Author: DeAnna Knippling (Page 2 of 56)

How to Study Fiction, Part 19: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Today is my first post exploring some analysis of “The Fall of the House of Usher”!  I’m going to focus on structural analysis, because that seems to be both the hardest type of analysis to find (at the moment I’m writing this) and involves some of the most interesting aspects about the story.  A link to the Project Gutenberg version of the story is here.

(I picked that version because a) it’s free, and b) because we’re looking mostly at structural level stuff, any typos aren’t going to be hugely relevant, so pointing back to an authoratative version that you have to pay for isn’t going to be all that important.)

BRIEFLY:  Structure, for our purposes here, isn’t going to be about plot structure.  There are a million books that will walk you through plot structure, and you should have read some of them as a beginning writer (and will likely have to continue to read them as an intermediate writer).  What we’re talking about is how the events of the story are put together and why.

A lot of people can tell you vaguely what “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about:  some dude, the narrator, goes to his friend’s house; the friend may or may not be nuts; the friend has a sister; she dies; the friend might have been having sex with her; the house falls down; the narrator escapes.

But how are those events (the plot) unfolded?  Which events are told in backstory and which in real time?  Which events are not told at all, but implied?  Are there any tricks to how the story is told that themselves reflect the content of the story?

Let’s find out!

(A note:  I’m super nervous about how this is going to pull off.)

The Fall of the House of Usher

Step one:  Reread the story!

Step two:  Type it in!  It is approximately 7,000 words long.  Don’t do this all at once.  Type in about one to two thousand words a day.  Don’t “fix” anything; just type it in the way you see it.  Note: you may want to adjust the width of the lines in the story so they’re about twenty to twenty-five words long, which is about the width of a modern book and is about as many words as a normal reader can comprehend without some sort of break.

Step three: Understand that Poe was a) writing for another time, and b) a genius.  You may not understand all the things at first glance.  I often found myself at the end of a day’s typing telling myself that I was never going to get this.

Step four:  Make some notes about what you observe about the story.  Whatever you observe about the story.  This will help clear your head so you can observe new things.

Step five:  When you’re done with that, let’s begin some structural analysis, starting with the pacing:

  • How long are the words?  What level of vocabulary are we talking here?
  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?
  • How long are the sentences?
  • Are the sentences straightforward or complex (a good rule of thumb is that complex sentences get a lot of punctuation)?
  • How long are the paragraphs?
  • How long is the story?
  • Do word lengths change?  Where?  Do they change back?
  • Does anything about the “accent” change?
  • Do sentence lengths change?  Do they change back?
  • Do sentence complexities change at all?
  • Do paragraph lengths change?
  • Is there anything that fundamentally breaks a pattern within the story?

After that, we’ll start asking bigger questions about the story, but when you first start doing structural analysis, it’s easier to start with the pacing.  Once you’re intimately familiar with pacing, the structural-level patterns start popping out.

Something to note: 

I’ve found that typing things in hasn’t lost its usefulness yet.  I expected to be able to take in everything I was studying without having to keep typing things in after a few months.

Five years later, I’m still typing things in, but I no longer need to stop and ask myself whether the sentences are long or whether there’s a change in paragraph length.  I look for other, more interesting patterns. But I had to start with the pacing; it’s hard to learn how to think this way, but it’s harder not to, if you’re trying to become a long-term professional writer, a master of the art.

As you become comfortable with a technique, you’ll be able to note when an author uses it without having to analyze it specifically.   But until you look at low-level structural questions in detail, it may be difficult to notice the higher-level techniques that I’m going to point out later.

“Where does she get this stuff?” may cross your mind a time or two.  The answer is, “She’s been typing things in for five-plus years now, and a thing or two sank in.”

A friend of mine once said that being a black belt in a martial art was where the learning really begins.  It’s also where you start studying masters instead of studying moves.

Same thing with writing.  We’re shifting from following rules to studying technique.  Beginning writers expect to have the rules and explanations handed to them on a platter; intermediate writers have to start becoming the people who can make the rules and explanations for the beginners.

Next time, I’ll go over the points above on pacing in the story, pointing out some things that I think might help give a sense of what to look for.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

Current Marketing Strategies

I didn’t have the time or energy to write a long post this week, but yesterday I ended up checking in with myself about what I know about marketing.  Admittedly, this isn’t much.  But when I started trying to bootstrap myself out of complete lack of sales, it was less, so I’m gonna count it a win.

Current marketing strategies, in order:

  1. Keep writing.  You can’t sell what you don’t produce.
  2. Keep studying.  It’s easier to sell a good book than a bad one.
  3. Don’t let the money fall out (keep it easy for people to find what they need and buy it).  MAKE SURE YOUR FANS & POTENTIAL FANS CAN GET IT.
  4. Keep networking.  A lot of my recent opportunities have come directly or indirectly from people I met ten years ago.
  5. Don’t sell plots, sell reader feelings.  People won’t remember your plots unless you make them feel the way they want to feel.

There’s a possible sixth but I’m still testing it out:

Don’t waste time on assholes.  They aren’t actually networking with you, helping your career, or providing any kind of support, even when there’s money involved; they’re using you and will, over the long haul, screw you over.  Make time and room for people who, when you do nice things for them, don’t make feel like you’re pouring your time down a gaping pit or that they’re blowing smoke up your ass.

I mean, obviously it’s a good idea–but is it a good marketing idea?


Want to get a list of plot ideas for stories within stories?  Sign up for my newsletter or Patreon and wait for January’s issue of the Wonderland Press-Herald, which is really just my newsletter but this morning I went, I COULD CALL THIS A NEWSPAPER WHICH WOULD BE FAR MORE AMUSING.  Anyway, click here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 18: Intro to some case studies on Poe

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

I really like looking at Edgar Allan Poe stories, not just because of the dark, Gothic subject matter, but also because he is such a nerd when it comes to structure.  I’ve been typing in a number of his stories lately.  I started with “The Cask of Amontillado” a while ago, but I think I’ve talked enough about that story by now.  Maybe I’ll type my analysis all up in one place when I turn this into a book, eh?  But the latest spat of type-ins started in November with “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  I’m working on a Gothic novel about a house and thought typing in Poe would help me stay in a Gothic frame of mind:  long, twisty sentences, thick paragraphs, big vocabularies, foreboding statements galore!

But of course I found more than that.  I think the reason that Poe is so interesting on a structural level is that he was also, perhaps even primarily, a master poet who worked in formal verse, uniting form and structure as he went.  (I suspect that one day he noticed the fact that a repeated word first becomes distorted, then loses meaning, in a process known as “semantic satiation” and decided to write horror poems in which both meaning and sanity decline simultaneously.  Check out “The Bells” for a good example.)

In his stories–as I’m rediscovering, in even more depth–Poe unites form and content so smoothly that sometimes it’s difficult to notice when it’s happening.  It is that smooth.  But once you see it, it’s like having a hidden image pop out, and you can’t un-see it.  Poe wrote some serious, dark-minded stuff…but often in his darker stories is a hidden joke buried in the structure.

Note, I’m going to take the stories in kind of the same order that I studied them, which doesn’t follow publication order, but rather my whim.  I could put them in order, but then I’d have to explain Poe-analysis things in story A when really I discovered them in story B.

When I start studying a story, I start by typing it in, basically until I get bored.  With short stories, I usually type the whole thing in–with novels, not so much.

Things I start looking for, more or less in order:

  • The feel of the sentences:  length, content, vocab, structure (short and direct, or long and twisted? lots of punctuation or not much? what kind of punctuation?).
  • The feel of the paragraphs:  length, content, structure.
  • The shift between the opening and the middle of the scene (going from setup to action).
  • The try/fails of the middle, how long they are, how many of them.
  • How the scene wraps up, how long it is.

At that point, I stop and ask myself what I liked or didn’t like about the scene, and what, if anything, else I noticed.  I also make a note of the POV character(s), any head-hopping, and try to sum up what happened in the scene, in general.  Why were all the elements of the scene in that scene and not another one?  That’s the general question I’m trying to answer.

Then I’ll move along to the next scene, either until I’m done or until I feel like I’ve picked up the author’s techniques in that part of the book.  I’ll keep re-reading (I never start studying until after I’ve read the story, and re-read it if it hasn’t been lately) until I get to something where I go, “WHAT WAS THAT?  HOW EVEN.”  Which is pretty often, honestly; if it sounds like I know everything about how stories get written sometimes, it’s mostly just because I’m running off at the mouth.  There is such a huge amount to learn, I don’t know if anyone can grasp it all.  It’s pretty normal to get intimidated once you start opening up the hood on these stories and tracing where the wires and gears all go.

A note about novels:  I’ll sometimes set up an excel spreadsheet so I can study how often POVs show up (for example, in Game of Thrones), or what types of endings each scene has throughout the book. It’s sometimes easier for me to see patterns when I can color-code them.  So if I’m working on a novel, I’ll make notes as I go, like, “What’s going on with all the POVs here?” and look at it later in a spreadsheet.

When I’m done with my first pass of a story (and answered any questions I might have via spreadsheet for novels, if necessary), then I’ll step back and go, “Why did the author make the structural decisions that they made?”

I cannot recommend attempting to make that kind of analysis without doing the typing.  It’s always tempting to try to pick something apart without really understanding it, but, when it comes to analysis, you can only reach as far as your pre-existing prejudices when you do that.  Type it in.  Some of the stuff I’ll be talking about is a freaking magic trick, and you won’t be able to see how it’s done without practicing it yourself first.  No matter how clumsy it makes you feel!

As I said last time, most of the time (especially in novels), you want to go with a structure that is pretty normal for the genre and subgenre you’re writing in.  Once you’ve pulled apart a few stories that fit that mold–the pop song structure of fiction–then it starts to become obvious when something is or is not following that mold.

The answer to the question, “Why did the author write to fit the mold?” is pretty simple:  they wanted to meet reader expectations.  They didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel!  The answer to the question, “Why didn’t the author write to fit the mold?” is usually pretty interesting, though:  it’s generally to solve a problem that they couldn’t solve within the mold, or to show off.  Sometimes both.

Next time, we’ll get into “The Fall of the House of Usher,” what a douche Usher was, and how Poe made everyone think that it was a story about incest without the narrator ever going there.

Free book and other curiosities here.


How to Study Fiction, Part 17: Structure, Part 5

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

What order should you tell your events in?

We’re back to talking about szuchet and fabula (see this post).  You have a choice between presenting the events of the story in different ways.  Here are just a few of your options:

  • In strict chronological order, with no summaries or flashbacks, and with no foreshadowing.
  • In reasonably chronological order, with some summaries, a few minor flashbacks, and possibly minor foreshadowing.
  • With part of the novel split between the present and part between the past (parallel stories).
  • With a small part of the novel in the present and a larger part in the past (or in another world, for that matter), a.k.a. a “frame story” or “story within a story.”
  • With the prologue out of order, as in one scene that foreshadows most of the events of the book (a few scenes might follow the point where the book catches up to the prologue).  “It all started when…”
  • Parallel (and possibly intertwined) stories that occur at very nearly the same time.
  • Parallel (and possibly intertwined) stories that occur at different times.
  • A story told in reverse order.
  • A story told with most events in order, but in clusters that are not in order (Pulp Fiction).
  • A story told through several completely separate episodes, with or without a frame story (variations on a theme).

There are more possibilities.  Most popular fiction books will follow the same structure, though:

  • In reasonably chronological order, with some summaries, a few minor flashbacks, and possibly minor foreshadowing.

Most books present the setting, characters, and problems of the plot, move the plot forward a bit, stop to bring a few things into perspective via a flashback or a summary (and repeating the pattern of moving the plot forward, then explaining the important bits of What Has Gone Before), then increasingly shift to no more backstory while layering in some foreshadowing as we approach the climax of the book.

There is nothing wrong with that as a structure.  It’s like the structure of a modern pop song:  we all know it, even if we never really think about it, and intellectually we know that a lot of pop songs “sound the same,” but we will vehemently protest if anyone claims that Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is very nearly the same thing as anything by The Rolling Stones.  There’s an intro…some verses…a chorus…a musical interlude somewhere in the middle…more verses and the chorus…and some kind of ending.

Pop songs all follow kind of the same template. It’s all about how you use it.

Most fiction, most of the time, needs to have a real reason to deviate from the usual sort of structure.  Some deviations, like having multiple plots running at the same time across multiple characters, are so common in certain genres that they’re taken for normal.  For example:

  • The structure of many modern romances is to have a his-and-her plot, two main plots running in parallel part of the time and together part of the time.
  • The structure of many high fantasy novels is to have multiple plots running at the same time, with characters who start out together, split apart, check in with each other/get news of each other periodically, but all come together for the climax of the book, which is some huge battle.

Those structures aren’t requirements, but they can become expectations.  And most of the time, you want to meet the readers’ expectations…because then they’re ready for you to knock their socks off with something surprising.

Which is to say that what order you tell your events in:

  • Depends on your story.
  • But should be pretty normal most of the time, unless you have a major reason to do so.

Find out in what order events are usually played out in the books in your genre and subgenre.  Copy that.  If and when that doesn’t work for you, try something else.  Some experimentation may be called for.

You will know when you’re on the right track because, when you’re done with the draft, you can step back and go, “The content of the story fits the weird order I put the events in.   Huh.”

The biggest part of making this kind of structural decision is knowing what your options are–and that requires a lot of reading.  It can require some really challenging reading, too, if you want to wander off the beaten path.

I’ll probably repeat this again later:

The more original you are, the more studying you have to do.

You have to know what most readers expect most of the time, and you have to know it as well as any hack writer knows its ins and outs.

And, if you’re trying something the reader doesn’t expect, you have to have far more tricks up your sleeve than you will ever actually use in order to be able to select a good one.

If you want to build something new, you have to know even more:  you have to know every trick in the book.

And that means reading–and comprehending on a structural level–a huge number of books.

This is probably a good place to remind you that reading at least the top 100 books in your genre is probably a good idea–if you want to write books to fit reader expectations.  And that reading the top 100 books in another genre is a good idea if you want to write a book that surprises your reader.  If you want to be truly innovative…good luck!

Next time, I think I may work on a few case studies on structure.  I’ve been typing up a lot of Edgar Allen Poe lately because he has such interesting structures, and the stories are out of copyright–so it should be okay to quote them extensively here.

Free book and other curiosities here.


Interview with Jamie Ferguson, author of Bundle Up!

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Welcome to fellow author Jamie Ferguson!  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan RutterJason Dias, MJ Bell, and Shannon Lawrence are also available.

1. First, tell us about bundles and other beasts.  Briefly, what are they, who should buy them, and where can you get them?  Optional: what’s your favorite format?

Until I started writing Bundle Up, I’d never realized how confusing the terminology can be. 🙂 I finally switched to using terms like “multi-author project” in the book to make it clear the concepts could apply to different types of projects.

Some people use “bundle” to apply to any collection of stories or books that are packaged together for sale. I’ve found that while this makes logical sense, it tends to confuse people, so I use “bundle” to refer specifically to collections of ebooks that are created using a bundling website. These sites handle splitting royalties among the participants, and may offer the option to donate a percentage of the proceeds to charity.

Other beasts include anthologies, which are collections of stories packaged together into a single book; magazines, which are similar to anthologies, but may include additional content, like essays; and boxed sets, which are collections of books in either print or ebook format. And there are even more permutations—for example, you could create a bundle of audiobooks, or a bundle of bundles of ebooks.

The three main sites where you can purchase ebook bundles are BundleRabbit, StoryBundle, and Humble Bundle. Bundles created via BundleRabbit may also be available for sale on sites like Amazon. Anything that doesn’t qualify as an ebook bundle can be sold at any retail channel that sells books.

I don’t have a favorite format—I feel that there are situations where each format works well. That said, for collections of short stories, I prefer the anthology format to the bundle format. A bundle of short stories is an ebook that contains other ebooks, so the formatting can vary quite a bit between the items in the collection. An anthology is a single book, so the formatting is consistent across all stories in the collection.


2. I’ve worked with you on a bunch of different projects (and, in fact, I did edits on Bundle Up!), and I know that you’re super organized, to the point where it’s almost a minor superpower.  Please gimme a story about how you came to appreciate that about yourself. I’m always interested in how people find their minor superpowers 🙂

My organizational superpower has always been there, so I can’t really remember a time when it wasn’t present. My mom says I made lists even as a small child. 🙂 What isn’t apparent to most people is that I’m super organized in giant swaths, but will ignore other areas if they’re not as important to me at the moment.

For example, once a month or two I’ll have built up a pile of papers and books and random things that eventually gets so high it starts to block my monitor, or I won’t have any room left to put my tea. At this point I “clean my desk,” which usually involves sorting through some things, and moving the rest to a pile elsewhere in my jam-packed office. But the colorful spreadsheets I use to track the writing and publishing projects I work on are very detailed and structured.

It’s kind of like synesthesia. I associate letters and numbers with colors, and didn’t realize until I was well into adulthood that most people don’t do this type of thing because this seems so normal to me that I rarely even think about it.


3. Your book is featured in the Nano Writing Tools Bundle aimed at writers doing a project for the National Novel Writing Month.  How did you get involved with that bundle, and has it been a positive experience?

I’d been planning on writing Bundle Up! for a long time, but kept putting it off partly because I felt I didn’t have enough experience, and partly because the idea of writing a non-fiction book was a little frightening. In the summer of 2018, Mark Leslie Lefebvre interviewed me about bundles, curation, and collaboration on his Stark Reflections podcast. I mentioned writing my book during the interview—I figured that by committing to the project in a public forum I’d put pressure on myself to finally start on the project—and my plan worked! I told Chuck Heintzelman, the founder of BundleRabbit, that I’d finally started working on the manuscript. He mentioned it to Kevin J. Anderson, the curator of the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools bundle, and Kevin contacted me and extended an invitation—with the obvious caveat that my book would have to be done.

I was super excited about this opportunity. Not only had I started writing my book, I also had the opportunity to be part of the annual NaNoWriMo bundle! Having a super firm deadline meant I had to buckle down and focus, which I did. I’d probably still be poking at the manuscript if I hadn’t had this opportunity.

In addition to all that, it’s not only been a really fun experience to be a part of this collection, I’m also a fan of the charity we’re working with. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a non-profit education organization founded by the families of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, gets a portion of the proceeds from the NaNoWriMo bundle.


4. If a writer wanted to get involved in a bundle, what would be the best way to do that? What would make it worth it for an author to organize a bundle of their own?  

Networking is by far the best way to get involved in a bundle or any other kind of multi-author project. It’s not the only way, of course. You can submit a story in response to an anthology call, put your ebook up in BundleRabbit’s Marketplace, etc. But if you connect with other authors, they’ll be more likely to invite you to participate in a project.

There are a lot of things to take into consideration if you’re interested in organizing a collection. Most people just decide to do it and jump right in, which is exactly how I ended up curating my first collection a few years ago. 🙂 But I know several authors who organized one collection and then swore they’d never do it again, and there are several main reasons why. There’s a lot of cat herding involved—as the curator, you need to make sure the authors sign the contract, get their stories/ebooks in on time, give you biographies, and so on. You also need to plan on doing a fair amount of promotion, and/or rely on the authors to help out—but not all authors understand how to do this. One of the most common complaints I hear from curators is that they expected the authors to pitch in more on the marketing side.


5. If you had one tip for authors on how to make the impact of the bundles (and anthologies) they’re in more effective, what would it be?  

I’m going to cheat and give two tips, since I consider them both important. 🙂

The first is to figure out what you can do—and are willing to do—to promote the collection, and do it! Ideally, think this through ahead of time so that you can schedule time to write promotional posts, put together marketing images, and so on.

The second is to collaborate on promotion. I’ve found collaboration with other authors to be a huge benefit of multi-author collections. Not only can this help promote the collection, by working on marketing with other authors, you’re also promoting each other.


and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint: the additional promo question.)

Be creative! 🙂

One of the sections in my book is called Think Outside the Boxed Set. It contains examples of less common ways to use story/book collections, like creating a collective of authors who share tasks related to a series of collections. (Examples of this particular approach include the Uncollected Anthology, which I joined in 2018, and Boundary Shock Quarterly, a speculative fiction magazine created by Blaze Ward.) There are always more ways of doing things! Don’t allow yourself to be constrained by what you’ve seen others do—give yourself the freedom to think of new ideas, and try them out!


How to Study Fiction, Part 16: Structure, Part 4

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scenes vs. Summaries

Beginning writers are told to show, not tell.

But intermediate writers start to learn that show and tell are both necessary, and in fact aren’t exactly opposites.  The two techniques can, and often must, coexist if you’re going to get a story told.

I find it a lot more useful to ask not whether to show or tell, but whether something should be a scene (with a beginning, middle, and ending structure and acted out more or less in real time) or a summary (which is not acted out in real time, but summed up to condense the story).

In general, events should be spelled out when the content is used to increase the tension of the story.  Events should be summarized when the content is used to anchor the world of the story (this includes the characters’ backstories or explanations of the situation in general, not just the literal world of the story).

Scenes increase tension in fiction.

Summaries provide context.

Let’s use a hypothetical section of backstory as example.  You’re writing a story in which you need to reveal to the reader an important event that occurred in the past–in this case, let’s say the main character’s father drowned in a boating accident.

In most cases, the backstory will simply serve to provide context to the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and should be summarized.

In some cases, however, the backstory will increase the tension of the scene.  Let’s say that you want to provide clues to the reader that the father wasn’t just drowned but that he was murdered, but that the main character hasn’t really put the pieces together yet.

You would write out the backstory as a scene so you can a) set up the clues, and b) increase tension.  The reader might not pick up consciously on the clues, but they will still feel the increase in tension, and associate it with that scene–they will know, at least subconsciously, that there was something important about that scene.

If you write out every event in a story as a scene, every event will serve to increase tension, no matter how minor.  There’s a famous film director who tends to do that; it’s Michael Bay.*  So unless you’re writing over-the-top thrillers, you may want to include some summary in your work.

We’ve already talked about how to write scenes; let’s take a moment to talk about how to write summaries.

Writing Summaries

The key to writing a good summary is focus on the style of how it’s told–not the content.  There, I said it!  Sometimes in writing, you have to value style over substance, and this is one of those instances.

The tension in a scene, where a character tries and fails to do something, is what drives a scene forward.  It is what, in general, drives a story’s plot forward.  So without an increase level of tension, what’s left to hold the reader’s attention? What makes a series of events inherently interesting to read, if the reader already knows that the conflict being described has already been resolved?

First, let’s look at a famous summary:

All right, all right, let’s see, she was inna water, the eel is comin’ after her, she was frightened, the eel started to charge her, and then–

I’m back to The Princess Bride, of course.  This is the scene when Buttercup is in the water as the Shrieking Eel is about to eat her, after the Grandson has interrupted the Grandpa and made him lose his place.  He’s skimming through the text, summarizing out loud.

The funny part isn’t that the eel is or is not about to eat Buttercup; it’s that the quick summary is told in the Grandpa’s voice, briefly breaking the immersion of the story.

Another one:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled–but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

This one is the opening paragraph of “The Cask of Amontillado,” of which I have also made frequent mention.

A lot of openings of scenes are, themselves, summary.  Before the main action of the scene starts, there is often either a) a description of the setting and/or characters, or b) a description of the situation/problem…presented in the form of summary.

The beginning of a scene should not, by itself, increase tension.  That’s the task of the middle of the scene.  Summary and/or description are used to set the scene and give context.

So what goes into a summary, if it has no inherent drama?

  • The deep perspective of the POV character or narrator.
  • Some information that adds context to the rest of the story.

That information can be as simple as “Time passed in traveling from one place to another” or as involved as Stephen King explaining what’s been going on with Edgar Freemantle at the beginning of Duma Key.

Sometimes the information in a summary is provided after it’s relevant.  Normally this is a mistake.  Readers get upset about finding things out after they need to know.  One sentence too late is still a screwup; nobody liked being made to feel ignorant and stupid.

However, if there are two ways something can be interpreted, then it’s usually better to set up the simpler, more obvious explanation before the event, and the deeper, more complex explanation afterwards.

For example, in The Princess Bride, we learn that Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts before we meet the Man in Black, and that Westley replaced him, after.  The information that Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts cannot be revealed until after the reader has a chance to look at the actor and go, “Wait…that dude sure looks like the farm boy.”  You have to give the reader a chance to guess; and, if they don’t, a chance to be surprised.

What does that have to do with summary?

Summary is for context, right?  We don’t need a whole scene of the Dread Pirate Roberts on the high seas.  Instead we get the following:

Westley didn’t reach his destination.  His ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never left captives alive. When Buttercup got the news that Westley was murdered–

“Murdered by pirates is good,” the Grandson interrupted.

–she went into her room and shut the door.  For days she neither slept nor ate.

“I will never love again,” said she.

We won’t find out the truth until Westley is rolling down the hill and he shouts, “As…you…wish…” And we don’t find out about it as a summary, but as part of a scene.

The information before the Westley reveal is given in summary; the information afterward, in scene.  I would say that that’s a good way to do it–but it will depend on your story.  If you were working on a mystery or suspense story, you might provide the initial information in a scene, then let the detective sum up the truth at the end of the story.

Sometimes you want a plot twist that shouts; other times, you want a plot twist that whispers, for greater impact:

Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

That’s the end of “The Cask of Amontillado.”  The line For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them is pure summary–and redefines everything that went before it from the possibility of just being a cruel joke to the definition of revenge itself.

Scene vs. Summary Redux

I like to think of scene and summary as inhalation and exhalation, wax on and wax off, rise and set.  One of the techniques increases tension; the other doesn’t release the tension but provides a moment of calm that interrupts and defines it.

Some stories are going to need more summary than others; a thriller should have less summary, scattered lightly; an epic fantasy is probably going to have more summary, laid on with a trowel.  How much context do you need?  Do the characters live in the moment, or do they constantly consider the past and how they got where they are today?

A story with too little summary can feel like an onslaught of events with no meaning; a story with too much summary can feel like it moves at a crawl–because tension is not increasing on a regular basis, merely being maintained at a status quo.

One of the best ways to get a feel for this is (surprise surprise) to type in the work of an author that “feels” about right for pacing, and finding how much summary is actually included in the work, and where it’s tucked in.  Is it in big chunks at the start of a scene?  Is it scattered throughout?  When a character mentions something that POV character already knows but the reader doesn’t, does the POV character make an aside to the reader?  Is backstory spelled out in scenes?  Are the clues of a mystery located in scene or summary?

I can’t answer those questions for you: each writer handles them differently, and has different techniques.  I suggest taking a closer look at your favorite writers and how they handle their choices of scene vs. summary.

You have a lot more options than “show, don’t tell.”

Next time, let’s talk about what order to tell things in, and why.  Why Pulp Fiction?  Why Memento?  Should the reader know more about what’s going on than the character does?  And how can you set that up?


*Check out this video and its second half to see an interesting essay about Michael Bay’s style, both good and bad.

Free book and other curiosities here.

How to Study Fiction, Part 15: Structure, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Structure: Headhopping & Tenses

Since these are two relatively minor elements, I’m going to cover them both here.

Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years. 


“Headhopping” is a pejorative term for shifting POVs while still in the same scene.  You’re an intermediate writer now; you’re allowed.  Master writers shift POVs a fair amount, I’ve discovered, and do it so smoothly that most readers (and yours truly) won’t notice it on a first read.

How is it done?  You have to understand POV as being from a specific character’s perspective in order to do so, and it’s for third-person POVs only (as far as I know):

  • You’re writing from character A’s point of view.
  • You need to get something from character B’s point of view, either information or an opinion.
  • You make character A’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
  • You swap over to character B’s point of view and make it as “objective” as possible.
  • You get whatever you need out of character B, going deeper into the opinions and attitudes of the character as necessary.
  • If you need to go back to character A, make character B’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
  • Swap over to character A, with their point of view as “objective” as possible.

I have “objective” in quotes because the shift doesn’t have to be truly objective, just not anchored directly, obviously, and solely in one character’s point of view.

Here’s an example.  The POV of this scene is a character named Dodger who is walking through Victorian London with his dog, Onan (who smells bad).

The one thing you could say about this dirty old city, Dodger thought as he headed out of the attic, strutting along in his new suit with Onan at his heels, was that no matter how careful you were, somebody would see anything. The streets were so crowded that you were rubbing shoulders with people until you had no shoulders left; and the place to do a bit of rubbing now would be the Baron of Beef, or the Goat and Sixpence, or any of the less salubrious drinking establishments around the docks where you could get drunk for sixpence, dead drunk for a shilling, and possibly just dead for being so stupid as to step inside in the first place.

In those kinds of places you found the toshers and the mudlarks, hanging out with the girls, and that was really hanging out because half of them would have worn the arse of of their trousers by now. Those places were where you spent your time and your money so that you could forget about the rats and the mud that stuck to everything, and the smells.  Although eventually you got used to them, corpses that had been in the river for a while tended to have a fragrance of their very own, and you never forgot the smell of corruption, because it clung, heavy and solid, and you never wanted to smell it again, even though you knew it would.

Oddly enough, the smell of death was a smell with a strange life of its own, and it would find its way in anywhere and it was damn hard to get rid of—rather, in some respects, like the smell of Onan, who was faithfully walking just behind him, his passage indicated by people in the throng looking around to see wherever the dreadful smell was coming from and hoping it wasn’t from them.

(Terry Pratchett, Dodger.)

In the first paragraph, the character is thinking to himself; we’re inside his head.  But the POV slides over to a vague sort of “you,” a generic “you” that doesn’t sound like an objective third-person POV, but it really is–it’s not clearly coming from Dodger himself, but kind of vaguely from “you.”

You probably didn’t notice that by the end of the third paragraph, you’re in the POV of the people behind Dodger and Onan, looking around to see where the smell is coming from.  It’s not Dodger’s perspective; he can’t even see them.

A good POV jump shouldn’t be obvious, and it should only drift as far from the main POV of the chapter as necessary to accomplish the point.  The technique isn’t supposed to be clear cut; if it were, it wouldn’t be effective.


Your two basic tenses are present and past tense.  Because this is English, however, you can use all sorts of other tenses!  One of the strengths of English is in how freaking specific it can get about time:

The experiences he had had had been bad.

The time travel machine would have existed, except that it hadn’t.

We will have been there for an hour by then.

At this level, however, your main question is probably “Should I use present or past tense in my writing?”

Currently, fiction written in past tense is more common, and readers will tend to disappear into it more, because they have more familiarity with it.  Writing in present tense is less common, and you’ll have to work harder with sense and opinion details to keep readers buried in the character–but it also gives the tale a more modern/YA feel.

What tense you use should be more influenced by whether you like writing in it and whether your readers like reading in it than anything else–which is another reason to keep up with reading current work in your genre, so you know whether present- or past-tense books are more popular.

Anybody who says you must/must not write in a certain tense is talking to beginners!

Next time:  Scenes vs. Summaries:  When to show…when to tell!

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How to Study Fiction, Part 14: Structure, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

POV & Structure

Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years. 

At the beginner level, what we learn about POV is that it is a “point of view” and that there are three of them:

  • First person (I)
  • Second person (you)
  • Third person (they)

You may also learn that there is an omniscient third point of view (written from outside the character’s perspective) and a tight third point of view (written from inside a character’s perspective, but from the third person, not the first).

You will also probably get the message that you should not head hop, which is that you should not jump from inside one person’s point of view to another (generally in third person).  And you’ll probably hear that you’re not supposed to use second person POV at all.*

Okay, great.  Those are things that tend to trip up beginning writers.  But you’re not a beginning writer now; you’re intermediate, so it’s time to pick apart POV on another level.

What is POV

A point of view is the filter through which all the events of the story are viewed.  The point of view should have such a strong filter on it that it changes how the events of the story are told to the reader.  If you swapped POVs or omniscient narrators, it would be a completely different book.

In cases where the narrator is hidden or there’s a little head-hopping going on, the POV should still be strong.  A POV isn’t just literally how someone sees things, but also their attitude toward life.  If your POV is an omniscient narrator, this filter can secretly come from one of the existing characters, no matter how minor, in the story, or it can be pulled out of thin air.  Or it can just be you 🙂

Let’s go back to the movie version of The Princess Bride.  (Although I think this is relevant for the book version, too.)  The entire story, even the parts that aren’t being directly intruded on by Grandpa, carries a filter that comes from him.  Even though he is cynical, he still carries an immense well of love in him: both attitudes come through in the telling.

Removing the Grandpa/Grandson sections of the story would obviously change the story as a whole.  But removing Grandpa’s attitudes from the story and replacing them with, say, Humperdink’s, would totally change the story.  Buttercup would be beautiful, but she would be an idiot.  Wesley would not be a dashing pirate, he would be a murderer.  And so on.

A point of view is about an individual character’s or narrator’s view of the world, more than it is about first or third person.

How to Use POV

When people ask me how I decide what “person” to use in POV (first, second, third, etc.), I always say, “It depends on how much I want to lie.”  First person narrators make excellent unreliable narrators.  LolitaAmerican Psycho, and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are all first-person narrators.  People accept that when someone is telling you a story, personally, there might be some lies, distortions, half-truths, braggadocio, etc., involved.  But if you hear a story about someone else, you expect that your narrator will tell you the truth about that person, as they know it.  It’s like gossip, so be careful about writing an unreliable third-person narration–the distrust can blow back on the author, not just the narrator.

But the bigger question is, “How do I decide which point of view to use for this story?”  Which character is the right POV?  And how should that person best tell the story?  And how on earth do you decide whether to use multiple POVs?

As far as I can tell:

  • The right character is the one who “speaks” to you.  If you can hear that voice in your head, then that is the right voice to use.
  • The right character is the one who knows less, but can find out more.  Readers move from ignorant to informed during the course of a book; having a narrator who does the same is awfully convenient from a writing perspective.
  • The right character is the one who tries to see the events objectively, but cannot truly do so.  A narrator who both tries to see the events with the distance of wisdom and who can yet be overwhelmed by emotion is a powerful thing.  (This especially applies to omniscient-type narrators, I think, as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
  • The right character is the one that the reader can understand and relate to.  Nobody can truly understand Sherlock Holmes; that’s why he tends not to narrate his own stories.

Multiple POVs are a special case.  Obviously, if you’re writing a romance where the POVs alternate between “he said” and “she said,” then you have your POVs selected for you.  And if you’re writing a thriller, then a dramatic prologue showing a murder almost has to be told from the POV of the victim, witness, or villain.  Some things are solidly established as reader expectations, and it’s rarely a virtue to try to completely flip them.

But what about other types of POV shift?

If you are typing things in, you will run into areas where professional writers are breaking POV “rules” right and left.  There is a lot of head-hopping among that crowd.  If you are outlining, you will see professional writers shift through more POVs than you might have noticed, too, with some POVs only showing up once or twice.

The rule of thumb is:

  • Have a main character.  (ONE.)
  • Spend most of your time with that main character.

Please note that this is only a rule of thumb; some writers will break that sort of basic rule.  George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire has some pretty sophisticated, unusual POV choices, and outlining his novels is pretty interesting in and of itself.

The arrangement of POV chapters should also reflect the plot of your story.  Let’s say that you have a story where there’s a good guy and a bad one, but it’s not initially clear which one is which.  Initially, each character might get an equal number of chapters, but as it becomes clear that evil has overtaken one of the characters, that character can have fewer chapters as the other character becomes the clear good guy.  Most authors will do this kind of thing subconsciously. However, if you’re interested in how it works, I’d definitely take a look at outlining the George R.R. Martin books.

First, Second, or Third?

Finally, let’s cycle back around to that old question: what POV should I use, first, second, or third?

  • First-person POV is for when you want the person telling the story to be in the reader’s living room with them, as it were.
  • Second-person POV is for when you want to address the reader directly, as in this blog article.  OR for when you want to sound hypnotic.  “You’re sinking deeper into sleep…” OR for when you want to completely alienate the reader from the narrator; I’ve done this on a couple of psychopath stories.  People naturally hold a second-person narrator at arm’s length.  See Caroline Kepnes’s You for a brilliant example.
  • Third-person POV is for when you want someone else to tell the story to the reader.  This is the most believable of POVs.  It sounds like someone repeating gossip, for one thing, and it’s easier to forget that you’re “hearing” someone tell the story, especially if you leave out a narrator and only report things from the third-person’s point of view.

A constraint about first-person narration:  All first-person narrators must be able to tell their own tales at some point, logically speaking.  If you kill off a first-person narrator at the end of a book without them having written or recorded their thoughts as they go, you’re going to have a very annoyed audience.

Next time, I’ll probably post on how to headhop and what using different tenses means.  But only probably.



*Which was exactly what I was doing in that sentence.  Talking to you.  In second person POV.  Writer “rules” are weird sometimes.

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How to Write a Mystery: Let Me Sum Up

Someone was trying to explain to me how complex mysteries were to write; she claimed “she wasn’t smart enough.”

I, of course, knew that she was, and that she’s be good at it…but of course couldn’t find a way to say that succinctly in person at the time.

There’s a French phrase, l’esprit d’escalier, that means “the spirit of the stairs.”  It’s when you think of the perfect thing to say…too late.

So here’s my response:  How to Write Mysteries, The Extremely Short Version.

  1. First, think crime, don’t think mystery.  Not every writer needs to be Agatha Christie.  A huge puzzle does not a mystery make.  Crime is British term that covers what in the U.S. would be crime, mystery, caper, thriller, and suspense.  You have a ton of options that don’t require intricate plots.
  2. Start with a crime OR a wrong done OR some kind of coincidence, trick, mischief or practical joke.  Something that is not quite right.
  3. Agatha Christie starts with one assumption that readers will normally make, and overturns it.  For example, “They couldn’t all have done it.” You don’t have to do it that way, but that’s how she did it.
  4. Have someone try to hide that one crime or trick, or try hide who did it.  It doesn’t have to be the same person, the hider and the do-er.
  5. Then have someone notice the incident and try to find out what happened. It can take a while for the person to notice.  Hundreds of years in some cases.  It can even take most of the story before they do.
  6. You can tell the reader more of the truth or less.  The less you tell the reader, the more it’s about the puzzle (as in a mystery).  The more you tell the reader, the more it’s about the people involved and their motivations (as in suspense).
  7. In most fiction, you don’t just tell the reader what happened, but how to think about what happened.  (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) In a crime story, tell the reader pretty much everything as you would otherwise, but when that thing would give the solution to a puzzle away, don’t tell the reader how to interpret what you just said.  Fair clues are always in plain sight.  They just aren’t explained to the reader.

Here’s an example of a clue without context:

I went home for Christmas.  The news announcer on the radio said, “Watch out for slippery roads, and anyone out on Highway 34 near Turner’s Corner should remember not to pick up any hitchhikers!  The infamous Jodie Turner died tonight in 1995, hit by a semi driver who had drifted off to sleep, as she was trying to hitch her way home from college in Minnesota.  Five vehicles have run off the road near Turner’s Corner since…all on this night, the twenty-second!”

And here’s what is really going on:

The narrator went home for Christmas.  The radio announcer said that stuff, but the narrator wasn’t listening to it, because the narrator was hitchhiking.  And dead.  Because the twist of the story is that the narrator will turn out to be the ghost.

(I haven’t written that story or anything; it’s just a cheesy example for the sake of this post.)

And that’s pretty much it.  End with some kind of resolution to the crime or whatever it was initially that caused the events of the story.  Justice done, not done, or injustice repeated in an ongoing loop (as in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson).  All have their place.

You can, of course, get really complicated about a mystery story (or any story in which you hold back information from the reader).  But the essence is simply that you’re being completely open with the reader…you’re just explaining what you’re being open about!

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Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 31

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Parents


Where was it said, where was it written, that one had to send one’s children away?  To schools, to colleges, to lives and jobs of their own?  It was an uncomfortable situation altogether.  Their children would insist upon making fools of themselves.  They took up basket-weaving and learning about, well, not very nice people, as if that were something that one could make a living at.  They were impressionable.  They could not think for themselves, a condition which they had demonstrated time and time again, and their parents should know; they had raised them.  Had they not taught their children to respect themselves?  They had.  So why these grand yet disgusting gestures of independence?  It was just being stubborn.  They could not stand to be proven to be wrong.

Could they not be trusted to select friends for themselves?  Could they not date someone nice?  Could they not get married, have children, buy a house within walking distance, keep up a yard?  Why were all the good things that they had been taught cast aside?

To be fair, well, there was nothing to be fair about.  They did not come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Their phone calls became increasingly separated by time and distance.  One could see them, mucking about on social media, having lives that they had no business living, pretending to enjoy themselves, not listening.

They were sharp and rude and didn’t understand that their parents were only trying to help; or they were soft and gelatinous, hard to pin down; or they simply pretended to ignore half the things one said, things that had been said to them when they were younger didn’t they understand that they had to grow up? What was all this about tattoos?  Why not stop drinking expensive coffees out of those foolish porcelain travel mugs?  Why not use the machine that they had bought for them, the one that takes the little plastic coffee packets, you can make anything that way? And no one didn’t need to know about their…their significant whatevers, that filth, in our day we wouldn’t have come within fifty feet of those pieces of trash,

Baby murderers! Burn the illegals! Burn the gays! Burn them all!

And then their parents left the house, they were seen in RVs, in restaurants, in cars with someone else’s badly-raised children in the streets in front of them, a foot on the accelerator and a bump under the tires, in wheelchairs, in nursing homes, in badly-upkept or luxurious retirement apartments (depending on whether they’d lived virtuous lives earlier on; of course everyone gets what they deserve), finally having grown up enough to leave their children behind and live lives of their own.

…And that’s about as much normal as anyone should have to take.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

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