What the heck is the Inciting Event?

Today TKZ welcomes K.M. Weiland as our guest blogger. Katie will be sharing a critical but often misunderstood element of the novel: the Inciting Event. Enjoy her insights and be sure to visit her highly informative, award-winning writer’s blog, Helping Writers Become Authors.

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katie1What the heck is the Inciting Event? That’s a question just about any writer can answer. The trouble is that sometimes we all have a different answer.

  • Is the Inciting Event the first thing that happens in the story?
  • Is it the moment that kicks off the plot and the conflict?
  • Is it the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act?
  • Is it something in between?
  • Is it something that happens before the story ever starts?

The chief trouble with identifying the Inciting Event is that the term is used rather wildly to apply to just about any of the above. One writer calls the Hook the Inciting Event, another calls it the First Plot Point. Argh! No wonder we’re all so confused.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165The confusion has grabbed me in its claws as well. In Structuring Your Novel, I wrote the following about the Inciting Event:

What’s important isn’t so much nailing down your Inciting Event to a specific place in the story, as it is presenting the Inciting Event at the optimal moment. Sometimes that means throwing the Inciting Event at readers right away, and sometimes that means holding off a bit.

I admit it: that’s a little vague, isn’t it?

Since writing Structuring Your Novel, I’ve made some extremely interesting discoveries about the Inciting Event, which have helped me refine my own stories far more than did such vague notions. So let’s all advance our understanding of this frustratingly important moment in our stories, shall we?

The Single Most Important Thing to Understand About “The Inciting Event”

The most important thing you can take away from this post is this: There isn’t just one moment that can be called “the inciting event.” There are three.

The vast majority of confusion over this structural pillar is the fact that we find different writers referring to three very distinct moments in the story by the same name. I’ve been guilty of it too, if only because I hadn’t yet grasped the differences between the three. These three different story structure moments are completely different from one another and all equally necessary to your story.

First Act Timeline

The 3 Different “Inciting Events”

1. The First Moment in the Story

Probably the most common understanding of the Inciting Event is that it’s the first moment in your plot. This is the beginning of your story–possibly even the first sentence. This opening scene will introduce your main character and the main conflict. It’s the first domino in the line of dominos that forms your plot. It’s the beginning of your story. If you open before this moment, then you’ve opened too soon.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

It’s no wonder we think of this moment as the Inciting Event. “Incite” seems to indicate the match striking the tinder of our plot. Therefore, this moment necessarily has to be the starting point, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, this first moment in your plot is what starts the whole thing moving. But, no, this moment is more about introducing your story than inciting it.

What It Really Is

This first crucial moment in your story is more properly the Hook. There is, of course, more involved in the Hook than just this (namely, its responsibility to grab your readers’ curiosity). But the Hook is the first structural moment in your story. It’s the first interesting moment, and, as such, it’s what flicks over that first domino and starts things rolling.

Where It Belongs

This opening moment–the Hook–belongs (surprise!) in the opening. It’s your opening scene–the first thing that happens in your story–possibly even the first line.

What We Should Really Call It

The Hook.

Examples

Bram Stoker’s Dracula opens with Jonathan Harker arriving in Budapest on his way to meet with his strange client, Count Dracula. This moment launches the plot (after all, prior to Harker’s meeting with Dracula, there is no story) and grabs reader curiosity.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

Stephen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with the famous sequence in which Indy–dogged by his nemesis Belloc–infilitrates the South American temple and steals the golden idol. The sequence itself has nothing to do with the main conflict, but it brilliantly introduces the protagonist, grabs the viewer, and kicks off the rivalry between Indy and Belloc.

Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha’s Ice Age kicks off with the subplot character Scrat, whose single-minded pursuit of his acorn causes the Ice Age.

2. The First Plot Point

Okay, so if the Hook is something different from the Inciting Event, then perhaps the Inciting Event is the all-important big moment that happens at the end of the First Act: the First Plot Point. The First Plot Point is where your story gets going in earnest. Something dynamic and irreversible happens at this moment. It kicks your character forever out of the passivity of his Normal World and launches him into a desperate series of reactions as he scrambles to gain some control over the conflict.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

Like I said, this is the moment where your story really begins. This is the moment that fully engages your character in the conflict. He couldn’t walk away now, even if he really wanted to. It’s definitely a moment that incites your character. But if this is the first incendiary moment in your story, then your pacing is likely to be pretty dull. Remember, the First Plot Point is going to take place around the 25% mark in your story. Something had to happen in between the Hook and the 25% mark, right?

What It Really Is

The First Plot Point is just that–the First Plot Point. It’s the doorway between the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. It’s also very likely to be the Key Event (which I’ll get into below).

Where It Belongs

The First Plot Point always ends the First Act. Optimally, it should be placed at the 25% mark.

What We Should Really Call It

The First Plot Point.

Examples

In Dracula, the First Plot Point is the moment when the dreaded Count arrives (via spooky shipwreck) in England. Lots happens prior to this scene, but this is the moment that irrevocably engages all of the main characters in their mortal struggle with the vampire.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the First Plot Point occurs when the Nazis burn down Marian’s bar, forcing her to escape with Indy to Cairo. Again, lots happened prior to this, but this moment irrevocably launches the main plot by bringing the two primary characters together and sending them to the primary setting.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

In Ice Age, the First Plot Point happens when Manny and Sid rescue the human baby and meet Diego. This launches their main story goal (return the baby to his father) and the main conflict with the saber-tooth tigers.

3. The First Act’s Turning Point

And now, at last, we reach the secret member of our trio of “Inciting Events.” This is a vital structural moment–and yet most authors overlook it completely. Halfway through the First Act, something happens–a turning point. Usually, this is the Call to Adventure (which the hero starts out by rejecting). It’s the moment when his Normal World is significantly rocked by the conflict for the first time. His world won’t yet be upended by that conflict (not until the First Plot Point), but we might think of it as the moment when the match is officially lit and held over the tinder of the conflict.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

Technically, most writers don’t think of this turning point as the Inciting Event for the simple reason that they really don’t think about it at all. But let’s think about it now, shall we? Aside from breaking up the potential monotony of the First Act and providing focus for the first quarter of the story, this turning point fulfills one of the most important roles in your story’s beginning.

The first eighth of the story (from the Hook to this turning point) is all set-up. Readers are familiarizing themselves with your characters, figuring out the characters’ goals, and learning the stakes. Readers need that time in order to get their bearings before the main conflict really starts heating up.

Then comes this all-important turning point at the 1/8th mark (around the 12% mark). It shakes everything up, redirects readers’ focus to the primary conflict, and sends the protagonist hurtling right for the deciding moment of the First Plot Point.

The next eighth of the story (from the turning point to the First Plot Point) is where you then start positioning the final pieces necessary for the main conflict, while ramping up the tension to lead right into the First Plot Point.

What It Really Is

This turning point doesn’t have a proper name other than the Inciting Event. It’s the moment that truly launches the main conflict. It’s inciting and (hopefully) exciting. When I talk about the Inciting Event (including in the Story Structure Database), this is the moment I’m referring to.

Where It Belongs

The Inciting Event–the turning point in the First Act–should optimally be placed at the 12% mark, halfway through the First Act. The timing is important because it gives you the space you need in the beginning of the book to get everything set up, and then provides the necessary space to build upon the Inciting Event before you reach the place of no return that is the First Plot Point.

What We Should Really Call It

The Inciting Event.

Examples

In Dracula, the Inciting Event is the moment (back in Budapest) when Harker first witness the Count’s unearthly powers when he sees Dracula crawling down the castle wall, upside-down.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Inciting Event occurs when Indy is summoned from his classroom and recruited by the U.S. government to track down the Ark of the Covenant.

In Ice Age, the Inciting Event occurs when Manny the mammoth and Sid the sloth meet for the first time.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

How Does the Key Event Play In?

The final element in this intricate tapestry is the Key Event. What is the Key Event? Think of it as the missing half of the Inciting Event. The Inciting Event Screenplay Syd Fieldkicks off the plot; the Key Event is what then involves your character in the Inciting Event. In Screenplay, Syd Field describes it like this:

The Inciting incidentsets the story in motion … [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.

As such, the Key Event will always take place after the Inciting Event and within the First Act. Almost always, the Key Event will coincide with the First Plot Point.

The Inciting Event (remember: that’s the turning point halfway through the First Act) brings the conflict to the protagonist’s awareness. But the protagonist still won’t fully engaged with the conflict. He may make a half-hearted attempt to resolve it. Or he may try to walk away from it entirely. Until the Key Event.

The Key Event is what sucks him irrevocably into the conflict. Sounds an awful lot like the First Plot Point, doesn’t it?

  • Dracula‘s main conflict is that of his preying upon the Englishwomen Mina and Lucy. As such, the Key Event occurs at the First Plot Point when he is shipwrecked in England, bringing the conflict right to their doors.
  • Indy’s Key Event is also his movie’s First Plot Point, since it is both the first time Indy has engaged with his Nazi antagonists and also the moment when he becomes personally involved thanks to his relationship with Marian.
  • Same for Ice Age. Up until the Key Event at the First Plot Point, Sid and Manny didn’t even know about the human baby’s danger, much less have any stake in helping him.

If we recognize the Inciting Event as this oft-overlooked turning point in the First Act, the entire structure of our beginnings becomes much clearer, much tighter, and much more effective. Take a look at some of your favorite books and movies. How are they using the time before the turning point to set up their stories–and then utilizing the turning point to tighten the focus up until to the First Plot Point? Even more importantly, how can you do the same in your own stories?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as well as Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

Captivate Your Readers_med– A glimpse into the minds of acquiring editors and judges for short (or any) fiction

Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Have you tried your hand at writing short stories yet? If not, what’s holding you back? As award-winning blogger Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer’s Digest magazine, “Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to ‘read short.’” To check out Anne’s “nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance,” see “9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay off For Writers“, and there’s more in her post, Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.

Here’s another Argument for Writing Short Stories, by Emily Harstone.  She says, “Writers who are serious about improving and developing their craft should write short stories and get editorial feedback on them, even if they are never planning on publishing these short stories. Short stories are one of the best ways to hone your craft as a writer.”

Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and craft a few short stories. Good for you! Next step: Consider submitting some of them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. But wait! Before you click “send,” be sure to check out my 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story, then go through your story with these tips in mind and give it a good edit and polish – possibly even a major rewrite – before submitting it.

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

I recently served as judge for genre short stories for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 139 entries to 10 finalists, but I wasn’t provided with a checklist or any specific criteria. However, a friend who regularly submits short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests recently received a polite rejection letter from the editor of a literary magazine, along with a checklist of possible reasons, with two of them checked off specifically relating to her story.

While useful, the list of possible weaknesses is very “bare bones” and cries out for more detail and specific pointers. Editors, publishers, and judges are swamped with submissions and understandably don’t have time to give detailed advice for improvement to all the authors whose stories they turn down. Perhaps you could help me interpret and flesh out some of these fairly cryptic, generic comments/criticisms, and add any additional points that occur to you, or checklists you may have received.

Can you think of other indicators of story weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for aspiring authors submitting short stories for publication? Or do you have links to online publishers’ checklists for fiction submissions? Please share them in the comments below.

Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point. Do you have comments/interpretations to add?

Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions

“Thank you for submitting your short story to …. We’ve given your work careful consideration and are unable to offer you publication. We do not offer in-depth reviews of rejected submissions, due to time constraints. Briefly, we feel your submission suffered from one/several of the following common problems:”

– “Tone or content inappropriate for… (publisher / publication / anthology / magazine)

Check their submission guidelines and read other stories they’ve accepted to get an idea of the genre, style, tone, and content they seem to prefer.

– “Stylistic and grammatical errors; too many typos

Be sure to use spell-check and get someone with strong skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to check it over carefully for you. Read it out loud, and where you pause briefly, put in a comma. Where you pause a little longer, put in a period. You could also try using editing software or submit it to a professional freelance editor. This last choice has the most likelihood of helping you hone your fiction-writing skills.

– “Structure problems

For a novel, this could mean some chapters could be rearranged, shortened, or taken out. What do you think it could mean for a short story? Too many characters? Too many plot lines?

– “Formatting problems made reading frustrating

Be sure your story is in a common font, like Times New Roman, 12-point, and double-spaced, with only one space after periods and one-inch margins on all four sides. Don’t boldface anything or use all caps. For more white space and ease of reading, divide long blocks of text into paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs. Don’t use an extra line space between paragraphs. Use italics sparingly for emphasis. For more specifics on formatting, see “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)”.

– “Characters were problematic/unbelievable/unlikeable

Your characters’ decisions, actions and motivations need to fit their personality, background, and character. And make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers will want to root for.

– “Content and/or style too well-worn or obvious

This likely refers to a plot that’s been done a million times, with cookie-cutter characters and a predictable ending.

– “Word choice needs refinement

This one could cover the gamut from overused, tired words like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short to overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective.

– “Overbearing or heavy-handed

This probably refers to a story where the author’s agenda is too obvious, too hard-hitting, maybe even a bit “preachy,” rather than subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– “Nothing seems to have happened

To me, this probably indicates no major problem or dilemma for the protagonist, not enough meaningful action and change, and insufficient conflict and tension.

– “Strong beginning, then peters out

This is an indicator that your plot needs amping up and you need to add rising tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers avidly turning the pages. Also, flesh out your characters to make them more complex. Give your protagonist secrets, regrets, inner conflict, and a strong desire that is being thwarted.

– “Needs overall development and polish.

This indicates you likely need to roll up your sleeves and hone your writing skills. Read some writing guides (like those by James Scott Bell or my Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, or Writing a Killer Thriller). Also, read lots of highly rated published short stories, paying close attention to the writers’ techniques. Here’s where a critique group of experienced fiction writers or some savvy beta readers or a professional edit could help.

We didn’t get it.

This is likely a catch-all category that means the story didn’t work for a number of reasons. This could be an indicator to put this story aside and hone your craft, critically read other highly rated stories in your genre, then, using your new skills, craft a fresh story.

“While all of these criticisms open doors to further questions, we regret that we cannot be more constructive….”

That’s understandable. They just don’t have time to critique or mentor every writer who contacts them. But I hope my comments above help aspiring fiction writers hone your craft and get your stories published – or even win awards for them. Good luck! For tips on how to actually submit, check out “Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes“.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Plot Motivators

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain the story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on. Here is a list of what I consider the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

The Quest: LORD OF THE RINGS is a great example as is JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

Catastrophe: A series of events that proves disastrous like in THE TOWERING INFERNO.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember CAMELOT?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivators in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think ALIEN.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including THE FUGITIVE.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: BASIC INSTINCT. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

There are many other sub-motivators that are strong enough to drive a scene or section or secondary character of a book, but I don’t consider them global motivators. Examples include fear, pleasure, knowledge, lust, sacrifice, thrills, and others.

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward.

What plot motivators are you using in your WIP or latest novel? Did I miss any?

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POV 103: Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  @JodieRennerEd

As I discussed in POV 101, in order to draw the reader in and grab him emotionally, every story needs to have a clearly dominant viewpoint character. We should meet that protagonist right away, preferably in the first paragraph, and the first chapter should be entirely from her point of view, so the reader knows whose story it is and can start bonding with her and rooting for her. When we see the story through her eyes, reacting as she does to her problems, it sucks us into the story and we want to keep reading to find out what happens to her.

In POV 102, I gave some tips for avoiding “head-hopping.” If we stick mainly with our main character, in his head and heart, with a bare minimum or no stepping back to describe things from the author’s stance (omniscient POV), we’re using deep point of view. Also called close third, this intimate viewpoint is a lot like first-person point of view, with the added freedom of switching to the villain’s or some other character’s POV when it suits our purpose. Deep POV is a powerful way of drawing your readers into your story quickly and making them worry about your hero right away, and keep worrying – which is exactly what you want!

But how do you go about this? Let’s suppose you’re writing a story about a macho, hero-type guy named Kurt, who defeats the villain, restores justice, and even gets the girl. It’s Kurt’s story so he’s your main viewpoint character. How do you make sure your handling of his viewpoint is as powerful as it can possibly be?

The first thing you need to do is imagine the setting, people and events as they would be perceived by Kurt, and only by him. As you write the story, you the writer must become Kurt. You see what he sees, and nothing more. You know what he knows, and nothing more. When Kurt walks into a bar, for example, you do not imagine how the bar looks from some god-like authorial stance high above, or as a movie camera might see it; you see it only as Kurt sees it, walking in purposefully and looking around.

And of course include his reactions to the other people in the bar. Show Kurt’s feelings (and only his) about what and who he’s seeing, and his reactions to the situation. Instead of saying, “The bar was noisy, dark and smoky,” say “The cigarette smoke in the air stung Kurt’s eyes and, in the dim light, he couldn’t make out if his target was there. As he looked around, the room started to quieten down. Heads turned, and eyes took him in, some curious, some hostile.” This way, the reader is seeing the scene through Kurt’s head and identifying with him, starting to worry about him. This from-the-inside-out approach is vital if you want your reader to care about your protagonist and get truly engaged in your story.

Captivate_full_w_decalBut you need to go even further – you need to describe what he’s seeing and feeling by using words and expressions that he would normally use. If your character is a rancher or a drifter or a hard-boiled P.I, you’re not going to describe the scene or his reactions in highly educated, articulate, flowery terms, or tell about things he probably wouldn’t notice, like the color-coordination of the décor, the chandeliers, or the arrangement of dried flowers in an urn on the floor.

It’s also important to be vigilant that your viewpoint doesn’t slip, so you’re suddenly giving someone else’s opinion about Kurt, or telling about something that’s happening out in the street or even in a hidden corner of the bar, while Kurt is still at the entrance of the bar. You can let the reader know other people’s reactions to Kurt, not by going into their heads at this point, but by what Kurt perceives—he sees their disapproving, admiring, angry, curious, or intense looks, picks up on their body language, hears their words and tone of voice, etc.

Then, in a later scene or chapter, you can go into the bad guy’s point of view and find out what he thinks of Kurt. Or, once he meets the girl, write a scene or chapter in her viewpoint so the reader finds out more about her and what she thinks of our hero Kurt.

This technique, properly used, will suck your readers effectively into your story world, where they really want to be, engaged, involved, and connected.

You may also be interested in these related posts:
~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details
~ Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive
~ Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice
~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Tips for Loosening up Your Writing

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, presenter

As a freelance editor, I receive fiction manuscripts from lots of professionals, and for many of these clients, whose report-writing skills are well-researched, accurate and precise, my editing often focuses on helping them relax their overly correct writing style.

Writing fiction that sizzles is a world away from nonfiction writing, especially scholarly, professional, or technical copy. In fact, people who have had a lot of experience writing academic, professional, legal, or business documents often have the steepest learning curve when it comes to switching to fiction. Professionals typically have the most “bad” (correct but inappropriate for fiction) habits to unlearn when they’re trying to create a believable story world with a casual, even quirky voice; lively, fast-paced writing; and colorful characters from various walks of life.

Here are some concrete tips for relaxing your writing style, trimming the clutter, and finding an authentic, appealing voice for your story, whether you’re a professional or not. Most of this advice also applies to writing engaging, zippy, natural-sounding blog posts.

~ To loosen up, read lots of popular fiction – and blog posts.

An excellent first step to counteract stiff, overly correct, nonfiction-type writing habits is to read a lot of bestselling fiction in the genre you want to write. Even better, try reading the novels aloud, or buy the audio books and listen to them in your car, on walks, or while puttering around the house or garage. You’ll soon get into the rhythm of the writing and start to develop your own natural, compelling fiction voice.

~ Relax and pare down any overly correct, convoluted sentences.

Remember, it’s about communicating images and concepts and carrying your reader along with the story. Don’t muddle your message with a lot of extra words that just clutter up the sentence and hamper the free flow of ideas.

Here are some well-disguised examples from my fiction editing of trimming excess words:

Before:
“Bastards. Why am I always the last to know?” Pivoting, the detective walked in the direction of the station’s front desk with a purposeful, nearly aggressive, gait. He shoved himself bodily through the swinging door and locked eye contact with the uniformed officer on reception duty.

Notice how the ideas flow better in the revised version:

After:
“Bastards. Why am I always the last to know?” Pivoting, the detective marched toward the front desk. He slammed through the swinging door and glared at the officer on reception duty.

Before:
Nathan paused a moment before replying as he slowed the car in preparation for a right-hand turn onto a smaller road, resuming the conversation as the car again picked up speed.

After:
Nathan paused as he slowed the car to turn right onto a smaller road, then continued as the car picked up speed.

~ Don’t drown your readers in details.

Too much unnecessary detail complicates the issue and impedes the flow of ideas.
Leave out those picky little details that just serve to distract the reader, who wonders for an instant why they’re there and if they’re significant:

Before:
He had arrived at the vending machine and was punching the buttons on its front with an outstretched index finger when a voice from behind him broke him away from his thoughts.

After:
He was punching the buttons on the vending machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.

In the first example, we have way too much minute detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? And we don’t need to know which finger or that it’s outstretched. Everybody does it pretty much the same. Avoid having minute details like this that just clutter up your prose.

Before:
The officer was indicating with a hand gesture a door that was behind and off to the right of Wilson. An angular snarl stuck to his face, he swung his head around to look in the direction the officer was pointing.

After:
The officer gestured to a door behind Wilson. Snarling, he turned to look behind him.

Before:
Jason motioned to a particular number in the middle of the spreadsheet that Tom currently had on the computer screen.

After:
Jason motioned to a number in the middle of the spreadsheet on the screen.

Or:
Jason pointed to a number in the middle of the spreadsheet.

Or even better:
Jason pointed to a number on the spreadsheet.

~ Condense long-winded dialogue and make sure it reflects the speaker’s personality and background.

People rarely speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences, especially when they’re in a casual situation, in a hurry, or angry, upset or scared. Overly correct dialogue just doesn’t sound natural. Unless you’ve got two professors or other professionals speaking to each other in the workplace, don’t have your characters speaking in long sentences in lengthy paragraphs.

In tense or rushed action scenes especially, go for incomplete sentences and one or two-word questions and answers. Read your dialogue aloud or even role-play with a friend to hear where you can cut words to make it sound more realistic.

Before:
The homicide detective looked at the CSI, who was on his way out. “Leaving already?”
“This wasn’t the crime scene. Not much for me to find. You would do me a huge favor by making sure that the next time we had a murder I had an actual crime scene to investigate.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”

After:
The homicide detective looked at the CSI, who was on his way out. “Leaving already?”
“This wasn’t the crime scene. Not much for me to find. Next time can you get me an actual crime scene to investigate?”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Before:
“C’mon, I don’t believe that. Lance knew you’d tell the cops about the connection. He just wanted the excuse in place because he knew Perkins might not be leaving.

After:
“C’mon, I don’t believe that. Lance knew you’d tell the cops about the connection. He just wanted an excuse in case Perkins didn’t leave.

Before:
Craig flipped a page in his notebook. “Do you keep records in your system that specify which of your inmates have had access to this room?”

After:
Craig flipped a page in his notebook. “Do you keep records of patients who’ve had access to this room?”

So be sure to read or listen to lots of fiction, and read your story out loud to see if it sounds natural, like people in those situations would actually talk and think. And delete all those extra little words that are cluttering up your prose, to create a smooth, natural flow of ideas.

For more on this topic, see my blog post, “Making the switch from Nonfiction to Fiction Writing,” on Joanna Penn’s award-winning blog.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-Captivate_full_w_decalof-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Nail it with Just the Right Word!

 by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. And verbs are the heavyweights in your sentences, so pay particular attention to them. Especially avoid the very common but tired, overused verbs like walked, ran, and looked. Instead, find a synonym that shows how that action is taking place.

Say you’ve got a character going from one place to another. How are they moving, exactly, and why? Convey their physical and emotional state at that moment by using a strong, precise, evocative verb. Readers will envision the character and situation much differently, depending on whether you show them strolling or striding or skipping or shuffling or sauntering or slinking or strutting or sashaying or slogging along, just to name a few “s” movement verbs, for example.

For help in zeroing in on the very best word to convey the tone and mood you’re after, it’s a good idea to use both a thesaurus and a dictionary (either online or print). Use the thesaurus to find a wide range of possibilities, then if you’re not 100% sure of the meaning, check with the dictionary to avoid embarrassing slip-ups.

But avoid choosing words your readers will need to look up in a dictionary.

Just make sure to choose a word that really nails the meaning you’re looking for, not one that will impress your readers with your literary prowess. Choosing obscure words that just draw attention to themselves is a sure way to distract readers from your story and annoy them. So read your story out loud later to make sure the words you’ve chosen sound natural and are words your characters would actually say or think in the given situation. (And remember that narration is really the viewpoint character’s thoughts and observations!)

Example from my editing:  She heard a stridulous sound coming from the basement.

I’ve never heard the word “stridulous” before, so it conjures up no image or meaning whatsoever to me. That’s the danger for a lot of your readers, too – no image, no impact. And a mild irritation at having to look a word up in the dictionary if they want to know what it means.

If you’d like to introduce some interesting words your readers might not know, it’s best to use them in context, so readers can guess at the meaning.

Choose words that enhance the tone, mood, and voice of your scene.

Find vivid verbs

Verbs are especially important, as there are so many variations in the way someone can move or speak or eat or whatever, depending on their personality, mood, age, gender, size, background, health, fitness level, and of course the circumstances. So it’s worth the effort to find just the right verb that nails the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A verb that doesn’t quite fit can be jarring and turn a reader off, whereas finding a stronger, more specific verb can really strengthen a scene.

Words for “walked”:

I’ve compiled a handy list of synonyms for “walked” to fit various situations and characters:

– Drunk, drugged, wounded, ill: lurched, staggered, wobbled, shuffled, shambled

– Urgent, purposeful, concerned, stressed: strode, paced, treaded, moved, went, advanced, proceeded, marched, stepped

– Relaxed, wandering: strolled, sauntered, ambled, wandered, roamed, roved, meandered, rambled, traipsed

– Tired: trudged, plodded, slogged, clopped, shuffled, tramped

– Rough terrain, hiking: marched, trooped, tramped, hiked

– Sneaking, stealth: sidled, slinked, minced, tiptoed, tread softly

– Showing off: strutted, paraded, sashayed

– Other walking situations: waddled, galumphed (moved with a clumsy, heavy tread), shambled, wended, tiptoed

So in general, it’s best to avoid plain vanilla verbs like “walked” or “went” if you can find a more specific word to evoke just the kind of movement you’re trying to describe.

But don’t grab that synonym too quickly! Watch out for show-offy or silly words.

After you’ve found a list of interesting synonyms, choose carefully which one to use for the situation, as well as the overall tone of your book. For example, for “walk,” don’t go to extremes by choosing little-known, pretentious words like “ambulate” and “perambulate” and “peregrinate” (!), or overly colloquial, slang, or regional expressions like “go by shank’s mare” and “hoof it.”

And beware of words that just don’t fit that situation.

Also, some synonyms are too specific for general use, so they can be jarring if used in the wrong situations. I had a few author clients who seemed to like to use “shuffled” for ordinary, healthy people walking around. To me, “shuffled” conjures up images of a patient moving down the hallway of a hospital, pushing their IV, or an old person moving around their kitchen in their slippers. Don’t have your cop or PI or CEO shuffling! Unless they’re sick or exhausted – or half-asleep.

Similarly, I had a client years ago who was writing about wartime, and where he meant to have soldiers and officers “striding” across a room or grounds or battlefield, he had them “strutting.” To me, you wouldn’t say “he strutted” unless it was someone full of himself or showing off. It’s definitely not an alternate word for “walked with purpose” as is “he strode.”

Or, disguised from another novel I edited:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.

The verb “sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or even “stumbled” back to his office.

For similar lists for the verbs “ran” and “looked,” as well as lots of other tips for writing compelling fiction, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction.Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silvers

Here are two recent quotes from two different contest judges about Fire up Your Fiction:

“This should be on the booklist for Master’s Programs in Writing for Publication.” ~ Writer’s Digest Judge

“FIRE UP YOUR FICTION is the Strunk and White for writers who want to be not just mere storytellers but master story-compellers.” ~ Judge, IndieReader Discovery Awards

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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