The Basics of Endings

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Here at TKZ, we often talk about advanced writing techniques that go well beyond the basics. And because of that, there’s always something here for everyone—wannabes and bestsellers. I have not been writing for very long. My first book was published in 2005. Because of that, I haven’t forgotten what it wdeadend1as like to know little about writing techniques—I had a story or two struggling to get out of my head and that’s all I cared about.

When I consider the many basic tips I wished I’d know back then, I find a strong desire to share what I’ve learned. Not that anything I suggest should be taken for gospel, but some of this stuff actually works.

So many most new writers stumble and fall out of the gate. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special secret handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

Today I want to discuss the basics of creating endings.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to wind up with a dead ending.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying ending. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time and money.

There are a number of basic methods you can use to make sure your ending is not a dead end. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your main character to work toward and, in the end, are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the character and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

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Max is back! Coming this Spring, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB from Sholes & Moore. #1 New York Times bestseller Brad Thor calls Sholes & Moore one of his favorite writing teams.

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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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Coming To Terms

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When I first started trying to write fiction, about the only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to tell a story. I had no idea what the basic rules for writing were, so I broke them all. I also came across many words and terms related to writing that remained undefined for a long time. As time passed, I started honing the craft and the terminology that goes with it. I’m still learning the craft today, but once a term is defined, it rarely changes. To help those that are just getting their feet wet in this wacky business of making stuff up in a dark room staring at a monitor and talking to imaginary people, here are a few terms that I wish someone would have defined for me back in the day. Hope there’s one here that you’ve wondered about but never knew for sure. Or maybe two or three. So let’s come to terms with writing terms.

Concept: A vague notion such as: A world ruled by apes.

High Concept: Usually verges on the outrageous or bigger-than-life “world” story such as: A world ruled by apes where humans are the subspecies.

Idea: A story description that sounds more like a short synopsis.

Premise: Similar to an idea, the premise is a one- or two-sentence reply to the question: “What is your story about?”

Genre: Categories of fiction (suspense, science fiction, horror, romance, etc.) that help create inherent expectations for the reader. Each genre will predetermine your basic story structure.

Mystery: Usually begins with an event and spends the rest of the story finding who caused it.

Thriller: Usually begins with the threat of an event and spends the rest of the story trying to stop it.

Plot: A series of events that determine the beginning, middle and end of a story.

Subplot(s): A secondary series of events that contribute to the main plot and characters.

Commercial Fiction: Plots that generally deal with externally driven characters and conflicts.

Literary Fiction: Plots that generally deal with internally driven characters and conflicts.

Plot Driven: A story that relies heavily on a series of events to push the characters forward.

Character Driven: A story that relies heavily on the characters to push the plot forward.

Story Question: A global question posed early in the story that intrigues the reader enough to keep reading. The story question signals to the reader when the story will end.

Theme: What the story says about the human condition.

Moral: A life lesson taught or insinuated at the conclusion of a story.

Suspense: Creates a desire in the reader for something to happen, delays the satisfaction of that desire, then delivers what the reader wants in an anticipated yet unexpected manner. Suspense is used to keep the reader wanting to read more.

Conflict: Conflict is the basic difference of goals between the protagonist and antagonist.

Foreshadow: The delivery of small hints about what’s going to happen later in the novel, and is used to heighten suspense.

Telegraphing: Revealing too much too soon. Telegraphing can diminish or destroy suspense.

Query Letter: A one- or two-page business letter to an agent or editor that serves as an introduction and selling tool for the writer and story.

Elevator Pitch: Similar to the premise, the elevator pitch is a short summary of the story that is meant to attract the attention of an agent or editor.

Copy Editor: An editor who addresses such story elements as word choice, plot points, paragraph flow, clichés and style issues. The copy editor will also point out a need for clarification and possible plot mistakes.

Line Editor: An editor who deals with the rules of grammar and punctuation along with addressing such issues as passive voice and formatting.

Acquisition Editor: an editor who reviews submitted manuscripts for possible purchase and publications. The acquisition editor also deals with global issues that might need addressing before the manuscript is accepted.

This is by no means a complete list of writing terminology. Additional lists can be compiled dealing with terms about publishing contracts, marketing, and so many other topics. So, Kill-Zoners, is there a term and definition you would like to contribute to today’s discussion? Perhaps a term you would like defined. Now’s your chance to come to terms.

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Finding Your Voice part II

by Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

On Monday, Clare posted a great blog on Finding Your Voice. She pointed out that it’s critical for a writer to have a distinctive voice that fits the genre and helps pull the reader into the story. Along with her post, Clare got a number of excellent comments. Check them out when you get through with my post.

Today I want to add some additional thoughts on developing writer’s voice by comparing it to performing music.

If I asked a musician to play a melody on a trumpet, then asked another to play the same melody on a cello, chances are you could tell the difference between the two even though they played the same notes. Not only doesmusic one instrument sound different from the other, but individually, they can convey a variety of emotions based upon the style and technique of the musicians. Both can play the same melody, and when combined with the timbre of the instruments and their respective artists’ style, they can also invoke feelings and emotion.

In a similar manner, when it comes to defining the writer’s voice, it can be the combination of the author’s attitude, personality and character; the writer’s style that conveys the story. It’s called the writer’s voice. Voice is the persona of the story as interpreted by the reader.

So how do you find your writer’s voice and keep it going throughout your manuscript? Here are some tips.

First, start by writing to connect with your readers, not to impress them. Your voice is the direct connection into your reader’s head. Some might argue that the words are the connection. But I believe that the words are like the notes on the sheet music that a musician reads as he or she plays that trumpet or cello. Those notes printed on the musical staff have no value until they are “voiced” by the musician.

Likewise, those written words on the printed page of a book have no value until they are interpreted by the reader. With the musical example, the styles and techniques of the musicians are the connection to the listener. With the novel, the writer’s voice is the connection into the reader’s imagination. The pictures formed in the mind of the reader are strongest when the writer’s voice is solid, unique and original.

The best way to develop your writer’s voice is to simply let the words flow without restrictions—let them speak from your heart. Feel the emotions that your character or (first-person) narrator feels.

Equally important, avoid comparing yourself to other writers. Doing so can be restrictive or downright destructive to your voice. You are who you are, not someone else. Write from your heart while not trying to copy your favorite author. The writer’s voice you need to create is yours alone. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other writers, but convert that inspiration into your own style, your own voice.

It’s also dangerous to compare yourself to other writers or become jealous of their style or accomplishments. Doing so always leads to frustration and a product that is not totally yours. If you’ve tried to inject someone else’s voice into your words, the lack of honesty will always come through to the reader.

Finally, as you work on your manuscript, try to visualize a specific reader and write directly to that person. Remember that you’re trying to communicate, to make a single connection with a single reader.

Just like a musician playing the notes on the sheet music, finding your writer’s voice is the process of communicating with your reader the emotions and feelings you feel through your characters. You can’t learn voice, but through writing, more writing and even more writing, you can develop a distinctive, unique writer’s voice.

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If it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

It was a dark and stormy night.

If you were the first writer to have used that as an opening line, then it was brilliant. What a vivid way to create an immediate setting and mood. Congratulations on a fresh, original beginning. For everyone else, that line is a cliché. A language cliché to be exact. In addition to language clichés, there are character and plotting clichés. We all know not to use them, but sometimes they slip through when we’re not looking. So how do we avoid clichés like the plague and fix them in the blink of an eye?

First, let’s define the three types. As mentioned, language clichés are bits of speech that have been used so often they lose their original luster or charm. You’d have to be blind as a bat to not understand my crystal clear definition. It should hit you like a ton of bricks.

Character clichés are those we’ve seen too many times such as the prostitute with a heart of gold (includes a language cliché) or the disgraced, wrongly accused cop who winds up catching the killer.

Plotting clichés are well-worn storylines such as the farmer boy who turns out to be a king or the self-taught musician who eventually performs with the philharmonic. Two common plotting cliché examples that I’ve seen dozens of times are books and movies based on the “Bad News Bears” and “Death Wish” themes. The Bad News Bears theme usually deals with a group of outcasts or “losers” who reach the lowest point in their collective lives only to be pulled together by a strong, charismatic leader and wind up coming out winners. This theme does not have to deal with sports. Watch the movie THE HOUSE BUNNY as a good example.

The Death Wish theme is usually the story of a common “every man” who experiences a tragic event in his or her life. Seeking justice but not getting help from the police or government (or any authority group), he/she steps out of a normal existence, takes matters into his/her own hands and finds justice and revenge by becoming judge, jury and executioner. THE BRAVE ONE is a great example of the Death Wish theme. It’s only through unique characters or settings that these clichéd themes keep working. Try to avoid them at all costs.

Language clichés are fairly easy to spot and fix like the one in the previous sentence. They often appear in your first or second draft when you’re writing fast in order to get the story onto the page, and you don’t want to stop your momentum to think of an original description of a character or setting. There’s nothing wrong with that because you have every intention of going back and cleaning them up.

My first tip is to do your cliché hunting with a printed copy of your work, not on the computer screen. As you read along, use a color highlighter and mark everything that’s a cliché or even questionable. Then go back to the computer and take the time to consider each one and how you can improve them. In some cases, just substituting the real meaning in place of the cliché is enough. For instance, he’s as crazy as a loon could become he’s insane. Isn’t that what you really meant? How about, that kind of book is not my cup of tea could become I don’t enjoy that kind of book. Again, that’s the meaning you intended, so simply stating it could fix the problem better than relying on a cliché. Taken out of context, these might sound boring, but chances are that simplifying the meaning won’t stop the reader like a worn out phrase might. One caution though: it’s important to maintain and be true to your “voice” when using this simplifying technique.

One place where you can sometimes get away with clichés is in dialog. But that doesn’t mean you should. If a character uses a cliché, make sure it’s part of his or her “character” and not just an excuse for lazy writing.

Character clichés are a little harder to fix, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be, and the more original your story becomes. Here’s an example: the disgraced cop is an anti-hero. He’s got deep dark issues but we still pull for him because he’s fighting for what’s right. Maybe he’s an alcoholic because he can’t get over the murder of his family. Try removing one of the main elements that drive the character; the disgraced career, the alcohol addiction or the dead family. Does his character change in your mind? Does he become more interesting? Can you still tell his story? If taking away or substituting an element suddenly creates a fresher character, you’ve probably avoided a character cliché. Another tip: If your character’s action shows a serious lack of common sense, treat it as a cliché. You should always be considering what you would do in the same situation as your character. Would you react the same as what you just made your character do? If not, it’s probably a cliché.

Plot clichés need to be fixed from the start. The further you are into the story, the more work it takes to backtrack and change major elements. So before you begin, try this. Write out a short description of your story. Approach it as if you were writing the story blurb to go on the back cover of your book. Once you’re done, ask yourself if sounds familiar. Let someone else read it and ask the same question. If you can remember the same situation occurring in numerous movies, TV shows or books, it’s probably a cliché.

There’s nothing wrong with a cliché as long as you’re the first person to use it. After that, it loses its luster fast. Not only that, it’s a sign of lazy writing. As a good friend of mine once said, a cliché is the sign of a mind at rest.

How do you perform a “seek and destroy” on clichés? And how do you feel when you come across one in a book. If the story is really great, do you overlook clichés or do they cause you to think less of the writer?

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shield-cover-smallDownload now: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” – James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

Coming soon in print and audio.

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Three Stages of Writing

Nancy J. Cohen

In my view, story writing has three essential stages: Discovery, Writing, and Revision.

idea

Discovery is the process by which you discover your story. Bits and pieces of character and plot swirl around in your subconscious before you put words to paper. Consider it creative energy at play rather than feeling guilty that you’re not being productive. This can be the break you need before starting the next novel. It’s time well spent to refill your creative pool and to gather ideas.

Doing a collage, watching movies, listening to music, working on a hobby, walking outdoors, or reading for pleasure are some of the ways you can stimulate your creativity. Cut out photos from magazines of celebrities who look like your characters and fill out your character development charts. Search for relevant articles to your storyline and sift through them. Thus begins your research. Often this prep time can take weeks or even a month or two. If you’re a seasoned writer, you’ll know how long you need. Be sure to factor this in when you determine your target goal of completion for your project.

When these ideas coalesce in your head and your characters begin to talk to you, you’re ready to start writing. This is when I sit down and write an entire synopsis. The synopsis acts as my writing guideline, so I always know where I’m going even if I don’t quite know how to get there. This still allows for the element of surprise. The plot may change as the story develops.

editing

At this stage, set yourself a minimum daily quota. I have to write at least 5 pages a day or 25 pages a week. Beginning a book is the hardest task. It might take until the first third of the book for you to get to know your characters. Give yourself permission to write crap during this heated storytelling phase. Once the book is written, you can fix it. Just get those words down on paper and move forward until the draft is done.

When you finish the first round of storytelling, it’s a good idea to put your book aside so as to gain some distance from it. You’ll be better prepared for revisions with a fresh viewpoint. Use the time to plan your promo campaign, to jot down blog topic ideas, or to write reader discussion questions. When you find yourself eager to tackle the story again, move on to the next phase.

editing

Now come the heavy revisions. This can get intense, because you need to keep a sense of the whole story in your head. You can’t stop, or you’ll lose your train of thought.  But you also shouldn’t rush this process if you want to produce what editors call a “clean” copy.

When you set deadlines, be sure to allow a month or so for revisions, because you’ll need to do several read-throughs. My first round of revisions focuses on line editing. Then I’ll read through for smoothness and consistency. The final reading is to catch any remaining errors, typos, or repetitions. You can run your material through one of the online editors like Smart-Edit software or Pro Writing Aid.

I guarantee you’ll always find things to correct, but at some point you’ll be too close to the material to see straight or too sick of the project to work on it any more. Then the book is ready to submit. But don’t worry, likely you’ll have a chance to fix things again when you hear from your editor.

Send it off, clean up your desk, file away your mounds of papers. By now you’re thinking about the next book and are getting ready to start the process anew. Force yourself away from the office and take some time off. You’ll return with fresh ideas and renewed energy.

Now I have to quit procrastinating and get back to the writing stage. After being away for a week, it’s hard to get back in the groove.

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Book Production

Nancy J. Cohen

What happens after you sell a book to a publishing house? Despite what you may think if you’re a new author, your work is far from finished. In case you haven’t had experience yet with this stage in the writing process or if you are an interested reader, let me describe it for you.

First you’ll hear back from the editor with line edits. Usually we get these as Track Changes in Microsoft Word. The editor will write comments in the margins relevant to the story and will delete/add sentences in the body of the work. You may or may not have a deadline for returning revisions, with your corrections also done in Track Changes.

editing

Assuming your editor accepts this version, next you’ll receive the copy edits. If you’re unsure about the difference between line or story edits and copyediting, see my article here: http://bit.ly/18zyJbj. You make corrections again and send them back. Often I’ll find problems like sentences that should be bumped ahead to the next paragraph, missing punctuation or dialogue attributed to the wrong character. These are formatting errors.

copy edit

Next come the page proofs or galleys. This is your last chance to make changes and to proofread your work. Again, you’ll have a deadline, often a week or two, in which to respond.

Sometime along the way, you may be lucky enough to receive an advance peek at the front cover design. Recently I got the one for my next mystery, and I immediately sent back two corrections and some color preferences. I’m lucky my publisher is so accommodating.

You may also get a glimpse at the inside cover flap (for a hardcover) and back cover copy. Once I felt the wording was too revealing about the suspects and requested changes. It’s nice when you have a chance to give your approval.

Naturally, if you are self-publishing, you have to hire people to do all these tasks. But you’ll still have the proofreading and corrections regardless of which route you take.

At the moment, I am working on four books. Three are already written. On Book 1, I’m waiting for page proofs and final cover design. This one already has a scheduled publication date. On Book 2, I am hoping for an offer followed by line edits. These will take me a while since the story is a long one. On Book 3, I’m working with an editor toward self-publishing my first original title.

As for book 4, I’m only at the synopsis and research stage, but I need to start writing it soon to finish by my  editor’s requested date. Add in various trips and holidays within the next few months, and I’ll be lucky to have time to breathe. This requires prioritizing. The books that come in with edits or page proofs from my publishing houses will be first on the list.

So you see, until a book is actually on the virtual (or real) bookshelves, your work isn’t finished. When the book finally is  for sale, then you’ll be jumping on the marketing bandwagon. And that starts a whole new ride.

How many of you have several works in production at the same time?

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When is “Dark” too dark?

Nancy J. Cohen

One of the words I’ve been repeating in my works lately has been “dark”. You know, the man swung his dark gaze her way. He wore a dark suit. He had his dark hair brushed back over a wide forehead. Shadows darkened in a corner as he gave her a dark scowl.

Ouch.

This can be considered lazy writing, except I hadn’t even been aware of this fault until I ran one of the self-edit programs described in my personal blog at http://bit.ly/12iU9nZ. I embarked on a search and find mission to replace as many of these weak terms as possible.

Let’s start with clothes. Face it, men wear dark suits. To get a better idea of colors, I accessed this website: http://lawyerist.com/suit-colors-for-the-clueless/. Ah, now it became clear which colors are popular for men and suited to business. My descriptions of dark suits changed to black, charcoal, slate or navy. That’s a lot better than “dark”, isn’t it?

charcoal blazer

If you want to get even more particular, go online to a department store site like Macys.com and put in the search feature “suits, “blazers”, or “sportcoats” and you’ll get a wide variety of colors.

navy blazer

What about the character who has dark hair? Is it black or dark brown? Check this reference:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_hair_color. Instead of black hair, give your character raven, ebony, or onyx hair. Varying the descriptions adds spice to your story.

Jen4

Also watch out for redundancies like dark shadows & dark scowl. Both of these work well without the “dark” element.

Despite its ambiguity, this word is popular for movies. Witness Batman’s The Dark Knight; Thor: The Dark World; and Star Trek into Darkness.

The filmmakers can get away with it, but as a writer, you cannot. What other ambiguous words like this might you want to change?

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Keeping it Real

By Joe Moore

Before we begin, a bit of self promotion. For one day only, Saturday, August 24, Amazon is dropping the price of two of my thrillers (co-written with Lynn Sholes): THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY and THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. TGC is an international bestseller, and both are previous #1 Amazon bestsellers. Download each for only $1.99. Don’t miss reading the first installment of the 4-book Cotten Stone saga (TGC) or how far one man will go to live forever (TPA). Enjoy!

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Today is my lucky day. It started right after I poured my first cup of coffee and launched my e-mail. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the first message popped up. It was from an exiled Nigerian king who escaped his country excitewith a fortune in the bank but no way to get to it. Somehow he had found me and asked that I help him get his family’s money; and amount he estimated to be over fifty million dollars. For my assistance, he was willing to give me twenty percent of the funds: a cool ten million.

As you can imagine, I was speechless. But then things got even better. My second e-mail was from none other than the Official International Lottery (you’ve heard of it, right?). Believe it or not, my personal e-mail had been randomly chosen from among all the e-mail addresses in the world as the sole winner: a lump sum of $500k. Considering that there are hundreds of e-mail addresses out there, perhaps thousands, I felt like the luckiest guy on my block. I was whooping and hollering when my wife walked in and asked what all the excitement was about. I told her that minus some small administrative fees I needed to wire transfer to His Majesty and the lottery guys, we were rich beyond our wildest dreams.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Joe, you’re one lucky guy. You might also be thinking that all this good fortune is hard to believe. After all, winning the International Lottery is one thing, but on the same day getting this incredible opportunity to help the Nigerian king is, well, an amazing coincidence. I bet there are even a couple of you that flat-out don’t believe it could happen. You think it’s just too much of a coincidence.

If this were a novel, chances are the reader would be kicked right out of the story. That’s because coincidence, if used improperly or overused, can be considered nothing more than a cheap trick. Using it can lower the writer’s credibility and believability. And if it comes as a blatant trick to solve an unsolvable problem, it could cause the reader to close the book and move on.

Coincidence is defined as something that happens by chance, was never intended to take place, and is usually considered an accident. Improper use often occurs when a writer paints himself into a corner and there’s no way out except to turn to an unbelievable event or the introduction of a new element “out of the blue”.

Don’t get me wrong, coincidence is a legitimate writing technique if it’s properly setup and foreshadowed. The key is to make it realistic. Example: on a given day, running into someone you know at JFK is not realistic. Considering an international airport like JFK has multiple terminals, dozens of airlines, and hundreds of thousands of passengers passing through it daily. How often have you run into someone you know at a big airport like JFK? Not too often, I’ll bet. If it doesn’t happen to you, why should it happen to a character in your story? It’s not realistic.

But let’s say two people are in the same industry. Each year they attend an industry tradeshow. They always stay at the same hotel. You’ve established this somewhere previously in the story. What are the chances of them running into each other in the hotel bar? Pretty good. That’s a realistic coincidence. You’ve already foreshadowed enough information to the reader that when it happens, the reaction is Aha, not No Way.

The secret to using coincidence is to narrow down the chances of it not happening beforehand so that when the event takes place, you don’t make the reader roll her eyes.

A nasty form of coincidence is what’s called deus ex machine, Latin for god in the machine: a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new character, ability or object. Your character suddenly has the ability to fly a jumbo jet without any prior flying experience, or a new character appears just in time to perform a life-saving rescue, someone that up until this point was never mentioned in the story. Don’t go there. It will make your writing weak and lacking in integrity. And it could cost you readers.

So how do you avoid coincidence and deus ex machine? Plan ahead. Take time to foreshadow so your reader doesn’t get blindsided. Map out the story in advance, drop hints, and keep things realistic. And as a last resort, if you must use coincidence, take the time to go back and insert the foreshadowing and hints. Doing so will make you look clever in the eyes of the reader. Lastly, placing your character into hot water by coincidence is forgivable. Getting her out is not.

BTW, one more thing about my fabulous luck with the Nigerian king and the International lottery: according to stats, U.S. citizens lose more than $550 million a year as a result of Internet fraud. I sure hope His Majesty isn’t trying to put one over on me.

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There’s no place like home

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

A beginning writer once asked me, “How do you find out what motivates your characters?” I suggested it could be done with something as simple as an interview. I said to consider interviewing your character as if you were a newspaper reporter asking probing questions about their life, quest, current situation, and other topics that could yield the answers. Come up with all the questions first. Then conduct the interview. It sounds simplistic, but it works.

As authors, we know how vital it is that all our characters have a goal. They must want something, and that something is what drives them forward in the story. But it’s more than just a want. They must also have a need. If we don’t know what our characters wants and needs are, neither will our readers. With nothing to root for, the reader will lose interest. And in the end, they won’t care about the outcome.

So what is the difference between want and a need?

The want is what our character consciously pursues in the story (Dorothy wants to get home after being transported to the Land of Oz by wooa tornado). The need can be a quality she must gain in order to get what she wants (courage, selflessness, maturity, etc.) or the need can be in direct conflict with what she wants. In Dorothy’s case, she needs to find the Wizard of Oz who supposedly can help her return home. Of course, we find that her real need is a lesson learned while interacting with all the good and evil characters along the Yellow Brick Road—a need to appreciate what she already has.

So the quality she needs to obtain is an appreciation of the love her family and friends have for her. If we work backwards, we already know that at the beginning of the story, she should show a lack of appreciation (or apparent lack) of those around her. Around the farm she lives on, they give her little attention and constantly tell her to stay out of the way. Knowing this need, we have now given Dorothy room to grow.

Now we can start forming Dorothy’s character in our head. We know that the story should force Dorothy into progressively greater conflicts so she sees how much her friends care for her, how much they stand by her and come to her aid. These conflicts should build until the final crisis (the Wizard leaves without her and she is trapped in Oz) where she is made aware of the deep love her family and friends feel toward her.

Every character must have a want and a need. The most critical are the ones for our protagonists and antagonists. But I think that even the smallest, one-time, walk-ons must be motivated. If we determine the goals of every character, we will have an easier time writing them, and the reader will have a more distinct picture of the character in their minds.

In planning our stories, it’s important that we determine our main character’s wants and needs first. In doing so, we’ll always have a goal to focus on as we write. Ask ourselves, what are our main character’s wants and needs? Can we express them in one sentence? Dorothy wants to return home and needs to find the Wizard of Oz to help her. Give it a try. If you get lost, just click your heels together and repeat, “There’s no place like home.”

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