Letting Your Character Tell the Story

There is a scene in my manuscript where two of the main character’s friends have a disagreement and the main character is understandably upset by this rift between her friends. When I was writing the first draft of the scene, I tried to show how upset the main character was by describing how she was feeling. I tried to make it powerful and poignant—I even included a metaphor!

And it did not work at all.

In fact, after writing the scene, I left myself a note that went something like this: “Ugh! Too melodramatic! Fix this!!”

(Yes, even my editing notes were too melodramatic. It was bad.)

I knew there was a problem with the scene, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Really, I didn’t even know what the problem was, just that there was one. I couldn’t identify what, though. After all, I was trying to show, not tell. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But the scene just wasn’t working.

Sometime later, my brother and I had a conversation about journal writing. He mentioned something by Arthur Henry King that stuck with me.

King said:

Abstract statements about our feelings are boring and don’t really communicate. But a plain account may communicate a great deal. If we write down faithfully what happens to us, our feelings will come through, and they will be felt indirectly and therefore truly. So rather than say how we felt on our marriage day, we should try to describe what happened to us on that marriage day. Our feelings will come through much better than if we just say how we felt.”

Huh. That was different. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made.

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What I was doing in that scene was trying to convey how my character was feeling through those kind of abstract statements King was talking about, and they didn’t work. Although I was trying to show how she felt, in actuality, I was trying to convince readers of it by telling them how she felt. Oh, sure, I was in her head and telling things from her perspective, but it was still telling. There are times when a story needs telling, I’ve learned, but this was not one of them.

As I revised, I tried to keep King’s statement in mind. Rather than trying to show how she was feeling through physical sensations (like stomach churning and fists clenching) or her descriptions of her emotions, I tried to stick with what actually happened in the scene from her perspective.

It works so much better. When I kept the story focused on what was happening in the scene as she would see and interpret it, the scene started coming together. It turned out that I didn’t need to think of a new, creative way to describe being upset. I didn’t even need the metaphor. What I really needed was to let my main character tell what happened in her own words.

What tips do you have for writing scenes with strong emotions? Do you have any favorite books that you feel deal with emotion well?

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20180131_162833 (4)Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Pain

We all go through it either psychologically, emotionally, or physically. A lot of times it can end up being all three. No one shares their agony exactly in the same way as another because of our different personalities, upbringing, experiences, and perspectives. But, we all deal with pain. None of us are free from it.

As you’re writing, your character or characters will always have something in one of these areas that they’re striving to get through. Trying to understand and process. They may be searching out who they are, and maybe because of their upbringing, or culture, this search causes them a great deal of affliction, going outside the grain of figuring those pieces out. Maybe the loss of someone they love has greatly affected their worth, will, drive, or purpose for existence. Or physically, an illness they feel is so intense that even getting up to take a shower is too much to handle. Each area can weaken your characters spirit and heart.

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Readers want to keep reading because pain is a universal thing, even if they don’t completely relate to what that character’s dealing with. They want to root for them. The readers feel the agony and have empathy on how much this space hurts the characters deeply and they want to be there to push them forward.

The hero’s journey for our characters is constant movement within that anguish. Getting to the next step which can be more intense, scary, hard, and worse before it gets better. Our character will want to leave, but they’ll have to make the hard choice to face it and keep going through the storm. By doing so . . . some answers, lessons, and moments will define them.

Here’s a few examples from some of my favorite books. There’s no spoilers on endings!

The character Hazel Grace Lancaster, from Fault in Our Stars, is a seventeen-year-old who has thyroid cancer. It’s started to spread into her lungs, so to breathe properly, she uses a portable oxygen tank. Hazel feels suffering day in and day out. She wants to be understood. To appease her mother, she decides to attend a cancer patients’ support group and meets a teenage boy named Augustus Waters. They begin to build a friendship and she finds out he had osteosarcoma, but had his leg amputated and is cancer free. With their friendship they’re able to help each other with the struggles they both face.

In Shutter Island, Teddy Daniels, is devastated by the loss of his wife which took place in a fire. The grief he feels messes with him both emotionally and psychologically, sending him spirally to look for answers about his wife’s death and his own sanity. He wants truth and answers. The story makes you question the depth of this man’s sorrow and wonder where his heads at, but you’re rooting for him to figure it out.

In Wonder, August Pullman, also known as Auggie has “mandibulofacial dysostosis” a rare facial deformity. Surgery is not uncommon for him as he’s had (27) of them. Auggie’s been homeschooled by his mom for eleven years, so when he’s enrolled to go to 5th grade, in a public school, pain and fear of being different sets in. He wants to be accepted and liked. Auggie goes to school anyways and faces the unknown each day.

What hardship is your character dealing with?

Is it physical, mental, or emotional? All of them?

What would your character/characters have to do to face that pain? The next step forward?

What is one thing that your character really wants and is in search for?

  • Hazel wants to be understood/friendship.
  • Teddy wants truth and answers.
  • Auggie wants to be accepted and liked as he is.

For fun and research go through some of your favorite movies and establish what the characters ultimate affliction and want/need (goal) is. Or, even think about your own life story, a friend’s, or a family member. How has their pain/ struggle made them tick? React? How have they handled it?

Now, go write that novel. Bring all the raw emotion in so the reader is sucked into feeling it all right along with your character.

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Lauri Schoenfeld’s first love is her little clan of three silly kidlets and her wonderful hubby, Andy. Writing is a close second. She began writing poems at the age of nine, and her love for literature and music developed into composing thirty songs.  In 2014 her short story, Christmas Treasure, was featured in an anthology called, Angels from their Realms of Story.  Her favorite genre to write is anything dark, psychological, and suspenseful, but she enjoys expanding her horizons and dipping her feet in other genres as well.  Lauri teaches summer writing classes for kids and mentors teens throughout the year. She’s a Child Abuse and Scoliosis Survivor. Lauri runs a group for teen girls with Scoliosis called, The S Squad. Their motto is Strength, Support and Self Confidence.  She’s been known to dance around the house with a spoon as her microphone and sneak toppings from the ice cream bar. Lauri’s taken online classes at the Institute of Children’s Literature and was the President of the League of Utah Writers, Oquirrh Chapter for two years.  She’s a member of Crime Writers and International Thriller Writers.

Saving the Best for Last

I am currently working on a revision of a novel. It’s a fairly humorous piece and someone pointed out to me recently that humor works best when the punch is saved for the end.

I wasn’t completely convinced, but I thought I should at least give it a try. As I worked on it, I started noticing this technique in books and movies. Once I started looking for it, it cropped up all over the place.

Humor (or really any kind of emphasis) works best when you save the punch for the end.

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For example, in Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, the first two paragraphs read like this:

Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show—it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it.

By putting “Cimorene hated it” at the end, that line gets the emphasis. It gives the whole thing a humorous tone. But imagine if Wrede had switched things and written something like:

Cimorene hated where she lived. Linderwall was a large kingdom…All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

That doesn’t work nearly as well. It doesn’t have nearly the same effect as the actual beginning of the book. Plus, in this version, the emphasis would be placed on Linderwall rather than on Cimorene. The main character gets lost.

In the book Space Case, Stuart Gibbs uses that technique with individual sentences:

Living in Moon Base Alpha is like living in a giant tin can built by government contractors.

That sentence is a lot more amusing than if Gibbs had reversed it and written something like:

If government contractors had built a giant tin can it would be like living in Moon Base Alpha.

Or a few paragraphs later, while talking about the moon-base toilets:

In zero gravity, you have to take extreme precautions to ensure that that whatever comes out of your body doesn’t fly up into your face.

Ew, yes. But also funny. By placing the punch at the end, Gibbs amps up the humor instead of letting the funniness get lost in the sentence.

While I’m not an expert at this, something simple like rearranging sentences to shift the emphasis has really helped me achieve the affect I want in my scenes. Even when I’m writing about something like traveling facial hair.

What tips do you have for writing humor? What are some of your favorite humorous books?

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20180131_162833 (4)Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Time for Tension

The concept of time is often used as a source of major tension in stories. We see this especially in suspense or action stories, where the clock on the bomb is ticking, or the first step of the heist has to be completed in time for the second step, etc.  Even in genres like romance, there’s often some kind of deadline used to raise the stakes—the vacation she’s on will end, he’s been away too long and worries she won’t remember him, and so on.

Time is also a great source of microtensions. Who hasn’t been frustrated by a long wait in a doctor’s office, or a traffic jam? When our sense of timing is thrown off, it can throw off our entire day and make any other pressures seem greater.

Not everyone views time the same way, however—our views on it are often very based in our culture—and there are endless opportunities for writers to use this to their advantage. So, let’s talk about some of the main ways people view time and how they can be played against each other for tension in our story.

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Linear/Clock Time

Most of the U.S. and many Western European cultures perceive time as linear. This means we see the past as done, the present as slipping away from us and needing to be wrung for all it’s worth, and the future as something to be planned and scheduled and worried about so we don’t miss out on its possibilities.

These cultures tend to be fast-paced, and they place a lot of emphasis on deadlines, start and end times, and see time as a valuable commodity—people worry about how much they are “worth per hour,” and use phrases like, “I’m out of time,” “I just don’t have time,” and “time is money.”

Another term for this mindset is “clock time,” because the exact time that things start and end is important, as well as how long it takes. This viewpoint is often favored by countries that value individualism and short-term productivity with very measurable results. They see punctuality as a necessary sign of respect.

Multi-active/Event Time

Many Latin, African, and southern European countries view time as multi-active, and feel most fulfilled when they are focused on many things at once, not just the one thing set on their calendar or agenda, and these multi-purposes are tied to events and people rather than times on a clock.

In places running on event time, things start when everyone who is supposed to be there arrives. Start times are given as general guidelines, but it is expected that life is unpredictable and not everyone will arrive at the same time.

Another aspect of event time is that people from these cultures are generally more concerned with relationships than events or deadlines, and more focused on what is immediately before them than something happening later that day. So, if something comes up with a family member or friend in the morning, they are likely to push back other plans and show up at work later/miss appointment times, and often not see this as a problem, because their personal priorities were met. They are extremely unlikely to cut a conversation short because they “are out of time,” and would likely consider it quite rude if someone did that to them.

Cyclical Time

In many Asian countries, they believe that events and opportunities often cycle back around, so taking time to deliberate and focusing on people and relationships is a better strategy than trying to hit arbitrary deadlines that can just be reset anyway. Where someone from the U.S. or U.K. might want to have a quick meeting and get back to work, often times their Asian counterparts will want more time to discuss, consider, and evaluate the relationship before committing to anything, and if they feel rushed, they might not want to collaborate.

People and cultures with a cyclical viewpoint on time are also often more concerned with long-term outcomes, and so the time they take to deliberate and set things up feels entirely justified, whereas in the U.S. people are focused on quick results—backers of projects want to see a quick return on their investments, etc.

Using these views of time to add tension in stories

As writers, figuring out our characters’ subconscious views on time can help us see how they either fit or don’t fit within their society’s norms and the people they interact with. If our main girl is chronically late but lives in or visits Switzerland, for example (the prime example of strict “clock time”), there will be a lot of conflict with people around her, and depending on how conscious she is of it, she may feel either that she’s always letting people down, or that people are always mad at her for no reason.

Say we have a character who is used to a society run on clock time. People come when they say they will come and plan in advance for things like extra traffic, etc. But this man gets teamed up on a group project with someone who runs on event time. This teammate is frequently late (according to the clock time-oriented man), and often on his phone taking care of family or friend matters during work hours. How would they learn to work together? How would they get the project done? What might they learn from each other in the process?

Using a personal example, I currently live in the South. My husband frequently complains that people here “live life at the speed of mosey.” Though our country is overall run by clock time, in the South, things do tend to swing toward event time. This leads to things like an A/C repairman who says he’ll be there “by 10:00 a.m.” showing up at 3:00 p.m…. the following day. Or week. If your character is counting on a repair, a delivery, or anything else that is time sensitive, this could add a lot of tension.

Not everyone who lives here in the South, though, was raised with the same perspective on time, and some give different weight to different events—for example, there are some who are always on time for church or business events, but may be very relaxed for social events, because they view their relationship with the person they’re meeting as strong enough to handle whatever came up to make them late.

Understanding our characters’ subconscious views on time can help us know how they make decisions, how they pursue goals, how they organize their days, and how they respond to various kinds of interruptions. It can help us make our characters stand out from each other, and help us understand and write about different cultures more accurately.

If you’d like to read more about the fascinating ways that people view time, including the Malagasy people in Madagascar who view time as flowing forward through the back of their head, so that the past is always before them while the future is an unseeable thing behind them, check out these articles:

http://www.businessinsider.com/how-different-cultures-understand-time-2014-5

https://hbr.org/2016/05/different-cultures-see-deadlines-differently

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Shannon Cooley is a creative–writing is one of her longest-running endeavors, but she is also a ballroom dance instructor, piano teacher, and runs a handcrafted artisan jewelry business with her husband. In her free time she crochets and knits, because she can’t seem to stop this whole creating thing. She has three children (who she created), who are surrounded by jargon and so refer to their stuffed animals as “characters” and their tasks as “projects.”  Shannon writes primarily Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman agency.

Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.

“Silencers”

You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.

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Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Moral Planes: Separating Writers from Characters

We are please to welcome our newest contributor, David Powers King!

Character creation is a very enjoyable part of the writing process, not to mention one of the trickier aspects when it comes to honing their voice. Sometimes we are caught up in the trap of having everyone sound the same in spite of outlining a variety of differing character traits. This was the topic of discussion I was invited to speak on in a panel recently. Many great answers and perspectives were shared. Then I received an email from one of the conference attendees thanking me for being in the panel and for something I had said that seemed to resonate with her—this I will share with you now.

Don’t be afraid to allow your characters to have a different moral plane than your own.

What do I mean by that? The short answer is an invitation for writers to explore all realms of thought and behavior that is capable in the human perspective. Authors have the immensely fun job of exploring the greatest and worst aspects of humanity, all without having to actually go there. This is true for the main character in one of my recent short stories published in Fall Dark: An Anthology. As an everyday person, I’m not generally inclined to swear, drink alcohol, or think ill of others. But the main character does. Perhaps, for this reason, he’s likely one of the more interesting characters I’ve ever written. His strength comes from his flaws, not by carrying common traits associated with everyday protagonists. Doing so can lead to stale situations with your characters, or have too little conflict in your story.

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It’s not enough to reserve what is perceived as immoral behavior for those characters we are meant to dislike—those villains and knaves, bullies and jerks. Yes, supporting or main characters can have “moral issues” too. Like those things you’d never think of doing. There’s been a lot of great work published by authors who have actually experienced or worked with individuals who have experienced the dark and hard themes presented in their works. Does one need to go there in pursuit of a great story? Seeking trouble may not be recommended, but we live in an incredible age where personal accounts of all kinds of moral dilemmas—perpetrator and victim alike—are online for those with a reliable search engine.

There’s no checklist or standard for making the ideal character (or if there was one, it would be subjective at best), but it is a valuable skill to separate the writer from the character. Allow them to think and desire beyond what you may consider safe. Let go of the idea that your main character is an extension of yourself. She would fair better going beyond yourself.

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DavidPowersKing.jpgDavid Powers King was born in beautiful downtown Burbank, California where his love for film inspired him to be a writer. An avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, David also has a soft spot for zombies and the paranormal. David’s works include Woven, The Undead Road, and Full Dark: An Anthology. He now lives in the mountain West with his wife and four children.

10 Suggestions for Writing Transitions

I have a transition in my current work-in-progress that has been giving me headaches for a while now. It shouldn’t be so difficult—I’m just moving the main character from one scene location to another—but every time I try to revise it, I still get that niggling “this isn’t working” feeling.

And, okay, I’ve had readers point it out, too, so I know it’s not just me. But what to do about it?

Recently, I’ve been reading Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost. It’s an older craft book (the original copyright was in 1990), but it’s proving to be one of the most helpful I’ve read when it comes to crafting on a sentence level. Plus, the prose is engaging and very readable, which is surprisingly rare in writing craft books.

Lucky for me, Provost has an entire section about transitions in his chapter on pacing.

Provost gives three different types of transitions:

  1. Transitions of Time
  2. Transitions of Place
  3. Transitions of Subject

Regardless of what type of transitions you’re dealing with, all good transitions will “make a connection between what the reader has just read and what he is about to read, by implying the relationship between those two bodies of information” (Provost 89).

In other words, a transition can’t be abrupt and confuse the reader. Readers hate being confused.

Provost also gives ten suggestions for transitions:

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1. Don’t Use Long Transitions

Sometimes if days, weeks, months or even millennia pass, writers feel like they need to fill in that gap and explain what happened during that time. If nothing happened during that time that’s directly related to your story, readers don’t need it. If your character is just going about life as usual and nothing happens at his office job that will affect the plot, readers don’t need it. Keep transitions short.

Remember: “A story is not everything that happened. It’s every important thing that happened” (Provost 91).

2. Don’t Write a Scene When a Transition Will Do

This goes along with the previous suggestion. Sometimes we are so worried about telling everything that happened, that we will write entire scenes that are unnecessary. I know I’ve done this before. If nothing really happens in a scene and nothing changes in the story, consider cutting the scene and using a simple transition instead. Often, that will help with pacing issues.

3. Don’t Explain When You Don’t Have To

If your character is doing something that your reader already understands, like driving a car, for example, you don’t need to explain your character going through the motions of it. Simply acknowledging that they drove from one place to another is all that readers need.

4. Don’t Acknowledge When You Should Explain

However, if your character is doing something uncommon, something that the readers wouldn’t necessarily know how to do, like escaping from a dire situation, you can’t simply say that they escaped. Readers will feel cheated.

5. Do Not Use Transitions to Conceal Information

If something big happened during a transition, like a woman going into labor as she drove across town, you can’t simply say that she drove across town and then surprise readers when the baby shows up. Readers assume that you’re telling them all they need to know and the woman driving across town was not all they needed to know about that trip.

6. Don’t Write Transitions That Distract the Reader

According to Provost, “In general, your writing improves as your words become more specific. If you can make your character trot, dash, or lope, the writing will be more effective than if she simply “runs.”…However, in writing transitions your goal is somewhat different. You don’t want to attract attention.” He goes on to use the example of having a woman cross the street. “If…you write “Diana dashed across the street to Penelope’s” you will distract your reader with the vivid picture of Diana dashing and you will also occupy him with the question, “Why is Diana dashing?”” (Provost 94).

Keeping it simple is much better when writing a transition.

7. Point to the Transition

If the transition will be coming later in the story, like the main character travels to Europe, the readers need to be warned ahead of time that this trip is coming or it will throw readers out of the story.

8. Use Key Words

This goes along with pointing to the transitions. Provost uses the example of a wrap-up party after filming a movie. By using the key word “wrap-up” when the actor is invited to a party that evening, readers are automatically oriented when the wrap-up party starts even if several other events have happened during the day before he actually reaches the party.

9. Use Bridge Words

We do this all the time in conversation with phrases like, “This reminds me of…” or “Speaking of…” These are the “similar words and phrases” that we use “to imply a connection” when we make a transition (Provost 97). Find some way to make a bridge between the time, place, or subject in your story.

10. Make Transitions Seem Logical

This usually isn’t a problem in fiction since “your scenes emerge from something that happened in a previous scene” (Provost 97), but it’s definitely something to think about, especially if you’re working on a non-fiction piece.

I don’t know if I’m the only one who struggles sometimes to find the right transition in a piece, but these suggestions have helped me think through the specific issues I’ve been having. Hopefully now I can come up with a better transition for my story.

Happy Writing!

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.