Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on WritersDigest.com, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.

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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.

How do Your Characters Love?

I recently started working on a story that is about two sisters, their dreams and ambitions that are both independent of each other and undeniably intertwined with each other. The sister relationship is a tricky one because it’s the only connection I know of where someone can both love and hate equally, simultaneously, and then defend the other with unwavering conviction. The complication in this relationship, as near as I can tell, comes down to how the characters love and how they feel loved.

As it is now 2017, I’m working on the assumption that most readers have at least heard of The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. This 1995 book explored the ways that people demonstrate love and the ways that people feel loved, and I think the ideas presented within are essential for authors writing any kind of love relationship.

While I acknowledge there may be more ways for people to love than those expressed in the work, the fundamental ideas remain the same: two people in a loving relationship of any kind are going to love differently, a diversity that may expand as that character is placed in position of expressing different kinds of love. I’ve got a few forms to consider.

characters love

1.    The Parent Relationship

I know some people who cannot think of their parents without a feeling of bitterness and betrayal. Others have an unwritten agreement of mutual politeness and still others will keep their parents apprised of the occurrences in their lives on a regular basis. There can be parents like the mother in His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman and parents like the Weasley’s in Harry Potter.

The question for your character is how does he feel about his parents, and, if applicable, step-parents or guardians? How do they demonstrate those feelings when in proximity of these people, and is it similar to or different from how they express their feelings of their parents?

This can also be something to consider in the situation that character is the parent, how they feel about their children, how they think their children feel about them.

2.    The Sibling Relationship

I had someone ask me one time how often I communicated now with my siblings. The short answer was, depends. I have a sister who I chat with often when things are frustrating because we have had many similar life experiences. I have a sister who is in a very different stage of life, so our communications tend to be about more broad topics because that’s where we can connect. A great depiction of the sibling relationship can be seen in the way that Jane and Elizabeth Bennet interact with each other in Pride and Prejudice, and the way that Marsha and Jan Brady perceive their relationship in The Brady Bunch. Both of these have times when a sister is frustrated; both have a time when a sister is supportive.

The question for your character is how does she feel about her siblings? If she’s an only child, how does she imagine it might have been to have someone to chat with? When something great happens for a sibling, does your character feel the draw to celebrate or perceive yet another mark on the sibling measuring stick which she will never be able to attain? What kind of an event would launch your siblings from the status of feuding to allied?

3.    The Friend Relationship

It took a long time for me to realize what it meant to have and be a good friend. I don’t think I’m alone in that, and, I’m ashamed to admit, many of my friendships were colored with popularity-colored glasses. I am also very happy to admit that I have come into the incredible fortune of having friends who are kind and supportive and encouraging. But just as with any friendship, there are going to be moments when someone is going to do something that annoys someone else. That’s the reality of life. The question is how does your character respond when they have been hurt by someone or when they discover they were the reason someone else felt as a less than? In The Lord of the Rings, we get to see the love that exists between Samwise and Frodo AND we get to see the frustration (acknowledging that some of this is impacted by magical things) that these two feel. The friendship between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo is also a good depiction of admiration and annoyance.

The question for your character is does he feel loved by the people who he associates with? How does he communicate with his friends? What would be considered the ultimate betrayal for these friends and what would be the thing, the only thing, that could heal that betrayal?

4.    The Love Relationship

Whether you have characters who are meeting or dating or engaged or married, there is a depth of courage and vulnerability that must be present within a relationship that is going to be built on love. I just celebrated my 18th wedding anniversary and I’m happy to tell anyone who cares that I love my husband WAY more than when we got married. I am also happy to tell them that we had quite a bit of negotiating (aka “heated discussions” aka “silent treatments” aka “a few good fights”) to figure out how to be open and honest with each other. The love that we get to see in Me Before You goes through these ebbs and flows, moments of anger and celebration. This is also the reason that I love watching Madam Secretary, because there is an exploration of what it means to be married and raising kids and working jobs and . . .

The question for you character is what does she want beyond the clichéd roses and chocolate? How does she demonstrate love for someone with depth and vulnerability? What is she willing to hide to get the person she wants to be with? What is it about her connection with this significant other that makes her willing to fight to stay together when there are so many reasons she could run?

The trickiest thing about writing about love between characters is the mandate that we, as the authors, explore how these kinds of love feel and look and sound. The fun part is observing others, the hard part is understanding our own tendencies and how they may work within our own stories.

What stories showcase one of your favorite forms of love? Can you think of a love relationship category that I didn’t consider?

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TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Writing with All Your Senses

A picture is worth a thousand words.

We’re all familiar with that idiom. As writers, our goal is to use way fewer than a thousand words to paint that perfect picture. We want those pictures to come alive for our readers.

But here’s the thing, if you only paint a pretty picture, you risk leaving your readers on the outside looking in when what you really want is to lure them in.

How do you lure them in? By using all 5 senses.

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Sight

I know, you’ve been holding tight to the “show, don’t tell” rule. And we’ve already established that writing is about drawing a visual picture. So yes, you’re still writing visual descriptions. But, make sure every word counts. Include only what strengthens the image and look for new ways to describe things.

  • Instead of white sand, sand like iridescent crushed pearls.
  • Curly hair can become corkscrew curls that a character has the sudden urge to tug and watch them bounce back.

Now put yourself in the scene. What can you show your reader that’s beyond the obvious?

  • The slight discoloration on the couch that reminds your character about where her brother spilled a soda the last time she saw him, right before he was killed in the car accident.
  • The seam in the wallpaper that’s a fraction off and is totally screwing with your character’s need for perfection.
  • The way a crease is pulled out of shirt when the character tightens his shoulder blades before turning and walking away. 

Sound

Think about the last movie or TV program you watched. It had a soundtrack, right? Characters were talking to each other, music during key scenes, the revving of a car engine, the ringing of a phone in the background. Obvious sounds.

When writing, you’re transforming those sounds into words. Your reader needs to hear what your characters are experiencing.

  • The raspy pain of a character’s cough.
  • The rev of a motor in the far distance.
  • The jangle of keys deep in someone’s pocket.

Then there’s the unexpected. Those are the details that will make your reader catch her/his breath and will linger in their minds long after they’re done reading.

  • The squeak-squelch of sneakers on a linoleum floor in the echoing quiet of a hospital wing.
  • The sound of a house settling when the air-conditioner turns off.
  • A character trapped in the slowest line at the grocery store and agitated at being late might notice the otherwise invisible sound of air bubbles snapping as the guy in line behind her chews his gum.

Taste

In real-life, you’re constantly tasting something so why aren’t your characters?

  • The cold, sweetness from the orange soda when the guy kisses your main character.
  • The melting heaven of a chocolate lava cake.
  • The sharp tang as the character licks an escaping drop of espresso from the side of the mug.

Don’t stop with the obvious.

  • A character who arrives at the beach will lick her lips and taste the salt from the ocean breeze.
  • A character who’s been running on a hot day might taste the grit of dirt.
  • Or maybe a character has just gone through a terrible breakup and is looking for a safe haven at her parent’s house. During the drive there she might taste the rice pudding her mom always made for her when she needed cheering up.

Touch

Okay fess up, do you touch a flower petal to see what it feels like? Or run your fingers along a brick wall? What about stroking the leather of a couch? If a friend has a new sweater, do you reach out to see if it’s soft?

Your characters will be doing the same. And the reader wants to feel through your characters.

  • The prickle as an ant crawls up your character’s arm.
  • The stab of pain when your character miss-judges the distance and stubs her toe into the side of the desk.
  • The comforting warmth of a blanket.

There are times, though, when it’s not as much what the character is touching but the act of the touch itself.

  • The way a character touches the tip of her finger to the heart-shaped pendant her husband gave her before he died.
  • A character tracing the name of a loved one on a headstone.
  • A character putting his hand on another’s upper arm in a “keep it under control” gesture.

Smell

Smell is an incredibly powerful sense. It’s probably the most nostalgic of the senses, which makes it the ideal tool for flashbacks.

  • Who hasn’t taken a deep inhale of freshly mowed grass and immediately been transported to a lazy summer day?
  • Or caught the whiff of a perfume and you’re suddenly remembering a best friend or family member who you haven’t seen in years?
  • What about the smell of a favorite food to transport you back to holidays when the family still got together?

It’s also a fabulous way to suck your reader into a scene.

  • Does the homeless guy smell like car exhaust from sitting on the median of the busy intersection all day? Does his body odor make your character’s nose curl?
  • What about the house your character just walked into? Is that lavender air freshener she smells? Did her long dead grandmother have lavender air freshener in her house?
  • Does the lip gloss a character uses obsessively smell like root beer? Maybe your main character hates root beer and can’t focus on what the other person is saying because she can only think about getting to the bathroom on time.

Take a few minutes as you’re sitting in your house or walking down the street or having dinner at a restaurant and really pay attention to what’s around you (without getting arrested, please).

Imagine writing using different senses. Instead of telling your reader that the character is uncomfortable sitting in the living room under the scrutiny of his date’s father, how could you write that using touch or smell?

Now go back to your manuscript and think about inviting your readers in, letting them enjoy the smells, sounds, tastes that your character experiences.

Do you use all the senses in your writing or do you have a go-to sense that you default to?

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orlyOrly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world where she spent roughly sixteen (cough) years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats. She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association , and an active member of Writers In The Storm blog and Tall Poppy Writers. She is represented by Marlene Stringer of Stringer Literary. Her debut women’s fiction, The Distance Home, will be released from Forge in May 2017. You can find her online at www.orlykoniglopez.com or on GoodreadsTwitterFacebook, and Pinterest

Tackling Tough Topics

A writer’s job is to capture what it means to be human. We struggle to make sense of life’s challenges. We explore our own failings and strengths. And we search for meaning through the glorious lens of story.

The human experience is complex—and often painful. But even the most difficult subjects must be given a voice. We, as writers, must determine what stories we’re meant to tell. What stories we’re ready to tell at different moments in our lives.

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The death of a parent, for example, is not a topic I ever expected to write about. Children’s literature is full of orphaned children, so I vowed that I would go out of my way to avoid this common trope. When I first started working on Mothman’s Curse, I tried for weeks to write both parents into the story. But no matter what I did, the mother’s character would not take shape on the page.

So I wrote her out. In her place, I added a supportive aunt and uncle. Suddenly the narrative came alive for me. I had recently lost my own mother, so I was able to draw on those experiences to enrich the characters’ actions, decisions, and emotions. The main character, Josie, gained new purpose and meaning in her own story. She had to face what it meant to be the oldest child, trying to keep her family safe and together without the presence of her mom.

A sensitive topic alone does not a story make. Readers sense when an author is attempting to teach a lesson or manipulate emotion. The best stories stand on their own, painstakingly plotted, lovingly crafted, populated with characters who are flawed but always worth rooting for.

It’s not always easy to make our characters suffer. They become alive in our imaginations, and their struggles can hit too close to home. But there is no growth without struggle, no redemption without failure.

The Shawshank Redemption is a favorite movie in our house. Such a powerful story! Even though we watch the edited version on TV, it’s still a brutal, visceral experience for me to witness the main character, Andy, as he is wrongfully imprisoned, suffering indignity and injustice for so many years. Yet he never loses his identity or his sense of hope, and his eventual freedom is all the more satisfying when finally earned.

Because I write for children—middle grade, specifically—there are certain subjects I will likely never tackle. But kids are not immune from pain, sadness, and injustice. Far from it. Books provide an accessible way for them to work through life’s toughest problems without fear of judgment. Books serve as refuge, escape, comfort, and companion. They are a source of light and truth.

Writers don’t have all the answers. Of course we don’t. We’re all trying to find our place in a confusing, complicated world. Still, we can show readers young and old that we all experience heartache and disappointment, but also love and joy.

To echo Elaine’s beautiful sentiment from Saturday’s post: We can remind each other that we are not alone.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Why It Helps Me to Write on the Dark Side

A writer friend of mine once shared with me why she wrote the type of stories that she wrote. She first began writing while she was on extended bed rest due to a difficult pregnancy, both factors of which combined to make her severely depressed. The story that she wrote was funny and uplifting with a happily-ever-after ending because it was exactly what she needed to cheer herself up, and that’s the type of story she’s written ever since.

Every writer’s story is different (pun intended), and maybe you don’t have one specific life event that spurred you on to write the stories that you do. But I’m a firm believer that the best writers write from their hearts, and it’s useful to think about your motivation to writing what you write. Why? Because this will affect your characters’ emotions and motivations as well.

I’d like to think that my stories have uplifting messages. There is hope if my characters look for it, but my stories also always incorporate dark elements. For instance, I always have romance as a key element of the story, and while one main character is bright, the love interest is always damaged because of something dark that happened in his/her past. Even my brightest characters have something dark within their backstories. After polling some of my writer friends, I discovered that I’m not alone. Cumulatively, our characters and stories have dealt with issues such as mental illnesses, alcoholism, sexual assault, drug abuse, domestic violence, anorexia, gambling, manslaughter, child abuse, bullying, and so on.

I love writing dark stories. I don’t think I could ever pull off anything different.

Channeling darker experiences helps me connect with the emotions that my characters need when faced with similar challenges. Even if the exact experiences aren’t identical, it could still elicit the same emotions and motivations in your character. Being taunted by bullies in high school made me wish I was invisible and led me to be extremely introverted and self-reliant. I share these qualities with one of my characters who is misunderstood because of her paranormal abilities. 

Writing about darker experiences helps me understand and put them in their proper place, a place that allows me to cope with these things in real life. Conducting research on drug abuse and alcoholism for my characters helps me understand the people I love that are struggling with drug addiction and alcoholism. Helping one of my characters work through her experience with sexual assault was the only thing that helped me, fifteen years later, put my own demons to rest and allow me to find peace and forgiveness.
I write romance because I remain a hopeless (or is it hopeful?) romantic. I believe in the happily ever afters, and accordingly all of my stories have HEAs. Perhaps most of all, having that bit of darkness in my stories gives me the power to turn things around, to write for my characters those happy endings and outcomes, even when the ones from real life were not.

What about you? Why do you write what you write? 

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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both YA urban fantasy and NA contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. You can find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.

Writing with Emotional Resonance

A few weeks ago I read a BBC article with the headline, “The Grannies Who Had Never Seen the Sea.” It was about several elderly women from a village in the Italian Alps who crowd-funded a trip to see the ocean for the first time.

A photo posted with the article has stayed with me: three of the women in matching bathing suits, holding hands, wading out into the shimmering blue water. You can’t see their faces, but it’s easy to imagine what they must have been feeling. Wonder. Apprehension. Anticipation.

Joy.

This, I remember thinking. This is the goal. 

Whether we’re writing about war or first love or a zombie apocalypse, I believe our job as writers is to infuse our words with that depth of humanity, that sense of shared connection.

But how? I’m the first to admit that I often get lost in my own head and forget to notice what’s happening around me. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of the people I encounter every day–even if it’s the driver in the car beside me at a red light or a shopper ahead of me in line at the grocery store.

Listen, observe, explore. Pay attention. Take notes. Eavesdrop. Pay someone a compliment. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Make an effort to envision what worries and dreams and disappointments that stranger might be facing. We all feel love and loss, hope, sorrow, fear. We all experience certain universal truths that are part of being human. Shaping our stories around those truths creates a vital connection with our readers.

Conversely, I believe it’s just as important to have moments of stillness, of solitude, where we can breathe deep and reflect, exploring our own essential truths. This form of meditation works especially well for me if I’m in a forest, on the beach, in the mountains—pretty much anywhere outdoors. Maybe your best thinking spot is at the gym, or in the shower. When we take the time to identify what we value, what stories we most want to tell, we breathe new life into our writing and build a more authentic, more relatable world.

What do your characters want, and why? What would they endure or sacrifice to get it? Believable, three-dimensional characters bridge the gap between fiction and reality, creating books that readers will want to revisit again and again.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Wicked Writing Prompts for Your Characters

Today I’m sharing with you some writing prompts that you might find useful for character development. You want your readers to feel for your characters, root for them when appropriate, get angry with them when they make bad decisions, cry (or possibly cheer) if one of them dies. In other words, you want your readers to experience emotions because of your characters, and you will get the best emotional responses if your characters are real.

Here are some writing prompts to help with character development. Maybe your characters will actually experience these things in your story, or maybe these prompts will be under the surface of the iceberg and serve as a tool to let you know your characters better. I call them “wicked writing prompts” because they require that you be a little wicked to your characters. Plus, it’s Halloween today (my favorite holiday)!

1. Fear Prompt: 

What is your character most afraid of?

Imagine your character in that exact situation where he has to face that fear and have him react to this with both action and emotion.

2. Backstory Prompt:

What event in your character’s past is she most ashamed of?

Make your character briefly recount one specific event from her backstory. Have your character “emote” or go through a train of thought and emotion in which she thinks about that event in retrospect.

3. Failure Prompt:

What is the biggest thing your character is trying to accomplish in your story?

Be utterly wicked and imagine him failing. Have him respond to that failure with action and emotion.

(Incidentally, this last prompt can come in very handy when you’re writing what is often described as a character’s “All is Lost” moment. I love this description/treatment of this topic in this post from the Scribe Meets World site. It’s written from a screenwriter’s perspective but it’s applicable to fiction writing in general.)

How else can you be wicked to your characters for the sake of story or character development? Share your ideas below!

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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read all of the books on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. Originally from upstate New York, Helen spent much of her early adult life tromping around in Buffalo, NYC, Toronto, and Las Vegas, those cities now serving as inspiration for the dark and gritty backdrops of her stories. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH.