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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Don’t Bore Your Readers

Part 1 in the series, “Read Any Bad Books Lately?

Someone sent me an e-mail with the subhead, “Twenty Classic Novels You’ve Probably Never Read.” Since I consider myself to be a well-read person, especially in literary classics, I decided to download the list and prove the sender wrong.

I was surprised to discover nine books on the list I had not read. That fact drove me crazy. I determined to get those books and read them pronto. But doing so proved to be one of the worst goals I’ve ever set.

The first book on the list was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey (whose real name, I swear to you, was Pearl Grey). That book should have been titled Writer of the Purple Prose. It’s terrible—absolutely terrible.

The story is set in Utah in the Old West. Much of the book is a tirade against the Mormons and how they disrespected women, disrespected “Gentiles,” and disrespected authority. Other times it becomes a pro-environmental pamphlet about preserving the animals and land of the Western territories. Yet again, it becomes a tearjerker about an orphan child whose mama died from harsh living. All of the dialogue is corny and overblown, the characters are cardboard, and the plot’s resolution is depressing.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finished the book. Here’s the thing that amazed me about it: I could see that all Westerns written (or filmed) after its publication had used this one novel as the cornerstone of what should go into a classic Western saga. I mean, in all fairness, this novel had it all:

  • four quick-draw gunfights
  • two massive cattle stampedes
  • a lone, outsider gunman with only one name: Lassiter (think Shane fifty years later)
  • a pony that got ridden to death by its owner (think True Grit one hundred years later)
  • a saloon brawl
  • the discovery of a lost valley
  • panning for gold
  • cattle rustlers
  • ancient Indian burial grounds and cliff dwellers
  • secret hideouts behind a waterfall
  • a good guy chasing bad guys on horseback
  • a girl bandit
  • and even a crooked judge.

Seriously, folks, if I could do the Reader’s Digest version of this novel and delete all the filler and editorials and melodrama, it would make an exciting story. Maybe that is why it has been made into a movie four times, each with only the highlights of the book’s most exciting section—which, as it happens, leads me to the four important lessons I learned by reading this drawn-out, boring novel.

Next week: “4 Lessons from a Bad Book”

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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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Finding the Right Editor

Conclusion of the series, “Offering the Blemished Lamb

My advice to developing writers is to seek editing in stages. First, try to become part of an active writers club, where you can read your material aloud or pass it around for feedback. Maybe the other members won’t be professional writers, but in all likelihood they will be voracious readers, and they can tell you if they found your manuscripts interesting, understandable, and readable. They can point out certain strengths you have, as well as flag some weaknesses not obvious to you.

Second, you can attend writers conferences at which you can submit sample pages of a work in progress and, for a slight fee, a competent instructor will edit your material and then display sample pages on an overhead screen. These “manuscript makeovers” or “thick-skinned critiques” will show you ways to improve your manuscript, as well as let you observe other students’ writings and gain from the editing they receive, too.

Third, when you are ready, you can hire a reputable copyeditor to go through your entire manuscript, marking it for grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, format, transitions, style, research, structure, logic, and content. Usually, by asking other writers you meet at writers conferences, you can get referrals and recommendations of copyeditors who have an excellent reputation among writing circles.

Your goal will be two-fold. Not only will you want to have your manuscript professionally edited, but you will also want to work with someone who’ll explain how you can avoid making the same mistakes in the future. For instance, here’s one example of the personal notes I write to my editing clients: “You are creating split infinitives. Let me explain what they are and how to fix them.”

Way back on September 1, 1980, Time magazine ran a four-page feature called, “The Decline of Editing.” They showed how even the most elite writers of that day—Gay Talese, Bob Woodward, Judith Krantz, Alvin Toffler, Robert Ludlum—had released books with passages of pathetic writing because they thought they were too important to have anyone edit their material. The critics ripped them to shreds. Today, with self-publishing, the problem has only worsened.

Don’t offer blemished lambs. You’ll wind up being the one sacrificed.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, 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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Time Is a Hard Teacher

Part 2 in the series, “Offering the Blemished Lamb

Two years after a woman spurned my counsel about her book needing to be edited, that same woman approached me at another writers conference. She told me she had gone home, signed a contract with a self-publisher, and had ordered five hundred copies of her book to be printed. She didn’t hire an outside editor, feeling sure that the message of her book would make it a best-seller.

When the book came out, she became a laughingstock. Online reviewers made fun of the poor-quality writing. No one would hire her for speaking engagements, assuming that since she wrote so poorly, she must also speak very poorly. Not even her closest friends would pay her money for the book. She lost thousands of dollars, was publicly humiliated, and wound up with a garage full of books nobody wanted.

“I thought I was serving the Lord by bringing out a book that would help people,” she told me. “But in my haste for success, I offered up a blemished lamb, and my sacrifice was unacceptable.”

I wish I could say this was an isolated case, but that’s not so. It occurs so frequently, I feel compelled to write about it. With self-publishing so prevalent today, would-be authors are trying to take shortcuts by rushing poor material into publication. But, as my good friend Jerry B. Jenkins is fond of saying, “There’s a big difference between being published and just being printed.” He’s right. And, usually, that difference is in the quality of the book’s content, presentation, research, organization, and overall writing.

I know, firsthand, the value of working with a competent editor. During the 1980s, I co-authored four novels and three nonfiction books with Holly G. Miller, the senior editor of The Saturday Evening Post and a staff columnist for more than twenty years for Today’s Christian Woman and Country Gentleman. Holly was a ruthless editor, but in working with her I learned how to be meticulous in my research and writing. (And this, mind you, was after I had already earned a doctorate in English.)

If you talk with Holly, she will turn the criticism back toward me and say that I was equally severe with her material. Maybe so. All I know for sure is, our manuscripts never came back with requests for rewrites from our publishers, and all of our books sold very well.

Next week: “Finding the Right Editor”

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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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Why Editing Is Crucial

Part 1 in the series, “Offering the Blemished Lamb

Here is a sad but true story. A few years ago, a would-be author approached me at a writers conference and asked me to take a look at the first chapter of her nonfiction book manuscript. She said she wanted an honest critique, so I pointed out several places that had mechanical writing problems (spelling errors, comma splices, mixed metaphors, grammar flaws). I also examined her table of contents and showed her how the organization of her book could be revamped and better structured.

The woman asked if I’d be willing to go through her entire 288-page manuscript and copyedit it, as well as make notes about how to restructure it. I said yes and handed her my rate sheet for editing work.

The woman flinched and said, “You expect me to pay you this much just to proofread my manuscript?” I pointed out to her that it would take me from five to ten hours to complete all the work required to correct her pages, and I explained that that would be time I would not be able to work on my own writing projects. I would need proper compensation.

“I think you’re exaggerating the weaknesses in my book,” she said. “I’m going to talk to some publishers at this conference and get other opinions.”

I told her I felt that was a wise thing to do, although I knew she would get the same response from everyone she talked to.

At the end of the conference I saw this same woman waiting for a shuttle bus to the airport. I asked her how her meetings had gone.

She lifted her nose, sniffed, grimaced, and said, “I don’t think any of those publishers have a clue as to how valuable my topic is. I’m going to show them what a mistake they’ve made in turning me down. I’m going to self-publish my book.” And with that, she boarded the shuttle and rode off.

Next week: “Time Is a Hard Teacher”

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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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Think Uniqueness in Dialogue, Not Accents

Conclusion of the series, “Tricks to Making Dialogue Sparkle

When I’m sitting in an airport during layovers, I listen to the way people around me talk, and I take notes. I don’t try to capture a German accent or a Southern drawl so much as I try to record the uniqueness of the speech patterns.

How do people pronounce specific words? What words do they like to use, and which words do they repeat frequently? I find myself jotting down idioms, contractions, word order (syntax), and even ways grammar rules are broken. I sometimes transcribe overheard conversations and later read them aloud as though I’m an actor trying to learn lines in a play. It puts people inside my head who don’t sound like me. This leads to diversity in my fictional characters’ voices.

When dialogue works well, it gives vitality to a scene and definition to characters. Often, it has to be rewritten many times before it sounds natural. However, revision is worth the effort because readers return to authors who can talk the talk of insightful, entertaining dialogue.

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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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Let Dialogue Define Your Characters

Part 3 in the series, “Tricks to Making Dialogue Sparkle”

If an episode in your novel is lying flat, or if the narrative drive of your plot starts to fizzle, enliven things by having a character explode onto the scene. When Cruella de Vil arrives at the young couple’s apartment intent on confiscating all 101 Dalmatians, she bursts into the room in a whirlwind of total domination. Her hair is flying, her arms are flailing, her cigarette ashes are flinging. She wails and screeches as she bounces around the room counting the puppies.

Cruella doesn’t merely talk; she bellows commands, insisting the dogs be rounded up, turned over to her, and taken to her limousine. Her volume is high, her words are caustic, and her behavior is flamboyant. There is an immediate new intensity to the overall plot. What Cruella says and how she says it instantly define her as the villain, someone to fear and hate and distrust. (Note: Don’t you just love how her name contains the words cruel and devil?)

You can do something similar. A drill sergeant can burst into a barracks at 5:00 a.m. booming orders. An ambulance team can ram through the doors of an emergency room calling out vital signs for a patient being wheeled inside. A judge can suddenly lose her temper, slam her gavel, and lecture the defense attorney. In each instance, the power and volume of the dialogue will define the role of the person speaking, as well as intensify the energy of the scene.

Next week: “Think Uniqueness in Dialogue, Not Accents”

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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:

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

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Try a Flip-Flop with Dialogue

Part 2 in the series, “Tricks to Making Dialogue Sparkle

If you’re not confident about how to make a scene dramatic enough, you can surprise readers by doing a flip-flop. In scriptwriting this is called role reversal. A “normal” scene would have a mother going berserk because her seventeen-year-old daughter has come in two hours after curfew. But think about how much more intense the scene would be if the teenager were admonishing the mother for coming in late:

“You couldn’t call or text to let me know you were okay?”

“It’s a school night. I thought you’d be in bed.”

“You’ve been a single mom for nine years, and you think I’m not going to want to hear about your first date?”

“It was just dinner with a friend, Sweetheart.”

“You’ve been gone seven hours, Mom. That was more than just dinner. Why are you so late?”

You can write a whole scene in the standard way, but then you can swap your characters’ roles. What if the employee argued against her boss about giving raises to the employees…or the teacher argued with her principal, insisting teachers needed to spend more time after school fixing bulletin boards and preparing lesson plans…or the insurance agent tried to convince the customer he didn’t need to purchase a $250,000 policy?

To readers, role reversal is so unexpected, it compels them to see how the scene will unfold. It’s edgy, surprising, and captivating. Try it.

Next week: “Let Dialogue Define Your Characters”

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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:

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

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Puttin’ It on the Stage

Part 1 in the series, “Tricks to Making Dialogue Sparkle

Before my latest book was released, I received a call from my publisher. “You’re saving us a lot of money,” he said.

My response was instinctive. “Add it to my next royalty check.”

“I’m serious, man. We hired a scriptwriter to convert your novel to a script for an audio book. She had it back to us in three days. She said your dialogue was so natural, she pretty much just transcribed it.”

“You know what they say: ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’”

“Well,” he said, “yours is on the page, so we’re puttin’ it on the stage.”

Although novels, short stories, and works of narrative nonfiction are venues of the mind, I try to write dialogue as though my readers will be in an audience listening to a performance. It forces me to keep the dialogue crisp, witty, poignant, and supported by the right stage business. In this new series I’ll share with you some tips from scriptwriting that will enhance your prose.

Begin by reading and studying other writers’ scripts. And by that, I mean reading them aloud. When I was in graduate school as an English major, one of my profs made us read out loud in class. We read long passages from plays by George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett, and Agatha Christie. I was amazed at how this approach to understanding literature also served to sharpen my ear in regard to writing dialogue for my short stories. I still do this today with TV and movie scripts, musicals, and stage dramas. You can do likewise by obtaining play collections from the library or downloading public domain scripts from the Internet.

Next week: “Try a Flip-Flop with Dialogue”

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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:

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

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