Category Archives: Resources for Writers

Guest Star – D.B. Jackson talks magic systems

Posted on July 2, 2012 by

This week’s writing post comes to you courtesy author D.B. Jackson, whose new novel Thieftaker will be out tomorrow. Wait, let me underline that, because I’m excited: TOMORROW. I asked Jackson to tell me a little about how he developed the magic system for his new series of novels, which combine some of my favorite fictional flavors: they’ve got history, crime and fantasy, all in one go! Here’s the cover.

Thieftaker by DB Jackson

Here’s the first chapter, courtesy Tor.com.

And here’s D.B. Jackson, talking about creating magic systems.

In developing the magic system for my newest book, Thieftaker, a historical urban fantasy that will be released by Tor books on July 3, I tried to find a balance between following a set of old rules and bringing an innovative approach to conjuring. The result is a form of magic that is powerful enough to make for interesting plot points, but limited enough to ensure that my protagonist will have to rely as much on his wits as on his magic.

Thieftaker tells the story of Ethan Kaille, a conjurer and thieftaker (sort of an 18th century private investigator) living in Colonial Boston in the 1760s, as the North American colonies are beginning to chafe at British rule. So my first goal in creating my magic system was to come up with something that was not only cool, but that also blended well with my colonial setting. Of course there were (as far as history can tell us) no conjurers in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. But there were witch scares, the most famous of which, the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, led to the imprisonment of 150 “witches” and the execution of twenty men and women.

I wanted my hero to face the possibility of persecution for his conjuring — I thought that would add tension to the novel — and so I created a magic system that could be confused with witchcraft by people of the time. Ethan’s magic appears to the unsuspecting to come out of nowhere; he doesn’t need a magical stone or a staff or any other physical tool to conjure, although for some spells he does need to spill his own blood. But that only adds to the whole “dabbling in the black arts” feel of the magic. While in my version of 1760s Boston there is no such thing as witchcraft, conjurers are constantly being accused of being witches, and Ethan lives in fear of being hanged as a witch.

In other respects, though, my system of magic for this book is similar to those I’ve developed for other projects. I use three strict guidelines for my magic systems, no matter the world in which I’m writing.

First, my magic follows a set of rules that remains consistent throughout the book. My goal in creating a magic system is to come up with something that feels as real and natural and rooted in the world I’ve created as any natural law of our own world. In my opinion, magic should seem as ironclad and constant as the law of gravity. As soon as the rules of magic begin to shift or soften according to narrative needs, the magic ceases to be a realistic part of the worldbuilding and becomes instead a plot device, and a transparent one at that.

Second, my magic is limited in scope and power. Magic that can do anything and everything, that can’t be defeated, is destined to take over a story or series. At least that has been my experience. By placing limits on what my magic can do, I force my characters who have magic to rely as much on their intelligence and physical skills as much as they do their spells. In my opinion, that makes for more interesting characters and storytelling. So Ethan can only cast so many spells before he begins to tire and weaken. His spells can do some pretty cool stuff — among other things, he can heal wounds, he can change the shape of matter, he can move unseen among those who do not have magic — but he can’t, say, make himself fly or move through time. Magic is a tool, even a weapon at times. But it is not all-powerful.

And third, the use of magic in my world exacts some cost. As I mentioned before, the casting of spells takes a physical toll. But more than that, each spell Ethan casts has to be fueled by something. The simplest spells can be fueled by the elements — water, air, earth, fire — but more complicated magic demands blood or something else from a living organism. And the most powerful and complex spells can require the taking of a life. Finally, as Ethan learns during the course of Thieftaker, spells can carry emotional costs as well. (I won’t say more than that for fear of spoiling plot points. You’ll just have to read the book.)

After establishing the framework for my magic system with these guidelines in mind, I could then turn to the fun part of creating a magic system; you know: the cool stuff. Ethan’s conjurings consist of four elements. The first is the spell itself, which has to be spoken in Latin. The second is the “fuel” or source of the spell that I mentioned a moment ago: water, blood, a life, etc. The third is the conjurer him or herself. And the fourth, is a spirit guide who allows the conjurer to access the power that dwells between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. This spirit usually takes the form of a glowing ghost (for want of a better word) who appears whenever a spell is cast. Ethan’s ghost takes the form of a silent, dour old soldier wearing chain mail and a tabard bearing the sigil of the ancient Plantagenet kings. He reminds Ethan of his mother’s splenetic brother, Reginald, and so Ethan calls the ghost Uncle Reg, much to the shade’s annoyance. But though their relationship in the book provides some comic relief, the ghost plays a serious role in the magic system: Without him, Ethan could not conjure, because he could not access that magical realm.

Finally, there is one other written element that has been crucial to making my magic system blend with my historical setting. In the book, I never use the word “magic” to describe it. After discussing the matter with my editor, we agreed that magic would have been an anachronistic term. “Magick” was considered a dark practice and was associated strongly with witchcraft in sermons and tracts that condemned both by name. Conjurers, who sought to distinguish their spellmaking from “witchery,” would never have used the word magic to describe their abilities. And so Ethan speaks of conjuring, of casting spells, spellmaking, of his “talents.” But he never calls it magic for fear of finding himself at the wrong end of a hangman’s noose.

I hope that the magic I have created for Thieftaker will feel like a natural part of my historical setting, that it will seem consistent and “realistically” limited, and that it will entertain and occasionally elicit a “Cool!” from my readers. Those have been my goals as I have created and refined it. Because as a reader, as well as a writer, those are the things I look for in magic systems.

About our guest star…
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, will be released by Tor Books on July 3. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

Implied Scenes

Posted on June 18, 2012 by

Unless you have been living in seclusion up until now, actively avoiding all forms of writing advice and instruction, you should have encountered the phrase Show, don’t Tell. The question of writing in scenes, (rather than simply summarizing some character action) falls under this Show, don’t Tell umbrella.

(If you want the larger picture on this idea of Show, here are links to a couple excellent entry points:

http://fictionmatters.blogspot.com/2009/10/writing-workshop-show-vs-tell.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell )

For the moment, though, I’m going to home in on the idea of scene writing for two reasons:

  • In my reading of hundreds of student manuscripts, I have found that the most frequent beginner problem I encounter is writers who summarize the key moments of a story, rather than dramatizing them.
  • It is my passionate belief that summaries are almost never stories: they do not succeed artistically or commercially. It may not feel entirely comfortable at first, but if you are serious about learning to write fiction, you must learn to write in scenes rather than just implying that they’re happening.

Let me start, first, by addressing a question that will inevitably arise in some of your minds: do I mean that you should never summarize–that every single word of your manuscript should be devoted to real-time action? Of course not. Quick mentions of certain types of story information can be revealed to readers if they meet a few criteria.

  • They must be important enough to merit inclusion at all–in other words, they are not so trivial that they ought to be cut.
  • They’re simple details, things that can be conveyed fast and elegantly.

Here are some examples of perfectly legitimate “tell” sentences:

  • She wrestled with the question of clothing and settled for her most conservative suit. (This shows “she” has a meeting, but isn’t quite sure to expect.)
  • Dithering about which route to take made him late. (The dithering doesn’t matter; the tardiness is what is important).
  • Ma’s attitude when she saw him off was frosty; there would be a scene at dinner. (This is a promise to the reader that there will be some conflict, onstage, at suppertime.)
  • They had spent six years competing for a promotion… (Obviously you aren’t gong to play out all six years of cut and thrust. Equally obvious, I hope, is that whatever is happening now is the key moment in that conflict.)
  • He had bluffed his way through the last bounced chck, and sweet-talked that collections guy yesterday. (Here what’s established is past character action, setting up what is probably going to be a failed attempt to get away with it the third time.)

See how each of the above examples is setting up some action to come? The meeting, an event that some poor fellow is late arriving to, a parent-child fight in the evening, work conflict, and so on? Summaries of this sort can be used to get readers to the meat of the story–the important thing. And that important thing–to belabor the obvious–is the scene.

Contrast the above sentences with ones where the quickly-referenced action is obviously important:

  • She wore her most conservative suit to the meeting. . . and everyone showed up naked, causing her considerable embarrassment.
  • They had a relationship-shattering argument about which fork in the road to take.
  • Everything he had fought for for six years came crashing down in flames when Ms. Jones brought the stolen Powerpoint presentation to the meeting. Nobody believed it was his work. She got the promotion and he got fired.

The above examples describe pivotal events within your conflict–events that should unfold as we read. We want to hear every word of that relationship-breaking fight, and be there in the room when ‘she’ is the only person there in clothes.

What are the characteristics of implied scenes?

  • Generally, they are short.
  • They reference character interaction but have little or no dialogue.
  • They address important choices, character actions, or conflict in a few sentences.
  • They may tell us what characters are doing or feeling, using s/he felt, s/he thought, or I verbed-type sentence structures.
  • They have little in the way of sensory detail or setting description.
  • In tone, they may sound a bit like a somewhat dull book written for younger readers.

Here’s a somewhat longer example based on a classic horror situation:

Halfway there, they argued about which fork in the road to take. Bob favored the shortcut; Jane wanted to stay on the road clearly marked on the map. Bob teased her for being scared of the short-cut, which was creepy looking. Feeling embarrassed and hurt, Jane let him have his way.

The first thing to notice about this fork in the road tiff is that it is a plot point. Obviously, this choice is going to have consequences further into the story. (If it doesn’t, then the whole thing is a waste of a paragraph.)

Second, there’s character conflict going on in it, which is potentially interesting.

The third is how little we learn from the above passage. The fork is described as creepy. Jane is sensible but a bit wimpy, and Bob is, perhaps, a bit mean.

Perhaps you’re thinking that’s not bad. Anyone who’s seen a few crime dramas or suspense/horror films can easily fill in the blanks, right? This scene always plays out the same way.

But you aren’t writing, I hope, simply to encourage our audiences to cobble together a story out of remembered bits of their late night TV viewing. You want to put them in the car with the quarrelling couple. You want to raise the hairs on the backs of their neck when Jane peers down the shortcut. Maybe you even want to play against their expectations.

So how do you do that. . . especially if you are still trying to get comfortable with scene writing?

Step One: Talk it Out. This may seem awkward the first few times you try it, but the simplest, most mechanical approach for getting into scenewriting is to start with dialogue–write it like a script for a radio play.

Bob: Hey, there’s the shortcut I mentioned.
Jane: It’s not on the GPS.
Bob: Come on, I know where I’m going.
Jane: My experience with shortcuts is they take longer and the roads are worse.
Bob: Who was going 90 a minute ago? You said being late would be a disaster. Why are we late now? Because you hit the speed trap.
Jane: Exactly. Haste makes waste. Going off road now, down some. . . there aren’t any lights or signs.
Bob: Honey, it’s daytime.
Jane: For now. And look, up there . . .
Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–
Jane: Gopher? That carcass is huge! Whatever it is, it probably would show up on satellite.
Bob. And it stinks, granted, but if you’d just put it in the rear view…
Jane: Fine, have it your way!

My point with the above example isn’t that it has the depth and subtlety of Shakespeare. What the above does have going for it is conflict and immediacy–it is playing out as we read it, in other words. Even without description, dialogue tags or action, it is already more specific than the summary.

Left with the summary and informed by the tropes of television and cinema, a typical reader will put the man in the driver’s seat and set the stage at twilight or night. Instead, we have a brightly sunlit strip of road with a mangled corpse of some unknown, largish animal on it. What’s more, the woman arguing against the short cut is literally in the driver’s seat. If they take the ‘bad’ fork, the responsibility rests with Jane, not just Bob. For good or ill, just putting words in our characters’ mouths has moved at least a few paces away from standard Hollywood fare.

Step Two: Flesh it out. Writing just the dialogue for a scene puts the characters onstage and gives you the bones of the conflict; now fill in the rest. This isn’t a radio play, after all, it’s prose fiction. So start with those details that aren’t delivered elegantly in conversation.

Let’s tweak a couple lines.

Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–

“Gopher?” Jane said. “That carcass is huge! ”

She was right–in fact, whatever it was was probably big enough to pick up on satellite. A deer? Moose? Bear? Hair and hamburger, warming in the sun, and all of it obscured by a shifting murder of crows. . . Bob cleared his throat. “Let’s make up our minds one way or the other, okay? Whatever it is, the smell’s getting in the car.”

What have I done here?

I’ve added dialog tags, correct punctuation, a little description and some sensory details: namely fur, birds and stench. If I was to go through the entire scripted conversation, making the same changes, I’d have transformed this exchange from a summarized bit of action into the fully realized scene it obviously wants to be.

Make sense? Want to add your own two bits? You know what to do.

Writing as a bonkers-making all-out source of joy

Posted on June 11, 2012 by

There are those who would have you believe that great fiction is written, primarily, by tormented, half-starved, garret-living addicts who weep out their epics, word by word, in random fits of Muse-fired productivity that alternate with binges, orgies, getting dumped, going through withdrawal, and embarking on the occasional sordid, scorched-boudoir battle with head lice, bedbugs, and despair.

I don’t really buy into this idea, myself. I’m far too invested in my comfortable, three squares a day plus Internet lifestyle. But I will say that there are things about writing that can make you absolutely bonkers. And by bonkers I mean a little obsessive, a lot frustrated, and plenty convinced that everyone’s writing more, selling more, and having an easier time of it.

My problem with this is that while you’re doing all that, you’re probably not writing fiction. You’re probably not being happy about the fact that you have the opportunity to do so. Having the leisure to make art is a privilege, a kind of wealth, and like all such things it’s not allocated equally to all the people of this world.

I should say up front I don’t think writers are especially different from other people in this regard. Most of us have some ability to ignore our lives’ myriad blessings, while whipping ourselves into all-consuming frenzies over car repairs or our love lives or stuff about work or our favorite TV show. But with writers, there are some standard things we chase around the mouse-wheels of our minds:

–I didn’t write 2000 words today, and Joe Scribe does twice that daily!
–I just realized my plot is a direct lift from Much Ado about Nothing!
–I checked my Amazon Sales Ranking forty times today and it was five, then nine, then seven, then four. . . how did it fall to nine?

A lot of the time, the things we obsess over have to do with publishing.

Writing and publishing are two different activities. Yes, they’re inextricably bound, unless you’re filing your manuscripts in an online archive for an audience of you and you alone. As writers, we’re looking to communicate. To tell stories, evoke emotions, to create memories of people and places that exist only in the minds of ourselves and our audiences.

When we’re writing, those stories and the people in them belong to us. When we finish a piece and do the publishing thing to it, we’re offering our work up to editors and audiences. Publishing your work is sharing it, basically, and that makes it less than 100% your own. And somehow this sharing process involves entangling creativity–the making of art–with the business of getting that finished creation to other people.

There’s collaboration involved, and money. The success you achieve in the sharing of your work is often seen as a measure of how well you’ve written it… even though we all know about great books that have been commercial failures, and bad ones that had roof-busting sales. (This is another thing you can make yourself bonkers over, if you choose.)

A thing about publishing is there’s a lot within the process that’s outside of author’s control.

–You can’t affect a magazine’s per-word rate for fiction. What they pay is what they pay.
–You can’t affect how fast someone will get back to you on a submission.
–They’re either gonna say yes, no, or perhaps rewrite it and we’ll see.
–Illustration? Design? Cover art? Decided by others.
–You can’t make a reviewer like you.

You see what I mean, right? Here you are, writing a novel, in total control of every aspect of each character’s life: how they look, what they wear, whether they lost their parents in a tragic Yurt fire or crashed a car into the Thames. And then you finish the book and offer it up to the world, and from there… well, it’s easy to feel like a leaf, ripped off a tree and aloft on uncaring winds.

Some of us deal with this well, others less so.

What’s the answer? Some say it’s self-publishing. And, indeed, there’s a lot more in your hands there: you get to say how the finished product looks, when it comes out, set the price point, figure out who handles which of the thousands of tasks within the production process . . .

. . . but who reads your book, what they think of it, whether they’ll shell out for your sequel or devote a few minutes of their precious time to putting up the ever crucial user review?

That’s still out of your hands.

So as you embark on publishing, learn to identify your own personal bonkers-making buttons. As far as you’re able, find genius ways to not push ’em.

Artists get into the creative racket, I hope, out of a deep impulse to experience the joy of creation. For writers it’s love of story, language, wordplay, the thrilling challenge of figuring out how to pull off beginning-middle-end or perfectly sketch out a hero’s journey. We want to thrill, scare, entertain, communicate–we want to reach out with our imaginations and and write new information into strangers’ brains.

And I hope most of us enjoy the hell of out of doing it.

So, in the vast, muddled-seeming mix of wondering what’s hot now, angsting over your daily word count, wondering if an agent will take you, and wishing that short story submission you put out six months ago would come back with an acceptance on it, what can you control?

–You can decide what you want to write.
–You can decide how much time and effort you spend on it.
–As much as possible, you can find ways to enjoy the process of creation, from the first glimmerings of a novel idea, on to the parts where you bounce up against the wall of “Damn! Writing is Hard!” and from there to the point where you get to write “The End.”
–You can push through the tough stuff to the rare, life-changing, purely revelatory moments. (And there are revelations, I promise–searing moments of clarity, about craft and yourself and the nature of human existence–times when you’ll know in your marrow that you couldn’t possibly be doing anything better with your life.)

If there’s no joy, if you’re not having fun, at least most of the time, what are the chances you’re making anything worth reading?

Thus endeth my pitch for not buying yourself a garret and a year’s supply of your favorite addictive substance: write often, try hard, stay healthy and one way or another please yourself. Write things you think are so damned cool you can’t wait to tell someone about them. Invent characters you love, pit them against clever, committed, backbreaking adversaries, beat the hell out them and cheer when they come out on top. Sketch out scenes that work perfectly well, only to decide you need a few lines of candy. . . and then go write in that clever bit of character interaction your writersoul is craving. It can come out in rewrite if it must, but just see what playing gets you.

Art is a pristine and endless beach, covered in multicolored sand. Go make yourself some sparkly pink castles.

Revise or Plow On?

Posted on June 4, 2012 by

(I am writing this all of a day after I decided to participate, again, in the Clarion West Write-a-Thon. My creative goal, starting now and running until Clarion ends on July 27th, is a full Frankenstein draft of my next novel. I figure this means I’ll be wanting to average 1000 words a day.)

One of the conversations you hear a good deal among writing folk, about process, is about whether to work from an outline, as opposed to doing what’s sometimes known as “pantsing.” It’s not what you think… pantsing is the process of discovering (or making up) your story as you go along, without any kind of written plan or roadmap for it.

Some writers create story by the seat of our pants, in other words.

There are writers who succeed with super-detailed outlines, writers who do well with none at all, and then the vast majority, those with strategies that fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not really a binary split: there are pantsers who write from a bit of a mental outline, and outliners who allow themselves to go offroad… or, sometimes, wildly offroad.

When we define something by its extremes–invoking that oft-used phrase ‘there are two types of people,’ we’re creating room to discuss the broad differences between two approaches, without getting bogged down in every variation and nuance on the spectrum.

I mention this rhetorical convention, which is perhaps self-evident, because I want to talk about writing process in the context of an entirely different split: the one between those of us who write highly flawed first drafts and those who can’t go forward until they’ve polished whatever’s on the page.

I’m big on experimentation and I’ve tried just about everything, at least once. As far as my own process goes, though, I have had decent success with writing drafts fast, especially when it comes to novel-length work. I’ve rewritten so many individual pieces of fiction at this point–over forty stories, and a half-dozen novels–that I have considerable faith in my ability to shine up very rough texts. I like to have a whole story in hand, from first word to ‘the end.’ I like, more importantly, to have the whole story laid not only out on paper but within my mind, before I start polishing it up.

That doesn’t mean I never go back and retool something as I’m drafting… if I want to think a little about my next move in a story, I’ll have a browse through what I’ve already written. But mostly I push my way forward, sometimes leaving blanks, occasionally giving minor characters names like CousinOne or Hubby, sometimes finishing off a line of dialog with a note “Cliche! Fix later!” and even sometimes writing in a placeholder sentence for something I mean to put in later.

(Note to self: insert a few elegant paragraphs here about what I mean by a placeholder and how it works).

The very first time I reach the end of a story, what I have is something I call a Frankenstein Draft. I call it that because at that point it’s still on the table, a bunch of stitched together bits of narrative that aren’t even breathing. It’s only after I’ve gone through and taken out the blanks, the placeholders and anything truly awkward that I call what I’ve got a first draft. It’s a distinction that’s important to me. The Frankenstein draft is vastly more than an outline, but it’s not quite a completed story. Finishing one is a major landmark–it’s the guarantee that I’m going to have a living, breathing story at some point, even if it takes ten rewrites.

Should you do this too?

Only you can be sure. I’m emphatically against one size fits all advice. I do know writers, people who successfully finish and sell novels, who cannot move forward on a piece until each sentence, paragraph, each image and snatch of dialog rises to some internal measure of perfection. (And hey, if you’re one such, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!) They write lovely, luminous prose and compelling stories, and as an interesting bit of trivia, the polish-as-you-go writer I know best, Nancy Richler, takes almost exactly as much time as I do to complete an entire book.

A certain amount of this racket is about knowing what kind of a writer you are and then committing, wholeheartedly, to being that artist. If you are truly a pantser and you try to force yourself to outline–because you feel you should, or because you have a proposal due, or because some element of pantser writing seems really hard or frustrating on any given day–you may end up investing a lot of energy in trying to embrace something that just isn’t part of who you are.

If that’s the case and you’re sure of it, you might be better off trying to find a… well, a pants way to address the tough stuff.

By the same token, if you truly are a polish-as-you-go writer, if you simply can’t go forward to page 2 until page 1 is perfect, so be it. Accept that your day to day writing speed may seem slower than that of the people who routinely toss off Nanowrimo novels in thirty days. Tell yourself you’re saving yourself the time that I’ll be spending in rewrite.

However…

…if you aren’t sure…

I recommend making the experiment: just once, push on to the end.

I can’t stress enough how valuable it can be to have a whole draft assembled before you as you buckle down to tweaking.

There is danger in perfectionism. Trying to retool every sentence and story development before you have a whole story can simply mean not finishing it. “I can fix it later,” on the other hand, can be a commitment that drives a writer forward. Doing a challenge like Nanowrimo or the Write-a-Thon can get you a completed beginning-middle-end to work with. Maybe it’s sketchy in places. Maybe it’s sketchy everywhere! But it’s also there in your hands–with its big decisions made and all its possible plot holes gaping. It’s ready for you to look, to form a plan for getting it done.

I am a big fan of getting it done. For new writers, the experience of carrying a novel through to its end is invaluable. We can write a beginning and tweak it until it’s beautiful and we’re sick of it… only to fall in love with a new idea and embark on polishing the opening chapter of that.

This is, I think because beginnings are hard, hard to get just right. Endings, though, are even harder.

When you start something, you’re making a promise to the reader. Here’s the story I’m going to tell, you’re saying. Here’s the trip I’m going to take you on. But when you end a novel, you have to have paid off on all those promises.

So unless you really truly honestly are a polish-polish-must-perfect-it person, give yourself permission to write badly here and there, as much as you need to… and push your way on to the end.

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat

Posted on May 14, 2012 by

I’ll tell you up front: this essay is really just a big pitch for putting some variety of tone in your fiction.
Imagine a smooth downward line, the kind of thing you’d see on an easy ski hill or a kiddie slide. If your main character starts out a little discontented on page one and their situation eases ever so slowly downhill as things get worse–and I do see novels like this–a book can get fairly tiresome to read. No matter how interesting the slide is, four hundred pages of prose can be wearing if they are mostly all the same flavor, if the story moves at the same speed.
(If the kiddie slide analogy doesn’t work for you, put on a favorite movie, close your eyes, and just focus on the soundtrack for a few minutes. Listen to the way the music changes from scene to scene and, when you’re thinking about the tone and pace of your work, imagine imbuing your writing with the same variation. Some writers even listen to soundtracks, or make up soundtracks for their books, just to ensure this.)
As with much writing advice, it’s sometimes easy to make a big proclamation: “Put variety in your writing style!” and harder to bring it off. But whether you have an outline or a finished manuscript in front of you, here are some concrete elements of the story you can examine to see if you’ve got a good mix of events, moods, and tones:
Mood: You can think about this, if you wish, in a very mechanical fashion. Look at each scene and jot down the main character’s primary emotional state. Use simple words: angry, happy, content, anxious, tired, confused, heartbroken, afraid, sad, surprised, delighted, blissful, etc.
Once you’ve got this list, go through again and just attach a number from 1-10, indicating the intensity of the emotion. How content are they? How angry? Ten sad? Two blissful?
Once you have this information, whether you’ve got a finished draft or are in the outline stage, it’s easier to assess what kind of balance you’ve achieved. If all the moods are upbeat, maybe there aren’t any big character lows. If the emotional intensity of every proposed scene is 9-10, you may be risking reader burnout.
A chart like this can also be handy for later reference. If something’s not working, you can go back and see: is the scene as intense as you meant for it to be? Are the emotions appropriate for what’s going on in the plot?
Over time, you should develop a sense of your project that will make this kind of charting unnecessary, but if you are inexperienced, overwhelmed or trying to get your book off to a great start, give it a try.
Action: The same principle that applies to character moods–change it up, in other words–can be applied to the ‘what happens?’ of the plot. And you can make a similar chart. This time, instead of mood, use simple verbs to describe what the characters are doing: walking, talking, driving, arguing, fighting, making love, giving birth, mourning, dying etc. Then use the numbers to describe how fast they’re moving, to assess the intensity of the action.
Lots of novels play out on a sort of contained level of intensity: they’re examinations of the human condition or relationships between a small group characters. Not every book has a car chase or a bank heist in every other chapter. But if you find yourself writing “Talking – 2” for every scene, consider how many books of this type you’d be willing to read. By the same token, if your action-adventure scene list boils down to “Fistfight – 10!” “Bomb blast – 10!” “Rescuing Kitty from the Train Tracks – 11.2!” … well, you know you’ve got something on your hands that may overstimulate us all.
Physical setting and sensory detail: Does every scene in your book take place in the same heavily curtained, dimly lit, cobweb-infested room? Give a little thought to how the mood and action of a given scene can be enhanced by the details: time of day, the quality (or lack) of light, interior versus exterior settings, the number of people around as the scene plays out, the degree of physical comfort offered by furnishings or terrain, and even tiny things like temperature.
Voice: do you have more than one point of view or point of view character? Can the sound of their narrative voices vary? Even if the overall narrative voice is consistent, a little nuance here and there within POV can add a lot of texture to a novel. The uneducated intern at your fictional hospital might perceive and relate things just a wee bit differently from the hospital director, the ten-year-old patient in room 3D and the nurse who immigrated to the big city from the West Indies three years ago.
By now you can probably see how all of these elements tie together. The ultimate goal isn’t just to collage a bunch of moods and tones together: it’s to unify your story elements to produce a specific emotional effect in each scene.
Think of all the times you’ve been reading so fast you’re almost breathless, because you have to know what’s going to happen to a given character next. You might have been scared for them, or excited, or hopeful, or upset–the point is, you felt really invested–there was a lot of suspense.
Then whatever immediate conflict you were reading about would have peaked. Ahhhh! I bet the next scene considerably calmer.
We’re in this to give the reader a bit of a ride. Some of us want to take them on a pleasant, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging sail through the undusted corners of the human heart. Some of us want the full-on upside-down rollercoaster ride of emotion. Whatever effect you’re trying to achieve, give us some ups and downs. The result will be a book that’s not only fun to read.
Because, I promise, it’ll be more fun to write too.