Shelley Widhalm

Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

A Novel Setting

In Setting, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 29, 2012 at 10:00 am

The setting of a novel fits the cliché that too much of a good thing is definitely too much.

It’s best to give description of time and place in moderation. Provide the snippets that ground the character in his or her reality without drawing too much attention to the words.

It would be like reading by looking at the individual dots of each letter, looking at each letter and then coming up with the word – just a tad too time consuming and boring.

The idea is to get readers wanting to find out what happens next.

You don’t need to describe a map of streets with rows of businesses, stores and houses detailed down to the last shingle, as well as every piece of clothing on your character as if you’ve just dressed her up like a Barbie doll.

Instead, try a well-phrased sentence or paragraph or two or a literary description of the character’s surroundings to add color and dimension to her world. This description of setting is necessary to establish a story’s mood, feeling, historical period and location.

To give a description, use any of the five senses – sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch – to draw out what is happening in the character’s world. What does the chocolate chip cookie she just baked smell like? How does its buttery taste crumble on the tongue, leaving you wanting seconds?

Through description, the character is giving her sense impressions of the colors, sounds, flavors, odors and feelings of the things within her environment.

As she describes these things, she reveals her relationship to her environment, which is essential to ground her in the plot of the story.

Is she a big city girl stuck in a small town? Does she like the open prairie but is living in the mountains? Or is she interested in being a novelist but stuck doing her day job?

Here are a few questions to ask about a character’s relationship with the setting:

  • Is she limited by or at odds with her environment? Or does she love where she lives, including her zip code and type of residence?
  • How does her external world relate to her internal world? Her internal world consists of her thoughts, feeling, beliefs, fears, memories and other psychological factors, while her external world is everything she senses outside her body.
  • How does her setting influence her identity and behavior?

The key thing to remember about setting is the old adage of show, don’t tell. Let your reader experience the time and place of your created world, rather than telling them as if giving dictation to the steady rhythm of a metronome.


Getting Real with Characters

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 22, 2012 at 10:00 am

I’ve heard it said that commercial fiction is plot driven, while literary fiction is character driven.

Good fiction, I believe, needs to be driven both by plot and character.

A novel or short story fails without fleshed-out characters that readers empathize with and view as real.

These characters have to do something. They have to have goals or desires and to face obstacles that block the path to what they want.

Otherwise, why read a book that rambles, even if the language is beautiful.

To give a character substance, begin by identifying her (I use the “she” pronoun because my main characters tend to be female) basic identity. What does she want? What is she afraid of? How do the people around her see her as a person? Do they like or dislike her?

Here’s a few things I’ve learned about adding depth to a character:

  • Give her a secret – an inclination, trait or a part of her history that she doesn’t want anybody to know about. If revealed, her secret, which is what she has to lose, would change her standing in her world and make her less desirable as a friend, neighbor or coworker.
  • Add a lovable quirk, such as laughing at inappropriate things or giggling in church.
  • Try a nervous gesture, such as biting her lip or pulling on her hair.
  • Play with an idiosyncrasy, such as a nervous gesture or repetitive behavior.
  • Give her a contradiction to make her unpredictable, such as someone who is shy but rude or is brash but sensitive.

These twists of characterization set the stage for surprising behavior that keeps readers turning the page.

Whatever you do, give your main character a minor flaw, so that she is more likable to readers, who don’t want to read about someone who is 100 percent perfect and, thus, boring.

Whatever her qualities, the character cannot be static. She needs to change as a result of the experiences she undergoes through the course of the novel.

This change is what gives the story direction and meaning.

Note: As I blog about different writing topics, I occasionally will add in a suggested exercise. This week, think of someone you know and try to describe them, using some of the items from the bullet list.

Hooking Readers

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 15, 2012 at 10:00 am

Though it weighs a fraction of an ounce, the page will not get turned if it’s missing this essential ingredient.

It’s like the sugar in cookies.

Or the money in the paycheck.

Without it, why would the reader want to continue reading?

The reader likely will stop if a story lacks plot, character, setting and dialogue and just rambles, going nowhere as if the writer was saying, “And then this happened, and this happened after that, and on and on.”

To get the reader to chapter two and to give your book or story a chance, there has to be a hook that reels in the reader (think caught fish, but one that has the choice to cut loose without struggle).

The hook typically contains a strong inciting incident that triggers the main character’s problem or submerges her (I tend to write about female characters, hence my pronoun choice) into trouble.

This character realizes that she wants something out of reach or doesn’t want what’s just happened to her. She’d like to return her life to status quo, but it has been altered by this problem or trouble that she has to resolve.

Let’s say the character has been served divorce papers while waiting tables to pay off the student loans of her just-graduated husband. He comes into the bar where she works with a …

Or she yells at someone in the parking lot who raises …

Are you hooked?

The hook, or the first one or two or three paragraphs, shouldn’t start with scenery (the opposite of an exciting inciting incident) or dialogue, though some writers will disagree. If a story begins with quote marks, the second paragraph has to make it clear who made the statement and where and why. As for writing pages of scenery, writers of the classics delayed the action in a manner stylistic for the times that readers in a fast track tech world typically find cumbersome.

That’s not to say that the opening should exclude a reference to the setting, without which the character would be floating around in no particular time or place.

The opening scene, I believe, should begin with character, and not plot, though there needs to be some sort of action. An interesting character with a secret, a contradiction in her personality or an overwhelming desire for something makes the reader want to find out more about this person.

The reader becomes engaged in finding out why the character wants to tell her story.

A hook, if not an immediate grab into the story’s action, can pivot on the use of language, or a description of something that is so compelling and different that the reader becomes intrigued by the writer’s style.

The writing either way shouldn’t be heavy with clichés and abstractions, but visual and visceral, drawing upon the senses. Good writing includes detail and shows and doesn’t tell. It doesn’t summarize or skim over descriptions like a skipping stone.

Writing a great opening scene requires some action on the part of writers. They need to write and rewrite, of course, but they should save the rewriting and self-editing for later in the process. They need to think of story and character, while resting like the angler on the water, waiting for the fish to bite. They are waiting for words to rise, not forcing them as they begin.

Facing the BLANK Page

In Plot, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 8, 2012 at 9:20 pm

As a self-proclaimed word junkie, I get frustrated when I face the blank page.

When I told my friend about my challenge for the year – 52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty – he asked, “How do you write a great opening scene?”

Understanding plot is an essential start, just as having a blueprint is necessary to build a house or an outline to write a college essay.

Without plot, there is no story, but unconnected moments of time like a broken string of pearls scattered on the ground. Stories follow a structure or framework called the narrative arc, which, simply put, is the story’s beginning, middle and end.

The opening scene needs a hook, or the inciting incident that gets the story moving. There should be some action, a character or two and a setting, which is the time and place where the action is occurring.

Readers will turn to page 2 and on to 3 and 4 if they care about the main character, whose actions drive the plot. The character has to have a goal or desire, whether it is romantic, emotional or practical.

This desire is what drives the character to act; otherwise the character would be just as happy watching TV or reading a book.

As the character goes for what she wants, she will face challenges, or obstacles, that become increasingly more difficult to overcome as the arc of the story rises upward.

The conflicts, whether internal or external, represent what the character is trying to resolve and are what creates these obstacles. The climax offers up the largest obstacle and determines whether the character actually gets what she wants.

The structure or framework, once in place, requires that everything in the story work together to tell the tale.

The other side of the arc, or the falling action to the story’s end, is where the character experiences some kind of revelation. Does she meet her goal? Or does her goal even matter anymore? Did she get something better (or worse) in her search to obtain her desires?

The resolution is where these revelations occur and where any loose ends are tied up, so that the strand of pearls becomes a full circle.

Now that the framework is in place, next week, I will talk about how to approach the opening scene with inspiration, creativity and originality.

2011: Writing Reflections

In Passions, Shelley Widhalm, Shyness, Writing on January 1, 2012 at 10:00 am

Shelley Widhalm reads some of her poetry during a poetry reading in 2011.

The end of the year offers a time for reflection, while the New Year is a time to make those resolutions that too often get broken.

I started 2011 with a shyness challenge with the goal of overcoming my shyness by the end of the year.

By August, I realized that too many of my friends were telling me that I wasn’t shy but quiet and reserved. I realized, too, that in most situations, I felt comfortable starting conversations with people I didn’t know, engaging in conversations in large groups and going to bars, dance clubs and parties by myself.

Though I’m reflective and spend a lot of energy on the inner life, I saw that I equally loved being social. The fact I seek the company of others probably indicated that I was not socially afraid.

So on to 2012.

I’m going to engage in a new challenge:

52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty.

Each week, I will tackle a writing topic, reflect on the writing process and remark on any beauty I find in the writing life. At the same time, I will try to get my work published and work on my fourth novel.

I’ll start with the basics, such as Plot, Setting, Character, Dialogue, Pacing, Arc and Tension.

I will reflect on how reading influences writing, what is creativity and what motivates and inspires.

I will talk about my struggles, frustrations and accomplishments as I look for an agent, write stories and poems, and try to market myself as a writer. I hope that as I write about writing, I will become a better writer and inspire a beginning or veteran writer to engage in the social side of writing: talking about the passion that gives life to words.