Active Beginnings

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Our post today comes from Tahlia Newland, author, editor, and artist. She writes a blog at TahliaNewland.com and hosts the Happiness Hints podcast. She joins us to share her insights.

Tahlia says:  All aspects of a novel are important, but the beginning is the most important because no matter how wonderful the story is or how scintillating further chapters are, if the first pages aren’t riveting, the rest will rarely be read.  The beginning is where active writing is vital.

Active Writing

By “active” writing I don’t mean action in terms of plot—though a bit of action is a good way to start—I mean active in terms of prose; it’s using words in such a way that they paint a vibrant picture. You can have everything else in place for a great beginning, but if the prose is passive, it will still not have the punch it could have.

The terms passive writing and passive prose are not synonymous with “telling”. However, they do contribute to it and active prose is less likely to have a “told” feel even when you are telling. The important distinction is that the terms passive writing and passive prose do not refer to passive voice. Passive voice is only one example of passive prose.

Prose is particularly passive where the author does not specify the subject that does the begin picaction, or they place it after the action. Passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but when used in fiction, it isn’t very exciting. Prose peppered with it soon becomes dull.

Passive writing is more than just the use of passive voice. Your writing can be free of passive voice as defined above and still be passive writing. The trouble with passive writing is that it doesn’t engage the reader. It isn’t immediate, it doesn’t seem to happen now, and it doesn’t draw the reader into the action. The scene itself may be dramatic, but the writing leaves the reader outside the characters and the events. Such writing is uninviting, or rather cold, like a blind date with nothing to say. If you’re reading something that, despite feeling as if it should, just isn’t holding you, it may be because the writing is passive.

Once you know what to look for, passive writing is easy to spot. Here are some things to watch for.

The verb “To be”.

The verb “to be” and all its variations (be, am, are, is, being, was, were, been) are known as passive verbs. Prose with a lot of such bland verbs lacks immediacy and is less engaging than prose that uses more active verbs. “Was” and “were” get the most overuse. Your prose will improve if you replace them with a specific, active verb, or restructure the sentence to avoid them.

Examples:

He was after her like a shot. (Passive.)

He raced after her like a shot. (Active.)

She was at the lookout, staring over the railing. (Passive.)

She stood at the lookout, staring over the railing. (Active.)

When I’m self-editing, I search for all those “was”es and “were”s and see if I can write the sentences better without them. I usually can. This one tip made a huge difference to the quality of my prose.

The More Evil “was … ing”.

Using “was” or “were” or “is” or any other version of the verb “to be” along with a participle ending in “ing” is very passive. There are better alternatives. Replace these forms with a more active verb, or see how your sentence reads if you restructure the sentence to avoid it. Often it’s just a matter of replacing the “ing” ending participle with an “ed” ending one. The “ed” verb forms are more immediate than the “ing” ending forms.

Examples:

She was running along the road.

She ran along the road.

He was skipping towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.

He skipped towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.

These examples of how to identify and fix passive prose are taken from my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine. In this book you’ll find more tips on how to write actively.

Join Tahlia in the Short and Helpful Helpful Beginnings and Endings workshop for more insight on writing beginnings that will make readers want to read on, and endings that will make them want to leave a great review and read more of your work.signature-terry-small

Award-winning author Tahlia Newland has written seven novels, one book of short storiesTahlia-SM and a book of writing tips—The Elements of Active Prose. She writes fantasy and magical realism with a touch of romance, and her writing, in its emphasis on the power of the mind, reflects her extensive experience in meditation. Three of her novels have won a BRAG Medallion and an Awesome Indies Seal of Excellence.

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Where is the next page?

Has this ever happened to you? You get dragon-boyreadinginterested in a book; you bond with a character, hanging on every twist and turn as you approach the end. Then you turn the page, or swipe for the next screen…and nothing. It’s over.

 

As a reader, you sometimes need another page, or just a paragraph, to get closure. You have been living the story, taking the next step alongside the protagonist, rooting for the triumph of good over evil, and when evil finally collapses, there needs to be the moment of victory. You want to see Saint George with his foot on the slain dragon, or St. George and the dragon going off together to fight greater evils. You want to see the criminal pronounced guilty, the scheming villain publicly exposed… the calamity overcome.

 

Sometimes by the time an author writes the last page of the novel, his or her eye (and attention) is already on the next book and this final moment is skipped in favor of a cliff-hanger, an attempt to motivate the reader to buy the next book. Don’t be that author. If your book has no satisfaction for the reader, why would he want another book by the same author?

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The moment of triumph does not necessarily mean having all problems solved. A series must have an over-arching problem that winds its way through the entire series. That problem can be unrelated to the main plot, as with a series of crime novels with a love interest that progresses slowly through multiple books. Sometimes the multi-book problem is the main focus, as with a fantasy series with a quest that is solved in stages, but each book has one major goal accomplished with its accompanying moment of triumph. Time to take a deep breath before beginning the next stage of the adventure.

Join Tahlia Newland in the Short & Helpful Beginnings and Endings workshop for tips on writing beginnings that will make readers want to read on, and endings that will make them want to read more of your work.sh-logodh-logo

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Dialogue: Keep up the Pace!

Two persons catches another one

More tips from Christine M. Fairchild, author of The Editor Devil’s Guide to Dialogue, Top Tips & Tricks for Fiction and presenter for Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops’, Intriguing Dialogue.  Christine writes a regular blog at Editor Devil Blog Spot  and joins us to share her knowledge in this, the second installment, of her two-part post regarding questions in dialogue.  Take it away, Christine:

Don’t Ask, Tell

Questions in internal dialogue reveal the character’s doubts and confusion, while helping the reader understand the character’s struggle and motivation. They also feel unnatural and slow the pace. You really want to avoid them or keep them at a minimum. One way to reduce the questions in your dialogue is to turn those questions into statements.

“His chest armor was bulletproof, so which would he go for? The blade to the throat? Or a club to the head?”

You could change the wording to:

 “His chest armor was bulletproof, so only two options remained: a blade to the throat, or a club to the head.”

This statement keeps the story moving forward, thus keeps pacing high. In an action scene every heartbeat counts, so minimizing the slowdowns is always my first choice.

Let’s look at another example. Let’s use a story about a young boy. He gets on his bike and rolls down the driveway, turns into a lane, and races toward a stop sign. WhicRunning Up Arrow Man Shows determination And Eagerh way will he turn? Worse, can he stop in time? And did dad fix his brakes?

The minute the questions began, the bike stopped moving. Often writers believe it creates more suspense or tension, but only rarely is this effective or necessary. Sure, when a character experiences his life flashing before his eyes, the slowdown would be purposeful. But here the slowdown lasts too long and sounds melodramatic. Besides, the reader naturally would’ve asked those questions. Using one question would have been enough, and it’s the only one that wouldn’t have been obvious to the reader: did his dad fix the brakes?

There are other, better ways to achieve tension in such a situation. Have the boy daydreaming. Show another vehicle approaching the intersection. The driver spills coffee. Then we will be asking the questions on behalf of the character. You want the reader, not the manuscript, to ask the questions.

Keep Your Character Strong

Questions in dialogue can also affect your character development on subtle levels. Asking is weak energy. Statements are strong energy.

Why? Because knowledge is power in psychology and it’s associated with adults and education. Lack of knowledge is more associated with children and low-education. So when there is only one person in the room with the answers, guess who has more power?

A hero who is still “in the making” will tend to be learning and thus will need to ask questions, but try to minimize this. He or she can still learn without sounding dumb.

If you have an alpha character, only allow them ask questions when they are revealing their weakness or vulnerability (even if they are faking vulnerability to catch the villain off-guard). Then a question can be wildly effective, and the reader will really lean in to hear the answer.

So hunt and destroy, dear writers. Search for every “?” in your manuscript and see if you can change multiple questions into one or change singular questions into statements. This is a big challenge, but the quality of your dialogue will jump up a few notches.

Terry says: Thank you, Christine. Be sure to read Christine’s first post, Dialogue: Dead Stop?  I’m off on a quest to hunt down question marks! Any one interested in joining me?

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photo-from-webAbout Christine M. Fairchild: writer/editor with thirty years experience.  She teaches writing and editing and is a regular guest lecturer at Univ. Washington, Seattle, as well as, speaking at writer conferences across the country. She’s published two books to help authors improve their craft, The Editor Devil’s Guide to Characters and The Editor Devil’s Guide to Dialogue, as well as a contemporary Romantic Suspense series set in New York, An Eye for Danger.  She presents the Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops’, Intriguing Dialogue in February.

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Dialogue: Dead Stop?

Crushed by Question

Today, Dixie’s tip comes from Christine M. Fairchild, author of The Editor Devil’s Guide to Dialogue, Top Tips & Tricks for Fiction and presenter for Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops’, Intriguing Dialogue.  Christine writes a regular blog at Editor Devil’s Blog Spot. She takes time out to join us, sharing her knowledge in the first of a two-part post with regard to using questions in dialogue.  Any trick that makes dialogue more intriguing is worth learning. Here is what Christine has to say:

Stop Asking Questions in Dialogue

Today we’re talking about questions in a manuscript, those lines that ending in “?”. Questions can really feel awkward, unnatural, and in fact slow down the reader, hence, they drag down the pace of your story. Frankly, they can make dialogue a bore to read.

Why do questions cause readers to stall? (Sorry, I had to do that.) Well, that’s the natural response by the brain to stop and figure out the answer. When humans are asked a question, we mentally switch gears to dissect the question and then flip through relevant files to locate a reasonable answer. All this happens in split seconds, even when there’s no real need for the reader to answer the question in your story. Unfortunately, this brings the storytelling to a halt, however brief.

Minimize the Questions in Your Manuscript

When questions are used in internal thoughts, they can help relay the character’s doubt or confusion, or the character’s struggle for motivation, and even the inner conflict driving the character and/or situation.

“His chest armor was bulletproof, so which would he gquestion-stopo for? The
blade to the throat? Or a club to the head?”

Here the writer has broken up the internal thoughts into back-to-back questions.  This is not only unnecessary but doubly halting because the material doesn’t flow naturally.

Let’s improve this by removing some question marks.

 “His chest armor was bulletproof, so which would he go for: the blade to the throat, or a club to the head?”

First, note this is all one sentence, one question, rather than 2 or 3 questions. While I recommend avoiding using a colon (:), this version minimizes the amount of question marks present, therefore minimizing the pauses by the reader. Remember, every question mark is an unconscious stop sign to the brain.

While silly, this example works because it delivers enough energy to push through the reader’s momentary pause. Here’s why this doesn’t slow pacing as badly as the first example. When you truly put a reader in the scene, embed them in the action and in the throes of danger and then just show the reader their options (blade or club)…they will be asking the question for the character, and thus they will be participating in the story.

That’s the difference between showing and telling. The reader is guessing the answer, anticipating the effect of the hero’s choice. If he chooses the blade to the throat, will he win the fight? If he chooses the club to the head, will the villain survive and crush our hero? With the reader’s anticipation of the answer comes suspense and that drives the reader forward in the story. Win-win!

Terry says: Thank you, Christine. I wonder how many questions I have written into my manuscript that could easily be unwritten. What about you? I’m going for the Win-win!

signature-terry-small
photo-from-webAbout Christine M. Fairchild: writer/editor with thirty years experience.  She teaches writing and editing and is a regular guest lecturer at Univ. Washington, Seattle, as well as, speaking at writer conferences across the country. She’s published two books to help authors improve their craft, The Editor Devil’s Guide to Characters and The Editor Devil’s Guide to Dialogue, as well as a contemporary Romantic Suspense series set in New York, An Eye for Danger.  She presents the Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops’, Intriguing Dialogue in February.sh-logo
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Dialogue does not play alone

Couple in beautiful foggy mysterious natureOne of my favorite nursery rhymes is this lovely poem:

  • One misty, moisty morning,
  • When cloudy was the weather,
  • I chanced to meet an old man clothed all in leather.
  • He began to compliment, and I began to grin,
  • How do you do, and how do you do?
  • And how do you do again?*
*This version is from https://allpoetry.com/poem/11612045-One-Misty–Moisty-Morning-by-Mother-Goose

Even as a child I was fascinated with the alliteration and the shivery quality of the setting. Now as a writer, I still love it. The setting is deliciously blurred by the fine mist. The leather-clad stranger is mysterious, but the dialogue needs help. It’s repetetive and boring, suitable for toddlers who love and learn through repetition…or is that all there is to it?

My thoughts jumped to Joey of the TV series Friends. His favorite, and very effective pick-up line was, “How you doin’?” Paired with a winning smile and a lifted brow, the subtext is obvious. Yes, he began to compliment.

And I began to grin. Another “How do you do?” delivered with a wink and a grin sets one tone. Delivered with a blush and downturned eyes sets a different tone. Both say “I’m flattered and find you interesting.”

Couple in beautiful foggy mysterious natureThe “how do you do again?” is the beginning a new journey. The actual words are immaterial. Will the two step off on a journey together, or pass as ships in the night, leaving them both warmer inside for the interesting encounter?

What was the meat of the story? What kept the dialogue interesting? It was the interplay between action and words, or between the emotions and words.

Tip of the week: Even the most scintillating dialogue needs a stage on which to play.

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