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Archive for October, 2014

October 27, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Six: No Significant Conflict

 

This is the sixth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of all kinds of subgenres. Several weeks ago, we started this list and will continue until we’ve done all of what I believe are the most important common mistakes. Today we’ll look at “No Significant Conflict.”

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions

Redundancy

Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action

There’s nothing more boring than a “slow” book. What do I mean by that? A slow book is one in which the plot never quite develops with significant conflict either within the primary character’s inner being or between the major characters. So, when should conflict arise?

If possible, on the first page or, at least, in the first chapter, preferably somewhere on the first few pages.

As an editor for a small press the last year or so, I’ve read quite a few manuscripts that have been submitted for consideration. I need to read only one to two pages to decide if I want to keep on. Why? There has to be a significant “hook” right up front to draw the reader into the character’s life and “issues.”

Today’s readers in our fast-paced society want a quick read. Oh, the book might be three hundred or more pages long, but the action starts on the first part and is non-stop until the very end. Gone are the days that an author needs to take five chapters to “explain” what’s going on. Have you ever heard this statement from a speaker at a writers’ conference, “Show, don’t tell”?

Fifty or a hundred years ago, much of our classic literature was written this way. Life moved at a slower pace, there were no computers, and going back farther there were no radios or TVs. What did folks do? They played table games or they read. So picking up a book that took the first sixty pages to describe the characters, their attitudes, and the world around them was really a ticket to an exciting adventure. But today, many classics from yesteryear are a difficult read because of the lack of continual dialogue and action.

So, how can we develop a story with significant conflict in the plot? Believe it or not, a skilled writer can take ANY idea and develop a page-turner.

Instead of my attempting to “tell” you how to do this, I’ll “show” you by comparing a few examples. We’ll look at boring ho-hum beginnings and then their significant conflict hooks to start the manuscript on the path to success:

Example One (Article):

Ho-hum : A while ago, I interviewed Clyde Peeling, the owner and curator of Reptiland in Allenwood, PA, on route 15 near Williamsport. Reptiland is loaded with all kinds of wild animals, including alligators, snakes, and other ugly creatures.

Significant conflict immediately:   How would you like a frozen mouse for lunch?  If you would, then join dozens of snakes, alligators, and other reptiles at Reptiland, a zoological park at Allenwood in central Pennsylvania.

(From “Lizard Man”- Boys’ Quest; Aug/Sept.02)

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Example Two (Short Story):

Ho-hum: My eight-year-old son had been sick for some time. We finally found out he had cancer and wouldn’t live much longer.   One thing he wanted to do was see snow, but we were having a warm autumn in central PA.

Significant conflict immediately:   “Dad, I-I want to see the first snow,” he said, forcing the words out with jagged, tired breath. “D-do you think I’ll see it, the way I am and all?”

“Colton, son, you’ll see it. I promise. We’ll see it together,” I assured him.

(From “First Snow” – Inside PA Mag. Dec. 08)

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Example Three: (Juvenile Fiction):

Ho-hum: Skye Nicholson found herself in juvenile court for the umpteenth time in her thirteen short years.  She sat in the chair and just stared at the judge. She was as mad as a hornet and in no mood to appease anybody.

Significant conflict immediately:   “Young lady—and I use that term loosely—I’m tired of your despicable behavior. I’m sending you to the Chesterfield Detention Center!”

Skye Nicholson looked cold as an ice cube as she slumped in the wooden chair and stared back at Judge Mitchell. Most thirteen-year-olds would have been scared to death as a hearing with an angry judge yelling at the top of his lungs. But Skye was no “ordinary” thirteen-year-old.”

(From A HORSE TO LOVE, Book 1 in the Keystone Stables Series – Zonderkidz; 2009)

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Example Four (Romance Fiction):

Ho-hum: As Louellen Friesen dusted the chandelier in the dining room, she lost her footing and slipped off the chair she was standing on and went sailing toward the table where Dr. McAndrew sat drinking his coffee.

Significant conflict immediately:  “Watch out!” Dr. McAndrew yelled, and in an instant, Louellen Friesen found her slender frame in the man’s embrace, his strong arms breaking the fall that would have landed her face first in his afternoon coffee.

(From Love Song for Louellen, vol. 3 in THE LOVES OF SNYDER COUNTY AMISH/MENNONITE FICTION ROMANCE SERIES, Helping Hands Press; 2012)

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So, there you have four examples of developing conflict right on the first page, in fact, in the first few sentences. If you start your action immediately like these samples and keep it going by slowly building to your climax and ending with a dashing resolution at the end of your story, you’ll have yourself a page-turning manuscript and possibly a best seller. It’s important to remember that your use of exciting dialogue and excellent descriptive words in narration can make or break your story.

And above all, remember to show not tell!

Next time, we’ll take a look at Mistake Number Seven: Weak Transitions Between Paragraphs.

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October 16, 2014

Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts

Mistake Number Five: Stilted or Unnatural Dialogue

 

“Wally, let’s go outside and play football,” said Beaver in the boys’ bedroom.

“No, Beav,” Wally said. “I have to do homework.”

“But it is Saturday,” Beaver said. “You don’t have to do homework on Saturdays.”

“That is incorrect, Beav,” Wally said. “I have a big report I must do, and our father said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out and play by myself,” Beaver said.

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Are you groaning at this fictitious dialogue between Beaver and Wally? You should be because it’s absolutely awful. If you want to know how NOT to write good dialogue, use this as your prime example.

This is the fifth blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of all kinds of subgenres. Several weeks ago, we started this list and will continue until we’ve done all of what I believe are the most important “common” mistakes. Today we’ll look at “Stilted or Unnatural Dialogue.”

Too much description and narration

Switching viewpoints in the same scene

A negative tone throughout the story

Infallible or underdeveloped characters

Stilted or unnatural dialogue

No significant conflict

Weak transitions between paragraphs

Impossible resolutions

Redundancy

Passive verbs instead of active verbs

Lack of sensory detail

Lack of emotion or action

STILTED OR UNNATURAL DIALOGUE

Let’s analyze the sample of dialogue that started this blog.

First, let’s look at the tags (Wally said/ Beav said) and the beats (none) and see how we can improve the passage. Obviously, there are only two characters in this scene: Beaver and Wally. In such a scene, it’s not necessary to keep repeating “Wally said” and “Beaver said.” (Unfortunately, the early TV shows in the 40s and 50s often had poor script writing like this.) Also, the characters keep saying each other’s names when addressing one another. How boring is that? Once the characters are introduced with their initial dialogue and a tag, the dialogue will flow much smoother by deleting most of the tags and name calling. So what about adding some beats? In fact, what are beats?

Beats are sentences added to a line of dialogue that adds action and detail without using the word said, asked, or any other overused tag. Let’s compare two examples:

 

“Where are you going?” Ben’s mother asked him.

“Where are you going?” Ben’s mother anchored her fists on her hips, and she scowled.

 

Now, in sample one, all we know is Ben’s mother wants to know where Ben is going. There’s no sense of any emotion at all. It’s what we’d call “stilted” writing. Most newbie writers would tend to add a sentence after the tag to “tell” how Ben’s mom feels instead of “showing” it.

In sample two, the tag is not there; instead, we have a beat that describes exactly how Ben’s mom feels about him leaving. This sentence clearly “shows” action; it doesn’t “tell” it. This sentence moves the action along beautifully.

Next, let’s look at unnatural dialogue. What’s unnatural dialogue?

It is extremely important for a fiction writer to KNOW his characters, their backgrounds, social temperament, and language colloquialisms. Experienced writers will spend time developing character description files for the main characters in his/her work and get to know those characters almost as if they are real people. Those writers will also study language patterns, listen to folks who resemble their characters, and take lots of notes. They’ll also develop a unique dialogue for each of the main characters so the reader will be able to tell who’s speaking even without a tag or a beat. Each character should have his own style, vernacular, and possibly slang words (if any at all.) There’s nothing that speaks to a beginners’ work that reading dialogue that just doesn’t match the character’s age, sex, ethnicity, social status, or background or reading dialogue of several main characters who all sound exactly the same. Thus, reading an Amish fiction book in which the main character would say, “Hi, dude!” is as ridiculous as reading a book about inner city violence in which one of the street gang members says, “Thank God you are safe.”

In this passage with Beaver and Wally, we have several examples of unnatural dialogue. Let’s look at them:

 

“But it is Saturday,” Beaver said.

“That is incorrect, Beav,” Wally said. “I have a big report I must do, and our father said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out and play by myself,” Beaver said.

 

In the first sentence, Beaver said, “But it is Saturday.” In the last sentence, Beaver says, “Well, Wally, I guess if you cannot go out, I will have to go out….” Here are three prime examples of unnatural dialogue that most newbie writers abuse over and over. In natural dialogue, contractions are used, which helps the dialogue to flow much better. We speak contractions in our everyday speech, so why not write them?

In the second sentence, we have two violations. Wally said, “That is incorrect.” Now what kid is going to talk to his brother by saying, “That is incorrect.” As a teenager, Wally would probably say, “As usual, you’re wrong” or maybe another smart remark.

The other violation in this second sentence is when Wally calls his dad “our father.” Sheesh, he’s not praying! What would a teenager call his father? Dad? Pop? Hopefully not “The Old Man,” unless the writer is portraying a rebellious child.

All right, we’ve shown what not to do with dialogue. Let’s rewrite this passage and see how we can improve it and make it flow much better and keep the reader’s interest:

 

“Wally, let’s go outside and play football,” Beaver said in the boys’ bedroom.

“No,” Wally said. “I have to do homework.”

“But it’s Saturday. You don’t have to do homework on Saturdays.”

“Wrong, little brother.” Wally flopped on his bed with his notebook and pen. “I have a big report to do, and Dad said I have to get that done before I do anything else today.”

“Well, I guess if you can’t go out, I’ll have to play by myself.” Beaver grabbed his football and hurried out the door.

 

There you have the finished product, revised with most of the tags deleted and two beats and contractions added. Now we have natural dialogue that flows and is quite believable.

So what do you think? Which dialogue about Wally and Beaver would you rather read?

Next time, we’ll discuss No Significant Conflict. Happy writing!

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