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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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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