Don’t Leave Your Readers Stuck in the Middle

I think we all know it’s important to hook your readers early on. But what happens after that? I love stories. When I hear the premise for a story my mind runs off in a million directions, imagining all the possibilities. So it isn’t too hard to hook me. But lately I’ve run into a string of books that nearly lost me another way: the middle got boring.

I don’t think introductions are all that hard. Almost everything is interesting when it is new. Characters can often be more engaging the first time you meet them. Granted, it can be difficult to craft a seamless, engaging, well-balanced beginning. But even just an average one will often do the trick. But I think it is even more telling what you do after your hook your reader. What happens when the newness wears off?

This is probably one of the places where the author’s experience, or inexperience, really shows. This is where I can usually tell if the author is a natural storyteller or not, and if they are using an outline or trailblazing (I don’t like the word “pantser”).

Everybody knows what needs to happen in the opening (hook your reader). Everybody knows what needs to happen in the climax. And the rising action leading up the climax is often the most fun to write: tension, action, drama, suspense etc. But that little stretch of text between the beginning and the rising action is a tricky, tricky spot. It is a literary doldrums. As a reader, the momentum of the beginning will often carry me up to 15-20% (yes, I’ve been reading mostly e-books lately). But I run into the literary doldrums from 20% even up to 75%.

By now you’re all ready for me to give the magic solution, right? Sorry, I don’t have that! But I do have some tips and suggestions. Ready?

Suspense/Tension 

This is perhaps the most obvious solution. You know those books that people can’t put down and they stay up until 3:00 am to finish them? Those authors jump into the rising action right away. They saturate their books with suspense and tension from the beginning. I like these books as much as the next person. But I am also glad this is not the only type of book. A lot of my favorite books are slow-build. The rest of these tips will address slower-pace books.

Subplots 

Repeat that word over and over to yourself. The main plotline has to develop slowly, otherwise, this’ll be a short story or novella. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun in the meantime. A recent poll on Twitter surprised me by revealing that most people prefer a slow and steady build rather than a break-neck pace from page one. This gives me hope for humanity 😉 But that doesn’t mean your book needs to be boring. Let the reader go on mini adventures as the BIG adventure slowly brews.

Characters

This is a perfect time to put your characters to work. They’ve been introduced. But don’t wait until the rising action to add depth to them. People will keep reading if they like your characters. This is a perfect time to take some of your minor characters on subplot adventures. You can save the juicy stuff for your MC, if you want, but that leaves plenty for the minor characters.

Reader Gratification 

This isn’t a must, but it’s very pleasant when it’s done successfully. It can be pretty amazing when subplots intersect/interact with the climax. It makes you feel like a mastermind as an author and leaves the reader in awe. But you don’t have to do it that way. You can tie up some of those subplots rather quickly. This is one way to earn reader trust. If you show them you can successfully take them on a “mini-adventure” from start to finish, they’ll be more likely to trust you, and they’ll anticipate the major plot arc. When I’m reading a new author and I hit the literary doldrums, and there are no subplots, I begin to wonder if the climax and resolution will even be worth it. If you successfully execute the full arc of a subplot in the first half of the book, it shows your writing credentials. It can also give your reader a sense of progress (especially for longer books i.e. Dickens style). As a reader, I don’t like the feeling of chipping away and not getting anywhere.

WARNING: These subplots can be tricky, though. They should never be confused for the main plot. If a novice author tackles this wrong, the reader will feel like the main conflict has subsided and wonder why he/she needs to keep reading. Uh oh!! Red alert! Make sure you put in compelling hooks for the big plot arc!!

So those are my thoughts on literary doldrums. What are yours? Have you seen any of your favorite authors use these devices? Do you have any advice to add? Join the conversation below!

 

My 5 Favorite Character Types

Tropes or not, I can’t get enough of these characters (when they’re done well)…

The Character Whose Bark is Worse Than His/Her Bite 

Why? Grumpy people used to scare me when I was younger. I was delighted to find out that a lot of them are softies on the inside. This discovery never gets old for me. 😀

Examples:

P.L. Travers from Saving Mr. Banks. She’s pretty prickly, but it gets me every time she yells at them for turning Mr. Banks into a monster.

The Doctor from Voyager. He is one of my favorite Star Trek characters ever. Snobby, smug, critical, grumpy, but has a good heart.

The Obviously-Hurting Character Who Acts Tough 

Nobody likes jerks. It’s easy to dismiss them and not try to understand them. But people don’t act out of a vacuum. This character type can be easily romanticized. There’s not much romantic about it, but these guys are interesting and complex.

Example: (Why could I only think of one? I know there are more! Maybe I’m thinking of real life. I’ve met so many people like this in real life!!haha)

Jim Hawkins from Treasure Planet. He’s an adrenaline junkie and he tries to act tough, but deep down inside he’s insecure and wounded because his father left him.

The Quiet, Gentle Character with Hidden Strengths 

They fight their battles bravely, but rarely get the credit they deserve. I firmly maintain that kindness and gentleness are superpowers.

Examples:

Sergeant Lipton from Band of Brothers. Quiet, humble, and understated he does his duty faithfully and holds the loyalty and respect of all the men.

Cinderella from the 2015 release of Cinderella. I love how they made her strong in her kindness. She chooses to stay in her home and be kind to her step mothers and step sisters in honor of her parents.

The Leader Who Faces His/Her Duty Without Shirking

It’s easy to run away from problems, avoid them, pawn them off to others, or try to manipulate them. I love the leaders who face their demons boldly, sacrifice for those under them, and show the best that humanity has to offer.

Examples:

Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. He patiently pursues his destiny as the heir of Gondor. He serves Frodo and the Fellowship humbly and willingly. He knows how to lead and how to sacrifice.

Captain Winters from Band of Brothers. Maybe not super impressive at first glance, he proves a very competent commanding officer. When he is promoted he struggles with his position because he’d rather be with his men at the front.

Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. She’s unflinchingly brave. She commands confidently, is fiercely protective of her crew, and is always willing to lay down her life for others.

The Reformed Bad Guy, Who Feels Guilty for His/Her Past 

I shouldn’t take pleasure in other peoples’ guilt. If you haven’t noticed already, I like complicated characters. Plus it’s nice to know that people can be redeemed. And something in me relates to the theme that we’re haunted by our mistakes. Plus, there’s often a refreshing humility to these characters.

Examples:

Black Widow from a million Marvel movies, but especially Avengers I and II. She likes fighting for the good guys. She believes in the cause of good. She always carries the burdens of her past, but they help her make the right decisions (for the most part).

Edmund Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia. He betrays his brother and sisters and Aslan, but receives forgiveness. That’s why he is able to extend forgiveness to Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (one of my favorite scenes in the entire series!).

Do you guys know of other characters who fit these categories? What characters would you love to see more of?

Have I written any of these characters, you ask? Why yes, yes I have. And if you can correctly categorize my characters in the comment section, I’ll send you a virtual cookie!

Why Your Setting is Not Made Up of Adjectives

This is a throwback post, originally published about a year ago. 

Gasp. What?! What about all of those writing workshops where we stuffed one hundred adjectives into every sentence?

I am not saying there is no value in learning how to be descriptive and expand your vocabulary. But you can describe every single detail of a scene and still lose your reader. Why is that?

Continue reading “Why Your Setting is Not Made Up of Adjectives”

An Open Letter About My Book “Out of Darkness”

Oh, the joys of the internet! I tend to be a private person. I’m not much of a sharer in my day-to-day life, even with friends I trust. So you can imagine how guarded I tend to be on the internet. But then I remember that I actually published two books which arguably bare my soul. Talk about vulnerability. So if I’ve put my work out for the world to see, I might as well dissect it a little bit so people understand my message clearly, right?

Some people are attracted to my debut novel, Out of Darkness because it looks ‘dark.’ But I know that others shy away from it. I’m okay with that. I know that not everybody will like it or understand it and I have to accept that. But I also wanted to put a clear statement out so that people don’t misunderstand what I represent.

My intention is not to glorify violence. 

There is a lot of that going on these days and I don’t like it. I will turn a program off or stop reading a book if I think that’s what it is doing. But simply depicting violence is not the same as glorifying it. Sometimes violence is just an honest part of the story. Even in that case, I don’t think it’s necessary to go into graphic detail. But sometimes violence is an analogy for something more. In The Lord of the Rings, we recognize that the gory battles are symbolic for the battle of good against evil in this world. Tolkien may not describe them in gory detail, but that’s what they are and there is no getting around that. But he uses them masterfully as a backdrop to get his messages of hope across.

I did not grow up in America. I grew up in a place where violence was very real. And by the age of six, I understood the atrocities men commit against each other. So I hope no one ever accuses me of taking violence lightly. Now you’re all thinking that Out of Darkness is a bloody war saga. It really isn’t, I promise! But there is some violence (non-graphic) and there are definitely some scenes on the dark side. But they only exist to amplify the light at the end (thus the title!).

I also want to add that, like Tolkien, the fighting and the struggles are symbolic of very real emotional battles that I have experienced. It would be too real to write the actual account. And so I created this science-fiction-parable of sorts to convey the emotional equivalent and show how hope can still come out of brokenness. 

It’s interesting…I started working at a behavioral treatment center for at-risk teenagers after I wrote this book. These were girls who had been abused, traumatized, and cast off by the world. They were victimized by people they trusted and eventually learned to victimize themselves. It was heartbreaking. I spent two years de-escalating them, telling them they didn’t have to be victims, encouraging their talents and skills, and trying to help them see the world through a different lens.

And that’s when I realized I really needed to publish this book. Because there is so much content out there that is sending all the wrong messages: you are a victim of your circumstances, bad choices don’t have consequences, rebellion for rebellion’s sake is cool, and “you only live once” so make stupid decisions. Most adults dismiss it as “entertainment.” But believe me when I tell you that teenagers are hearing and seeing these messages and they are acting out on them.

So I wrote this book to answer questions in my own heart:

-Am I a victim of my circumstances?

-When people make decisions that affect my life (which I have no control over), can I still find a way to be my own person?

But in truth, I published it for all of the girls I worked with, who I still dream about, and who I pray every day are not lying dead somewhere.

If you made it this far, thank you for listening! I know that many of you are writers and authors trying to put positive messages out into a dark world and I salute you for that! Let’s keep fighting together.

Click here to find out more about the actual plot of the book.

If you’d like to start a conversation, leave a comment below, or feel free to e-mail me: ebdawsonwriting@gmail.com

Sincerely,

Beth Dawson

5 Keys to Writing Stories Full of Feels

You may think this is a strange topic. But “feels” in books is a legitimate trend. When I first started writing I had no concept of what “feels” were and very little interest in writing them. For some reason I wanted my writing to be high, intellectual, and dry. I wanted to move the readers with emotion–but a distant, dignified emotion. In other words, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Granted, most authors write to evoke emotions in their readers. Some aim too high and it turns out sappy. Some aim too low and settle for an exciting plot with no meat. Many misjudge the expectations and timing. My breakthrough came when I realized I needed to be more vulnerable in my writing. My characters were too perfect, or their struggles were unrelatable, or I wouldn’t let them be real people.

So what are feels, and how do you write them into your book? Well, here’s my simple definition: unlocking the reader’s deepest sympathies. But how do you do this?

Setting up Expectations– You need the reader to invest in the story personally. One way to do this is to set up their expectations ahead of time. There is something about the human mind that recognizes patterns and appreciates familiarity. If you have listened to classical music at all, you may know that the composer often puts echoes and pieces of the main theme into the music early on. That way, when the grand climax comes and the main theme is played, the audience has already heard hints of it and it will invoke a more emotional response.

Not only that. But you want to get the reader’s imagination working for you. Yes, it’s fun to surprise the reader and there is a time for that. But it’s even more fun to get the reader to say, “I knew it!” That makes them take ownership of the plotting process. This means a lot of work for you. You have to give them just enough clues and hints to lead them down the right direction without being painfully obvious. Subtlety is key. Don’t rush through all of your introduction and rising action. Take the time to sprinkle plenty of foreshadowing, hints, and implications. Make the reader guess which ones will be fulfilled.

Timing– This one is huge and can be pretty difficult to pull off perfectly. This is the one that I probably labor over the most. The trouble with this guy is that as an author, I am immediately biased, especially when I am working on my third draft. The action plays out very different when you are on your first read, versus your third read. So it can be tricky to look back and try and guess exactly where the reader’s emotions are at any particular point. But I would say, the more you write, the more confident you will be in this aspect. It will start to come more instinctively. Although this one can particularly hard to pull off right, it is my favorite. That’s why my first book Out of Darkness, has a non-linear plot. I set it up so that the MC’s emotional climax is revealed directly before the action climax of the book, even though it takes place some time before.

Authenticity– This one surprised me a little. I wouldn’t have started writing if I didn’t have very personal things to express. But I wrapped them under layers of science fiction. And I have to add that it is incredibly different to create characters that feel like real people at all times. Dialogue seems easy at first. After all, you are the author! You know what each character is thinking at all times. The trouble is that real life is not like that. People speak without knowing what the other person is going to say. It can be difficult to mimic that in dialogue. That is why dialogue so often fails, and poor dialogue is one of the biggest reasons readers put a book down. My writing improved by leaps and bounds after I worked a high-conflict job for eighteen months. I saw how people really respond when they are emotional, angry, or afraid. And it has allowed me to infuse my characters with real motivations and honest reactions.

Reader Gratification– This one is semi-controversial. There is still that school of thought out there that insists the reader is your enemy and you cannot give them what they want. Maybe this is appropriate for some genres (I really don’t know). I can see it earning you the reader’s respect. But I don’t think it’s going to earn you any feels. In a sense, reader gratification is exactly what gives the “feels.” You set up the reader’s expectations, you create an emotional connection with the characters, you take the reader on a heart-pounding journey where they are afraid everything is going to fall apart, and then you come in with the gratification.

Now, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t always mean happily ever after, or everything turns out fine. Sometimes it means you make them cry over what could have been. But there has to be meaning in the choices you make. Readers are going to reel from the senseless death of a loved character in a similar way they might reel from bad news in real life. Life is full of bad news and tragedy and it’s hard to always find the meaning in it. If you are aiming for “feels” you have to put meaning in your story for your readers. Give them closure. Give them something to hold onto!

Round it Out– The best stories have a combination of feels. Don’t center all of your feels on one relationship, or one plot revelation. If you set up a plethora of subplots and sub-conflicts, and you handle them well, then by the end of the story you have a whole smorgasbord to choose from! You can make eight turn out well and have two end sadly and still leave your reader on a high note. And you know what? They will probably love that even more than happy endings across the board because it feels like real life. One of the very best ways to earn reader trust and loyalty is to successfully navigate them through sorrow.

So there’s a glimpse into writing a story with plenty of feels. Do you guys have any thoughts?

Storytelling vs Plotting

Do you know anyone really good at storytelling? I’m not talking about writing a novel, but just telling a story to a group of friends. Some people have natural instincts about what will keep their audience engaged. They know what information to leave out until the last minute. They know what to emphasize and when to use hyperbole. In high school I was not this person. My personal stories were uninteresting. But after a good deal of observation, I’m proud to tell you that I have learned how to make my own odd adventures entertaining to other people. Why is this important?

It has come to my attention recently that plotting and storytelling are two very different things. Some authors plot their novels. (For the purpose of this blog post, “plotting” refers to a very structured outline method). Other authors tell stories. Now, I’m not going to come right out and say that one method is better than another. But I prefer one method to another.

I know authors who plot vigorously and are quite successful. They know all the elements that a story needs and they insert them strategically into their story to yield the best outcome. This is probably the smart and safe way to write books. When you count on proven methods and statistics of what readers like, you are a bit more assured of gaining a following. But there is also such a thing as a wild story, that does not heed the rules and yet still manages to entertain. I tend to gravitate toward the unpredictable, the emotional, and even the unbalanced. It’s like the difference between traditional and abstract art. If you follow the rules for traditional painting, and you practice a great deal, you can be pretty confident that you will portray the scene you are painting, and viewers will appreciate it.

I am not much of a plotter. I follow the tones and colors of my story. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about plot. My stories often include intricate plot. But I focus on the emotional journey of the characters. I write by instinct. And this instinct has been painfully developed over the past fifteen years. I love it when I find it in other authors too.

What about you? Do you have a preference between plotting and storytelling? Can you tell the difference? Sometimes I read a book or watch a movie and I can almost see the outline the writer used. (I hate that)

Self Publishing on Kindle-Why You Should Support Indie Authors

self publishing on kindle

The publishing industry is changing. Instead of going through traditional publishing routes, we now see scores of authors self publishing on kindle. There are pros and cons to this. The tools to publish a book are available to pretty much everyone. While this could mean a decrease in quality content, it also means there are fresh, new voices writing stories. I’m going to give you five reasons why investing in self-published authors is worth the risk.

Continue reading “Self Publishing on Kindle-Why You Should Support Indie Authors”

Throwback: “How to Critique a Manuscript for Dummies”

This is a throwback to a post I did about a year and a half ago! I hope you find it helpful.

First, I’d like to address the difference between a review and a critique. Some people may say there is no difference. Well, there is at least a technical difference: if you are reviewing it that means the work is done and will be published as is (or is already published). If you are critiquing, that means changes will probably be made. The question is, do you handle those differently?

My stance is yes. I think we all recognize that if an author sends you a manuscript for critique, you need to be honest to help them out. But I personally feel that if the work is published and you are simply reviewing it, you should do your best to put the book in its best light, while being honest about shortcomings. I believe in supporting other writers/authors, especially if they are indie writers!

Whether you are a first time beta reader, or an experienced critic, it’s always helpful to have a refresher of the major points you should address.

Note: If I ask you to read my manuscript and give me feedback, I’m asking you for help and not for insults (some people are surprisingly spiteful). If you aren’t a writer, I can imagine how intimidating it might be. Unless you’ve taken creative writing classes or are super in tune with the elements of story-telling you might not know where to begin. And I am grateful that you don’t want to hurt my feelings. But I want my story to be the best it can be. If I have given you my manuscript I am asking for you to help me improve it.

Yes, I want you to be honest, but honest in a constructive way. Some critics seem to think bashing my characters or my plot will make me grow as an author. In truth it makes me defensive (and so I won’t listen), or it makes me want to give up! The good news is there is a middle ground!

Even if this author’s novel is absolutely atrocious, your job isn’t to rewrite it for them, or to turn it into a literary classic.

Recognize that all authors are on a journey. It takes years to get from novice to award winner.

Focus on giving the author accessible steps in the right direction. So whether you are critiquing my manuscript or someone else’s, let me help you out with a few tips.

  1. Whether or not you personally liked the story, you should be able to give some helpful, polite feedback. In fact, if you really didn’t like the story, be extra mindful of how you communicate your thoughts. The author put a lot of work into writing. Trust me, they will pick up on your negative tone.
  2. Feel free to use “I liked” comments (ex: I liked how you used the dramatic setting for the conclusion). But if you use “I didn’t like” (I didn’t like the scene with the storm), make sure to communicate why. I recommend using more objective words to keep emotions out of it: (The scene with the storm was confusing/The scene with the storm seemed to have a much darker tone; was that on purpose?)
  3. Characters are a huge part of any story. Feel free to write your impressions of all the characters (but if there are a lot this might take too much time!). At least pick out two to three main characteristics (mix of protagonists and antagonists). Again, avoid the flat statements like “I didn’t like…” Feel free to state some of the obvious. (“She was brave.”) It’s important for the writer to know how their character is coming across. Questions are also very helpful.
  4. Pick out a favorite scene (or two or three!). Talk about the strengths of the scene. (The dialogue was witty. The action had you jumping out of your seat. The imagery struck you. etc)
  5. Pick out a least favorite scene. Try and think why that scene didn’t work. (Was it confusing? Was it superfluous? Did it change your perspective of a character in a bad way? Was the dialogue dead?)
  6. Plot holes. Plot is a big deal for a marketable novel. And you don’t have to be an expert to recognize plot holes. Just think back to any parts that didn’t make much sense or seem to lead to dead ends. Can’t think of any? Then say that!
  7. Introduction. Did it hook you right away? Was it confusing? Did it take a little long to get rolling?
  8. Conclusion. What impression were you left with at the end? Were there any lingering questions? Was it anti-climatic?

Hopefully that gives you some guidance! Feel free to add in encouragement. Writing is hard! If your friend is brilliant, don’t assume they already know that! Tell them how great their dialogue was, or how thrilling their plot was. Tell them to keep going!

Do you agree or disagree? Any thoughts to add? Sound off in the comments!

P.S. If you are a fellow-writer out there and you would like me to critique your work shoot me an e-mail at ebdawsonwriting@gmail.com.

What Makes an Element in Your Story “Contrived” and How to Avoid It

So I started a book (of an author I don’t know) and just couldn’t get through it. The writing wasn’t too bad, but the storytelling was poor (maybe that’ll be next week’s blog post), and the dialogue felt a big unrealistic. Then I read some other people’s reviews and saw one word pop up several times: contrived. And I agreed. But I wondered if other readers, or the author himself really knew what that meant.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before: “The climactic scene was too contrived,” or “The romance between those two characters was contrived.” But do you really know what it means and how to avoid it as an author? I hate it when non-writers throw it around to sound intellectual. Do you have any idea how hard it is to write a full length book?! But the truth is that “contrivance” (as we’ll call it) can kill an otherwise fantastic story.

Continue reading “What Makes an Element in Your Story “Contrived” and How to Avoid It”

A Deeper Look “Into the Void”

I usually post on Thursdays. But in honor of my newest book (Into the Void) being released on Friday, I thought I’d write this post today!

I am so excited for this book, you guys! I keep asking myself, “Is it wrong to love your own book this much?” And the answer is, “Who cares?” Because I do love my own book so much. And to tell you why, I’ll have to tell you a bit about why I wrote it. And to tell you why I wrote it, we might have to go look at the first book in the series, since this is a sequel. 😉

Continue reading “A Deeper Look “Into the Void””