead, we’ll wait.

If a story does not have a quest, there is no story. The quest is what the character must do despite obstacles, no matter what.

While you write, keep in mind the quest your character is trying to complete; this forces you to focus on the character’s purpose, the problems involved, and by doing so, you will avoid the dreaded “middle story lag” and create stories readers will not be able to put down.

What is the quest journey your character must travel?

See you on the next page,

Rick

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