Add Character Challenges to Heighten Plot Intensity

Part 2 in the series, “The Fascination of Physically Challenged Characters

The reason physically challenged characters intrigue readers so much is because they present a quandary. We wonder, have they become fascinating individuals because their handicap forced them to overcome serious obstacles just to survive, or will the physical hindrance somehow eventually lead to their demise if they encounter a situation in which all human faculties are required? We watch these people, study them, try to learn from them. They constantly are in an adapt-or-die kind of environment, which heightens plot intensity.

It is important not to portray these individuals as pathetic, unless there is some sort of subsequent redeeming change in the person. For example, Cap’n Dan in Forrest Gump truly is a pathetic individual—drunken, slovenly, abrasive, self-pitying, and spiteful. As a wheelchair-bound double-amputee Vietnam vet, his bitterness makes him hateful to everyone around him until Gump’s love, loyalty, and friendship give Dan a new reason to live and be happy. He may still be bound to the wheelchair, but Dan no longer is emotionally “handicapped.” It makes for a good story.

Next week: “Ensuring Character Empathy”

________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create Distinctive Characters through Physical Infirmities

Part 1 in the series, “The Fascination of Physically Challenged Characters

If your short story or novel is finished but somehow doesn’t seem to have sparks of uniqueness, you can improve it greatly during the second draft by making small but significant changes to the central character.

One of my college students recently showed me a story she’d written. The plot was captivating and the ending had a clever surprise, but something was missing. The central character was “routine.” I suggested the student revise the story and make the main character deaf. At first the student was baffled by such a suggestion, but when she followed my advice, the main character elicited new empathy. His struggles were more difficult, his success was less assured, and his behavior patterns were anything but “normal.” Now the story was far more interesting.

I gained this idea by reading short stories and watching movies in which characters are more distinctive because of physical infirmities. Let’s use one simple example, that of limping. In the space of fifteen minutes I came up with a list of thirty-four fictional characters known for having a pronounced limp. Both Captain Ahab of Moby Dick and Long John Silver of Treasure Island are each missing a lower leg due to an unfortunate encounter with a sea creature.

On television series that started in the 1950s we had Grandpa Amos McCoy (Walter Brennan in The Real McCoys and Chester (Dennis Weaver in Gunsmoke). These characters had uneven gaits. Dr. Philip Carey, the main character in W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel Of Human Bondage, hobbles because one of his legs is shorter than the other. Another physician, Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), for twelve seasons of the TV show ER used a cane and walked with a very pronounced limp. In the opening episode of the PBS series Sherlock, Dr. John Watson had a psychosomatic limp that Holmes “cured” by getting Watson so caught up in a case, Watson forgot to keep walking that way.

Kenny Rogers limped through all of The Gambler Western movies on TV. In the most recent movie remake of Elmore Leonard’s short story “3:10 to Yuma,” Paul Scallan (Christopher Bale) is missing a lower leg due to a wound from the Civil War and, thus, he hobbles through the action of the entire movie. Even in the new TV series Person of Interest there is an interesting point of curiosity, for in the modern-day scenes with central character Harold Finch, he walks with a very pronounced limp, but in all the flashback scenes of Harold as a boy or as a youthful computer science genius, he is not limping. We have yet to be told how and when he was injured enough to cause him (a multibillionaire, no less) to have to spend the rest of his life with that disability.

Next week: “Add Character Challenges to Heighten Plot Intensity”

________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Overcoming the Social-Club Mentality

Part 3 in the series, “The Pitfalls of Literary Citizenship”

Be sure you don’t confuse community with captivation. Much of literary citizenship involves people who are writing in similar genres. They associate in public or online to a level of exclusivity. For example, at open-mike readings in coffeehouses and chatrooms strictly for poets, participants visit with each other, exchange poems, offer feedback about word choices or rhymes, and share reviews of poetry chapbooks they’ve recently read. If poetry is someone’s passion and that person has no need to earn money as a writer, this may be a lot of fun. However, the world of publishing is no longer that narrow.

Today, with traditional publishing being supplemented by online publishing, self-publishing, print-on-demand books, and e-books, modern writers have to be authors, editors, publicists, agents, and publishers all by themselves. This just isn’t possible by having a “social club” mentality about enhancing a writing career. Today’s writers must explore new publishing options, attempt to write in a variety of genres, work with people in a vast array of publishing venues, and investigate professional networking options far afield.

Let me add that I do understand the value of a publishing house or literary agency having a large network of people who want to discover new releases or read about the lives of authors. I cooperate with that every time a new book of mine comes out. And I also know the value of maintaining a professional website for publicity purposes. Nevertheless, the idea that all writers are in a tribe or a hive working equally is both naïve and self-defeating. By necessity we must protect our time, maximize our resources, and sustain our creative energy.

Writing is and always has been a lonely profession. I understand why many new writers, not used to this alienation and solitude, might desire companionship. Fine. Just make it a fair relationship and exchange.

____________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Watch Out for Leeches

Part 2 in the series, “The Pitfalls of Literary Citizenship

Don’t confuse craftsmen with leeches. People involved in literary citizenship believe they have the right to send others their poorly written manuscripts and receive proofreading, editing, and insightful feedback. Instead of reading books on writing, attending writers conferences or college classes on writing, or being directly involved in a small-group critique circle, they want a shortcut. They want to find people to “fix up” their manuscripts so they can submit them for publication.

When people like that approach me, I send them my editing-fee rate sheet. Sometimes they are shocked that I would want substantial compensation for revising their material. But why would I want to pull myself off of my own writing projects in order to invest hours in the work of an amateur? Uh-uh. Writing for myself is hard enough.

This is not to say I am not open to exchanging manuscripts with fellow professionals. For example, my buddy John R. Ingrisano and I have been friends since we finished our master’s degrees in college in 1973, and throughout the years we’ve bounced manuscripts off each other many times. I wrote the foreword for one of John’s books, and he was my publisher for four of my business books released by R & R Newkirk in the 1980s. Recently, he sent me the opening chapters of his novel in progress, and I sat and read them and wrote comments on the pages and sent them back within a couple of days. John will do the same for me someday. He’s not a leech. He’s a highly skilled craftsman.

Know the difference.

Next week: “Overcoming the Social-Club Mentality”

____________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

The Pro in Quid Pro Quo

Part 1 in the series, “The Pitfalls of Literary Citizenship

The hot catchphrase in the world of publishing these days is “literary citizenship.” In a nutshell, it is the premise that writers should be united in a self-sacrificing network of friends and helpers, all dedicated to advancing the careers (and lives) of fellow wordsmiths. On the surface this sounds like a noble goal and honorable cause, but as a person who has been in the writing profession for half a century, I see a lot of potential pitfalls for freelancers.

It’s important that you don’t confuse professional networking with social networking. I am totally in favor of having a series of solid contacts with editors, accomplished authors, radio and TV talk show hosts, publishers, and literary agents. These people are the movers and shakers of our profession. They’re goal-oriented, experienced, connected, and productive. By working with them in a quid pro quo situation, they can help advance our careers as we, likewise, advance theirs.

For example, if you refer a hot new writing talent to an agent or publisher and that leads to a contract, those folks will be very open to looking at your material, too. If you are willing to read the galleys of a pending book and provide an endorsement quotation for it, that author in turn will be open to reading the galleys of your next book and potentially offering an endorsement quotation for you. These are professional relationships.

Social networking, on the other hand, has the potential to drain writers. Sure, we’re supposed to gain friends and followers who supposedly will plunk down money for our books and help with word-of-mouth advertising. But we must maintain a balance.

It saps time when writers go on Facebook to read about a friend’s baby who has cut her first tooth or about a party that was held for a neighbor down the street for his retirement. I, personally, have stayed away from Facebook and all the other “connections.” When people write to me and say they want to “friend me,” I decline. I’m not prejudiced. I literally have no time for needless chit-chat. I have looming deadlines, most self-imposed. I have open lines on e-mail for people who are my close friends (most are in the publishing world in one way or the other) or business associates. The rest is clutter. That may seem cold, but it’s just reality in the world of professional writing.

Next week: “Watch Out for Leeches”

____________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Finding Motivation in Clichés

Conclusion of the series, “Benefit from Bromides”

Last week we looked how well-known sayings can jumpstart your writing. Here are three more adages that can inspire your career.

“He who hesitates is lost.” Either by direct effort or mere luck, some plum writing assignments will fall into your lap from time to time. If you waste time worrying about whether or not you are ready to handle such assignments—enough education? enough experience? enough time? enough publishing savvy?—you’ll talk yourself out of taking what might well be your breakthrough gigs. Always say yes. To quote Woody Allen, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Trust in your ability to learn as you earn. Go for it!

“Well begun is half done.” Physicists talk about the power of inertia. A body in motion tends to remain in motion. Well, apply that fact to getting started on your writing project. Initiate momentum by assembling all of your tools—notes, pens, cup of java, file folders, recorded interviews. Clear away any distractions, e.g., magazines, books, unrelated research. Divide the work project into a series of stages. Go to the computer, and power it up. You’re halfway home already.

“The race does not always go to the swift.” If you balk at starting a writing project because you know you are a plodder rather than a sprinter, take heart. Often the writer who dashes off a first draft and then rushes it to an editor winds up receiving it back with a rejection slip or request for additional research, better fact-checking, and improved writing. You, however, may take a bit longer to prepare your manuscript, but the high-quality end product will save you time overall. So get started, work at your own pace, and take home the blue ribbon when you cross the finish line.

Consider this parting thought: Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, spent a lifetime assembling the book of Proverbs. Ben Franklin collected all the known one-liners and clichés of his era when he wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac. Let a word to the wise be sufficient.

________________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Jumpstart Your Writing with These Well-Known Sayings

Part 1 in the series, “Benefit from Bromides”

Probably the first rule writing instructors drilled into us was to avoid clichés, those overused, worn-out, tired expressions heard so frequently in daily conversations. However, the only way an expression can become overused is if it contains enough truth to warrant being repeated.

Knowing this, let’s reexamine some of the tried and true clichés that relate to overcoming procrastination and managing time in order to find out how they might jumpstart our writing.

1. Tide and time wait for no man. Magazines have ironclad lead times for their issues. If a publication’s guidelines say that all Christmas articles must be submitted no later than August 15, you’ll have to hit that deadline or you’ll lose that publication opportunity for another full year. Editors and deadlines wait for no one.

Similarly, book publishers work on catalog seasons. If you plan to have your novel among a company’s summer releases, you’ll have to have everything done six months earlier (including the proofreading and correcting of galleys). Bookstore owners and readers wait for no idlers. So hit your deadlines in all matters.

2. Inch by inch anything’s a cinch. Often we hesitate to start working on large projects because they seem overwhelming. But if we break a big job into smaller components, it will become more manageable. When it came time for me to research and write my 325-page doctoral dissertation, I panicked.

However, when the chairman of my committee told me to break it into twelve chapters and then divide each chapter into four feature-length subdivisions, I could see it would be no different from writing one magazine article per week. I could—and did—handle that. You can too. So break your big project into smaller units.

3. The longest journey begins with a single step. In my last year of high school, I determined that I wanted to make writing my career. In fact, I fantasized about cracking the New York Times best-seller list, writing Hollywood scripts, and hobnobbing with members of the literati. In time (read that decades), all that came to pass. What I discovered along the way, however, was that there were no quantum career leaps. It all came one step at a time: college student, newspaper reporter, short-story writer, soldier, graduate student, columnist, novelist, editor, screenwriter, college professor. The same is true of your career. So step out. Today!

Next week: “Finding Motivation in Clichés”

________________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Add Zest with Rhythm and Cadence

You can learn a lot about holding people’s attention if you listen to the spiel of a carnival barker. Notice the use of cadence and repetition in his pitch.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry. Come one, come all. Witness a true wonder of the world. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Step right up and see Joe-Joe the Dog Face Boy. He walks, he talks, he crawls on his belly like a reptile. Don’t miss this amazing creature. Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

The repeated chant of “Hurry, hurry, hurry” gives a momentum to the come-on. It keeps drawing the listeners back to the point that something is in motion, something special is happening, something wonderful is occurring, and the audience needs to become part of it.

Nonfiction feature articles can use this same technique to establish a rhythm pattern. The process is simple: write the feature in an interesting way, but insert key “pitch” lines along the way to make it seem as though the reader is part of what’s happening.

In Jon Franklin’s Pulitzer Prize winning article, “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” Franklin presented the story of Mrs. Kelly’s operation to have a tumor removed from her brain. As Franklin wrote the feature, which was fascinating in and of itself, he occasionally inserted a line in italics that imitated the heart monitor:

beep…beep…beep…beep….

It added tension and drama to the story when the inserted line started to change:

Beep . . . . . .beep . . . . .beep. . . . . . . .beep. . . .”

By doing this, the reader instantly realizes that the surgeon has done something that has put the patient’s life in danger. The heart is slowing down. Mrs. Kelly is on the verge of dying. Uh-oh, what will happen next?

Obviously, Franklin’s pitch line creates a lot of anxiety in the reader, causing him or her to read on, eager to discover what would happen next. However, a pitch line does not always have to be hyper-dramatic. It can also be used to create a mood, establish a setting, or clarify an incident.

I once was assigned to do a feature story every day for a week on the Indiana State Fair. Well, the first few days were easy. I interviewed visiting entertainers and dignitaries, I wrote about the judgings of everything from peach preserves to cattle, and I even did a article on quilting. By day seven, however, I had run out of ideas. So, I decided to write about all of the different people who run the food concession stands.

The feature part of the article discussed how carnies traveled from town to town, what volumes of food and drink were consumed in a day and a week, and how the food was preserved and prepared and marketed. Interspersed among the paragraphs, however, I inserted italicized lines listing the various foods available at a state fair midway:

cotton candy…taffy bars…popcorn…candy apples….

Three paragraphs later, I inserted another line:

hot coffee…lemonade…orange drink…cold apple cider….”

And so it continued until the end of the feature. The pitch lines created a sensation of walking down a state fair midway and visually spotting all the different consumables being sold. It put the reader on the scene.

Naturally, this technique should not be used too often. The effect will become tedious if it is overdone. As a change of pace, however, it can serve to woo the reader into the feature and to keep him or her involved. So, hurry, hurry, hurry, and give it a try.

________________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

6 Ways to Avoid Off-Color Language

Conclusion of the series, “The Issue of Profanity in Fiction”

Writers in the twenty-first century will point out that most television programs and movies use profanity—even blasphemy against the Deity—quite routinely. Some novelists who profess to be Christians, such as John Grisham, use profanity in their novels. Many journalists who never use profanity themselves will write verbatim dialogue in their columns and features, even if it contains offensive language, because they feel an ethical obligation to give readers “the whole truth.”

I am not in a position to judge anyone. I have written more than fifty fiction and nonfiction books and thousands of articles, and I have never once used an off-color word. On the other hand, I am a voracious reader, including numerous contemporary books that contain vast amounts of questionable language. As a writer, I cannot bury my head in the sand and still stay current with today’s readers. Occupational hazard, perhaps?

So, I’m not here to judge you, but I can be here to teach you six techniques for avoiding the use of profanity while keeping your writing believable.

  1. Realize that you can insert a lot of characters into your stories whom readers will not expect to use profanity: missionaries, chaplains, pastors, aged grandmothers, nursery school workers, librarians, school crossing guards, nannies…well, you get the point. Many, many people have no need for profanity in their lives, and the rest of the population is fully accepting of this. If you populate your stories with these folks, profanity becomes a moot point.
  2. The time period you choose to write about can reduce the need to use profanity. When I was an elementary school student in the 1950s, kids could get spanked or expelled for using “dirty” words. There was no profanity on TV, in comic books, in movies (except war movies that dared to use the word hell), in church, or in polite society. Thus, if you write about that era or others like it, readers will not expect to hear profanity.
  3. The genre you elect to write in may eliminate the need for strong language. Romance novels are not enhanced by profanity. Children’s picture books don’t need it. Comedy can be done without getting crude. Skits, devotions, testimonies, interviews, profiles, history lessons, and travel pieces have no need of profanity. The field you focus your writing career on will have a lot to do with your choice of language.
  4. Consider creating a world where there is no profanity. Fiction writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien with The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis with The Chronicles of Narnia and J. M. Barrie with Peter Pan, created fantasy universes that were filled with adventure, drama, villains, heroes, quests, and ethical dilemmas, but no cussing. And Hollywood has gone stark raving berserk about making blockbuster movies based on these books. Even Star Wars has little or no crude language.
  5. Create a venue in which a character who normally would use profanity is now motivated not to do so. When Whoopi Goldberg’s character of a crass, brassy casino singer is forced to live in a convent with one-hundred nuns in the movie Sister Act, she does not swear in their company. When Harrison Ford’s character, detective John Book of the Philadelphia Police Department in Witness, must live with the Amish, he gives up his handgun and never uses profanity. It’s totally believable and realistic.
  6. Create characters whose dialogue is so unusual, it makes the reader forget that no profanity is being used. In the movie Sand Lot, the young shortstop is called “Ya-ya,” because every time he talks, he says, “Ya-ya, I will” or “Ya-ya, that’s right.” It’s cute, and more enjoyable than profanity. Officer Toody in the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? would always say, “Oou! Oou!” every time he got excited. People listened for it.

Don Adams made, “You really know how to hurt a guy,” a regular part of his stand-up comedy routines, and as Maxwell Smart in the television series Get Smart, he would say, “Well…would you believe…?” Mork of Ork said, “Nah-nu, nah-nu” each week. Audiences prefer these clever and familiar expressions over something shocking or offensive or crude.

The point of this discussion is that each writer should be true to his or her own ethics and natural expressions. Writers who feel that profanity is a natural part of creative writing are going to use it. However, writers who do not feel comfortable using profanity in their works should realize that there are plenty of ways to avoid using it. Really. I swear it’s true.

__________________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Expletive Deleted . . . or Not?

Part 1 in the series, “The Issue of Profanity in Fiction

Get into any serious discussion about “realism” in fiction and you’ll soon be part of a debate about the appropriateness—or lack thereof—of off-color language. Fans of screenwriter David Mamet feel that a four-letter word must be used in every sentence of dialogue. Other writers will point out that Hollywood has made seven Jane Austin novels into mega-hit movies during the past fifteen years, and none has contained graphic violence, gratuitous sex, or cussing and swearing.

Let’s sidestep this debate by changing the question from “Should off-color language be used in fiction?” to “How can I write realistic fiction if I choose not to use off-color language?” After all, no one will deny that sailors, dockworkers, drill sergeants, and radio/TV shock jocks use salty language. Yes, that is realistic dialogue. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t offensive to many people. So, the question becomes, is it possible to portray such people in fiction, not have them use objectionable language, and still make them believable? I believe the answer is, yes, but it takes skill.

Past Techniques Used by Authors

In days when censorship was strong in publishing, writers could only use a generic reference when indicating that a character was swearing. For example, in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the mountain rebels would say things such as, “I obscenity in your mother’s milk.” You, the reader, had to fill in whatever “obscenity” you felt was appropriate. Sometimes Hemingway would write lines like this: “The man, Agustín, spoke so obscenely, coupling an obscenity to every noun as an adjective, using the same obscenity as a verb, that Robert Jordan wondered if he could speak a straight sentence” (Tolls, chapter 3). This tells the reader that, yes, these people are crude and foul-mouthed; so, just take that as a given and move on with the story. Since that novel has never gone out of print, most readers must be comfortable with that.

Herman Wouk made a note to his readers in the preface of The Caine Mutiny that he was fully aware that sailors use raw language, but he purposely was choosing not to replicate such dialogue in his novel. It must have worked, since the book became a phenomenal best-seller and was developed into a successful movie with Humphrey Bogart.

We’ve all seen cartoon characters who have symbols such as #@**/! above their heads to indicate they are cussing a blue streak. There is also the gimmick that was used in movies years ago when a character would say, “You son of a ….” and just as the last word was coming out, a loud train whistle or boat blast or truck horn would drown it out.

Other times, writers would let you figure out what was said by explaining it to you in a parallel way. For example, Woody Allen has a stand-up comedy routine in which he explains that he prepares for parts in movies by becoming a method actor; that is, he becomes the character in real life (bus driver, policeman, short-order cook) for several weeks before he actually starts work on the movie. One time, he had to play the part of God, so he went around New York both blessing and smiting people. One man got irritated by this and punched him in the mouth. Woody said, “At that point, I told the man to go forth and reproduce himself. Well…I didn’t phrase it quite that way.”

Next week: “6 Ways to Avoid Off-Color Language”

__________________________________________________

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off