Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Are You Stage Directing?

On a recent student manuscript, I found myself saying, “avoid stage directing.” I know the writer was trying to show, but it wasn’t working. What’s the difference from showing? In this particular case, the protagonist turned around to face the antagonist. We already knew they were standing close to each other. They were already in the midst of a conversation. It felt like a director saying, “Now turn and face him.” It wasn’t needed. It didn’t add—in fact, it distracted from the tension of the conversation.

Bucket Siler says, “Stage direction, by my definition, is pointless movement.

Nat Russo says, “Too many stage directions and you’ll drain the lifeblood of your story (the drama and tension), too few and you leave the reader navigating without a compass and any idea of where True North is.”

Janice Hardy says, “Good stage direction requires balance and subtlety with the rest of the text. Too much and the scene drags, describing every little move a character makes.” (from “Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions”– great article) She also says, “Skip the obvious.”

Then I found this fantastic article called, “Avoiding Stage Directions”  by M.L. Keller which says, “In novels, anything reported to the reader must be significant. For this reason, listing all of a character’s actions (including insignificant actions) actually creates distance.” The writer explains MRUs (Motivation-Reaction Units) in a very compelling way. This is a must-read article.

Back to the student’s protagonist and antagonist. Another action could have increased tension. And as M.L. Keller says, adding thoughts/motivation would even do more. Compare these three:

  • Ew, why does he have to stand so close to me? She inched away.
  • Wow, he smells good. She had to stop herself from leaning in.
  • Her eyes narrowed. If he takes one step closer, I’m going to punch him.

In these examples, the protagonist could be facing the antagonist, but we get so much more and know each situation is very different.

Nat Russo says, “Stage directions are small beats in your prose that seem, at first glance, like action beats. After all, it’s a character doing something. In reality, however, they often come across as ‘smack the reader over the head with the Hammer of Obvious’ beats.”

No stage directing, please.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Showing the Passage of Time

Writer Jami Gold said, “Time—just like location—establishes our story’s setting, which anchors readers in our story.”

There’s a movie that does a marvelous job of showing passing of time. In it the character is literally walking through different seasons. It takes a very short time on screen but we know without a doubt that a year has passed.

We want readers to have a sense of time passing in written stories as well. How do we do that?

Use simple transitions to show time has been skipped. This is where we get to tell. “That evening…” “The next morning…” “Two days later…” “After school…” “He showered and dressed…” We are summarizing nonimportant happenings to get on with the story.

State the time in the text. Or day of week. Or date. Or season. “Leslie checked the time on her phone. 7:32 a.m. If he didn’t show up soon, they’d be late to school. 7:35.” “On the first day of spring break…”

Show the time with what is in the sky. “The rising sun peeking through the window…” “The moon glow…” Mention the stars and the reader will assume night.

Use events to show time. It can be a countdown: “Only one more week until my birthday.” Or can be days counted since an event: “It’s been three hours/days since…” Or it can be a wait and payoff. “In six and a half days Stella would finally see her best friend.” The next scene might be at the airport as the friend exits the gate.

Use physical cues. “Oh, great, it’s that time of the month again.” “Dad’s chin was scratchy on my cheek” could indicate evening. “The dew on the grass was cold on my bare feet” probably means morning.

Scene breaks can indicate time has passed. If the end of one scene shows a character studying for a final then heading to bed, and the next scene shows him in the classroom taking the test, the reader will assume the night has passed.

In addition, remember time is relative. Waiting 15 minutes to be called in the doctor’s office can feel like a long time. We might be aware of things we normally ignore such as a pattern in the couch across from us. Or the finger smudges on the window. Or the buzz of the lights. On the other hand, when a crisis is happening, we might only focus on the main thing—the charging bear.

Also, think how kids the age of your character in your manuscript view time. Author Elizabeth Varadan said, “In a child’s life, a week, a month, a few months, can feel like forever.” My great-niece who is seven recently said, “…it takes a thousand years before I get a year older!” A child character will not be talking about how quickly the years or even months pass—that’s an adult reaction. Though a kid might think summer vacation goes by too fast.

Robert Wood said in his article on time, “a compelling sense of time passing can bring a story to life in ways you’d never expect.” By contrast, if too many things happen in a specified time period to be possible, we can lose readers’ suspension of disbelief.

Do you know what time it is in your story?

If you need help keeping track of that time, perhaps this post on timelines will be helpful.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Short Story Versus Novel

A short story usually has only one problem to be solved. And a relatively easily solved problem at that. Novels often have an overarching problem—something big, such as death of a parent, or not fitting in, a mystery from their past to solve, etc. But there often are other problems along the way. The character must keep solving in a novel. Not one and done as a short story does.

Your story can cover a short time period or a long period and still be a novel, but the longer the time period, the more likely the story is a novel. Short stories exist in a short time period, often one day or less. They are more like a snapshot than a two-hour movie. A short story can be one scene or a few. A novel will usually be many scenes.

Similarly, setting is often different between the two. It’s easy to have a short story resolve in one setting, one place. More difficult to do so with a novel. Think of how many novels, even if they aren’t about a journey, don’t stay in one room, or one house, but have indoor and outdoor settings, and often a variety of those. Of course that all affects how much description there will be.

In a short story, you won’t go as deep into your main character. You’ll probably show only one flaw in the character, not many. The same with skills, desires, dreams. The short story focuses on one aspect of a character’s life. One situation. A novel will do much more.

Think of a novel like a TV series. I’m watching one now. As I go along I’m getting tidbits of the character’s past. I want to know more of what’s happening in his life now, and in the past, so keep watching and get to learn both. In a novel and a TV series, I don’t get a full info dump of the character’s past—only what I need to know now for this scene. In a novel, I want to know more of both the character’s future and past so keep reading. In a short story I’m pretty content with what happens here and now with the character. I don’t need or want the depth. Lorrie Moore says, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”

Short stories don’t usually have subplots and backstory on the page is very limited. Novels often have both. More characters can work in a novel where the same number would be overwhelming in a short story. It’s also unlikely for a short story to have multiple viewpoints.

I like this quote from Sophie Playle, “A novel is a journey – not only for the characters, but for the writer and the reader.” A journey takes commitment versus a short trip to the grocery store.

These reasons are why I’ll write on student short stories, “novel topic” or “This problem can’t be solved in a short story.” If you can’t personally imagine solving the problem in a short amount of  time, then your character can’t either, so think novel, not short story.

Posted in Craft, PB, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Creative Picture Book Formats

The other day I was helping a friend edit a fiction picture book and we were talking about how layout of the language can give a different feel.

To demonstrate I opened up my quote file and found this one by Tana French, “Don’t get discouraged if you’re hammering away at a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, and it keeps coming out wrong. You’re allowed to get it wrong, as many times as you need to; you only need to get it right once.”

Look at it written as a poem:

“Don’t get discouraged
if you’re hammering away
at a sentence
or a paragraph
or a chapter,
and it keeps
out wrong.
You’re allowed
to get it wrong,
as many times
as you need to;
you only need
to get it right

– Tana French

I loved the quote in the first place, but I love it as poetry even more.

Let’s think about this specifically in regard to picture books. Will a poetic format add to your story? (I’m not talking about rhythm and rhyme particularly, although that is a possibility.) Or is there another format that will benefit your story?

One that comes to mind is Gretchen McLellan’s No Party Poopers! where the story is only written in dialogue with no tag lines, beats, or description.

Or an oldie Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague. The opening has a newspaper clipping, then come the hilarious letters. These books are called epistolary.

Author Doreen Chronin has a series of bug diaries. Will journal format work for your story?

I was stunned when I read Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer where you read the poems one way and then the opposite.

Then there’s the cumulative story where each line builds from the line before. The poem “This Is the House that Jack Built” may have inspired this type of tale.

You might find Karin Lefranc’s list of picture book genres interesting.

I like stretching my mind about how stories can be written. If you know of different picture book formats, please share in the comments.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Three Commonly Overused Words in Fiction

Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.

Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.

Here are a few examples:

  1. John looked out the window.
  2. Leslie glared at her daughter.
  3. I looked at the paper on my desk.

Stronger possibilities:

  1. Out the window the Ponderosa pines were swaying in the wind. If John is the main character, we will assume he sees this.
  2. Leslie’s eyes narrowed emphasizing the hated wrinkle between her eyebrows. If her daughter is present, it will be pretty obvious that Leslie’s not exactly pleased with her.
  3. The paper on my desk said, “Don’t come back.”

I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.

Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.

Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.

Here are a few examples:

  1. His legs shake and he feels an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifling his mind.
  2. She felt sad. What does that look like?
  3. I felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. Definitely telling!

These could become the stronger:

  1. His legs shake and an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifles his mind.
  2. Her shoulders drooped to match the shape of her mouth. Now that I can picture.
  3. I licked sweat off my upper lip and smashed a mosquito on my jeans.

The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.

I change them one of two ways:

  • Rearrange the sentence to share the same info without the word “felt.”
  • Make it more active by helping the reader experience what is happening.
  • Show and add sensory details.

You may ignore it in dialogue.

Write seemlessly (pun intended). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.

Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?

Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.

The walls seemed to lean toward me.

The fix. Remove “seem” forms in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:

She remembers many of our numerous cousins.

The walls leaned toward me.

A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.

Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.