Poetic Choices

On January 22, 2018, That One Writer wrote, One of the main character’s POV is in free verse. She has a backstory that is woven in closer to the end of the story, but it’s hard to write it in free verse. Should I change her POV to the “regular” form? I would hate to do that, because her personality comes out better in verse.

And I wrote back, I hope you stick with verse! You might like to read Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and Make Lemonade and the other two books in the series by Virginia Euwer Wolff, all in free verse.

You do mean free verse rather than blank verse (iambic pentameter), right?

I am always delighted to talk poetry!

For any who don’t know, free verse is poetry that doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, meaning that the last word in each line doesn’t end with a word that rhymes with the last word in another line, in a repeating pattern. And free verse also doesn’t have regular meter, meaning that the stressed and unstressed syllables don’t come in a repeating pattern. Iambic meter, for example, goes like this: da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, and so on.

Shakespeare wrote mostly in iambs (a HORSE, a HORSE, my KINGdom FOR a HORSE). Most classical Western poets wrote in iambs. Free verse is relatively new. Dr. Seuss wrote mostly in anapests (da da DUM).

That One Writer didn’t answer my question, but, also for those who don’t know, blank verse is iambic and generally has five iambs, five da-DUMs per line. Writing–and even speaking–in iambs comes naturally to some people, who just seem to slide into it. The rest of us have to practice. A thesaurus is a big help, because it can often supply synonyms with the stresses we need.

Even in fiction written in prose, knowing about iambs is useful. They’re powerful. When we want a sentence or phrase to REALly PACK a PUNCH, iambs can help. The reader won’t notice, but the rhythm will support the meaning.

From That One Writer’s question, I’m not sure if her problem is with the poetry character’s backstory or with free verse itself, so let’s start with the backstory.

If it’s narrated in third person, I’m not sure if it needs to be in verse, or the verse can be brought in occasionally by the narrator as illustrating the character’s personality.

If the backstory is told by this MC herself, she can tell the reader in her poetic way that she’s going into memory, and the reader will get it. But if the back story needs a more definitive separation, it can be set apart from everything else with something as simple as italics or narrower margins. There are more devices we can use. She can tell the backstory in poems in her journal. The details can be revealed in prose in newspaper reports.
The backstory can be told by a different character, whose POV is in prose.

I like variety!

Back to free verse. Before I went to poetry school, I was uncertain about where to end my lines in free verse. Sometimes I still am, but now I have more knowledge to guide me.

Velocity is a big consideration in line endings. If I end a line with a word like the or of or or, the reader will race to the next line. If I end with a verb or a noun, the reader will pause for a blink. If the line ends with punctuation, the reader will pause longer. Many poets rarely end a line with the or words like it unless they have a reason. A strategy for line endings, then, is to think about speed.

In prose, the most important word in a sentence is generally the last one, as is (generally again) the last sentence in a book. Next in importance is the first word in a sentence or sentence in a book. The same is usually true in lines of poetry, but you get to decide. Some poets, like Sharon Olds (definitely high school and up), make the first word in a line the most important one. So importance is worth considering when we decide where to end a line.

However, I don’t think line endings are worth agonizing over. We end a line at the place that pleases us most, which may or may not change in revision, which is likely to change as we evolve as poets. I once read a regret by an established poet who lamented that he would have written a lot more poems in his career if he hadn’t worried so much about line endings!

We get to decide how we want the poem to appear on the page, which will affect our line endings. Do we want short lines or long or varied? Generally, whatever I pick, I hold to throughout the poem. However, if I have a reason, I might write one verse of very short lines in a poem of long lines, or vice versa. It’s up to us, as everything is in poetry.

And then there’s the question of verses. Do we want ‘em? Well, why not? If we’ve written a very short poem or we want a dense feeling or the poem sticks closely to one topic, we may not want to separate the lines into verses. If we want verses, how long should they be?. Some poets change verses the way prose writers change paragraphs. Many poets mix it up: no verses, verses like paragraphs, verses of the same number of lines, verses in a pattern of line lengths. Couplets (two-line verses), to my way of thinking, are highly emotional. Quatrains (four lines) are stately, marching down the page. Tercets (three lines) give an off-kilter, unstable feeling to a poem, which we may want sometimes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Pick a few paragraphs from a book you love and turn them into free verse. But don’t just break the paragraphs into lines; think about how you might make them more poetic. For one thing, poetry is concise. Question every word. Any that aren’t strictly necessary get the boot. You can also bring in poetic devices, like assonance and alliteration, which will mean changing some words. (By the way, you can include dialogue, because dialogue exists in poems, too.)

∙ Do the same with a few paragraphs from your WIP.

∙ Take four lines of your free verse, or eight if the four are very short, and turn them into blank verse, with five iambs per line, which will definitely involve changing some words.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Start-ups

Before we get started, just a reminder of my poetry event with other poets at 3:00 pm on April 14th at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. As I said last time, these won’t be poems for kids, but I’d love to see you there, and there will be time to chat.

Now for the post.

On January 4, 2018, Morgan Hanna wrote, What are some tips on writing the very beginning of a story? I’ve always had trouble with beginnings. I usually end up staring at a blank page and wondering why the words won’t come. I worry about starting too soon or too late, whether I should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line, and how to make my beginning flow smoothly into the rest of my story without feeling forced. Does anyone else struggle with this, or has anyone overcome it?

Christie V Powell answered, Oh yes, beginnings are the hardest for me. Some general bits of advice that seem to help:

Don’t stress about the first draft. Give yourself permission to write bad stuff. This is especially true of the opening line–in your finished draft, you want to give it lots of attention. To get started, you can use “once upon a time” or “there was” or any cliche thing you want, as long as it gets the juices flowing. It’ll probably change later even if it was brilliant.

Instead of starting with story, I sometimes start with a line or two of my vision for the story. For instance “Two families escape persecution for their abilities to travel through dreams” or “The stereotypical Chosen One is a young widow with toddlers in tow.” You can also start by summarizing your ideas for the first scene: “Mira shows off her climbing abilities, has some dialogue with her sister, and hints of danger… right before the griffin carries her away!”

Sometimes switching from computer to hand-and-paper works for me. It doesn’t always work as well for beginnings, because it’s easy to cross out or start over when coming up with a first line, but sometimes the change in medium gets things moving.

And Bethany wrote, Make the first sentence something interesting, something that grabs the reader’s attention right away. The first sentence can even have foreshadowing to something later in the story. I’ve done that. Hint: don’t pull out the paper until you know what the first line will be. Once there’s a few words filling the blank space, the page is less terrifying.

I am heart-and-soul with Christie V Powell. Not that I’ve always followed her advice! But it’s a waste time fussing over beginnings at the beginning, as if, once we get the first pages right, the rest of the story will scroll out like magic; characters and plot lines won’t change; our perfect start will set the course perfectly.

Oh, how I wish that were true.

Occasionally I have gotten the first scene right painlessly–but not the second and/or the third, which are still part of my beginning. I always have to revise later-much later.

We can start by typing or writing, blah-de-blah-blah. Here I go again. I think I’ll call my main character Quasia, and I’ll give her a deep dimple on the left side of her mouth. There she is, sitting on the threshold of her mother’s house idly watching a gaggle of geese peck holes in the lawn.

And I know, because I have a glimmer of what my story will be, that a peddler is about to ride up, so I make him do that, and I’m not at all sure if this is the right moment for his arrival, but I bring him in because I want to get things going. Without thinking too deeply, I make his mule skinny, and I give him a dimple on the left side.

And I’m in. Blah-de-blah-blah will almost certainly not (though who knows what kind of story I’ll wind up with) pass muster as a beginning in my final draft, but it succeeded in putting me at ease. The blank page is beginning to fill up. I’m a little less scared, and I am absolutely not allowing myself to criticize what I’ve written.

I keep writing. The story begins to develop, and I discover that my peddler is such a sweetie that he would never let his mule be hungry, even if he has to go without. Either I make a note for my revision or I jump back and make the mule fat and the peddler emaciated. (The note for revision is preferable, because the girths of the two could change yet again–or one of them could disappear entirely).

In one of the many books and articles I read during my long writing apprenticeship, I found the suggestion that, when we get tight and scared, we cover the screen or actually close our eyes and type. I’ve done it, and it helps to shut down the judgment monster. (Weirdly, I also type more accurately with closed eyes!) When we finally open them, we can look at what we wrote, but we may not, on pain of–name your poison–revise.

This is embarrassing, but for the sake of the blog, here is the beginning of the first draft of Fairest (which, just saying, I wouldn’t have if I didn’t save what I write!):

Areida wasn’t pretty.  Her dark hair was lank and stringy.  Her skin was white as day-old snow.  She blushed easily but unevenly – a splotch of pink on one cheek, across the bridge of her nose, along her jaw line, and above her delicately arched eyebrows.  Her neck was a trifle long, causing her brother Stefan to call her Giraffe. She resembled a giraffe in more ways than just her neck.  Her brown eyes were huge, and her eyelashes were thick and splendid.  Her expression had the tentative sweetness of a giraffe.

In the final draft, the book is told in first person. Areida isn’t the MC, and there is no brother Stefan. Plus, the description of the eventual MC isn’t accurate. Also, I start with my MC’s backstory. But at that point, when I wrote the paragraph, I had no idea of all the changes that were on the way. It was a beginning that got me started.

Moving on. Part of Morgan Hanna’s question was whether she should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line.

Yes. Any of the above, plus thoughts and backstory. Not only in a first draft. Any of the above will work in a final draft. The traditional advice, which is still offered, is to begin in medias res, which means in the middle of action. But not every great book does. Tuck Everlasting begins with description. James Michener’s Hawaii (high school and up) begins with a long chapter of geology! And it was a huge best-seller in its day.

How dull it would be if every story began formulaically in the same way.

It’s conceivable that we fiddle and agonize over the beginning out of fear of the fiddling and agonizing to come when we move into the middle. For many writers–I’m one!–fretting is part of the territory. Some books flow reasonably well, but some are bears. I’m resigned–and happy–because struggle is a writer’s life, as well as the life of our characters!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Keep going with my story of Quasia, the geese, the dimples, the peddler, and the skinny mule, but don’t change the blah-de-blah-blah until you finish and revise.

∙ Write a story of whatever happened to you yesterday. Start with the first thing you remember someone saying.

∙ Write three beginnings of the Greek myth of Helen of Troy. In one, start with action, in another with setting, in the last one with a thought.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Big Plot

Before the post–just letting you know–I’ll be reading with other poets at 3:00 pm on April 14th at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. These won’t be poems for kids, but I’d love to see you there, and there will be time to chat.

After my post called “Making It Personal,” on December 21, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m having the opposite problem. Plenty of personal conflicts, not enough large-scale dramatic action.

I asked her to explain the problem a little more, and she wrote back, Well, it’s those books I’ve mentioned about Malak, who’s half serpent-demon and half “angel,” basically. The first book’s mostly about his culture shock, and I think it works. But as the story goes on, it really ought to be less in Malak’s head and more about the larger ramifications of a half-demon living in the house of a Ward Minister (kind of like a senator), when the Ward Ministers are the ones who hire demon-hunters to protect humans from the serpent-demons.

I love getting deep into characters’ heads and writing from there, but I really should have more stuff happening out there in the wide world, too. More “fabulously difficult journey,” as Carley Anne said.

(Another reason why I love the comments on this blog–that the help we give each other lingers as ongoing support.)

Melissa Mead added, If anybody had ideas on how to work through consequences of having “the enemy” in your house, and how to balance Big Picture and Little Picture thinking, I’d appreciate it. I’m used to writing short-shorts, with a small cast + small scale.

The ever-helpful (I mean it!) Christie V Powell offered this: It might help to look at plot types: I like to refer to Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots when I need help with the big picture plot. Overcoming the Monster (defeating a villain) and Quest (seeking and earning a goal) are most focused on big picture. The others are Rags to Riches (small person overcomes obstacles), Voyage and Return (wandering into a strange new world and seeking to get home), Comedy (relationships become tangled until one bit of clarity rights all wrongs), Tragedy (Overcoming the Monster from the monster’s point of view), and Rebirth (the Monster descends into darkness, but turns and is able to become light).

My WIP right now is being tricky because it’s got three POVs, so technically the big picture is the plot and all three of my main characters are actually subplots. Their families are seeking refuge from persecution, which is the overall story, and their character struggles are second.

Melissa Mead answered: Hm. I think this falls under Rebirth. At least the first book did…

Back to Christie V Powell: If the first one is rebirth, it seems like now he’s already become good and he needs a new plot. What conflict is he up against? Prejudice/bigotry (and if so, which character represents it)? Is he turning against his former snake-demon allies and stopping their schemes? Or coming to the rescue of other former friends who might be able to change?

Melissa Mead: Yes on the first two, There’s an overall arc that I don’t know how to explain without spoilers, except to say that I recently realized that all my books have been about outcasts finding home.

Jim weighed in: If the first book was a rebirth tale and the MC has been established as a “good guy” but there is still a lot of personal conflict and mistrusting characters “overshadowing” the MC then it seems to me that you’re set up for a “rags-to-riches” plot next. How can the MC prove his worth to the larger society? Usually it happens in two stages: first with help (e.g. Aladdin gets the princess with the help of the djinn), and then with the help removed (e.g. The lamp is stolen and Aladdin has to outsmart the magician on his own to get his princess back).

I’m more in Melissa Mead’s camp. For me, it’s cozy in my characters’ heads! The pesky, unpredictable world out there is scary! So, sometimes I have to force myself.

In The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, for the first time in any of my books, I had to deal with enormous forces acting against each other: Lakti armies against Kyngoll armies, with a Bamarre rebellion in the mix. I didn’t–and still don’t–know how to write at this scale, at least not through a first-person narrator, and it would probably be the same from a third-person limited POV. I might be able to do it with an omniscient third-person POV. (So there’s a strategy I haven’t used: Write in omniscient third.)

Since I was stuck in first person and didn’t know how to do anything else, I kept the action within the range of my MC, Perry. She views the legions arrayed against her from a tower, but only for a few minutes, and that’s the farthest out I zoom my author’s telescope. There are two battle scenes. In the first one, she’s helping the field doctor. In the second, she’s doing something humanitarian, though I won’t say what and have to issue a spoiler alert.

In the second instance, though, the commander of the Lakti force is right where she is, and her actions ripple through the war and set off outsized consequences.

I do this again and again in the book. Small actions have big effects. So, I’d recommend as an approach to stories that play out on an enormous and daunting scale to keep the focus narrow but influential. When we do this, we can bring to bear our skill at the interpersonal stuff, which doesn’t go away just because the fate of the universe is at stake. Our characters are still themselves, still hampered by their limitations and empowered by their strengths.

Then there’s the follow-up problem with the narrow focus: how does our MC keep track of what’s going on? In Lost Kingdom, Perry has a magical aid that helps her travel quickly, so she can see some of the effects and maintain the momentum. But there are other possibilities, like newspaper or gazettes, messengers, letters. A magic one that crops up sometimes in fairy tales is talking birds. There are other magical or occult possibilities as well, like flying dragons or teleportation or ESP. We just want to make sure that our magical devices don’t make matters too easy for our MC.

Let’s take as an example Christy V Powell’s plot archetype of turning against former allies and apply the principle of small actions leading to large consequences. If Malak can prevail over even one snake demon, he’ll come up with methods that can be applied universally to snake-demons. Or this particular snake-demon is an important one, who’s critical to the survival of all the others.

We can start by LISTing the advantages and drawbacks Malak has in this struggle. On the plus side, he knows the way snake-demons plan and operate. He understands better than anyone how ruthless they are. On the down side, they’re individuals to him, with personalities, and he’s recently absorbed empathy. Will he be able to hurt them? If he does, will his new good side be destroyed? If he doesn’t, they will certainly kill him!

The stakes are high.

The setting can be small-scale, too, say the home of a Ward Minister, which will give Malak another advantage if he knows the layout better than his opponent. And a disadvantage, if the Ward Minister’s family, including the adorable three-year-old twins, are present and at risk.

Naturally, this leads to a prompt:

∙ Write a battle scene between a half-ogre-half-elf and a whole ogre in the mansion of a knight. The knight and his family can be there, or not. Think about the qualities of each character and the floor plan of the house. Include thoughts and emotions along with the action, but keep dialogue to a minimum. The results of this battle will reverberate through the worlds of elves and ogres.

And here are two more:

∙ Your ogre-elf is wounded but on the point of victory when the full ogre gets away from her. Write the pursuit. Think again about the setting and the qualities of your characters, and work in thoughts and feelings.

∙ Turn the tables. The full ogre appears unexpectedly, and now he has some new advantage. Your ogre-elf MC has gone from hunter to quarry. Write the chase.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Worry Wart

Got a nice surprise last week when five advance reading copies of Ogre Enchanted showed up in my mailbox. So it’s a book, not the book, but a book–always a great moment.

On December 10, 2017, Bird dog wrote, I’ve recently finished the first draft of a story, and in editing, I realized that I want to more openly display my MC’s anxiety. I can describe it accurately enough, and though it is believable, I’m worried that it will be annoying to read. As the story is in first person, I’m worried that this will exasperate the reader to the point of being unwilling to read on.

The obvious solution would be to cut out the effects of anxiety on her life, but I feel like that would be unfair to the issue. The story isn’t about anxiety, and it doesn’t present itself in every situation, but it is a part of her struggle that I feel is important to include.
If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be grateful!

Sara wrote back, First of all, good job on finishing a first draft!!!

I don’t think I’d be annoyed about a character with anxiety, because I guess to a certain point I can kinda relate. Um, of course I don’t know the story and what you feel would bug the reader, but maybe you feel like it’s stopping the action? Or that all of her anxiety attacks are the same? I feel like there’s tons of options for things that can spiral off of an anxiety attack, like your MC has to make a decision and the weight of the consequences stresses her out so much she makes the wrong one. And she has to live with that. Plus, stopping the action can be purposeful and, I dunno, be part of another conflict or something. Anxiety, like every other personality trait, can be used in a bunch of ways.

And Zoe/TheSixthHobbit wrote, I’d suggest you read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, if you haven’t already. The main character has OCD, and the author does a great job of showing what it’s like to live with that condition, and it’s not at all annoying.

I’ve said this before, and I’ve said it often: We should stifle our worries about what readers will think. It is just a stick to beat ourselves with.
A couple of days ago, I started reading a memoir I will not name and took it with me to New York City, but I hated it so much I couldn’t keep reading and switched to my addiction, Free Cell Solitaire on my cell phone. In my opinion, the writing was cutesy and way too wordy. In the first few pages, the author constantly announced what he would and would not include in the memoir, and I wished he would shut up and just tell what he planned to tell and not blather on about it in advance. So, for this post, I looked at reader reviews of the book on Amazon: “…great storytelling…”; “He writes beautifully.”; “Excellent writing style.” Obviously, readers’ opinions differ.

Another example. In this case I will say the name because he can take it. I can’t bear Stephen King for a similar reason. In my opinion, he overwrites. My husband loves his books, so I’ve tried more than once to read one or two. But my mental red pencil comes out instantly, and I’m deleting words, sentences, entire paragraphs! I prefer spare writing that disappears into the story, but millions–many millions!–disagree with me.

And a few other readers probably don’t like his work for reasons that are different from mine.

And I’ve adored books that haven’t caught on. And others that have.

And my books, incomprehensibly, aren’t the cup of tea of many readers.

Having said all this, however, we can set our fears to rest–or discover that they’re justified with a writers’ group or beta readers. One reader isn’t enough, and three are better than two. Don’t tell them what you’re worried about. Just let them read and then find out what they think. If it doesn’t come up, you can ask about the anxiety–or whatever else you happen to be concerned about.

If only one person is bothered, listen, think about it, and decide if you agree. But if more than one are troubled, and especially if more than two are, take that very seriously.

As for the anxious first-person MC, I’m with Sara on all counts. Yes, congratulations on finishing a draft! Kudos to you!

I’m a champion worrier, with a trophy to prove it, so, like Sara, I can relate, and would almost certainly enjoy a narrator who was like me in this regard.

I also love Sara’s idea of using the anxiety to advance the plot, like having it fuel a bad decision.

And I agree with her that there are many ways to portray anxiety.

It doesn’t have to show up only in description. It can appear in the elements fiction writers have at our disposal: dialogue, thoughts, action, physical symptoms. Even setting, which might be a trigger.

In dialogue, for instance, our MC can stop mid-sentence or trail off, distracted by worries. Or she can chatter uncontrollably. Or stutter. Or yell at people and even things. In the TV legal comedy, Boston Legal (high school and up), one of the MCs at one point gets so stressed that he starts speaking nonsense words and seems not to realize he’s abandoned English. I’m sure there are other possibilities.

A few other examples. Thoughts: Her mind can refuse to settle down and can rattle on and on. Action: She can walk out on a situation. Symptoms: Hives. Setting: The school where her anxiety began. There are many more options in each category.

Also, , in dialogue and thoughts and everything else, we can show our MC trying to conquer her anxiety. Her efforts are likely to make her even more relatable.

In our first draft or, as in Bird Dog’s case, an expansion, we shouldn’t worry about going over the top. We should write the anxiety as fully as we can and throw in the kitchen sink. When we’re finished and start revising, we’ll have a better idea of what to keep and what to toss.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC, a writer, is polishing the first five pages of her manuscript for submission to agents, and she is questioning every word. Anxiety is taking her over. She reads this blog, but she can’t keep herself from worrying about her readers. Write the scene, varying the ways she expresses her anxiety. Give it a happy ending, though, and create her recovery.

∙ Your MC never worries. He’s part of a team combing a wilderness to find a lost camper. Everything goes wrong, but he’s untroubled. Write the scene, and make him really annoying.

∙ Two characters are preparing–separately–to debate each other. Their prep methods are entirely different. Write the preparation for each of them, and then write the debate.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Surprise!

On December 1, 2017, Bug wrote, Do you think all stories need a plot twist? I read a book review where the reviewer complained about how predictable the plot twist was, and it made me wonder if it’s worse to have predictable plot twists, or none at all? And if plot twists are necessary, how do you write a good one?

Let’s define a successful twist as a plot event that makes the reader’s head spin. The ground has shifted; original expectations are upended; the reader gropes for understanding.

If the twist is unsuccessful, the reader sees it coming and may be annoyed. Some readers are better than others at anticipating twists. Writers may often fail with these sophisticated readers. For them and the rest of us, though, there are more pleasures than just being astonished: complicated characters, fascinating settings, fine writing, etc.

But I think the necessity for twists depends on genre. Take romantic comedy, for example, where the happy, love-fulfilled ending is guaranteed. In the movie While You Were Sleeping, the audience realizes early on that the guy in the coma isn’t the guy for the gal who saved his life, and finds out pretty quick who Mr. Right is going to be. It’s no shock that it all works out. We still love watching the way the happy ending is achieved.

Or take fairy tales. Once the reader gets the hang of the form, he expects goodness (and usually good looks) to be rewarded in the end, and he isn’t disappointed–and might be angry if a twist deprived him of that satisfaction–when Cinderella’s glass slipper is stolen from the prince’s hand and turns up fifty years later in a pawn shop long after he’s married someone else, and Cinderella has died young after a dismal life as a scullery maid.

So I think perfectly wonderful books can be written without twists.

There are genres, though, that specialize in twists, like suspense, horror, murder mysteries. I don’t know if a good book in these genres can do without them.

All fiction, however, regardless of genre, needs surprises. One of the delights in a romantic comedy or in the adaptation of a fairy tale lies in the surprises along the way to the expected ending.

When I write, I figure my reader will be surprised if I’m surprised. So how do we surprise ourselves?

My favorite tool is the beloved list, which we can use during the writing if we’re pantsers or  the outlining if we’re outliners. We bring in the list when we don’t know what should happen next or we want to shake up our story. This is how I do it:

Suppose I’m writing a story about a princess on the night before her coronation as queen. She’s in her royal bedchamber wondering if the excitement is going to keep her awake all night. No, she tells herself. She performed well in the practice coronation today. Her gown fits perfectly and is becoming. She’s been groomed her whole life for this moment. No need for disturbed sleep.

What can I make go wrong? I usually list twelve possibilities, but for this demonstration I’ll keep it to five. The cardinal rule with lists is: No idea is stupid. Everything gets written down.

∙ Sent by the crown’s enemy, masked marauders come in through the casement window and kidnap her.

∙ She’s drifting off when she hears chanting. She goes to her window and discovers protesters in the castle courtyard, yelling “Down with the monarchy.” (Or they could be protesting something else. If I like the protest idea, I may start another list of possible grievances.)

∙ By the light of her candle, she spreads her gown across her bed–and drips wax on it.

∙ Her last conscious thought as she drifts off to sleep is, “Tomorrow, I will own the magic mirror.”

∙ She sits at her secretary, sharpens her quill pen, dips it in ink, and writes, “In the event of my death…”

The last four surprised me, so they would likely surprise a reader. If I’d gone on to twelve there would have been more surprises.

I did an entire post on lists a while back. If you make a habit of using them and stick with the nothing-is-stupid rule, I predict that your mind will loosen whenever you start a new list, and loose minds release fresh ideas–surprises and, when you need them, twists.

There’s a difference between surprising or unpredictable and out of left field. Fifty pages into a contemporary, realistic novel, the arrival of a magic mirror will be in the out-of-left-field category. But if this is a world that accommodates magic, that may have fairy tale elements, the mirror may work and will be a twist, especially if the reader doesn’t realize this is a “Snow White” variant.

We want our surprises and twists to be unpredictable but also believable, so they have to be set up in advance. It’s fun to astonish our readers even after we’ve dropped clues galore. I pull a surprise on readers of The Two Princesses of Bamarre when a specter fools my MC Addie–but this is a world in which there are specters, and the reader knows that. And the reader also knows that Addie is in a particularly specter-infested place. Still, I pulled off the twist with misdirection. Look here! we tell the reader, while we’re setting something up there.

I haven’t thought about this before, but I suppose any of the elements of storytelling can be the source of a surprise or a twist: character, thoughts, dialogue, setting, even sensation, I suppose. A character bites into a burrito, and it tastes like chocolate pudding. A dog opens its mouth, and out comes an aria from Tosca.

If the burrito tastes like chocolate pudding or the dog barks an aria, the cause can be in the mind of the taster or listener. Or it can be objectively true, and we have to be in a world where such things are possible. But they can’t be everyday occurrences, or the surprise is gone.

Let’s say a character our MC adores is revealed in a twist to be evil. Even though we want the reader to be shocked, we want him also, once he recovers from his shock, to get it, so we need to drop in subtle hints. That the adored character often seems absent-minded may be enough. Or she says, “People always let me down. Except for you.” A faint alarm bell tinkles, but then she does something wonderful, and the reader is lulled–until the twist that reveals.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Use one of my coronation possibilities in a scene. If you like, write the whole story.

∙ Add five more options to my list of reasons for the princess not to sleep well. Pick one of yours to write a scene or a story.

∙ Pick one of the sensations from above: a character bites into a burrito, and it tastes like chocolate pudding or a dog barks an aria from Tosca. Use it in a scene, and make it both surprising and believable. If you like, build a story around it.

Have fun, and save what you write!

*Special post! Poetry competition for teens

It’s late notice, but this just arrived in my email box from a fellow NYU alum:

I’m judging this year’s Hippocrates Young Poets Prize for Poetry and Medicine, an international award open to poets aged 14-18 for a poem on a medical theme. If you  teach high school students or have teens of your own who write poetry, I hope you’ll encourage them to submit. 

The deadline is March 1, 2018 and the prize is a whopping £500 (~$700)! 

For more information and to enter, visit http://hippocrates-poetry.org/.

If you don’t qualify–or write poems, but you know someone who does, please spread the word. Let us know if you enter, and be sure to announce it know if you win!

Reader, I’m Talking to You

On November 25, 2017, Aster wrote, I like to write in first person, but I often find when I focus on the character’s thoughts and feelings I forget to include description and sensory details, or I have a very sloppy transition from thoughts to description. On the flip side, if I “make a movie in the reader’s mind,” I often forget to include thoughts. How can I get better at including sensory details, and emotions? On an unrelated note: does anyone have any opinions about breaking the 4th wall, so to speak?

Christie V Powell wrote back, I’m not a first person writer, partly for this reason, but one way to combine sensory details and emotions is to have the details convey the emotion. For instance, if I’m writing about a funeral, the overcast sky will look gloomy, mourning doves will cry, wheels will creak, feet trudge. If I’m writing about a happier scene, even if it happened in the same setting, the sky might be beautiful swirls of gray, birds will sing, wheels dance, feet march.

And I wrote, We can be mechanical about encouraging ourselves to remember. We can type at the end of a day’s work: REMEMBER THE MOVIE! REMEMBER THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS! (I tend to do these things in all caps to distinguish them from the rest of my story.) Then the reminder will be there when we get to work again. We can also set a timer on our phone to go off every twenty minutes to remind us. If we do this kind of thing, remembering will become automatic after a while.

I’m adding your fourth-wall question to my list.

Then I asked Aster for the reason behind the fourth-wall question, and she wrote, I was watching FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF the other day, and the way the MC directly spoke to the screen confused me a little at first. I was wondering how other watcher/readers feel about this technique. I’m not currently working on something, but I was wondering how others felt about that method of writing (or film making).

I did a little research. Turns out that the term breaking the fourth wall is generally applied to plays and scripts. In prose, it’s called metafiction, and here are two Wikipedia links. First is a definition and discussion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metafiction. And second is a list of examples: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_metafictional_works, some of which you may know, and you may think of others as well–I have. The list is by no means exhaustive.

Basically, in metafiction, the writer calls the reader’s attention to the fact that he’s reading fiction. To my surprise, I’ve used metafiction. In both Ella Enchanted and the forthcoming Ogre Enchanted, other fairy tales are mentioned. In Ella, the magic book shows the story “The Shoemaker and the Elves” twice, once just to Ella, and once to Slannen and the elves, who laugh at how tiny they are in the story. The reader is likely to think, Huh! This fairy tale is talking about another fairy tale. This realization is likely–for just a split second, I hope–to be pulled out of my book. And my Princess Tales make so much fun of fairy tales that I hope the reader recognizes the commentary without having a clue about metafiction.

I first encountered metafiction when I was little, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, one of my childhood faves, as I’ve said many times. For example, in the chapter, “The Home Underground,” Barrie writes about which lost-boys-and-Wendy adventure to reveal. Barrie tantalizes the reader by alluding to this one or that and then deciding on one. I used to gnash my teeth in frustration whenever I reread this part, because I wanted them all! But there’s no way to read Barrie’s deliberations and not be reminded that one is reading a story.

The miracle (detouring from metafiction) of this part is that I didn’t realize until five minutes ago that Barrie does tell all the tales, in summary at least.

The form of metafiction Aster pinpoints in her question is direct address, in which the writer speaks to the reader as you or as Reader. Many writers have addressed their readers, even child readers,, as young as picture book age. The third sentence in Jon Scieszka’s picture book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is “But I’ll let you in on a little secret” (italics mine). The book isn’t for newborns, but it proves that five-year olds can get and enjoy a sophisticated literary device.

One of the most famous examples of direct address comes late in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte in the sentence, Reader, I married him, but the reader is spoken to occasionally all the way through, and here’s another example, from the beginning of Chapter Eleven: A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote. We have two kinds of metafiction going on in this sentence. Bronte not only speaks to the reader as you, she also announces that this is a novel. Why?

If we use direct address, we should eventually know why–not necessarily at first, but eventually. At first, we may be just trying it out.
I like Reader, I married him for the triumph in the simple declaration. But elsewhere Bronte seems worried that the reader needs authorial guidance to understand what’s going on. I don’t know if the guidance is needed, since I’ve read the book only her way. Anyway, that’s her reason, according to me.

Another instance just this minute occurs to me, and it comes from the last post, from Christie V Powell’s character’s journal entry, which begins, Hello! There’s no you, but this is direct address for sure. Totally justified, in my opinion. Diaries work that way, especially the diaries of young people.

And, I’d say, switching POV to a diary in the first place is metafiction. In first encountering a diary, the reader can’t help but be reminded that this is a story. After that, he may stop noticing if he’s engrossed in what’s going on.

Terry Pratchett practices a kind of metafiction when he uses footnotes in his Discworld books. Footnotes in a novel? What’s up with that? I think the purpose is to ramp up the hilarity and also to accommodate the overflow from his inventive brain.

Jon Scieszka makes the reader an accomplice in what he presents as a subversive book–which adds to the fun. And Scieszka has a charmingly, warmly ironic voice, which goes well with the device. Barrie may do it to challenge the reader’s assumptions. He certainly turned my idea of childhood upside down. I loved being told in Barrie’s loving way that I, just by virtue of being a child, was selfish.

In high school I was fascinated by a play called Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (high school and up), which I read and never saw performed. In it the play explores the nature of reality and art–

–which we can do, too, even when we’re writing for children, if it’s part of an interesting story–a standard adult fiction has to meet, too.

My friend Suzanne Fisher Staples told me she used metafiction at the end of her YA novel Under the Persimmon Tree to give the reader a wider context for the events of the story, and she used it at end of her YA novel Dangerous Skies to mitigate the sadness of the finale.

So there are lots of reasons to use direct address and metafiction. I’ve mentioned just a few, and we can come up with more for our own.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Mash together two fairy tales, say “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Try the mash-up two ways. In one, be transparent about it, so the reader knows exactly what’s going on. In the other, meld the two seamlessly, and let the reader discover the two strands.

∙ Retell “Little Red Riding Hood,” and make the narrator address the reader with a commentary on what’s going on in the story, which you can take in a new direction, or not. Give the narrator attitude.

∙ A theatrical version of “Snow White” has just been performed, and afterwards there’s a Q & A session between the two main characters, Snow White and the evil queen. Write the discussion. Remember that both characters have depended on their looks, despite the fact that one is sweet and passive and the other, well, evil.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Dear Diary

On November 2, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, In my WIP, adult fantasy, I have three point of view characters: two adults, and then a 15-year-old whose sections are all from her journal entries. I am having a lot of fun pulling from the style of my teenage journals, but I’m a little worried. Journals are almost all telling, and it might not appeal to adults. I’m keeping them short. I enjoy adding a different perspective than the other two characters, and I also like that I can use the voice to introduce every single person of her large family with “her brother” or whoever it is. Anyway, any advice?

For example, here’s her first journal entry:Hello! My name is Norma Filara. My dad just bought some new land, and when he was at the office he got this little notebook for me, and now I can keep a journal again! My last one got left behind when we moved. Actually, all our stuff got left behind when we moved. I guess I have to explain about that. My little brother Hamal was learning how to dream-jump, and he accidently jumped into some soldier guy’s house. We don’t know every thing that happened, but… he’s not alive. I don’t want to talk about that. It was freezing cold and we had to leave our house and everything, and Mom and little Orion got pneumonia, and… I don’t want to talk about that either.

Let’s move forward. We just came to a new city, called Grayton. My dad got a great offer on some land that no one else wanted. It’s perfectly good land too. He and my biggest brothers Altair and Leo are super busy now building buildings and digging wells. I’m supposed to be busy too. We all are, but Altair’s wife Ann is too busy watching the little ones so sometimes we middle ones get overlooked. I don’t mind. I would rather explore, and she can’t stop me!

Carley Anne wrote back, Ooo, sounds intriguing! I guess the style of writing (whether it is more telling, or more descriptive), would depend on the character of your fifteen year old, and what kind of a mood she’s in. Why is she writing? Is it just to remember a few facts, or capture a memory? Does she actually enjoy writing? (That would probably result in a more descriptive style.) I like her style of writing (reminds me of Anne Frank), but it almost feels like she could become more descriptive as she continues adding entries, and slowly becomes more “accustomed” to this journal.

I’d argue that journal entries by their nature are like dialogue, because the diarist is speaking to the reader. I call that showing. The reader is introduced to Norma’s character through the way she expresses herself. My impression of her is that she’s direct, enthusiastic, and emotional–not that she tells us she’s those things. I get the enthusiasm from the two exclamation points and her eagerness to journal. The directness is there in that she doesn’t beat about the bush, and the deep feelings are revealed in her reluctance to talk about the loss of her brother and the illnesses her family suffered.

That reluctance is an interesting choice in a journal, which won’t be read by anyone, which is the ideal place to explore pain–which suggests that Norma not only doesn’t want to discuss her troubles, she also doesn’t want to think about them.

That’s a lot of showing to pack into a short journal entry. Good job!

Yes, I suppose the reader is told that this is a world in which dream-jumping occurs, but telling is an inevitable part of dialogue, as in, “Don’t shake my hand. I have a cold.” I have a cold is telling. Don’t shake my hand is showing that the speaker is probably a considerate person.

And telling is woven in with showing in narration, too. In my opinion (please argue–with examples–if you disagree), extended pure showing is impossible.

The purpose of showing, in my opinion again, is to put the reader in the story. We supply the feelings, thoughts, nuances of character, the sensations (not just sight and sound, but also smell and touch) that make it real. Writing teachers urge us to show so we don’t forget these elements in our eagerness to relate events.

Telling makes the showing comprehensible. Without telling, the reader is lost, like an infant before language. The baby is primed to discover the telling in her world. The reader is primed, too.

Occasionally, pure telling works. I’ve mentioned this novel before: Miri, Who Charms by Joanne Greenberg (definitely high school and up). There’s almost no showing, and yet the story is compelling (and tragic). Maybe it would have been better if some showing had been worked in. I don’t know.

As for adult reader interest in a fifteen-year old’s journal, well, I’m an adult and I’d be interested. POV change adds variety, as do the form of journal entries. I could be interested if the whole story were told by a fifteen year old, too. It would depend on the voice and what the teen had to say. I think that falls into the category of worries we torment ourselves with when we write.

I’ve said this before: we should whisper our worries about readers into a lead canister and then drop the canister in a well. I say this because I’m guilty of it, too. My current worries are that no one will want to read about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain more than 500 years ago, and that the book (which no one will read) will be intolerably sad. These are just sticks for me to beat myself with. Maybe no one will read the book, but it’s still the book I want to write. And I assume that Christie V Powell wants to write that fifteen-year old’s journal entries.

What I just said applies to the projects of our hearts. Sometimes writers are commissioned to write a particular thing and being paid depends on writing that thing. Others of us write for our jobs. However, for the rest of us, readers are too unpredictable to worry about. Also, chasing the market is usually futile. It stays maddeningly ahead of us. The trend that was hot when we started is ice cold by the time we finish.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write a journal entry for Tolkien’s Sauron. Can be an ordinary day in the life of the lord of evil. Or can be the morning of what he expects will be the final day for goodness.

∙ Write a journal entry for a character in a WIP whom you’d like to know better. Let his own words tell you about himself.

∙ Dream-jumping sounds fascinating. Write a scene in which a character dream-jumps for the first time. Mix showing and telling in the narration.

∙ A science fiction classic, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, uses teleportation, called jaunting. The discovery of teleportation is described in the book, which is worth reading. I haven’t read it in decades. My guess is middle school and up, but check with a librarian. Write your own scene in which teleportation is either discovered or invented.

Have fun, and save what your write!

Beloved beastie

For those of you who are SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) members, I’m teaching a workshop on Saturday afternoon, February 3rd, on writing fantasy at the national conference in New York City. I’ll talk a bit and give prompts, most of which will probably come from this blog. Participants will write, and then we’ll discuss. The workshop will last 2 ½ hours, so there will be lots of time to get into the weeds. I’d love to see you there!

Onto the post! On October 18, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I have a “beastly” question:

What are some ways to balance out making your character beastly, yet sympathetic? In particular:

The character does something literally inhuman: that leaves the other characters (and the reader) aghast, but they don’t understand why everyone’s upset, because it’s perfectly normal behavior where they come from.

… how do you get across the shock of what they’ve done, yet not lose reader sympathy?

A short back-and-forth followed.

Aster: Have you read the YA novel Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo? One of the main characters- Kaz Brekker- does some pretty horrific things yet (and this part depends on interpretations) still is a fairly likable character.

Chrisite V Powell: What about showing the inhuman culture so that the reader believes that he thinks this is normal? If it’s his POV, maybe a mini flashback about someone else who did it (maybe worse?). His reaction will also say a lot, when he’s confronted. 

Melissa Mead: That’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do, but I’m not sure it’s enough- or if the inhuman culture itself will turn readers off.

I’ve never issued a trigger warning for a post before, but if you’re prone to being nauseated, you may want to skip this one–not because of anything Melissa Mead wrote but because of where I take it.

Most days, Reggie and his pal Demi have a play date in our backyard. Demi’s owner and I walk around and chat while the dogs play or ignore each other or bark at passersby. Demi often takes a poop, which Reggie sometimes eats. Ew! And double yuck! This is exceedingly inhuman behavior!

I may not be willing to smell Reggie’s breath for a year, but he’s still adorable, with that big nose, pleading eyes, tell-tale tail. My love for him is undiminished despite this disgusting propensity that, like Melissa Mead’s character, he sees nothing wrong with.

So that’s one strategy: Make your monster (demon?) appealing to your POV character. If your reader likes the narrator, he probably won’t be irreversibly turned off by the monster’s behavior.

Sympathy can be agonized sympathy. I think of the TV series House (high school and up). House, a brilliant doctor, is self-destructive and insensitive. Sometimes he acts cruelly, but he’s also saving lives, not because he loves humanity but because he hates to fail and loves puzzles. He has a single friend and could be the source of the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” I used to watch and squirm and want the best for House and keep watching. A big part of my sympathy for House is that he does save lives. So that’s another strategy: Give the reader a reason to care about the monster. Rescuing others is a time-honored reason.

Among the worst practices I can think of is cannibalism, and yet the late sci fi writer Robert Heinlein made a good intellectual case for it in his classic, Stranger in a Strange Land (high school and up). (This is cannibalism following death from an unrelated cause–people aren’t killed so they can be eaten. And the book was written decades before mad cow disease was discovered.) Another strategy: Make a thoughtful argument for the offending behavior. Readers will be fascinated.

I suspect it will also help if the demon makes clear his perspective on his act. For instance, he can invite other characters to do the same or participate. He can ask, If you don’t do this (the beastly thing), how do you do that (which shows how the behavior functions in his society)? And, likewise, he might react with horror at some human customs. For example, he might be aghast that humans eat together, because in his culture eating is intensely private. There’s another strategy: Make the reader understand the demon’s viewpoint.

One more: Reveal the monster’s feelings, which, presumably, the reader will recognize and identify with. If, when he becomes aware of his companions’ shock, he responds with confusion, dismay, even resentment, the reader is likely to relate. Even if he isn’t the POV character, we can reveal his emotions through body language, dialogue, the understanding reached by our POV character, a chapter in a tome about demons and demon society, and probably more. For example, I understood Reggie’s disgusting behavior better when I read in a newspaper that dogs don’t have the region in their brains that we have to register disgust.

Readers can have a range of responses to the demon’s act. They may be intrigued or pleased by the surprise–they didn’t see that coming!–or delighted by the author’s daring. They may recognize that the behavior is beyond the pale, but it fits and, if we’re really cooking, couldn’t be otherwise.

Worst case scenario, a few readers close the book. We can’t please everyone. On the other hand, some will enjoy the demon’s behavior but will stop reading a book if they think the writing is too cautious. That goes for gatekeepers, too. Editors and agents vary. Some may be put off, but others will be thrilled to find a writer who colors outside the lines.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your MC is picnicking with friends. The cold baked chicken, cole slaw, potato salad are scrumptious, and the ants, who invade, think so, too. Your MC or another character–you decide–picks up an ant and eats it and asks people to send more her way. Write the scene. Make the reader at least understand and tolerate the ant-eating.

∙ Write the above picnic scene from the POV of one of the ants, or, using the first-person plural POV discussed in a recent post, from the POV of the colony. While anthropomorphizing as little as possible, get the reader to be on the side of the ants.

∙ One of your characters fights the kind of fires that destroys thousands of acres. There’s no counting the people, wildlife, property, and land he’s saved. However, in his personal life he’s a relationship arsonist who blows up all his human connections. Write his reunion with his sister, from whom he’s been estranged for many years. Make this meet-up go disastrously because of his self-sabotage. In the writing, make the reader suffer out of sympathy for him and the sister.

∙ This “Snow White” takes place in an authoritarian society. When the hunter is given the order to kill Snow White, he has no moral compunctions, because it’s right and a duty to obey the queen. Write the scene in the forest when Snow White presents an alternate ethic of compassion and individual liberty. You decide if she succeeds.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Hear Ye!

Happy new year! May your writing flourish in 2018!

On October 14th way back in 2017, StorytellerLizzie wrote, I was wondering if anybody had some reference material for writing dialogue in a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones type universe? I’m playing with an idea of my MC being from a modern time and then being sent to a time/world/etc. where they use more of an “Old English” style of speaking. I mostly need colloquialisms that would replace modern phrases like “take it easy,” “calm down,” and such. Any help would be appreciated!

Lots of you responded.

Song4myKing: “Be still.”“Hold thy peace” (closer to our “be quiet,” perhaps).Verily, my main source is familiarity with the King James Version Bible. But behold, though it hath a few colloquialisms, they do not abound the way they do in common speech. Therefore, I wait with eagerness to see what others have to say.

Melissa Mead: What time period are we talking about? There were some big changes in there, and “Old English” doesn’t sound much like English that we’d recognize. Shakespeare added a whole lot of words to the language, too.

This might help. It’s the “Christmas verses” of the Bible in several languages, and the first few are different versions of English, with dates: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016555.html#016555.

Tangye: Try replacing single words with more old fashioned words. ‘you’ is an easy word to change. You can say, Thee, Thou, Thy (thy is your, but you get the idea.) One of my other strategies is to use fewer contractions. I think there are lots of ways to do it, so it depends on the exact style you are looking for.

StorytellerLizzie wrote back thusly: Now that I’ve looked at a rough outline of the English language through the years, I think I’m going for more of an Early Modern English vibe, 1440-1604ish. Fancy, but not so fancy that my MC has a huge learning curve just trying to talk to the other characters.

These are great!

Song4myKing’s nod to the King James version of the Bible is inspired, because, according to Wikipedia, it was translated between 1604 and 1611. And so is Melissa Mead’s Shakespeare suggestion, since he, too, was writing at the end of StorytellerLizzie’s period.

I’d recommend not going much earlier than the seventeenth century, because both the King James Bible and Shakespeare are challenging enough for a reader–this reader anyway.

However, despite my recommendation, if you want to do full-throttle post-Chaucerian, go for it. I’d say read a good deal from the period until the reading becomes easy. Work on thinking in period language. The reader may have trouble at the beginning, but if your story grabs her, she’ll hang in. Then, once she gets it, she’ll be immersed and will feel proud of herself for getting there. You might also consider using the same notation system that appears in Volume I of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, both definitions in the margins and in footnotes at the bottom of the page, which will take a lot of the work out of it for the reader. I tried and failed to find a link to a page online, but I’d bet your local library has a copy. Notations can be done in a lighthearted way, too. If we have fun with them, the reader probably will, too.

I’ve mentioned Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before on the blog. It’s also a time-travel story. Twain mines the old-timey language as well as the trappings of a courtly age to great comic effect. The novel is in the public domain, so here’s a sample from early on, before the main character realizes that he has time traveled:

“Fair sir, will ye just?” said this fellow.

“Will I which?”

“Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for—”

“What are you giving me?” I said.  “Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you.”

Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.

Hah!

Since StorytellerLizzie’s story is also a time-travel tale, Twain’s example is particularly instructive. If it’s told by the contemporary visitor, then the narration will be different from the dialogue, as is the case with Twain, but if the POV is third-person omniscient, we can choose whether to go contemporary or old-fashioned.

I do not recommend this, but I’m offering it as either an example of the possibilities or a cautionary tale about the crazy lengths writers can go to. When I wrote Stolen Magic, I decided to limit my vocabulary to words that entered English no later than 1700, so I checked the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for every word I suspected of later origins. (In case some of you don’t know, the OED is a historical dictionary that lists dates with quotations for every usage and nuance of a word. I subscribe to the online service, which isn’t cheap, but, again, I suspect your library subscribes, too. If you haven’t, I’d recommend looking at it at least once to see how it works and what it offers.) This foolishness slowed down my writing considerably–and I doubt it improved the book. However in StorytellerLizzie’s case, it might be worth checking a word every so often to make sure it isn’t an absolute newcomer. You can search phrases, too, as well as words.

And here’s another probably insane thought: Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, either rhyming or blank verse (no rhymes). Pentameter goes out the window with prose, but iambs are still possible. Iambs are ta DUM, ta DUM, ta DUM, in two-syllable units called feet in poetry. Take this line from Richard III, in which I’ve capitalized the stressed syllables: a HORSE, a HORSE! My KINGdom FOR a HORSE! A poetry teacher once told the class I was taking that Fitzgerald wrote chunks of The Great Gatsby (high school and up) in iambs. I wonder what it would be like to try that, what kind of voice that would create.

Anything can be said in iambs, since to some degree English naturally falls that way, but it takes effort and a thesaurus, and it might slow the writing even more than constantly checking the OED. Still, we can try it with a paragraph and observe the effect. If we like it, we can make the effort with important moments in our story. Or, since the question is about dialogue, we can make a certain character speak in iambs. And there are other kinds of meter as well. I’ve read that Dr. Seuss wrote in anapests (ta ta DUM, ta ta DUM).

Of course, if we’re going for a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones sort of voice, we should look at those to get some tips. I pulled my Fellowship of the Rings off my shelf to see what’s going on. Mostly the language is standard modern English, but I did notice, as Tangye suggests, few contractions–some, but fewer than I use. I also noticed words like shall, befall, aye, depending on who’s talking. And the phrasing seemed more formal in the dialogue of some characters, like elves.

As for colloquialisms, I’ve many times used Faugh! instead of Yuck! A source that might be helpful is Louisa May Alcott. If I remember right, Little Women is full of archaic colloquialisms.

We got delightfully into the writing weeds in this post. Here are three prompts:

∙ A time warp has brought together legendary King Arthur, Shakespeare’s Romeo, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, a bionic person of the 23rd century, and your 21st century MC. The scene is a forest, so no one is sure what the year is. Some may and some may not want to return to their old lives. Write their dialogue as they struggle to understand what’s happened.

∙ For the fun of it, try putting all of this from Twain into iambs:
Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.
Some of it is already done for you, like the end: so I was UP the TREE when HE arRIVED. (Maybe Twain did this on purpose, but probably not. English likes iambs!)

∙ Your MC has traveled through so many centuries that her head is spinning, and she’s returned with her mission accomplished. She’s discovered the words to a curse that will rob your villain of power forever. Pull out all the stops and have her issue the curse in language that grabs grandeur from biblical times to the distant future. Write the curse.

Have fun, and save what you write!