Craig’s Wife

If you aren’t familiar with Craig’s Wife, a 1925 play by George Kelly, then stop reading this post and check it out. Otherwise, read on.

Craig’s Wife is a wonderful example of what an author can do with a short span of time and a very small cast of characters. Harriet Craig has married for the security of a home. For two years, she’s lived in relative happiness with her husband (who is deeply in love with her). But things begin to unravel for her on the day the play begins. Her husband is under suspicion for a double homicide, his old aunt is moving out of the house (because of Harriet’s shabby treatment of her), and Harriet’s young niece is foolishly marrying a man with little to give her (at least materially). In the hope of gaining her one object (security), Harriet has sacrificed everything else, including any respect for the husband who ought to be her real treasure (because a woman can lose a man, but a house, never, provided she’s clever). When her husband discovers that she has no real love for him, he must decide whether his own love for her is enough to keep him at her side or whether his respect for himself is something he ought to treasure more.

Try writing a story that takes place over the span of a single day, contains no more than three, possibly four, characters and features a life altering event–the dissolution of a marriage, the exposure of a long kept secret, the discovery of long hidden treasure.

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Showing the Passage of Time

In a perfect world, your story will take place over a very short span of time.

The reason being, the faster things happen, the more exciting the narrative will be.

This is why shows like 24 work so well. The clock is ticking and A, B, C, and possibly D have to be done within the next hour, if the catastrophe is to be averted.

However, not every story can be bent to that formula.

You may have a lengthy road trip or an adolescence to get through, before you reach your goal.

Sometimes it’s as easy as “three months later”, or “later that year”, or “when school started in the autumn”, or “when she turned twenty-one,” etc.

Provided it’s clear to the reader, anything goes.

One thing to avoid is putting a date in the title of the chapter. While that may work for section breaks, readers tend to ignore headings, in general, because it slows down the reading of the text. That is why many authors do away with chapter titles, opting instead for numbers. I find chapters titles handy (at least for myself) in keeping track of where changes are needed, while in the editing stage, and possibly for giving a hint of what the chapter contains (gone are the days of the Faerie Queene, where you could sum up the chapter action before beginning the chapter). “Cody gets dumped by his wife and takes to drinking.”

One final word on passage of time: make sure your story reflects the stated passage of time. If ten years has passed, everyone is going to be ten years older, even that venerable aunt who was ninety-five when last we checked in on her. If she’s still alive and well twenty years later, your readers are going to wonder whether she found the fountain of youth or a writer who can’t count.

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The Most Boring Topic in the World

What is the most boring topic in the world?
Weather. Politics. Traffic.
Actually, no. It’s YOU.
You are the most boring topic to others.
Don’t bore the readers of your blog (or any other piece of writing) by trying to prove how immensely clever you are. Tell them a story. And leave yourself out of it.
Remember: You’re here to serve the reader. Be great by being humble!

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When Good People Do Bad Things, or How the West was NOT won

Recently finished a Western called The Valley of the Dry Bones by Arthur Henry Gooden (1945). I have never read any of Mr. Gooden’s other books, but The Valley Dry Bones began with an amazing protagonist. From the first page, I was rooting for him.

The story is populated with a series of villains, all of them out to get our hero. He has his allies as well, in a pair of cowpokes and a large family of Mexicans, an Indian, a Chinaman and various other characters. If not for one small problem, I would give this book an A+ for plotting. Unfortunately, the author attempted in every way to avoid violence, at least on the part of his main character. While our hero’s attempts to avoid bloodshed are inspirational, this is a western. If guns are blazing and our hero manages (somehow) to avoid killing his assailants, time and time again, we’re going to start wondering if we’re watching an A-Team spaghetti western.

The worst mistake the writer made was in the final scene of the novel, when our hero is cornered by the chief villain, who’s threatening to hog-tie and Columbian necktie him. First, it’s a bit hard to accept that the chief villain has come back to strike our hero, when the chief villain is wanted for murder and in danger of a summary execution by the enraged townspeople. Be that as it may, the chief villain is not brought down by our hero’s bullet or his fist, but by another man’s bullet. The chief villain kills his would-be murderer in the shoot-out, but manages to survive the encounter (presumably to face justice and hanging later). This ending is completely unsatisfying, particularly when our hero was the supposed chosen instrument of justice.

While your hero should never enjoy hurting people, he should be the one punish the evildoers in your story. If you would prefer your hero not to get his hands dirty, arrange a convenient accident to off the villain. In one Western I read recently, the villain was on top of the hero, attempting to thrust a knife into the hero’s chest. The hero escaped death by turning the knife with the blade in the direction of the villain’s chest. When the villain threw his (not inconsiderably) weight on the knife, it went into his own chest. Thus, he was his own murderer. You live by the sword, and you WILL die by it.

Finding the right balance of good and evil in your story is key to reader satisfaction.

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How to Give Supporting Characters Character

One of the chief complaints I’ve noticed in recent reviews on Amazon is flat one-dimensional side characters. There is a simple way to correct this problem.

All individuals are motivated by self-interest. A man–or a woman–will act in ways that serve his self-interest. In other words, all actions are self-enhancing. Even those actions we would class as charity to others are in some way serving the benefactors.

“I feel good about helping others. I help others so I can feel good about myself.”

While this might seem a bit cynical on the surface, understanding this principal is a vitally important part of the development of any and every character in your novel.

Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds.

In simple diagram, you have the activity and the outcome, but you know nothing of the motivation. Why did Susie go on a diet?

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds.

Now we have motive, activity and outcome.

To extend this diagram a little further.

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds. Butch asks her to the homecoming dance.

The diagram is now – motive, activity, outcome = satisfaction.

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds. Butch asks Laura, Susie’s best friend to the homecoming dance.

The diagram is now – motive, activity, outcome = frustration.

Since this is a novel, we assume Susie isn’t giving up at the first roadblock. When she reaches frustration, she will choose another activity that will (presumably) give her the result she wants.

Susie steals her mother’s credit card to buy a designer dress, hoping to get noticed by Butch.

Ad infinitum.

So, each character should have a diagram. What is his or her motive? What does he or she do to get what he or she wants? What is the end result of that action?

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Two Little Frogs

There were two little frogs who fell into milk pots
One tread milk, the other did not
One went under and died, the other churned butter and thrived
Never give up!

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Your Murderer’s Motive

In the board game Clue, you attempt to discover who the murderer is, what weapon he or she used, and in what room the foul act was committed. But you are never asked WHY he or she felt compelled to put an end to a (seemingly) innocent houseguest.

Dickens wrote an essay once in which he outlined all the different reasons a man (or woman) might commit murder.

1. Hot blood and furious rage. John Jones discovers his wife, Judy, in bed with his best friend Ted and shoots them both.

2. Deliberate revenge. John Jones discovers his wife, Judy and his best friend, Ted are sneaking away for a hot weekend together. He slips into their hotel room, while they are down at dinner, to slip some rat poison into their complimentary bottle of champagne.

3. Terrible despair. Judy Jones jumps off a bridge, drowning herself and her small child, to escape her evil husband, John.

4. Mere Gain. John Jones murders his best friend Ted so he can inherit the fortune Ted is leaving him in a recently executed Will.

5. To remove an object dangerous to the murderer’s peace or good name. John Jones murders his best friend Ted to keep him from exposing a secret that will ruin him (John).

6. To win monstrous notoriety. Loser John Jones murders a busload of nuns so he can appear on all the major news networks.

What is your murderer’s motive?

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Provoke a Thirst

All of the authors who have ever been on the bestseller list had one thing in common–they produced a product the public wanted.

Some writers chase the latest trend. They write shifter romances because shifter romances are the hot thing. Others create a new trend. Be one of those.

Provoke a thirst for your product–then quench it.

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Imported Scripts

“Cindy Jones gave up on love, years ago, when her high school sweetheart, Biff Biffington, cheated on her with her best friend, Laura. Though crushed in spirit, she soldiered on, making a life for herself in the big city. A life without love.”

Every one of us carries our past with us. How it affects our present has a lot to do with the intensity of our past impressions, our current life attitude, and our hopes and dreams for our future. What crushes one person may have little discernible effect on another. However, we can agree, that losing a parent, a child, or something else equally dear to us will have a profound effect on her daily life, from that day forward.

This is why many writing books suggest giving your characters backstories (even if you don’t use them in your book). You can’t know what a person is in the present until you study their past.

A word of warning: there are far too many romance novels on the market that involve broken-hearted women who are eager for sexual escapades, but utterly unwilling to risk their heart by falling in love with their partners.

Cindy Jones is looking for a–dildo with a pulse. Nothing more. Because Biff Biffington–the bastard–tore her beating heart from her chest when she was only a wide-eyed innocent of sixteen.

Of course, we know Cindy will fall for her new lover in the end, but that’s scarcely the point. Your heroine needs more obstacles in the way of her romance than a disinclination to expose parts of her body above her hips.

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Who’s Your Hero?

One of the cardinal rules of writing a good book is carefully determining who (or what) is your best choice for a main character.

Think of the Harry Potter Series. What would it have been like, say, if Hermoine had been the lead or Ron? You would have come away with an entirely different experience, simply by a shift in point of view, even if NOTHING else about that story were changed.

If you shift POVs in your story, you must ask yourself who is the best “eye” for a given scene. It should obviously ALWAYS be the one who gives the most to a particular scene. And you discover that by asking yourself the simple question: what am I trying to accomplish here?

One final word of wisdom: never make a side character more interesting than your lead, regardless of the POV. Your readers will wonder why you are making them tag after the less interesting character in the room.

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