The Passivity Solution

This week we start the many questions that came in when I asked for help restocking my list. Thanks again for the big response! The first one came from Michelle Dyck on July 23, 2014: This last week I’ve been reading over a novel I wrote three years ago. It’s book two in a series, and when I wrote it, I thought it was fabulous. Not anymore! The thing is chock full of inconsistencies, plot holes, convenient solutions, and leaps of logic (all of which I plan to fix).But one problem that’s bugging me is how passive my two MCs are. In book one, they take charge and go on a quest to save a nation. They’re independent and make their own decisions. Circumstances in book two, however, find these teens in the company of several adults. Because my MCs are respectful of authority, they wind up playing follow the leader a lot of the time. And as much as the adults in the group deserve that respect, I don’t want my heroes just tagging along for the ride. Any advice?

Let’s assume we need these annoyingly sensible grown-ups in our story, so we can’t kill them off or have them be kidnapped. What are some other possibilities?

Suppose our MCs, Adele and Beau, and three upstanding grownups, Caryn, Dennis, and Enola, are being pursued by the evil queen Francesca and a dozen of her henchpeople, who intend to torture information out of them, because each of the five good guys knows a crucial piece of a whole that will either save or destroy the future child king. The pursuit is taking place in mountainous terrain, and winter is coming on. If our heroes are trapped on this side of the pass, all is lost.

Here are eleven ways to allow the kids to be more active:

• We can give them special skills that the adults don’t have, and we can make those skills essential for success. Adele is a skilled mountaineer. Beau is a spelunker, and these mountains are full of caves and tunnels. The others may be great at swordplay or withstanding torture or planning, but when the kids’ skills are called for, the grownups have to stand back.

• The teens can discover abilities they didn’t know they had. They’re attacked by the bearions from a previous post (a cross between a lion and a bear that carpelibris drew), and Adele turns out to have an uncanny talent for predicting the creatures’ next moves.

• Caryn, Dennis, and Enola can regard themselves as teachers, or can actually be teachers. Adele and Beau have to be given a chance to act and make mistakes, so the adults defer to them. Of course, the problems have to be real. When the kids do make mistakes, everyone has to live with the consequences, or the tension is gone.

• We can include Adele’s and Beau’s thoughts, which, even if they’re not doing much, will make them seem more active to the reader. They listen to the adults but disagree in their thoughts. And they worry, which always ratchets up suspense. This strategy may not be enough to solve the passivity problem, but it will help.

• There can be more than one approach to a crisis. Beau argues his and is convincing. His plan is adopted. The adults take the lead in carrying it out, but he still feels responsible. Or, his plan includes crucial roles for himself and Adele.

• The adults deserve respect, but they can’t be perfect, because no one is. Caryn has asthma, which is worsened by altitude. In these mountains she needs the help of the teens to keep up with the others. Dennis is cautious, even in situations that require boldness. Adele discovers that if she’s subtly reassuring, he moves forward. Enola has no sense of direction. When she’s alone with Beau or Adele, the youngster has to keep them from getting lost.

• Adele and Beau can each have flaws and virtues that get them into trouble, and getting into trouble isn’t passive. For example, Beau is impulsive, and Adele is loyal. When Beau slips off to try some ill-considered approach to the problem that’s threatening everyone, Adele goes with him. They create a situation that they then have to get themselves out of while the adults are back at the campsite, fast asleep.

• We can create a temporary separation. For instance, supplies are low, so Caryn and Dennis go off to hunt, while Enola looks for a source of fresh water. They tell the teens to stay at the campsite. While they’re away, three of Queen Francesca’s people discover the camp and attack. Adele and Beau are on their own.

• Size, agility, and youth can make Adele and Beau the best choices for certain actions. They have to do them solo or duo, and the adults have to wait on the sidelines.

• We can use simple physical placement. Adele is in the path of a rockslide. Or Queen Francesca’s henchperson sneaks into the camp in the middle of the night. He captures the one on watch, who happens to be Beau.

• Queen Francesca, who is not stupid, can realize that the young people are the key to her evil designs. They’re less experienced than the adults and more prone to making mistakes. Moreover, the grownups will be less likely to sacrifice a teen than one of themselves. They may even be foolhardy in their attempts at a rescue. The kids, therefore, are the focus of their attacks. Sometimes the adults save them, but often Adele and Beau have to act for themselves and even make split-second decisions for the whole group.

Naturally, these prompts come from the post:

• Write a scene that reveals the child king and shows why he is beloved and why he’s the hope of the kingdom.

• Our five heroes are gathered around their campsite at night. They don’t know how far away their pursuit is, although they’re safe for the next few hours. They need to plan their actions after that. Write the dialogue, revealing the characters of each and their strengths and weaknesses. Include the thoughts of the two teens as the discussion progresses.

• Queen Francesca and her company are at their own campsite, planning their moves for the next day. Reveal her character and the characters of two important members of her bunch.

• Create a scene from one or more (or all!) of the situations in the bullets above. If you like, continue and write the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!


Not a post but a plea. My new writing book, which is based on the blog and which will be out early in 2015, will be called Writer to Writer. That’s settled, but it needs a subtitle and all the minds involved, mine and my editor’s and her team’s, are struggling. I would appreciate ideas. The subtitle of Writing Magic is Creating Stories That Fly. This subtitle needs to be different. If you work on this, keep in mind that the book covers poems as well as stories. One more thing: the subtitle probably shouldn’t mention the blog, although I talk about the blog throughout the book, except for the poetry section.

If you come up with the subtitle we use, I will be delighted to acknowledge you and your contribution in the book.

Thank you, thank you, those of you who give this a try!

December 28, 2011

Before I start, here’s a link to a poem I read this week and loved that seems to me to get (metaphorically) to the essence of fiction and poetry:

On August 16, 2011, bluekiwii wrote, ….The best stories are the ones which show more than tell. I’ve heard this advice many times in articles and books on how-to-write. Yet I wonder sometimes if I’m not underestimating the value of telling. I feel that telling instead of showing helps the reader get inside the character’s head more easily than a simple chronicling of events (she runs, she slides, she fidgets) ever could. As I write, I wonder if I should focus on describing the events only or if I should probe at the thoughts and inner monologues of the character (for isn’t telling readers how the character feels considered less powerful then showing?) Is it okay for a character to say that they are nervous: “There is no need to be nervous—why it is so very silly really…” ? Or is it better to show the character’s nervous state instead: “the old man looked away from the person’s face and fiddled with the zipper of his sweater.” In other words, is it really important to be able to display what a character is thinking or should a reader get to know a character purely through actions? How do you pick when it is more advantageous to “tell” instead of “show”? Is there any value at all to telling instead of showing?

My chapter in Writing Magic called “Show and Tell” discusses the difference between the two, so I hope everyone who’s puzzled over this will take a look.

I believe that thoughts fall into the category of showing, just as dialogue does. Telling, in my opinion, is narration. Here’s an example: The young princess collapsed on the bed in a deep sleep while beads of blood from her finger stained the counterpane. And showing might be: Her mind went cobwebby; her knees turned rubbery; the bed seemed to rise to meet her. Her last waking thought: The prince, when he comes, will not approve of blood on the counterpane.

But the difference is hard to tease out and may even be a matter of debate. In my telling sentence above, I’m not even sure about the end of the sentence. The young princess collapsed on the bed in a deep sleep is certainly telling (I think!), but while beads of blood from her finger stained the counterpane may be showing.

Unless we’re writing from the POV of an omniscient narrator who reveals everyone’s thoughts and emotions, we have to rely mostly on action for our non-POV characters. But we learn tons about people from what they do, and dialogue, revealing dialogue, is also action. We have other cues, too, like dress, facial expression, and body language. If, for example, Yolanda is usually a fashion plate, the reader and other characters are going to wonder what’s going on when she comes to school looking like she dressed with her eyes closed. If she’s usually quiet in class but now her arm is waving wildly at the teacher, we’re likely to think something is up.

But, when it comes to the POV character, if we omit his thoughts and feelings, we’re writing handicapped. He has thoughts and feelings. Why would we keep them secret? In sleeping princess’s thought above, we learn a fair amount about her from just thirteen words. She’s fastidious and worries about making a good impression a hundred years off but not about nightmares, and she isn’t looking forward to all that rest.

This blog is mostly telling. I just looked at a magazine article and concluded that it was basically telling with a few incidents sprinkled in, examples of showing that livened up the prose. I also looked online at the front page of two major newspapers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Just about all telling there, reflecting the reportorial nature of telling, which certainly has a place in fiction.

These three sentences of pure telling start a chapter in Fairest: A week passed. The mood in the castle was bleak. The corridor troubadours sang of pain and grief. For some reason that I no longer remember I needed that time span to go by but I didn’t want to show a week in which nothing of plot importance happened. Telling is great at moving a story along.

Showing allows the reader to draw his own conclusions about the characters and the unfolding tale, and usually that’s preferable. But sometimes we want to nail a thing down and say nothing that could be misunderstood. Sometimes we want to say, Perry hated Willa.

I just revisited The Birthday Room (ten and up, I’d guess) by Kevin Henkes, a book I love. The first page is strictly telling and, as I skipped through, it seemed to me that there’s more telling throughout than I usually use, and yet it’s a marvelous book. I think the telling contributes to the thoughtful tone. Read it, if you haven’t already, and learn.
The maxim, Show don’t tell, may be a shibboleth we can do just as well without. Writing that, as bluekiwii said, gets the reader inside the character’s head (when we want him to be there) is doing its job whether it’s showing or telling.

A more useful distinction may be between high detail and low. A week passed is low detail. This is from later in the chapter: I put the letters in the top drawer of my bureau and dressed in yet another of Dame Ethele’s horrors. This one had so much draped cloth in the sleeves that they would have been useful on a sailing ship. The headdress too was cursed with excess cloth, which culminated in flaps that fell on each side of my face like the long droopy ears of an Ayorthaian hare.

Is it telling or showing? Don’t know. I’m pretty sure, though, that there’s high detail. I loved describing the costumes in Fairest, most of which came from fashion history books. The silly outfits people used to wear! (And still do!)

I could have gone into much greater detail. Notice I didn’t mention the color of the “horror” or the kind of fabric or the quality of the dressmaking. The goal was to demonstrate how ridiculous Aza felt. With that accomplished I moved on.

So purpose can guide you when you choose between showing and telling and level of detail. When you’ve done what you’ve set out to do, stop. That can be hard to tell in a first draft. You may need to wait for revision and revision and revision to arrive at certainty about where to cut and where to expand.


•    This is the first sentence of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book: “There once lived a poor tailor, who had a son called Aladdin, a careless, idle boy who would do nothing but play ball all day long in the streets with little idle boys like himself.” This is an example of extreme telling, very compressed. Unpack the sentence using detail and showing to draw the reader in. Interest the reader in Aladdin and his unhappy dad. See if you can get at least three pages out of the one sentence. (The Lang fairy books are the source of most of my books based on fairytales. If you don’t know them, each is a different color. They’re in the public domain so you don’t have to worry about copyright, and they’re available online for free.)

•    Let’s take Perry hated Willa from above. Write a scene that shows the hatred without stating it outright. Then revise the scene with tiny tweaks that turn the hatred into a different emotion, like love or curiosity or despair.

•    This is a prompt for the blog itself. Are there other rules of writing (some we’ve discussed here, like words teachers despise) that mystify you? Post about them.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Is There A Problem?

A mid-week post to ask if people are having trouble posting to the blog. Welliewalks posted to the guestbook page on my website because she couldn’t get through. If you’re having a problem too, would you also let me know on my guestbook page? If no problem, please post to the blog. If something is wrong we’ll get right on it. I love to hear from you!

Just words

This post is going to be about words, starting with Maddie’s question on November 11, 2010: I have a little spell-checker on my computer. It also tells me the average reading level of the stuff that I’m writing, and it’s not huge. Is it always necessary to add in bigger words, or is it ok to not use huge words as long as your plot is suitably twisted? (i.e., I don’t want to be the next Dr. Seuss, although I do love his stuff… :D)

My advice is to ignore the reading level on your spell checker, because it doesn’t tell you much that’s meaningful. Word length and reading level based on word length and average number of words in each sentence may determine the age of the child who can read a particular book, but they have nothing to do with the age of the child who should read it. Animal Farm (middle school and up) by George Orwell is a perfect example. I read it when I was in third or fourth grade and thought it an interesting story about animals. The allegory flew over my head until my older sister let me in on the secret.

In the case of Animal Farm, it’s not a matter of plot twists either. The story is straightforward, no subplots that I remember; the book is only 128 pages long. What’s sophisticated is the meaning.

Another example is What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman, which is a miracle of a book. It’s told from the POV of a nine-year-old boy. Very simple story, also no plot complications that I recall, only 126 pages long, yet it’s a young adult book, definitely not for actual nine-year-olds. In this case, the reason is the subject, which is child abuse.

I like short words (and long and medium-size ones). Short words have power. And so do short sentences. They’re punchy. Sometimes we can get a good rhythm going with short sentences – and sometimes with long.

POV is another determinant of the sort of vocabulary that best suits a story. In What Jamie Saw, the author was limited to words that Jamie would know, and he wasn’t a child vocabulary prodigy. If you’re telling your story from the POV of a child or someone without much education, you’re stuck with a limited vocabulary. But even if your POV character is erudite, she may prefer not to show off her erudition. She may like to be simple and clear, even when she’s in a complicated situation or dealing with a difficult subject, like chaos theory. The sesquipedalian word may come to her only when it’s the sole way to express an idea.

When you’re using a third-person narrator, it’s up to you and whatever serves your story.

When I’m reading I like to come upon a few words to look up, but I don’t want to need my dictionary three times in every paragraph. When I write I don’t dumb down my vocabulary for kids. If they need to go to the dictionary more often than I enjoy as a reader, that’s okay. They’re kids, and their vocabularies need building. On the other hand, I don’t want to write an impenetrable book. Sometimes I help by making a meaning clear through context.

A convoluted plot is unconnected to word choice. You can tell a complex story using simple language or six-syllable vocabulary. I don’t think most third graders will be able to follow a tale that weaves together six subplots, for example. Adults will get lost too in a Byzantine plot. I will, and I’ll give up unless I’m completely in love with some element of the story.

Moving along to a related topic, Mysterygirl, Alexandra, April, and Marissa, all posted comments about words that were banned in school. Some teachers called these “jail” words, mostly simple words. Mysterygirl gave examples: good, bad, said, sad, mad, happy, grumpy, big, small, medium, love, calm. One of April’s teachers hated nice.

I sympathize with these teachers, who want to develop their students’ vocabularies. If this is what your teacher is demanding, I suggest going along in your school work. I’d say go your teachers one better. Wow them. For example, instead of grumpy, give them irascible, peevish, querulous, vinegarish. Use your thesaurus. It will help all your writing. For the heck of it, try for words your teachers will have to look up – unless they have no sense of humor.

After you blow your teacher away with your fab vocab, you might ask for an exemption from her rule just for you, unless everyone in your class will hate you. But if you don’t get the exemption, tough it out.

And in the stories you’re not writing for school, forget about jail words and words that are allowed to run free. The dictionary is your pasture. Graze at will on the weeds along with the grass and the flowers. Be a free-range writer.

Out of curiosity I just did a word search on the word nice in one of my Princess Tales, Cinderellis and the Glass Hill. In that book I used nice eleven times, which I was aware of and did deliberately. The main characters in this book are simple people, even though one of them is a princess. Nice appears in the thoughts of the two mains. It’s what they’re both looking for. I used pleasant once, amiable not at all. Amiable wouldn’t have fit the tone I’d set.

Having said that, I am alert to word repetition when I write and when I edit. If I think I’m overusing a word, I write it in a list above my story, and when I’m done, I search for the word. If it is showing up too much, I hunt for synonyms to substitute. My editor is amazing at picking up word repetition too. She catches the ones I miss.

Obviously there are words we have to use again and again. Prepositions are unavoidable, for example, and we can’t do without the appearing a million times.

Marissa’s teacher didn’t let her students use the word said. Again, if you have to listen to your teacher, you have to. But said is a special case, and it should be used repeatedly. I devote an entire chapter to said in Writing Magic. In brief, said (and ask, too) disappear. We see who’s speaking and move on. Substitute words, like exclaim, question, state, just draw attention to themselves and away from the action and what’s being said. What’s more, exclaim and question and query are unnecessary because the punctuation tells us everything. Words like vocalize and express are simply awful, in my opinion.

Sometimes repetition sets up a rhythm that’s pleasing, and sometimes you want to break the rhythm. Sometimes you’re not sure and just have to pick, and sometimes both choices are equal. Aaa! Writing is hard!

Here’s a prompt:

I learned to read on the Dick and Jane books, which were heavy on repetition and low on excitement, but they did the job for me. Below are four sentences from one of the books. I don’t know why each sentence gets its own line within a single quotation:

Father said, “Down, Spot.
Run away, Spot.
You can not go.
You can not go in the car.”

There’s drama here. I wouldn’t want anybody’s father to tell the family dog to run away. Your challenge is to rewrite the dialogue at least three ways, fooling around with vocabulary. Father’s speech can go on for four pages. He can be a vampire if you like or whatever else. Spot can be a talking dog or a werewolf.

If you want to, turn the situation into a story, a novel, a seven-book series.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Special post

This extra post is to announce an appearance in hopes that some of you  reading this are in Connecticut or thereabouts.  I will be speaking and signing at  on Monday, March 15th at 5:30 in the Johnson Room of the library at Eastern Connecticut State University, 83 Windham Street, Willimantic, CT 06226.  My talk is free and open to the public, and, as a teaser, I’m going to reveal a little-known secret about each of my books!  I would LOVE to see you there! If you come, please be sure to introduce yourself.