Give Readers Insights and Personal Benefits

Part 1 in the series, “Seeing I to I: Writing the First Person Article”

Although I’ve written plays, novels, short stories, devotions, articles, and even textbooks, the greatest reader response I’ve received has always been from my first-person articles.

Fifteen years after I came home from the Vietnam War, I wrote a 2,000-word feature titled, “Why I Fought in Vietnam, and Why I’d Do It Again.” That article has been published in The Baptist Bulletin, The War Cry, The Waynedale News, Military Life, and ten other magazines and newspapers. It also has been translated into German, Portuguese, and Russian for publication in international periodicals. It first ran in 1984 and most recently in 2010. I have stacks of letters from veterans who wrote to say, “You explained how I felt, but I just didn’t know how to put it in words. I’ve shared your article with all my relatives and friends.”

On the other end of the spectrum, I wrote a 1,900-word feature titled, “Funeral Planning Fun? Dead Right!” It was a satirical report about the bizarre ordeal my wife and I went through in buying caskets, ordering a tombstone, and planning our funerals. It was published in nineteen newspapers in early 2013, and I received emails and letters from readers who said, “I laughed so hard, I fell out of my chair. Who would have thought that the subject of death could have been so hilarious!”

These two examples—one extremely serious, the other totally comedic—show how much readers appreciate and become impacted by I-was-right-there narratives. But writing first person articles is tricky because the finished product shouldn’t read as though it’s something you’ve extracted from your diary or copied from your personal journal. Readers don’t give a rip about your summer vacation or your difficulties using new computers or your embarrassment at being overweight at your class reunion unless they can receive some insight and personal benefit by reading the piece.

Next week: “Bring the Reader Along”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Shaping Your Story’s Subplots

Conclusion of the series, “The Function of Subplots in Fiction

Sheriff Andy Taylor was the central character in Mayberry, but if Opie was being bullied at school or Aunt Bee was worried about competing in the county fair pie contest or Barney Fife was having dating problems with Thelma Lou, they all turned to Andy to make things tranquil once again. Andy was a peacemaker, both literally and figuratively. The lesser characters didn’t dominate in the plots as much as he did, but their interactions with him were natural, continuous, and entertaining.

If you create a cast of supporting characters and decide what their goals and needs and ambitions are—and why they are turning to your main character to help meet those needs—you will be able to develop logical and interesting subplots.

It has been said that people shape events, and events shape people. As you give thought to how your main and secondary characters came to be who and what they are, subplots will begin to take shape in your mind. Jot down notes. Pose questions. Speculate about scenarios. Play what-if games. Consider where your characters live, what era they live in, what their key concerns are. Events will then surface, and the way your characters decide to respond to them will form your subplots.

After all…it was the subplot events in your life that made you turn out the way you are now, right? So, apply the same logic when creating the subplots your characters will be involved in.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Keep Readers Hooked Through Subplots

Part 3 in the series, “The Function of Subplots in Fiction

A good subplot can reduce the responsibility of the main plot to keep the reader vested in all the details. If readers stay with one or two key characters page after page, the story risks becoming either tedious or morose. Old Westerns would insert a break (“Meanwhile back at the ranch….”) so that the audience could change venues, focus on different characters, and be given a break from the intensity of an impending ambush. However, even a break from the main action can serve to intensify pressure on the main character. True, Roy Rogers may escape the Indian attack, but unbeknownst to him, rustlers are trying to steal his cattle while he’s away from the ranch. Thus, as the story advances, things get worse for the key character, not better, and many of his or her challenges will come from events developing in the subplots.

After you have developed profiles for your main protagonist and antagonist—and possibly a love interest—you can focus on the secondary characters: sidekicks, bosses, apprentices, students, coworkers, neighbors, clients. Why are they in the story, and how will their challenges relate to the more dominating challenges the main character will face?

Next week, “Shaping Your Story’s Subplots”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Subplots Can Enhance Main Characters

Part 2 in the series, “The Function of Subplots in Fiction

In The Gift (Harvest House), a novel I wrote with Holly G. Miller, protagonist Ian Moore has the ability to transfuse time from one person to another. His quest during the length of the novel is to find a worthy successor to pass this gift along to before he dies. However, subplots show Ian being pursued by people who wish to use his powers for their own benefit. An aging multimillionaire wants to force Ian to make him young again. A physician wants to find Ian and learn the medical applications of what Ian can do. An aggressive investigative journalist wants be the one to reveal Ian’s powers to the world and make himself famous.

As we see Ian from the perspectives of these secondary characters, we learn about his backstory, his motivations, and his beliefs. It would be hard to gain all this information from the central character himself, but deriving it from people involved in subplots makes it accessible and believable. Additionally, the emotional ties between Ian and the secondary characters give greater depth to the plot.

I don’t believe in coming up with a main plot and then inventing random subplots to inject into the story. Instead, I try to think of how subplots can be woven into the main story as ways of providing comic relief or character empathy or threats of evil or moments of victory that are all part and parcel of the overarching story. If placed correctly, they can slow the narrative drive in a natural way, making the reader wait for the main story’s resolution while staying interested in the progress or outcome of one or more subplots. One good test of the appropriateness of a subplot’s inclusion in your synopsis and outline is to ask the question, “If I pulled this subplot out of the novel, would it leave a noticeable gap?” If your answer is, “Well, not really,” then toss out that entire subplot.

Next week, “Keep Readers Hooked Through Subplots”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Subplots Reflect Real Life

Part 1 in the series, “The Function of Subplots in Fiction

If you were to tell your life story in a basic, linear manner, it would be predictable and boring. You’d say something along the lines of, “I was born in Detroit, where I went to school until I was ten, then my folks moved to Bay City, where I lived until I finished college, then I went into the army for two years, came out, got married, went to graduate school, had two kids, got a job teaching, and today I’m a grandfather.”

In real life we get sideswiped by numerous unexpected events. The above vignette is actually my life story in one sentence. However, what would make it far more interesting would be the subplots in my life—I got a job as a young reporter and landed an interview with Johnny Cash…I was wounded in the face during the Vietnam War…my daughter was born with a complete heart block and remained for twelve days in intensive care…my son became a Marine and spent eight months in Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Desert Shield…I earned a PhD and wrote more than fifty-five books.

That is the function of subplots in a novel. They offer unexpected twists. They provide moral lessons about perseverance or faith or endurance. They pivot the action from a steady flow of events to a radically unexpected—but totally believable—new event. In short, they add more intrigue to a story, and they are accepted by readers, because that is the way life actually does unfold.

Next week, “Subplots Can Enhance Main Characters”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Your Story Needs a Message

Conclusion of the series, “Suspending Disbelief

Yes, it is true that readers read fiction for entertainment. But an important part of being entertained is gaining a sense of having learned something or having grown in a new way.

Reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land presents us with an alien named Michael Valentine Smith who travels to distant planets. Michael’s honesty, simplicity, and decency transcend the fact that such a story could never actually happen. We are left with a lesson about the impact moral discipline can have on ourselves and on others.

Similarly, The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells presents us with animals that have been given transplants of human blood and organs, causing them to walk upright and to talk. Such a thing could never actually happen, but as we listen to the animals relate their woes about their imprisonment in cages, their beatings, and their treatment as misfits, we cannot help but ask ourselves if this is not similar to the treatment that oppressed people continue to receive in many societies and countries.

These stories may be fantastic, but their messages are all too real. We see then that fiction is logically ironic. Readers don’t mind suspending disbelief as long as stories are contextually consistent, characters are motivated by human emotions, and messages are thought-provoking and identifiable. It sounds like double talk, but, alas, whoever said the human mind is balanced? It isn’t, folks. And, thank goodness for that, or else we fiction writers would be unemployed.

“Hey, kids, what time is it?” Let’s hope it remains “Howdy Doody time!” for a long, long while.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Give Nonhuman Characters Human-like Motivations

Part 3 in the series, “Suspending Disbelief

Many fictional characters are not human. Among my favorites are the Velveteen Rabbit, Frodo, Chewbacca, Elmer Fudd, and the little robot Wall-E. The only reason these characters work for readers or viewers is because they are driven by human emotions. If a Cabbage-Patch doll lies on a floor all day, I’m not moved emotionally. However, make it have fears and dreams and ambitions the way Buzz Lightyear and Woody do, and I’m hooked for hours. Watching a garbage truck fill and empty all day is not my idea of entertainment, but give me a vehicle with a face, an attitude, and a challenge, as with Lightning McQueen, and I’m on board all the way.

The Wicked Witch of the West may be a make-believe character, but her lust for Dorothy’s shoes and her evil desire for power are human characteristics everyone can comprehend. The Little Engine That Could may be steel, coal, and steam, but his driving ambition to conquer his weakness and cross the mountain are worthy traits admired by all humans. No matter how unreal our central characters may be in regard to the actual world, they will still be accepted by readers if they have human traits readers can nod to and identify with—good or bad.

Next week: “Your Story Needs a Message”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Characters Must Be Consistent

Part 2 in the series, “Suspending Disbelief

The mistake Alan Funt made with the kindergarteners was that he introduced one character (an adult) and then instantly morphed it into a dissimilar character (a dummy). That was illogical, unfair, and irrational, and that same rule applies to fiction writing.

Superman can pretend to be Clark Kent as long as we know that underneath he’s still “the man of steel.” The Pevensie children can go through the wardrobe and enter Narnia, as long as they remain the same persons they were upon entering. Ditto for Alice when she falls into Wonderland, King Kong when he’s brought to New York, and Phileas Fogg as he travels around the world in eighty days. The consistency of a character allows us, as readers, to place ourselves into this character’s circumstances, identifying with the struggles of facing great challenges.

Now this is not to say that characters cannot evolve. Certainly, Peter Parker slowly, steadily, painfully moves into his role as Spiderman, but it takes a long period of time. Likewise, Tarzan can eventually learn to speak English, wear clothes, and eat with utensils. We accept all this as readers because we, too, evolve over time. We can learn to speak French, but it will take years. We can lose weight, but only after dieting and exercising for many months. Here’s the key in all this: Characters must be consistent unto themselves to the point that readers can see them, accept them, and relate to them.

Next week: “Give Nonhuman Characters Human-like Motivations”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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The Power of Dummies

Part 1 in the series, “Suspending Disbelief

In the mid-1960s an episode of Candid Camera went tragically wrong. Alan Funt entered a kindergarten class and spent time talking one-on-one with five year olds, asking about their favorite toys, best friends, and family pets. All the children were talkative, animated, and friendly. Then another adult came in and led the child into a different room for a couple of minutes, during which time Alan Funt hid behind a curtain and a two-foot dummy looking exactly like him was put in the chair in his place.

Each child was then led back in as a hidden camera was filming him or her. The adults wanted to see if the children would look at the dummy of Alan Funt and then just start talking to it as though it were the same person. However, in each of four tries, the children became horrified, started screaming in panic, and tried to escape the room, fully believing that the dummy was Alan Funt, only now horribly disfigured.

A follow-up to this experience turned out to be amazing. Children were brought in one at a time and introduced to a ventriloquist who had a dummy sitting on his lap. The children were interviewed by both the man and by the dummy. This time the children treated the dummy as if it were a real human being. They answered his questions, laughed with him, and even shook hands with him. As long as the dummy was an identifiable entity in and of itself, and it stayed in character, the children had no problem with it whatsoever.

I was an adult when I saw this Candid Camera broadcast, but I had no difficulty believing its veracity. You see, as a child my favorite show after school every day was Howdy Doody. I absolutely loved that show and its iconic string-puppet star. I never missed an episode. In my childlike mind, Howdy was as real as fellow cast members Buffalo Bob, Clarabell the Clown, and Chief Thunderthud. In fact, when I was eleven and they announced the show was going off the air, I was depressed for weeks. (Years later, my wife told me that when she heard the announcement as a girl, she actually cried the whole day.)

If you had pressed me as a kid, yeah, I probably would have said Howdy was a puppet, but I never processed that mentally. I was having too much fun accepting Howdy as a walking, talking, adventure-loving, yodeling boy. Likewise for Dilly Dally, Phineas T. Bluster, and Flub-a-Dub. Because they had emotions, personalities, dreams, fears, and a sense of humor, I related to them, liked them, and bonded with them, marionettes or not.

As fiction writers, we can draw many lessons from this childhood openness to parallel worlds, fantasy situations, and make-believe characters. Human nature is bent toward a love of escapism and altered realities, and the reasons for this are probably myriad. Escapism tickles our imagination; it provides a haven for us that is safer than the real world; it gives us friends who won’t let us down; it allows us vicariously to be part of heroic deeds. Shoot, I’m no psychiatrist, but who needs a degree to see what is blatant: People like to suspend disbelief.

This does not mean, however, that anything goes. In writing novels, short stories, stage plays, and musicals, I’ve learned that my audiences will follow me as long as I don’t burst the bubble of disbelief. To that end, some rules must be followed.

Next week: “Characters Must Be Consistent”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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4 Lessons from a Bad Book

Conclusion of the series, “Read Any Bad Books Lately?

Zane Grey’s Western novel Riders of the Purple Sage is so poorly written, it should have been called Writer of the Purple Prose. However, I learned four important lessons from reading it. Here they are.

  1. Almost all writing is improved when it is cut, reduced, edited, and tightened. Even for fiction, the journalistic adage of “less is more” is true. Be merciless with your copy. Eliminate redundancies. Use visual nouns and thereby delete adjectives. Use action verbs and thereby delete adverbs. Make your dialogue obvious regarding who is saying the words, and thereby delete attributions. Compress scenes. Get to the point.
  2. Show, don’t tell, as often as possible. Don’t spend thirty pages expounding on the need to preserve Native American culture. Have one character pick up some broken pottery and say, “This is beautiful. It should be preserved. Any way to protect these things?” Readers are bored by lectures. Action holds their attention.
  3. Give readers what they paid for. Audiences loved Shakespeare’s plays because they would get sword fights, witty dialogue, profound mysteries, political scandals, murders, ghosts, music, dancing, and heroes and villains. So, if what readers want from a Western are shoot-’em-ups and mob-scene lynchings and bank robberies and guys on white horses, then deliver the goods. Maintain momentum. Cut out the filler. On with the show!
  4. Let the good guys win. Zane Grey’s novel ends with the wealthy female landowner riding off into the sunset with the notorious gunslinger, but only after all her cattle have been taken by rustlers, her large home has been burned to the ground, her hired hands have been shot or driven off, and all but three of her horses have been stolen. What kind of justice and fair play is that? I’m all for including a touch of romance. But please, we also need to see the varmints get what’s comin’ to ’em.

Now, before I get a ton of mail from irate fans of Zane Grey, let me say that yes, I know many of his novels were serialized before coming out in book form, and as such, it was accepted format back then to drag out the story for as long as possible. But Dickens managed to do that without putting readers to sleep.

As a parting thought, I will confess that I did benefit in an odd way from reading Riders of the Purple Sage. It taught me the four valuable lessons I’ve just listed.

And consequently, when I see my writer friends these days, I ask, “Hey, read any bad books lately?”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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