Lyrical Writing vs. Purple Prose

I have always been a line-level writer. I live for poetic prose, for dazzling descriptions, for the sentences that make you feel like you’re sipping something delightful as you read. I love writing that makes you see the world differently, that pulls you so deeply into its narrative that you can’t seem to leave that fictional world once you’re done. I love authors like Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater, who have such a deft touch with phrasing that their books are not only engaging, they are positively delicious.

Recently I got into a discussion with some friends on Twitter about how to find the line between pretty prose and purple prose. Purple prose, in case you haven’t heard the phrase before, is—according to its Wikipedia entry—”text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.” So how, exactly, do you know when you’re writing something that would be classed as literary or lyrical, and when you’re veering into purple prose?

 

1. Lyrical prose uses a light touch.

If you’re trying to write lyrically, it’s important to realize one thing: quality over quantity. True lyricism is a mix of plainer, more serviceable lines with lines that stand out and sing. If each line of your book is filled with metaphors, descriptions, and ten-dollar words, your story will quickly sink under its own weight.

Last month I read and loved Sandhya Menon’s bestselling young adult debut, When Dimple Met Rishi. One of my favorite lines from the book was this: “His eyes reminded her of old apothecary bottles, deep brown, when the sunlight hit them and turned them almost amber.” Can’t you just feel that description? Yet Menon’s followup is much simpler: “Dimple loved vintage things. She followed a bunch of vintage photography accounts on Instagram, and old apothecary bottles were a favorite subject.”

Notice how that first line is deeply poetic, verging on the fanciful; it uses description, an unusual metaphor, the striking image of sunlight through brown glass. But immediately, Menon grounds us back in the real world, with short sentences that give us the information without any adornment. If those lines had been as long and vivid as the first one, it would have taken so much longer for us to get to the actual crux of the scene—which would have brought us perilously close to purple prose, because…

2. Purple prose takes us out of a story.

The goal of truly great writing is to make the reader forget that they’re reading a book. As authors, we want our readers to be fully present inside our stories, to be so immersed in our characters’ worlds that we’ll feel disoriented when the book ends. Vivid, lyrical writing is a fantastic tool in our arsenal when we’re doing this—but if we overdo that vivid writing, it has the opposite effect, yanking us right back into the real world. Have you ever been reading a book and then found yourself stopping and thinking something like Good grief, I didn’t need to know that much about her dress or What does that scene even have to do with anything? Chances are, what you were reading could fall under the umbrella of purple prose.

I’m a highly descriptive writer, but I’m also a firm believer that description should be part of the lifeblood of your novel, not something that you intentionally break from your story to spend time on. Each time you use a descriptive passage, ask yourself: What is this accomplishing? Good description does more than just telling us what a person, place, or thing looks like. Good description heightens the book’s atmosphere, or gives us insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings, or even hints at character backstory. There are a lot of things that never really need to be described in a book—character clothing rarely matters, the precise layout of a house isn’t usually important, even what a character looks like can be mostly left up to the imagination. Vivid description, like poetic prose, is best used like salt: A sprinkle here or there to bring the flavor out on food, but not enough to overwhelm. Our readers shouldn’t spend more time noticing our descriptions than they do living in our novels.

3. Prose turns purple when you set out to impress.

Look, we’re all writers, right? And as such, it’s likely that we’ve spent a fair bit of our lives reading, building extensive vocabularies, and taking classes that have taught us all manner of cool literary devices. And let’s be honest: Sometimes it can be tempting to show all that off. But when we write with the intent to impress—even sometimes if we write with the intent to innovate—we often end up producing things that no person in their right mind would want to read. For an extreme, but still relevant, example, I turned to a source of unending purple prose… stuff I wrote as a teenage girl. Back then, my best friend and I played frequent letter-writing games, the first of which was a story between two Regency girls who wrote letters that were, well, about what you’d expect from two fourteen-year-olds trying to write in a Regency style.

Here’s a gem from one of those letters: “Our dear windowseat, I feel, will be such a place of endearment that when it comes time for us to spread our wings, we will shed many a tear over the parting of it and ourselves.”

Ridiculous, right? I mean, what I was angling for there could’ve been substituted with a simple “we really like this window seat, we’ll miss it when we get old.” But while I’m grateful to think that most mature writers won’t fall prey to quite such flights of fanciful language, the things in this sentence that make it ridiculous are sins of which seasoned writers can be just as guilty. When we replace words, drag our sentences out mostly for the sake of having longer sentences, or try to write in a way that neither feels nor sounds natural to our own writer voice, we fall victim to the dreaded purpling of our prose.

4. Prose can also become too purple if our authorial voice dominates our character voice.

Last week I got some editorial feedback from my marvelous agent on my latest book. One of the things that she mentioned was that she felt there were a few times where my writer voice leaked in to my character’s voice a bit too much—the book is about an eleven-year-old who can be described as lower middle class as best, and who isn’t shown to have a particular gift with words, but I have occasional moments like the one where she describes a fellow student’s hat as “unfathomable, in this kind of heat.” Though I totally hadn’t noticed it before my agent pointed it out, that is much more the kind of thing that I, not my protagonist, would say. When we allow our own vocabulary and aesthetic to interject when they’re not consistent with our character’s attributes or worldview, our attempts at lyricism fall flat and pull the reader right out of the story.

There is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to avoiding purple prose, and some of it simply comes down to taste. Some readers and writers prefer stories that are told simply, with clean, spare writing that avoids fancy devices. To these readers and writers, anything that ventures into the realm of the poetic is going to feel over-the-top. More than once, I’ve heard somebody criticize a book that I loved by saying it was guilty of purple prose.

Still, for those of us for whom vivid language and careful wordsmithing is just as important as crafting a strong plot, it’s worth giving the matter some thought! A few resources I found helpful as I prepared for this blog post:

Purple prose definition on Wikipedia

http://thewritepractice.com/purple-prose/

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

From Passenger to Pilot

As I draft this post, I’m sitting in an Airbus A320 from KDTW to KDEN at flight level 370. I don’t know this because I have a great deal of aeronautical knowledge or because I was even particularly paying attention to the pre-flight speech; I know this because my aviation-obsessed son did a little research before I left.

Jack spends his time watching instructional videos and studying navigation charts. The reward for getting his work done is ten minutes of YouTube aviation channels. It is a powerful motivator. My son is passionate about flight to the point that it’s not enough to fly on an airplane, to be the passenger. He has to become a pilot.

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I think this is not unlike the reason we write. We love story to the point that it is not enough to be along for the ride. We need to be the one charting the course, the one taking others on the journey. But in order to do so successfully—in order to make the jump from passenger to pilot—there’s a tremendous amount of work that must take place. Skills to be acquired. Forces of physics and nature and mechanics to understand. We must learn how to chart the course, how to navigate it safely, and how to listen to the essential voices from the ground that are guiding us in the right direction.

Writing is an art, certainly, but I think all art requires this study and work, unglamorous though it may be. I remember coming to an elementary school arts night and being amazed at the quality and technique of the self-portraits the kindergarteners drew. Just as I was marveling at how many of the kids I could actually recognize from their portraits, I was shocked to hear a parent complaining that art should be free expression and that all the portraits looked the same. Yes, all the portraits looked similar in that they all looked remarkably like human faces. Drawn by kindergarteners! Of course art is expression, but we must first acquire the tools and skills with which to express ourselves. As a friend in theater education says, “If we want kids to think outside the box, they first have to understand the box.” Certainly this is true at any age.

And so it is with our writing. We can take our stories to new heights and undiscovered places—but we must do so with an understanding of the principles and potential dangers, of the layout of the land and the craft that’s taking us there. We keep our skills sharp by attending a conference, taking a class, reading a new book on writing or creativity. Only then can we have the soaring sensation and the breathtaking beauty we first fell in love with, and only then can we share those things with our readers as well.

What will you do this summer to become a better pilot?


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

Being Slush Pile Reader & A Writer

Whenever people find out that I’m a slush pile reader, they usually have one of two reactions. The first is “I would love to get paid to read books all day” while sighing wistfully. What those people really mean is “I would love to get paid to read good books all day,” which would be nice, if that’s what I did. The truth is that most of what I read is stuff I wouldn’t read under normal circumstances, and much of it isn’t very good. There’s a reason we call it “the Slush Pile,” and not “the Super Happy Terrific Pile of Wonder and Goodness.”

It’s the second reaction I get from people that I want to talk about, because it usually involves a healthy mixture of distrust, anger, and abject horror. Their smile suddenly becomes much more forced, their eyes a bit more steely, and there is an edge to their voice as they say, “Oh, that’s . . . nice,” which translates roughly to “Oh, so YOU’RE the one who rejected my manuscript and dashed my dreams forever. Hope you sleep comfortably at night, you monster!” I might as well have admitted that I like to kick puppies in my spare time. These people have met the enemy, and he is me.

I understand where this reaction comes from. In the writing world, there are two distinct camps, the writers and the publishers, and never the twain shall meet. The writers toil daily in the salt mines of storytelling, laboring to appease their individual muses with appropriate sacrifices of time, energy, and tears in exchange for the least bits of inspiration. They attend classes and conferences at their own expense to improve their craft and hone their skills. They wake up early to squeeze in a few more words before the kids wake up, and then stay up late to review and revise. They endure the slings and arrows of tough-love criticism from their writing partners and groups, and make wholesale perspective changes from third to first person because it’s what the story wants. It’s about magic and love and creativity, and most writers do it all not just because they want to, but because they need to. Because in many cases, it would kill them not to. And in the end, after months or even years of literary gestation, the writers give birth to their story. It’s a brand new life all its own, and is cared for and loved by the writer with the fierce protective sensibilities of a Kodiak grizzly for her cubs.

And then the writer hands off their precious little story to the publishers, which feels like tossing their newborn into a woodchipper. Because to many writers, publishers are seen as giant, faceless corporate entities that only care about making money, and are devoted solely to the crushing of dreams. They imagine publishers lounging like the gods of Olympus, sipping ambrosia and not giving two thoughts about the lowly writers struggling beneath them. Or they see them as rabid, salivating beasts with glistening fangs and hunger in their otherwise dead eyes. Indeed, nothing tastes better to a publisher than a fresh manuscript served medium rare with a side of the artist’s soul.

Welcome to the machine.

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I sympathize with the writers, because I am one myself, and know firsthand what it takes to produce a completed book. I also have worked in the publishing world for a very long time, so I know something of what goes on behind the scenes there. With a foot firmly in both camps, I have to maintain an uneasy and delicate balance that, at times, feels like trying to navigate a no-man’s land of misconceptions.

Let’s just throw out some uncomfortable facts and stare at them for a moment, shall we? First fact: writing is a business. Publishers do, in fact, want to make money, and base many of their decisions on financial grounds. This fact upsets a lot of writers, but here’s another simple fact: writers want to make money too. The very act of submitting your story to a publisher means that you are hoping to sell your literary baby to the highest bidder. It’s okay to admit that, and it doesn’t cheapen or diminish the magic of writing one bit. (Just so we’re clear, I am not advocating the selling of actual babies to the highest bidder). Larry Correia frequently says that writers should have “get paid” as part of their personal mission statement, and I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t dream of being able to quit their day job and write full time.

Ready for some more uncomfortable facts? It’s not easy to do all that. Very, very few writers will ever reach the upper echelons of financial security. I know plenty of writers who do very well, and even a couple who can do it full time. But most can’t. It’s like playing sports—not many basketball or football players will make it to the big leagues, and it’s not just about skill or talent. There’s also a fair amount of luck (or karma, or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it) that has to break in your favor, and over which you have no control. The same is true in publishing. You can’t control what the market is doing, or what has already been submitted to a publisher before your story, or what the Next Big Thing will be. And what’s more, it’s impossible to predict what the Next Big Thing will be, because every Current Big Thing is almost always a surprise. I’ve seen books do really well that nobody expected, and I’ve seen books that were supposed to be the Next Big Thing fizzle and fade. No one can say exactly why Harry Potter, or Hunger Games, or even Twilight became the successes they did. Books like those are phenomenons, not business models. And yes, every writer wants to be the next JK Rowling, and every publisher wants to publish the next Harry Potter series, but no one knows exactly how to duplicate it. If they did, publishers would only need to put out four titles a year.

That sound I can hear are laptops being thrown across rooms everywhere in despair. Okay, so now that I’ve ruined your day, allow me to try and lift you back up again. Here’s a far more comfortable fact: I’m on your side here. I’m always hoping that every story I read will be a winner, and I’m always thrilled when I find one.

Here’s another: You should definitely keep writing. I believe that the ability to tell a good story is a divine gift, and the very worst thing we could do is to let that gift languish and die. So don’t give up. Keep at it. Try different genres and styles. Submit everywhere you can. Take no prisoners. I can’t promise you a publisher will knock down your door with the standard Rich and Famous Contract for you to sign. But I can say that publishers are always looking for everything, always. There will always be a need for a good story that is well written. And if you keep improving as a writer and artist, you can find your confidence as a person, and you can be happy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta get back to the slush pile. I think I see a manuscript with your name on it.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Rule Breaking

I love quotes.

I have several journals full of quotes that I happen to stumble upon throughout the day. They can serve to motivate me, pick me up, or inspire. Of course I share them I find others that needed to hear or read that particular set of words as well.

However as much as I love quotes, there are a few that can be harmful, especially to beginning writers. Here are a few quotes (some generalized because multiple authors have said them) to disregard as you become the author you need to be.

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Write everyday.

It would be grand if this were the case. Throwing everything away and simply focusing on words. But that’s not the reality for most of us. Surely write when you can because “a writer writes” but do so when you can. Some people are weekend writers, while others can only seem to do so every other day at their kids’ soccer practice. Do what works for you.

Write what you know.

I’m not a 12 year old girl trapped in a coma where her thoughts and emotions are personified. That didn’t stop me from writing that particular story. I’ve seen writers lock themselves in research purgatory, having that idea for a story that never leaves the ground because the writer hasn’t mastered quantum mechanics based on Mars. Bring life experience into your story, absolutely. Doing so brings you and the reader closer together. Know a bit of what you’re talking about if bringing real world elements to your fiction. However don’t allow what you don’t know to stagnate you.

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” –Saul Bellow

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! *wipes tears*

Write like no one is going to read it.

There’s a big difference between writing for yourself versus for an audience. If you write for yourself aka journaling it’s all about you. The only audience is you. However if you’re goal is to be published there has to be some sliver of care put into the effort you put out. You have to put the needs of the reader into consideration.

“Don’t try.” –Charles Bukowski

Try. Fail. Repeat ad nauseam. The act of writing is continual learning and taking hits only to rise up a stronger and more profound writer in the process. Keep writing. Keep querying. Keep going. As Ray Bradbury said “You only fail if you stop writing.”

Surely I could keep going but here seems like a nice place to stop. Keep following your heart and let the words flow. And until next time have a writeous day!

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Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

Say What: The Importance of Internal Dialogue

 

“One night, as I lay in bed, my stomach rumbling something fierce, I tried to think of an idea, anything to bring in a little extra cash, I was no scholar, so a career in tutoring the younger kids was probably out. And as for babysitting, who would ever hire Dangerous Dale Sweet’s daughter?” Faith Harkey, Genuine Sweet

 

dialogue

 

Internal dialogue is voice.

 

That golden nugget right there is one of the best things I heard at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers this year. I was lucky enough to be in the group led by the amazing and talented and gorgeous and funny Janette Rallison. And I loved her lecture on internal dialogue and this idea that your inner character’s thoughts is what voice is. I’d never heard it explained like that before. But yes! Of course it is.

 

 

“Nothing creates a buzz like an Executive Deluxe day planner. Not that I have much experience with buzzes, especially of the chemical variety, but my brother did double-dose me on NyQuil once when I was eleven. That thirty or so minutes of faint inebriation had nothing on this feeling. Pure, organized bliss.” Lindsey Leavitt, Sean Griswold’s Head

 

Internal dialogue reveals what makes our characters unique. It shows us what’s important to them, what they notice first, what bothers them, what they’re afraid of, what’s hilarious to them, what they’re looking forward to, what they want. It can reveal the character means the opposite of what they’re saying and disclose parts of them, the dark or painful thoughts, the bits and pieces they keep hidden away from the people around them.

 

“I woke up on the worst day of my entire life fully expecting it to be the best day of my entire life. Sometimes life is funny that way. And when I say funny, I don’t mean funny as in, “Ha-ha, that’s a good joke, thanks for sharing.” I mean funny as in someone coming to your birthday party, punching you in the stomach, and then stealing your new puppy.” Marion Jensen, Almost Super

 

Internal dialogue can also increase tension in a story. If your character tells everyone around her one thing, but her inner thoughts reveal another story, we become more invested in this character.

 

Sobbing Girl’s eyes widen in recognition. “Aren’t you in my PE class? Didn’t you, like, one time have this horrible rash on your legs? From hay or something?”

“It was actually this organic fertilizer my dad was trying,” I explain, trying to pretend we’re having a perfectly normal teenage girl conversation. “Turns out I’m allergic to worm castings. But I’m not actually allergic to worms. Go figure.”

The girls stare at each other a second and crack up. “Wow!” Sobbing Girls says. “That’s the most insane thing anyone has ever said to me! You are totally weird.”

Gosh, I’m glad I could cheer her up.” Frances O’Roark Dowell, Ten Miles Past Normal

A character’s inner thoughts tell us what she thinks about her story.

 

“What would it be like, to be Lord Death’s consort? Not to rest in the world where the dead are, now and always without fear, but ever to cross from one world to another, always able to see the life that was left behind. Worse, to serve at his side in his office as the bearer of pain and tears and heartache. To see every day a man weep like a baby himself over his lost little one. To see a new widow stare at her living children with hollow eyes, her heart torn out of her. To stand at the bedside, invisible in the shadows, while great men rocked in their beds with pain. To be the bringer of plague. Ah, ’twas one thing to die, another to be Goodwife Death.” -Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death

 

So, what do we do? How do we get better at writing internal dialogue?

One way is to make sure we know what our own internal dialogue sounds like. Try writing it! Write what you’re thinking about right now. Write about something you want to do. Write about that new thing you bought. Write about a dramatic memory. Write it with your internal dialogue, like the way you would speak it. Set a timer for ten minutes or so and write!

Try writing this with someone else’s internal dialogue, say, your mom’s or your best friend’s or the strange neighbor down the street. How does their internal dialogue change it?

Now, write it with your main character’s unique inner thoughts. What is their inner voice like? How does it change their internal dialogue?

 

“The writer’s voice casts a spell. The right voice makes the work accessible; it gives us the tone and point of view that best illuminate the material and make it shine.” –Steven Pressfield

 

“Grace’s aching eased a little once she was off the bus and standing in front of the enormous arc of the Salt Lake City Library. Here was a building of straight lines and perfect curves, of peaceful spaces and friendly librarians’ faces. A building where being quiet wasn’t weird, it was following the rules. The library wouldn’t ever pack up and move across the country just because its dad got a job at a fancy university in Boston. Not that libraries had dads or jobs, of course, but that was the point. That’s why you could count on them.” Elaine Vickers, Like Magic

 


blackanewhiterin

 

Erin Shakespear writes silly pictures books and middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. After all, they say, “Write what you know.” And with six kids, her days are full of…quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures.

 

Drawing Inspiration from Readers

Some days it feels like an appalling act of hubris to think I might have something to offer readers: my perspective doesn’t seem particularly unique–and I write genre fiction.

I have friends who write the kind of beautiful books where readers write back to say that the book changed their life, that it inspired them. I’ve never received a single letter like that. In other words, I don’t write “important” books.

But I still believe that there’s value in most books—mine included. Here’s why.

Different readers need different things from books. As a reader, I’m familiar with this—a book that moves me profoundly may bore my friend. The converse is also true. Sometimes I read to learn, to experience a perspective that isn’t my own and stretch my empathy, to be inspired. Sometimes I read purely to escape. I’ve read nonfiction books (most recently, Brené Brown’s) that changed my thinking. I’ve read memoirs that linger with me years later: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Terry Tempest William’s Refuge. And I’ve read genre fiction that saved me in dark places.

I read Jessica Day George’s Princess of Glass one long, harrowing evening in a hospital waiting room, waiting for an ultrasound to confirm what I already suspected: I had miscarried at 16 weeks. That night, I needed an escape. About a year later, I again found a much-needed escape in genre fiction: after an unexpected emergency c-section stranded me in the hospital with only my new kindle (I could not leave my room or hold my baby for several hours after the surgery), I devoured Melanie Jacobson’s light romantic comedies.

Were these books any less important than weightier ones? Maybe objectively, when we look at something that contributes to a wider cultural conversation. But in those moments, when I desperately needed an escape, they were no less valuable.

As writers, we’re sometimes tempted to assign value to books, especially our own. But as readers, that distinction is much fuzzier, and something we should bear in mind when we write. Readers read for all kinds of reasons, and they need all kinds of books.

I asked some of my friends why they read, and the answers span a broad spectrum:

• To learn or improve a skill
• To enjoy a well-turned phrase and human creativity
• To change
• To be guided to new and deeper thinking
• To connect with others
• To learn how others experience the world; to see a new perspective
• To find someone like you
• To solve a problem before the main character
• To live more than one life
• To travel to other parts of the world (or universe)
• To travel through time
• To experience emotions we enjoy (whether that be fear, humor, romance)
• To escape
• To relax
• To have fun

Or as my friend Kristin Reynolds (whose beautiful middle-grade novel, The Land of Yesterday, will be out next year) says: “To find myself in others, to reaffirm my experience as a human being, to glimpse the perpetual uncertainty that I am not alone. To link minds and hearts with strangers who end up feeling like friends. And also for the poetry of words, where the meaning is in what’s not being said that ignites something otherwordly inside me, something true, something divine.”

There’s no one right answer to why someone reads—and most people read for multiple reasons.

Chances are, no matter what you write, there’s a reader looking for just the experience you offer.

What do you read–and why?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.

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Understanding the Inciting Incident

We had a wet and relatively mild winter, followed by a fairly mild spring. Along came the soaring temperatures with the accompanying winds of June, and the backstory was set. All it took was one person who probably thought he was doing the right thing by burning down the dried out weeds, but the one person set the mountain on fire. Over two weeks later, over 1,000 firefighters have worked through incredible heat to fight the flames that have consumed 68,000+ acres of mountain forest in the #brianheadfire.

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Photo Credit: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

I could have told you about the lovely temperatures of spring or the fact that there was an insect plague over two decades ago that left the trees on the mountain compromised, but the reality of the situation is that you, as a reader, don’t have anything invested in that, not until you know why I’m telling you. As writers, it is our job to give readers enough of the backstory to understand where the character is coming from and then get on with it.

We can all nod our head and say, “Yes, I understand,” but then when we try to write the inciting incident? Nothing.

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Sometimes it’s easiest to understand the inciting incident better when we can see it in something we know well. Here are a few well known incidents to help provide some clarity:

The Wizard of Oz

Without the assistance of the tornado, Dorothy, Toto and the viewers would all still be hanging out in Kansas with Auntie Em. We get just enough of the story to allow us to see a bit about Dorothy, to understand that she’s a dreamer, and then the story takes a wild turn into a land of unknown and we get to really see what Dorothy is made of.

Romeo and Juliet

We get it. The Montagues and the Capulets don’t like each other. Why? Not important. We just need to see that people from these families are willing to kill each other for a perceived snub to understand the level of tragedy that will accompany the star-crossed lovers, something we know from the moment they meet (hint: this is their inciting incident).

The Scarlet Letter

We get enough of the setting to know that we are dealing with the Puritans, that they have a harsh judgement system, and then we are with Hester Prynne, on the scaffold, holding her baby. She refuses to state the name of her co-sinner, concealing the identity of the child’s father and then looks across the crowd to see her husband (a man who was believed to be dead and who she hadn’t seen in years) staring back at her. Talk about a love triangle with some serious consequences.

So, dear writer, it’s your turn. Where does your character pivot onto a path that will make readers want to follow? How much are you asking your readers to know before you let them understand why? Are you trying to showcase all the work you did, and by doing so, compromising the opportunity for a reader to get engaged?

These are hard questions to answer, and sometimes even harder to answer honestly. But being clear with our story, our characters, our writing will allow us to move toward the story of greatest engagement.

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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.