How to Write About Characters Who Are Smarter Than You (via @Medium)

This is a great article by Graham Moore, the Academy Award nominated screenwriter of 'The Imitation Game':

[A]fter our scientist has finished, the camera turns to a second character. This would be our scientist’s normal-dude buddy. He’s just a regular Joe. He is the audience’s stand-in during the scene, and the character with whom the audience most identifies. This guy makes an incredulous face in response to the scientist’s technical language. And then he says the following line:

“WHOA, Doc. Say that again in English!”

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve seen this moment on screen, you’ve seen it on TV, you’ve read it in novels. I find this moment to be extremely condescending to its audience. The moment essentially signals to the viewer that all of that mumbo-jumbo that this smarty pants has been blathering on about, well, we filmmakers do not understand a word of it. Moreover, we don’t care to. And we have no interest in your understanding it either.

Graham walks through how he avoided this in his screenplay about genius mathematicians, with examples from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes works. It's clever, you'll recognise it, and it doesn't condescend to your audience.

Read about it here:

He Said/She Sighed - Part 1 (HT: @ginad129)

A great article here from Catherine Austen, which could be 'here are some rules about writing rules':

Big picture rules are good, like: A book should spend more words on important scenes and fewer words on unimportant scenes. That rule is hard to argue with.

Rules I roll my eyes at are nitpicky particulars like: Use “said” as your only verb in dialogue. That is a stupid rule. Or, rather, it is stupid to think of that as a rule.

Catherine gives a good analysis of why there are apparent 'rules' like 'just use  s' as a dialogue tag'. Like all 'rules', you can break them once you understand their purpose. This article is about the why:

You can have people spew their words, spit their words, growl them, bark them, bray them if you like. None of it is grammatically incorrect. Just as you can have your character drag her heart to the door, once she gets there she can sigh hello if you want her to. Readers love a good metaphor; why bar them from dialogue? The question is not whether it’s correct usage. (It is.) The question is whether it works. If it enhances the scene and makes it clearer, more vivid, more real and alive, then it’s good usage. If it obscures the action and slows the understanding and annoys the reader, it’s bad usage.

There's a lot more in there, with this great little smackdown:

Note to nitpickers: The hiss of speech doesn’t have to be on sibilants. Humans do not hiss. The meaning of “hiss” in dialogue is not “sssss. If someone is hissing “ssstay away sssilly” you’d better spell it out because no reader is going to assume the speaker is actually hissing the sibilants – unless you’ve already said they’re insane and one of their symptoms is hissing like a snake. Hissing in dialogue means to speak in quiet anger. Like the hiss of a snake or a cat, it is a small noise with a big angry warning attached to it. It is a perfectly good word for a whisper-shout. So please don’t show off your ignorance by calling out an author for saying a character hissed, “Pick that up” to her unruly child in church. You might not like the usage, but it is not bad grammar.

It's only part 1. Read it and bookmark it so if I forget to link you to part 2 then you won't miss out:

We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome (via @thedissolve, ht: @jacklscanlan)

With diversity finally getting a bit more stagetime in the industry (or at least discussions of diversity) it's tempting for lazy artists to pay, effectively, lip service to the notion of having female characters. For example, having stories with more female protagonists does not mean you can just genderswap a character and end up with female male characters, women saying man-things or navigating a man-world like a man. Or as Tasha Robinson discusses in this article, you can't just make an interesting female character then...just...forget about her:

There’s been a cultural push going on for years now to get female characters in mainstream films some agency, self-respect, confidence, and capability, to make them more than the cringing victims and eventual trophies of 1980s action films, or the grunting, glowering, sexless-yet-sexualized types that followed, modeled on the groundbreaking badass Vasquez in Aliens.


[E]ven when they do, the writers often seem lost after that point. Bringing in a Strong Female Character™ isn’t actually a feminist statement, or an inclusionary statement, or even a basic equality statement, if the character doesn’t have any reason to be in the story except to let filmmakers point at her on the poster and say “See? This film totally respects strong women!”

Very good overview (with extra links) about the mistake of introducing Strong Female Characters who then are superfluous to the plot. The concern is summarised as:

For the ordinary dude to be triumphant, the Strong Female Character has to entirely disappear into Subservient Trophy Character mode. This is Trinity Syndrome à la The Matrix: the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene.

Important stuff, and a good checklist/questionnaire for writers to help figure out if you're inadvertently making some of these mistakes:

Things I knew About Creating Characters When I Started Writing (via @ChrisAndrewsAU)

Well! It seems to me that the most important parts of crafting an excellent story go in this order*:

Character -> Plot -> Setting/Concept

The order in which I craft stories is this:

Setting/Concept -> Plot -> Character

You may notice a slight problem.

In practice, my backward approach means that the stories I sell are the lucky few that happen to have good characters. What I ought to do is stick with my setting/concept bias, sure, but immediately engage the emergency writing brakes and think about character foremost. Sure, the setting will inform the character. But crafting characters after you've written the plot? Feels a bit like Prometheus to me. The crappy movie, not the helpful Titan.

Without good characters, I think you're really making it hard for yourself to compete with other submissions.

To that end, Chris Andrews has collected a bunch of great responses about the things other writers have learned about creating characters:

I’d tell myself to figure out what my characters want, what they need, and to understand the difference, but that’s just a tiny part of creating characters. Here’s some more fantastic responses to that question.

Read them here, they're quite good:


*This is a high level overview. I realise all these steps are intertwined and sometimes the setting is the character.

5 Ways To Write Characters That People Care About (via @WritersRelief, HT: @KCHerbel)

I suck at consciously putting characters together. They kind of...coalesce...out of my writing. I don't think that's a very useful professional super power, and so this article helps character-deficient folks like myself:

Creating characters that evoke empathy in the reader can be challenging, but these five methods will ensure that your efforts are successful. And keep in mind that empathetic characters don’t always have to be likable.

It's not a long article, but it provides some structure around crafting solid characters, so check it out here:

What Is The Right Length For a Chapter? (via: @NatRusso, HT: @qldwriters)

Nat Russo talks about dividing up all those immaculate words you are putting down for your novel into good chapter lengths:

Let me just preface everything I say in this article with "In the case of my style of writing..." That should drive the point home that I'm not trying to establish any "rules" I think people should follow.

He looks at:

  • Pacing
  • Characterization/Point-of-View
  • Suspense
  • Transitions

Spoiler: There is no right length, it's a trick question! This article is more about making you think about the purpose of each of your chapters, which feeds directly into their best length.

Now, as a reader who tends to try to pause a read at the end of a chapter, shorter chapters are more likely to make me keep reading. 'Well,' I ponder, scratching my cheek, 'The chapters aren't very long so maybe just one more.' Balancing that against Nat's points should help you find the right length for your chapter.

Read Nat's breakdown here:

The Secret to Overcoming Writer-Envy (via @ZenaShapter)

Zena Shapter writes about writer envy, and it's a helpful read for anyone (like me) who has had any combination of the thoughts, 'Oh man that writer is so much better at writing than I'/'If only I had the time/connections/personal hygiene standards that Amazing Writer X has...' and so forth:

My hubbie is a successful business owner and entrepreneur (all thanks to his supportive wife of course!). So naturally when the opportunity came up, he wanted to go and see Mark Bouris talk about his success. When Hubbie came home, however, he wasn’t busting full of ideas as I expected him to be. He was mellow… almost content. And what he told me about Mark Bouris changed my life too (or at least the way I looked at success). It’s funny really, because what Mark Bouris said I always knew deep down. I just hadn’t accepted it.

Yes, so that's a tease, and you can find out what helped Zena mellow out about how great other writers were at the article here:

Writing From The Middle (via @jamesscottbell, HT: @thecreativepenn )

James Scott Bell talks about his new Nobel Peace prize winning strategy for writing a novel:

I’ve written maybe fifty novels (not all of them published!) and I’ve written them in all different ways. I’ve “pantsed’ my way to completed book (no outline or planning) and I’ve outlined others. I’ve done it in between, too. So I know full well the strengths and weaknesses of every approach.

I’ve also been amused by some of the vehement arguments by proponents of a particular method.

What is this mad strategy that will resolve all conflict between supporters of different writing methods (eg. pantsers and plotters)?

You actually start from the middle.


That’s what I said—the dead center of your novel. Because it is here, in what I call “the mirror moment,” that you discover, truly, what your novel is really all about.

As someone who constantly struggles with making nice narrative arcs, this kind of alternative look at a writing strategy always interests me, so read about it here:

Adventures in Collaborative Writing (via @jodicleghorn)

Disclosure: Jodi is my publisher and a friend! Don't let that poor judgment on her part affect your enjoyment of her excellent article, though.

How do you successfully establish and maintain a collaborative writing partnership? Here are seven tips I’ve gathered along the way (with a little help from my friends!).

She identifies the following points:

  1. Write with someone you trust.
  2. Write with someone with whom you share a great rapport.
  3. Write with someone whose work you know, admire and respect.
  4. Write with someone who will embolden you to write what you would never dare alone.
  5. Write in a format, genre and style you both feel comfortable with.
  6. Write with your ego at the door.
  7. Establish mutually agreed-upon parameters and stick to them when you write.

As usual I'll let the article itself delve into the detailed discussion of those points. I've done some collaborative writing myself, and it can be a lot of fun.

Read all about Jodi's experiences here:

A Periodic Table of Storytelling Tropes (via @drcrypt, HT: @paulwiggins)

This is a very attractive periodic table generated from the TV Tropes website (NOTE: I did not link to that website because it is the black hole of the Internet; if you are interested in storytelling it can take hours to extricate yourself from it).

The Periodic Table of Tropes might be a better name for this interactive visualization: Although each box on Harris's Periodic Table contains one storytelling element coupled with an atomic number, you probably won't recognize many of these storytelling elements from creative writing class. Rather, the Periodic Table of Storytelling is filled with elements such as "Idiot Hero," "Getting Crap Past The Radar," and "Xanatos Gambit," spread across groups that range from archetypes to metatropes.

See, just reading that tempts me to click through to TV Tropes and find out what it means... Must... Resist...

I won't pinch the image and post it here directly, but definitely click through to check it out:

Is Fantasy Fiction Too Safe? (via @mythicscribes, HT: @ciaraballintyne)

Philip Overby looks into his own enjoyment of Fantasy, and posits some reasons why fantasy writers might or might not play it safe when writing new work.

I guess you’re expecting me to say, “Ugh, I’m so sick of epic fantasy.” Actually, no. I quite enjoy these kinds of stories for the most part, and have done so for around twenty years or more.

However, I found myself in a bit of a quandary recently when I thought, “I’d like to read something a bit different in tone, structure, and scope.” So I started looking through my collection of books. Admittedly lots of fantasy.

I'm not much of a fan of fantasy anymore (particularly epic fantasy), having read my share of Eddings and Feist tomes in my youth. That doesn't mean there isn't huge scope yet in the fantasy genre, obviously. Philip explores this:

A question kept nagging me, though. For a genre as limitless as fantasy, why do I feel like I need to escape the genre to get something completely different? Could it be that fantasy is one of the safest genres out there? Is safe a bad word?


Why Fantasy Writers Might Try to Crack the Genre Open

  1. Fantasy is a limitless genre

  2. The potential exodus of readers to Young Adult fiction

  3. The ability of new writers to immediately distinguish themselves

and conversely:

Why Fantasy Writers Prefer to Play it Safe

  1. It’s easier to meet reader expectations

  2. The fear of being ignored

  3. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I've snipped out his detailed exploration of these points, so click through to check it out here:

Improving one’s plot in life: why Matthew Reilly’s books sell (via @conversationEdu, HT @eventmechanics)

Jen Webb discusses a recent news story about successful Australian author Matthew Reilly:

Aristotle said it first: if you want to write a good story (or, in his terms, a good tragedy), you must have two things: plot, and character. Plot is, for Aristotle, “the arrangement of the incidents” — the causal relations between things, people and events. Character refers to the individuals who are the actors in that plot, and all their personal qualities and moral capacities, along with the relationships they have with each other and with the choices they have to make.

I'm not and have never been a fan of Matthew Reilly's writing, but I certainly applaud his successful approach:

Frontloading your story's mission statement (via @patrickoduffy)

Patrick O'Duffy uses the Hulk and King Kong as examples on how to communicate the core of a story to the readers who are about to invest in it:

[T]his idea of a mission statement – the willingness to communicate to your audience just what your story is going to be about, and to do it at the start of your narrative – is a bloody fantastic idea and one that more writers need to embrace.

I've done enough slushreading, and you've read enough writing advice, to know that a story needs to grab a reader early to convince them to keep reading. There is a lot of stuff out there, and only so much spare time in between watching reality TV and sporting events. You have to grab those readers and convince them, gently, that this is the one.

Patrick quotes from an excellent interview in his post:

Comics Alliance: The thing I liked about Indestructible Hulk, and this is something that comes up in a lot of your work, is that you’re a guy who’s big on mission statements and explicitly laying out your direction in a comic. You had that very simple phrase you repeated throughout the book, which was that Hulk destroys and Banner builds.

Check it out (and the full interview with Mark Waid):

Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown's Inferno (via @the_millions)

I don't generally like picking on an author's style, but Dan Brown is probably used to it by now, and also filthy rich, so I guess he can take it. Sam Anderson and David Rees started an experiment in 'dialogic marginalia' whereby the first would annotate the text of Dan Brown's Inferno, then hand it to the second, who would do the same.

I purchased and read Inferno, which was inscrutable and interminable, and as I read I scribbled in its margins. When I finished, my friend David Rees, the artisanal pencil sharpener, asked if he could borrow it. He added his thoughts.

It was fun to see someone else’s words next to mine. I wrote in black pen, in cursive. David wrote in red pencil, in block letters. I was semi-serious. David swore and told a lot of jokes. Usually we agreed, but occasionally we disagreed. Here are some of the highlights.

Have a read and see what 'live feedback while reading' means in the context of a massive blockbuster:

Digital Publishing: 2014 and Beyond (via @gigaom, HT: @joostmoerenburg)

Joe Hyrkin talks about his

Digital publishing is now a mature, thriving industry, and yet many still insist that publishing is in its death throes. Book publishers know better: While hardcover sales declined slightly between 2008 and 2012 (from $5.2 billion to $5 billion), eBook sales grew at an astonishing clip during that period, rising from $64 million to $3 billion. And while digital publications are typically sold at a lower per-unit cost, profit margins are much higher – from 41 percent to 75 percent as publishers make the transition from print to digital.

There's also a good infographic from October 2013 here, about book sale figures. Personally I baulked at the $15 eBook price, but I don't buy DRM books so I have no idea if that's normal:

Joe lists three trends he considers important in the coming year of publishing:

  1. Twitter as the tip of the iceberg
  2. New long-form content discovery venues
  3. Growth in ad spending

Click through to the original article to dig into what he has to say about these things (Boo hiss at 'ad spending', personally):

How To Sell 5,000 Books (via @SusannaFreymark, HT: @hildebrandburke)

Susanna Freymark starts with a clever list to sell a million books:

Back to book sales – here’s what you need to do.

1. Win an award for your unpublished manuscript.

2. Create a bidding war between publishers.

3. Sell you book to 50+ countries.

4. Travel the world promoting your book.

5. Accept a film offer on your book.

6. Give up the day job.

7. Write a sequel.

...and then goes into a little more serious detail to describe how to sell 5,000 books:

I'm not entirely convinced that I could use this method to push 5,000 book sales, but it can't help to explore all avenues, so do read her advice here:

A Christmas Post About Piracy (HT: @brianoleary)

The Christmas period is a time often associated with copious gift exchange. And what better gift than books, right? Isabelle Roughol from Linked In describes the increasingly futile and heavy handed attempts to quash online piracy:

A French court just signed the death warrant of 11 sites that streamed pirated movies and TV shows. Will it make a dent in illegal media consumption? No more than the deaths of Napster, Kazaa or Megaupload.

The entertainment industry lobby is like Don Quixote fighting windmills – except Don Quixote, you feel a bit sorry for. The "majors", on the contrary, have a knack for uniting consumers against them.

The message remains clear: where possible, in every way possible, get your content in front of the people who want it. Because nothing can stop them getting it. Be the most convenient conduit.

Just have a look at the roadblocks to French consumers who just want to watch a movie:

Let's take France as an example, since it's the market I know. A 1986 law regulates how cinematographic content may be broadcast – at the time, it was meant to save movie theaters from the ascent of television and video stores (notice how back then we were already legislating our way out of crisis rather than innovating it). Once a film is released in theaters, one must wait:

  • 4 months to see it as a one-time on-demand purchase
  • 12 months to see it on a movie-specific cable channel (and its catch-up on-demand service – 10 months if they've signed a deal with the cinema lobby)
  • 30 months to see it on other cable channels or broadcast television
  • 36 months to see it on a subscription-based, on-demand-only service

You read right – that's 3 years before we could see a "recent" film on Netflix if we had it! That's only a small part of the regulation, which kafkaesque beauty you can explore here if you read French.

The key phrase here is: 'notice how back then we were already legislating our way out of crisis rather than innovating it.'

Food for thought, folks. And a Merry Christmas!

Read the original post here:

Why is Genre Important to Success? (HT: @AnneGracie)

David Baboulene writes this article about Genre, and it's a good read. He does some technical break down on story structure that's worth looking at:

Genre is a real tricky devil... and absolutely key to your success.

When we start out on a writing career, we don't see it like that. Genre is a restriction. Something to at least ignore and probably rebel against. You gotta be unique. You're going to prove yourself by doing something different. The only reason you would ever want to know the rules is so you can break ‘em good.

Personally I consider genre a marketing category. It's something I worry about after I've written a story and am trying to place it. I'm not sure if that's the right approach, but it seems to align with David's discussion here:

But before you get anywhere near getting assessed by the public, you as a writer, have to sell yourself and your material to an agent/publisher/producer. And I promise you, you are dead in the water if you don't have a clear genre. They will only take on a clearly defined genre piece, because they know they can't sell it if they don't. Look at it like this: When your publisher sells a book to a retailer, the first thing the buyer asks is: Which shelf does this go on? If it isn’t COMPLETELY obvious where it goes in the shop, then it’s rejected. Instantly. It could be brilliant but sorry, if the buyer can’t tell what genre it is, then neither can the public and it won’t sell, so he won’t buy it from the publisher.

Check it out here:

Creating a Protagonist Readers Will Love (via @KristenLambTX)

Kristen Lamb walks us through the steps of a solid novel (or similar longer project), by breaking down what makes a good leading character. In her analysis, it comes down to giving them relatable flaws. It's one of those things that seems pretty obvious once someone points it out to us, but it's in the pointing out that we work out why:

Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and save whales in their free time…and no one likes them.


If we make characters too perfect, readers will revel in their destruction. If we didn’t like tearing down “the beautiful people” then Star Magazine and The Inquirer would have folded decades ago.

Learn it all here:

Screenwriting Mistakes to Avoid via M. Night’s LADY IN THE WATER

Over at Scriptshadow we find a great list of things that make a story terrible, focusing on the by-now-notorious failures of M. Night Shyamalan (specifically, The Lady in the Water).

I think the real reason there are so many M. Night haters is that he’s so defiant about his script’s problems. While he never comes out and says it, his m.o. after a flop is to insinuate that critics and audiences don’t “get it.” Maybe if M. Night had some humility and took himself a little less seriously, he’d endear a lot of those fans to come back to his side (or at least not spend half their day pounding him on message boards). I picked “Lady In The Water” to analyze because I believe it’s the moment audiences first began to realize that M. Night may be a one-trick pony.

Although the article is about screenwriting, it applies to narratives in general. It covers:

  • Never place symbolism or theme above story
  • Listen to criticism
  • Don’t drown your story in mythology –
  • Quirky for quirk’s sake is a recipe for disaster
  • Beware coincidences when writing screenplays
  • The “fate” excuse isn’t good enough
  • Beware the close cousin of coincidence: convenience
  • Use gas on your emotional beats, not nuclear power
  • Silly/goofy choices

Read the explanations for each of those points right here: