Writing in the 3rd Dimension


What makes a good story?  No matter our story’s archetype, our characters are king.  Or queen.  Or Optimus Prime.

There are only so many story archetypes in the world.  Take the star-crossed lovers.  The story of Hero and Leander is perhaps one of the earliest examples of this one.  Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite who lived in a tower.  Leander would cross the Hellespont River every night to be with her, guided by Hero’s lamp. This story archetype surfaces in the tales of Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo & Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff.

What makes these stories different isn’t the settings or time periods (Ancient Greece, Dark Ages England, Medieval Florence, Nineteenth Century windswept moors) but the characters.  Leander was a smooth-talking son of a gun who seduced the virginal Hero into rumpy-pumpy, only to drown on a stormy night when Hero’s lamp blew out and he lost his way.  Lancelot is driven by duty and love for God until he meets Guinevere and risks everything, then leaves on a lonely quest when he realises he can’t have her.  Juliet, a quiet and obedient girl, becomes a powerhouse of strength and rebellion when she decides Romeo’s the guy for her.  He thinks she dies, so he kills himself.  She follows swiftly after.  The template for thousands of dreamy-teen stories the world over. Heathcliff is a cruel and twisted bastard who taps into Cathy’s wild and tempestuous nature and her yearning to be free of society’s constraints upon her. A co-dependent abusive relationship that paved the way for Fifty Shades of Grey and if Emily Bronte wasn’t dead I’d do her in myself for that one.

The similarity in these characters, though, is that they are all flawed.  There’s no black-and-white here.  And that’s what we want – what we need – for our stories: well-rounded and flawed characters who develop and grow as the story progresses.

Think of it like this: if someone asked us what we did at the weekend, the conversation might go something like this:

“Well, I was in Nando’s on Friday night and this swoon-worthy guy was at the table next to us, and this time I was determined not to be a wallflower.”

“Ha!  About time!  What happened?”

“I kinda-sorta nonchalantly leaned over, and I was so mesmerised I forgot I was holding a chicken wing and I dropped it into his lap.”

“O-kaaay.  And how did that work out?”

“He called me a stupid tart and got up and left.”

“That is so rude!”

“I know, right?  He didn’t give me the chicken wing back!” *

*This is not a true story that did not happen to me.

The real story here isn’t that it took place in Nando’s.  It’s that our narrator is obviously a nerd-worthy social illiterate.

So how do we conjure a three-dimensional wonder from our imagination?  First, we have to know who our characters are.  So we might develop a character profile for them.  Then, when we’ve worked out our character’s development, we use our story elements – plot, scene, setting, dialogue, interaction with other characters – to show our character’s journey.

We’ve got some options when it comes to character profiling.  Here’s the profile template I use (in Scrivener), with a draft for a major character in my Work In Progress:

Character Name Felicity ‘Flick’ Dunbar
Role in Story Major Character POV
Age/DOB 32
Hair Colour Brown; shoulder-length; fine and straight
Eye Colour Light Blue – stonewashed denim
Skin Colour White
Height 5’6″
Weight/Body Type 140lbs; curvy, prone to weight gain
Physical Description Soft features; averagely attractive, with a full mouth and button nose – as a young woman she was ‘cute’; as a mature woman she’s aged well into her features
Personality Quiet, generous, helpful, strives for a normal life, kind, resilient
Personal Quirks Doesn’t like swearing
Moral Code Her kids come first in everything. She hates judgemental people (having been judged herself); always gives people the benefit of the doubt – which bites her in the arse with regard to Daley later on
Flaws Lack of confidence in her intelligence, capabilities and judgement
Key Traits She’s braver than she realises; has enormous courage; selfless
Secrets Her father abused her when her mother died.
Fears That her children will leave her behind, intellectually and emotionally; no idea what she will do when they leave home; that people stereotype her as a ‘single mum’
Possessions/ Status Working class, low-income, few possessions – old Ford Fiesta on its last legs
Occupation Cleaner
Origin and Childhood Mother died of cancer when she was 5yrs old; father violent, uncommunicative, judgemental. He abused her from age 9-15, when she became pregnant by a boy at school. She knows it was the boy, because her father always used condoms. She was not promiscuous – she had sex with the boy because she knew if she became pregnant her father would leave her alone. She thinks the abuse by her father is a secret, that her brother never knew. But he did. They have never talked about it.

She became pregnant again at 17, when she had sex with a casual labourer in the village, a black guy – this was her first romantic love. When she had the baby, a mixed race child, her father threw her and the children out of the house; he refused to have ‘a picaninny’ in the family.

She took the children and moved to a hostel for women and then into a council house at Bridgehaven, where she has been ever since.

Character Progression At the beginning of the story, she lacks confidence in her own abilities and decision-making; she knows she’s not smart (see Fears) and she generally defers to her children when it comes to decisions. The threat to her family, though, transforms her – and she finds a hidden ruthlessness, her protectiveness of the kids transforms into a lioness-like refusal to go down. She becomes strong, internally and externally; her meekness gives way to decisiveness; she discovers that she may not be book-smart, but she is intelligent and resourceful.
3 Critical Moments

1st external; 2x internal

  1. The home invasion – where she hides the kids and distracts the rapists from looking for Ally; she realises the extent she will go to to protect the kids
  2. Standing up to her father – when he refuses to take them in because of Ally; she purges her past
  3. Deciding to exile Andy from the group – when he attempts to rape Grace; she realises that she has become the leader of the group (something everyone else has already figured out)
Hobbies, Interests None: she devotes all her time, money and energy in providing for the kids
Family & Friends Two children: Rob (16) and Ally (14); never married; both from different fathers; Brother Ben Holloway

A character profile is a living thing and I might need to make some changes to Flick’s profile as the story develops.  Character Progression and Critical Moments – these are the cornerstones of the profile that will help me drive my character forward in the story.  We can use the character profile to make sure that, when we edit, we don’t have any continuity issues that make our Dear Readers tear their hair out – or throw their eReaders across the room.

Once we start writing, though, our characters will argue with us and be determined to do the opposite of what we intend for them, because they’re pesky like that.  And if they do start getting pernickety, that’s a good thing – it means they’re coming alive, jumping off the page and slapping us around the head saying ‘No!  I will not do it, Creator!’ (or, if they’re anything like some of my characters, punch you in the face with a succinct ‘Fuck you!’ before slinking back to the page in a sulk).

Craft Corner

Useful resources, book-wise, to help develop strong characters:

  • The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Volger
  • The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N Edelstein
  • Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
  • The Emotion Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, both by Ackerman and Puglisi

Places on the web to find free character profile templates:

Happy character-building, scribes!

The awesome picture in this post is by http://yangtianli.deviantart.com/art/the-evil-professor-163692217


He Said She Said Say What?


Talk.  Most of us do it all day, every day, and sometimes in our sleep.  But when it comes to our writing, talking transmogrifies into something terrifying called “dialogue” and we run away screaming, and hide behind the sofa, and mumble that we can’t go on, that it’s too fucking hard, all because “dialogue”.

Come out from behind the sofa and get the dust bunnies out of your hair.  Dialogue is not a monster.

But that’s not to say we can’t turn it into one, with our adverbs and our stilted prose, and our refusal to use contractions, because this is a novel and not the real world so our characters have to talk like they spent their formative years in an Edwardian Boarding School, wtf.

Harry, who is eight years old, and Gretchen, his older sister who has just had her tenth birthday, are lost in the woods.

“I do not think we should go this way.”

“I do not agree with you.  This is definitely the way we should go.”

“No, I insist.  We really ought to go this way.”

“I have torn out my eyes with my fingernails to avoid reading any more of this drivel.”

Aside from the fact that no children in the history of the universe have ever sounded like that – no, not even in an Enid Blyton novel – we have no fucking idea who is saying what.  Although we can, it is true, empathise wholeheartedly with whoever has clawed at their own face to escape that turgid exchange.

That first sentence is exposition – otherwise known as telling our Dear Readers shit they could find out in a much more entertaining way.  For example:

“You’re only eight,” Gretchen yelled.  “We’re going this way, Harry!”

“I’m not following you anywhere.  You got lost in McDonald’s on your birthday.”  Harry started walking in the opposite direction.  “Two years older than me doesn’t make you smarter than me, Gretchy.”

“Don’t call me that, you little twerp,” said Gretchen.  “It would serve you right if a witch came out of the woods and gobbled you up!”

Harry laughed and didn’t even bother turning around.  “Only girls believe in witches.”

I’m pretty sure Harry will come upon a gingerbread house and find himself trapped inside an oven, whereupon he will Learn An Important Lesson about Something Or Other.

Dialogue has to move our story on and contribute to either character or plot development.  It connects the Dear Reader with our characters.  It’s grease on the axle of our story locomotive and without it the bloody wheels fall off.  It’s the chew-chew for our choo-choo.

Using the correct punctuation is the nuts and bolts of our dialogue mag-lev.  It seems like a small thing, where to put a comma rather than a full stop. In dialogue.  So that it, makes sense to our, beleaguered, Dear Readers.  Catch my drift, hombres and hombresses?

  1. Read it aloud – if we sound like an alien trying to master the English (or any other) language, then we re-write (unless of course our character is an alien trying to master … etc)
  2. Get rid of the ell-why’s – you know whys
  3. Think about dialogue tags and remember that “said” is an invisible word.
  4. Here’s a simple little flow chart I use to remind me where it’s at in the dialogue hierarchy:


And lastly, an uplifting quote from Nietzsche: “Whoever fights Dialogue Monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a Monster of Dialogue.”  He totally said that.  Google it, when you come out from behind the sofa.

Wherein the Adverb Dies – Horribly

murdered_adverb_2Ah, the adverb.  The literary device that indiscriminately shits all over our manuscript.

These incontinent -ly’s must be annihilated.  Exterminated.  (Perhaps with fragments.)

Okay, so maybe not all the adverbs in the world need to be taken down to the basement and tortured by the Red Pen Serial Killer.  Like an expensive perfume, some adverbs can be lightly spritzed about the body of our manuscript, just enough to turn the Dear Reader’s head and make them swoon (with lust, not their gag-reflex).

Where adverbs definitely need to die, though, is in the dialogue tags.

“Oh my god!” the Scribbler’s Apprentice cries astonishingly.  “But how else can I express the depth of my character’s experience?”

“I dunno,” says the Red Pen.  “Maybe you could put the action in the actions of your characters instead?”

“Ha, ha,” the Apprentice laughs uproariously, “what a novel idea!”  She stares at the Red Pen thoughtfully.  “What are you talking about?”

The Red Pen takes a switchblade out of its pocket and begins scraping the blood from under its fingernails.  “Are you sure you want to know?”

“Uh, yes.”  A bead of sweat forms on the Apprentice’s brow.  “I think.”

If a character laughs, do we really have to add “hilariously”?  Or “infectiously?”  If our character has an infectious laugh, then we should be showing the laugh, not telling our Dear Reader something they can’t picture (unless they picture “infectious” as Patient Zero in the Zombie Apocalypse, in which case, I want that Dear Reader as my Ruthless Critic and I will give them sweets and cheap wine).

Let’s take our character with the (non-apocalyptic) infectious laugh.  What does an infectious laugh sound like?  Is it like a braying donkey?  Does it start with a snuffled giggle, low in the belly, then erupt in a volcano of cackles?  Does it sound like a nineteenth century steam train?  What makes it infectious?  That’s what we need to capture in our writing.  Not an -ly tacked onto the end of a word like a lazy afterthought.

What about an example from the dialogue snippet up there?  What does “thoughtful” look like?  An image will probably come to mind: that friend of ours who always looks as though they’re just about to shout ‘Eureka!’; the woman we saw in the coffee shop the other day, staring out the window and seeing nothing; the frown of concentration on a child’s face as they try to tie their shoelaces for the first time, tongue peeking out of the corner of their mouth.  Which, if any, of those images suits our character?  What do we want to show our Dear Readers?  Whether we’re writing a romance or a horror-filled gore-fest, we’re trying to achieve the same thing: the enticement, the seduction and then the ravishment of our Dear Readers.  We crook our finger and invite them deeper inside our story with a flash of leg here and a hint of a smile there.  Then we slap them around a bit and lock them in the dungeon until they write us a good review.  Wait.  I may have got that bit wrong.

Anyway.  Physical reactions are some of the clues that gradually reveal our characters to the hungry eyes of our Dear Reader.   Another clue, of course, is in our characters’ dialogue.

(I spritzed a little adverb in there somewhere.  I’m hoping the Red Pen Serial Killer won’t see it and go all Crazy 88 on its ass.)

Revision is the Mother of All Suck-Ups

grocery_list_2If we can make amendments to our grocery list, why wouldn’t we edit a story we love more than our mothers, more than our children, more than the Red Sox or the White Stripes or Johnnie Walker Black Label?

Remember our excruciatingly awful paragraph from the last post?  Let’s recap on our second draft (now we’ve got rid of the dreaded PVZ):

I walked down the street, minding my own business, when I heard a loud bang behind me.  Terrified, I turned around, my heart about to explode, and  I saw a plume of exhaust from a back-fired car.  i felt like an idiot and started walking faster.  I didn’t want to be late for work, not today.

If you’re anything like me (and it’s okay if you’re not, because fuck the hegemony), you trawl through Amazon Kindle looking for the magical price-point of £0.00.  You stumble on a decent-sounding title (one that doesn’t have “A novel of post-apocalyptic survival” or some such shit tacked onto the end of it, as though the author can’t quite believe in the intelligence of their own Dear Readers to figure out that a picture with a wasteland on it is likely to be dystopian fiction of some sort).  Then you click on the ‘Look Inside’ feature – just because it’s free doesn’t mean you’re going to read any old shite.  Your time is precious and you want to be entertained not tortured (unless you’re into that kind of thing, which is cool as long as it’s all consensual).  And you read that paragraph up there.  Would you continue reading?  Would you download the book?  Would ya?  Would ya?

I know I wouldn’t.

Here’s why I’d stop reading and think this was a pile of shite:

  • Everyone walks down the street.  That’s such a pedestrian opener.
  • Minding your own business?  As opposed to what?  Something more entertaining, perhaps?
  • I don’t feel anything.
  • By the time I get to the part where my interest might be piqued, I don’t give a shit.

Reader = gone, in three sentences.

“But-but-but,” we say, “my story is really good!  If they’d only persevere until the second paragraph/page/chapter, everything will be revealed!”

And the only sane response to that, Word-Sorcerers, is this: if the story gets going in the second paragraph/page/chapter, then put that bit first.  Rocket science it ain’t.

As a Dear Reader, I want action, tension, intrigue.  I want those words to jump off the page and force my finger to scroll.  It’s a war, man – a war for my attention, my feelings, my investment.  I want to be imprisoned by prose and end up with Story Stockholm Syndrome.

So what can we do to help our apprentice Word Sorcerer (that would be me, then) salvage this piece of shite?

Where’s the action?  Where’s the tension?  Where’s the intrigue?

Well, we can surmise that our protagonist is nervous – otherwise a car back-firing wouldn’t scare the crap out of them.  And it’s got something to do with not being late for work today.  We could have them walk down the street nervously, perhaps – except we should endeavour to kill most of the adverbs in our writing, horribly (there’ll be a post about that later).

My heart stopped for a couple of seconds when the car back-fired.  I checked the reassuring weight in my jacket pocket, then picked up the pace, anxious to get to work on time.  For the first time in years, I had a reason not to be late.

Now we’re getting somewhere!  It’s a gun, right?  He’s got a gun in his pocket and he’s going to shoot his boss!  Amirite?  I’m right, aren’t I?  Ooh.  But what if it’s a girl?  And she has a portable hard drive in her pocket, and she’s going to steal her company’s secrets?  Ooh-ooh, wait!  It could be a transvestite who’s got a prosthetic dick in their pocket and they’re going to slap it down on their co-worker’s desk and tell ’em to suck on that, motherfucker, with your transgender-phobic potty-mouth. Ahem.

Now I think I might be tempted to read the next paragraph, because I can’t be sure what it’s all about yet.

And that – the elusive moment when our Dear Reader’s interest is piqued to continue – is why we must suck it up and take up the Red Pen of Revision.  We can win the war by slashing sentences and chopping the head off every unnecessary word.  Aim for a battlefield strewn with broken letters and  dismembered paragraph parts, then raise your Red Pen aloft and cry, “Oh god!  I’m back down to 20,000 words!”

Then pour yourself a stiff drink and start again.

Get Aggressive with Passive Voice

passive_voice_4For the love of God (or Buddha, or Rationalism, or whatever floats your existential boat), please let’s bash the Passive Voice Zombie on the head with a baseball bat.

I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when there was a loud bang behind me.  I was terrified, and turned around like my heart was about to explode out of my chest.  And I realised it was a car back-firing, and then I felt like an idiot, and realised I was late for work, which was bad news, because today was an important day.

What’s wrong with that paragraph?  Apart from the excruciatingly boring subject matter, the copious use of commas and the terrible writing style of course (which I freely admit is all my own).

Let me go back a step, and explain: as part of my research into my post-apoc fiction-writing, I’ve downloaded a lot of £1.99-or-less eBooks on Amazon.  I wanted to see what some of the competition is doing and, after my eyeballs had stopped bleeding, I realised there were some common problems among the glut of self-published books out there.  Not least was the frequent use of passive voice (see what I did there?).

So here’s that paragraph again with the dirty undergarments of the passive voice exposed for all the world to see (and hopefully vilify):

I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when there was a loud bang behind me.  I was terrified, and turned around like my heart was about to explode out of my chest.  And I realised it was a car back-firing, and then I felt like an idiot, and realised I was late for work, which was bad news, because today was an important day.

Passive voice drains the life out of our work like a screwdriver hammered into our fuel tank.  It takes away all the vroom in our storytelling engine, and the only get-up-and-go is our Dear Readers getting-up-and-going to another book on the virtual shelf.  And we don’t want that to happen do we?  Because we want that buck-ninety-nine dammit!

If we see passive voice in our writing, we need to ruthlessly weed it out like the yarn-destroying kudzu it is, and replace it with action:

I walked down the street, minding my own business, when I heard a loud bang behind me.  Terrified, I turned around, my heart about to explode, and  I saw a plume of exhaust from a back-fired car.  i felt like an idiot and started walking faster.  I didn’t want to be late for work, not today.

Not only does removing passive voice speed up the narrative, it forces us to put more action and context in our work (details like the plume of smoke; walking faster) and our hook (why doesn’t this person want to be late for work?  What’s so special about today?) practically writes itself.  I’ve written a purposefully awful example to hopefully illustrate that removing passive voice can unearth potential in even the most boring dung heap.

This brings us onto the second most common issue I’ve found in my reading research so far: editing.  Well, the dire lack of editing.  It’s as if some writers out there have never heard of the words “first draft”.  That first paragraph up there?  First draft.  The second paragraph?  Second draft.  We have some awesome ideas in our heads that we want to share with the world.  Why on earth would we word-vomit our first attempt into the public domain?  That’s just gross.  Far better to throw up our first draft in private, cry a little (okay, a lot) over the mess, then clean it up.  That’s called revision and editing.

If we’re going to take two quid off someone, let’s at least refrain from using a PVZ to munch on their brains.  And do our throwing up in private.

A couple of useful resources to understand passive voice (and other common writing mistakes) which I’ve found helpful:


‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers’