storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction

Happy Flag Day!
flag-dayFlag Day is celebrated in the United States on June 14 to commemorate the adoption of the Stars and Stripes on June 14, 1777, following a resolution proposed by John Adams in the Second Continental Congress. There was  a circle of only thirteen stars in those days, “representing a new constellation,” as Adams described it. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson officially established June 14 as Flag Day in the United States. There were only forty-eight stars, then, with number forty-nine (Alaska) added in 1959 and number fifty (Hawaii) added in 1960. And, of course, we have George M. Cohan’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” which he wrote back in 1906 for his Broadway musical, George Washington, Jr.

Writing Genre Fiction

I’d like to spend the next few weeks looking at genre fiction, what it is, and the expectations of readers for each.

What Is Genre Fiction?

According to Publisher’s Weekly , genre fiction is a subcategory of fiction, usually thought of as commercial fiction (plot driven) as opposed to literary fiction (character driven). The categories of genre vary, depending upon who you ask, but Publisher’s Weekly (PW) tracks sales using the following categories:

Adult Fiction

Classics
Fantasy
Graphic Novels
Mystery/Detective
Occult/Psychological/Horror
Religion
Science Fiction
Suspense/Thrillers
Westerns
General Fiction

Children’s Fiction

Animals
Classics
Concepts
History/Sports/People/Places
Holidays/Festivals/Religion
Science Fiction/Fantasy/Magic
Social Situations/Family/Health
General Juvenile Fiction

I don’t begin to try to understand exactly why these categories were chosen and labeled as they were, or why Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct categories in Adult Fiction, while they are lumped into a single category in Children’s Fiction. It won’t matter to me as a writer, anyway—until I go looking for an agent or publisher, who will probably have their own definitions of what constitutes Fantasy or Romance.

There is, of course, plenty of overlap among genres. Science Fiction can have Romance in it, for example, and a Western might have some Suspense, but it is a good idea to figure out up front what the main thrust of your story is because there is a big difference between a Science Fiction story that happens to have some romance in it and a Science Fiction Romance. The former is primarily about the space fantasy and cannot be set in any other time or place while the latter focuses on the romance, and the story could really just as easily be put into another setting.

What Genre Should I Write In?

My first suggestion to new writers who ask me what genre they should write in is this: “Write what you enjoy reading.” If you want to write Science Fiction, read Science Fiction. If you want to write Romance, read Romance.

No, you are not reading other people’s books in order to get ideas for your own stories—that would be akin to plagiarism, and anyway, as any writer can tell you, once you start writing, you won’t need other people’s story idea, because you will have plenty of your own!
Rather you are reading books in a specific genre so you can learn what readers expect from a book written in that genre. Readers who read Science Fiction or Romance read them with certain expectations about how the story will go. Not the details, of course, as those will change from story to story, but when I pick up a Fantasy novel, I’m going to expect something magical or supernatural or paranormal in nature, and if I don’t get it, I’m going to be disappointed.

Can I Write in More than One Genre?

I have been told by workshop leaders, teachers, agents, and others who seem to know what they’re talking about that writers should stick with only one genre, or at the very least they should change pen names when they change genres. That is something I have never done myself, though I know writers who do. (One acquaintance of mine uses so many pen names I have a very difficult time finding her books!)

I do personally write in more than one genre because I basically write stories I like to read, and I am an eclectic reader. I don’t change my name, except to differentiate between my professional/scholarly publications, for which I use Laura A. Ewald, and my fiction, for which I use Laura Anne Ewald.

Some quite famous writers write in more than one genre. Some change their byline, and some do not. For example, Jayne Ann Krentz writes stories set in Victorian England, contemporary America, and on futuristic alien planets. To differentiate between them, she publishes the first under the pen name Amanda Quick. For the second, she uses Jayne Ann Krentz. And for the third, she uses Jayne Castle (her maiden name). To bring her readers with her, when she started writing in the future, her covers read, “Jayne Ann Krentz writing as Jayne Castle.”

On the other hand, Anne McCaffrey has always used Anne McCaffrey, from her contemporary romances of the 1980s to her extensive science fiction portfolio, including the epic Dragons of Pern series, to her Fantasy chapter books she has most recently written for her grandchildren.

This is very much one of those “it depends” questions. I think the bottom line is, “What do you want from your writing?” If you want to find a commercial agent and publisher who specialize in a specific genre who can help you earn fame and fortune, then sticking to that genre for all your writing may be a smart move. As for me, I just want to keep writing stories so I can get those pesky characters out of my head. Sometimes the story is in the here and now, and sometimes it is on another planet or in a star ship. Sometimes my characters are just regular people, and sometimes they have a little more—or aren’t even human.

For as long as I keep reading multiple genres of fiction, I expect my stories will continue to be just as varied. But writing stories is the thing I most enjoy doing, so I expect I’ll keep my imagination primed by reading whatever strikes my fancy—and keep writing the stories that pop into my head in whatever genre they may be.

The next time, we’ll start looking at what readers expect from different genres.


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com 

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Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

WRITING THE STORY, PART 8

Sometimes, taking a topic and breaking it down is the way to begin a story, but identifying the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of your story is how you get from the topic to the story. (See Writing the Story, Parts 1–6.) These go back over 2,000 years—Aristotle gave us the 5 Ws in his Elements of Circumstances”—and your story must be about the 5 Ws, not about the research topic, for it to be good storytelling. Let your story illuminate your topic so your readers will be drawn to care about it through your story. This is a time-proven method writers and screenwriters use to change the hearts and minds of readers and audiences.

 Aristotle also gave us what he called the Three Unities, and these, too, can help modern storytellers build a compelling story that will keep readers turning the page.

The Three Unities: Action, Place, and Time

 It was Aristotle who, in Part 5 of his Poetics, defined three unities for writing stories: unity of action (the What), unity of time (the When), and unity of place (the Where). In other words, for Aristotle, the best stories are about a single action that takes place in one location within a 24-hour period. This doesn’t mean you can’t—or shouldn’t—write an epic spanning decades or generations, but Aristotle’s unity theory is something to think about when you sit down to write.

It is particularly helpful for those who write plays for stage or screen, because such unity can, among other things, drastically reduce production costs. But it’s about more than just the cost. It is also about grabbing—and keeping—the audience’s attention for the duration of your story.

Edith Wharton’s short story, “Roman Fever” (first published in 1934), is an outstanding example of a contemporary tale that embodies all three of Aristotle’s unities perfectly. The story is set on the “lofty terrace” of a Roman restaurant, where two ladies—described as “intimate since childhood” yet really knowing little about each other—are  reminiscing about their own first visit to Rome when they’d been the same ages as their two young daughters a quarter of a century before. The entire story is set there, on the terrace, during one hot afternoon. The passage of time is marked by the occasional ringing of bells in the city, a glance at a watch, remarks on the changing of the light, the setting sun, the appearance of waiters with candles for the tables. The action is found entirely within the dialogue between these two middle-aged women, as they talk about their own youthful visit to Rome, their late husbands, their daughters, and the intervening years. Old jealousies and secrets are slowly revealed throughout the story until the final “gotcha” moment surprises the reader almost as much as it does one of the characters in the story, giving “Roman Fever” a most delightful ending. Unity of action, time, and place make this short story both engaging and satisfying for the reader.

As another example, contemporary thrillers often utilize the unity of time as means of bolstering suspense. A good example can be found in Elizabeth Lowell’s St. Kilda novels, beginning with The Wrong Hostage. What makes this first novel so riveting is that Judge Grace Silva has only two days to track down and produce her ex-husband, who cheated a Mexican drug cartel, before those who kidnapped her son kill him. Lowell keeps the clock ticking with chapter headings like

Tijuana, Mexico

Saturday, 12:12 p.m.

La Jolla

Sunday, 11:03 a.m.

Ensenada

Sunday, 4:00 p.m.

Throughout this entire almost 500-page novel, Lowell reminds her readers that the clock is ticking and time is running out. Believe me, these books are very difficult for a reader to put down!

FocusOf course, these unity rules do not have to be followed—successful stories have encompassed generations of families or whole quadrants of space—but they are something to consider when planning your story, whether you are writing a short story, a research paper, a magazine article, or even a 500-page novel. The important thing to me as a writer is to not bite off more than I can chew when I select a topic or write a story—fiction or nonfiction. If I really care enough about something to address it by writing about it, I want to focus my writing to avoid tackling something so big I can’t address it thoroughly enough to make my story complete, realistic, and compelling for my readers.

Next time, I will leave the process of storytelling and in June begin a new thread on story genres, the characteristics of, and reader expectations for, everything from Westerns to Romance to Science Fiction.


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 7

Happy Norwegian Independence Day! I grew up in a little town west of Seattle called Poulsbo, a once tiny Norwegian fishing village on Puget Sound full of Scandinavian immigrants who made their living on the water, where, when I was a kid, May 17 and Viking Fest were bigger than the 4th of July!

And on a more somber note, tomorrow,  May 18, is the 39th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State’s Cascade Range. Though my immediate family and I were not directly affected by the eruption—my uncle 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, actually had more ash fall on his car than we did living only 250 miles north and west of the mountain—it is, nevertheless, one of those events I will never forget, the memory of which acts as a continual reminder of how little control we human beings really have over this tiny planet we call home.

And now, on to more storytelling . . .

Strategic Thinking: How Thorough Topic Analysis Can Build a Strong Foundation forstrategic-thinking-1-638 Effective Writing

Have you ever picked up a book or a magazine article that looked interesting, then started to read it only to find the author was more interested in preaching than storytelling? This can happen all too easily if we’re not careful. Most writers have something important to say, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, but it is just as important to think strategically about our subject matter lest we become so immersed in whatever issue we’re tackling that our story gets lost in the argument. Writing can change minds and hearts, just as performance drama can, but beware of biting off more than you can comfortably chew and letting the topic eclipse the story rather than letting the story illuminate the topic.

What Is Strategic Thinking?

Let me give you an example that goes back to my librarian days, when one of my biggest tasks was to help undergraduates create research strategies that would allow them to successfully write a paper or complete another project that would fulfill an assignment on their syllabus.

Librarian: What can I help you with today?

Student: I need to write a five-page paper, and my professor wants us to use four scholarly sources.

Librarian: Okay. I can help you with that. What is your topic?

Student: Pollution.

Librarian: That’s a pretty big topic for only a five-page paper, so let’s try to narrow that down a bit. What is it about pollution that interests you?

Student: Nothing. I just need to write about pollution.

Librarian (trying again): The thing is, entire encyclopedia have been written on this huge, umbrella topic, so you will need to identify some part of the topic that you can address in only five pages. For example . . .

This is where the librarian goes on to help the student think strategically about the topic of pollution, which leads to a subtopic narrow enough for a 5-page research paper:

Laura_Narrowing Topics

Such topic analysis can build a strong foundation for effective writing, and without it, writers can flounder in a mass of too much information. Smaller and narrower can prove more effective and manageable than bigger and broader, allowing the writer to write really well on a very specific topic—or on only one aspect of a much larger topic.

If you ever wonder just how narrow you can go, click into an online university library catalog and look up PhD dissertations. For all that they can provide massive studies, at the core you will find a seemingly insignificant subtopic under one of their discipline’s massive umbrella topics. You will find PhDs are rarely generalists, even within their own discipline. Likewise, those who write popular nonfiction of any length can make their work much more effective using the same strategy. 

Strategic Thinking in Fiction

This same kind of strategic thinking can also help when writing fiction. For example, let’s look at the topic of pollution. Perhaps, like me, you’ve seen the commercial on T.V. in which two young men are pitching their plastic bracelets made from recycled plastics and glass recovered from the Pacific Ocean. These two surfers tell a brief story of how they were on a surfing vacation and discovered just how big plastic pollution is in the ocean and what they are trying to do about it. They are telling their personal story—and it is a compelling one. What other personal story might you write about the same topic?

Of course, fictional and factual writing are not the same thing, but you could still deal with pollution in a fictional story. If I were to write one, it might be about what my city’s efforts to eradicate mosquitoes is doing to our local honey bee and firefly populations. It’s sad, but true, that controlling mosquitoes for the sake of combating the West Nile virus has an adverse effect on other insects. Just as DDT all but ended malaria in certain parts of the world but caused such devastation to the bird populations they stopped spraying it, which only led to an increase in malaria, causing more human deaths. This topic has been tackled widely in both the scientific and popular news literature, but it would also make for good fiction.
For these kinds of topics to work in a story, however, a writer needs to strategically analyze the topic and find the human-interest among the facts. For example, you could write about a farming family’s plight,when their fruit crops decline as the result of the death of their honey bee population. Do your research and get the facts right—that’s first—but then find that human-interest nugget that can bring the huge umbrella topic down not only to a digestible bite but to a story that will catch your readers’ interest. Yes, fiction writers can write about pollution—and any other topic under the sun—if they feel called to do so, but how much more effective a short story, a poem, a song, or even a novel would be if it were about a little girl or boy who asks, Where Have All the Fireflies Gone? 

Next time, we’ll look at Aristotle’s Three Unities: Action, Time, and Place.


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 6

The Why? of Your Story

We have reached the 5th of our five Ws of storytelling—the Who? What? When? Where? and Why? of it. I like to call this one the “So what?” To my mind, this is the most important W of all, because without it, there is no reason for anyone to read something. How well crafted a story is matters less, in the end, than why it was written and why it should be read. When I’ve finished reading a story, I want to know why I read it in the first place. There needs to be something that answers the question, “So what?”

Why Writers Write
There are all sorts of reasons behind why writers write. It may well be just for entertainment—and whatever income sales might generate. But even with entertainment, you’ll want to give a reader a reason to pick up your story and not another—and a reason to keep turning the pages. Does it contain a message beyond the obvious? Did you tackle a social issue that means something to you? What readers will benefit from reading your story?

All these questions are addressing the “Why?” of your story. How many times have you finished reading a book, decided you liked it, then a week later couldn’t remember what it was even about? Good storytelling sticks in the mind, even if only long enough for someone to say to a friend, “I loved that book—you should read it, too, because _______ .” You want your readers to be able to fill in the blank.

Why Readers Read
All the reasons for writing mirror why readers read, of course. We read for entertainment, in order to learn something new, in order to increase our knowledge about something in which we already have an interest. Sometimes readers want only to reinforce an opinion they already hold. Sometimes they want someone to change their mind. Sometimes reading another writer’s words can help us to grow personally.

This does not, of course, mean we must always set out to write something “meaningful.” The entertainment factor cannot be underestimated. After fifteen years of higher education that overlapped with thirteen years of working as a college librarian for which I did a lot of research and writing, I rarely pick up a book to read today that is not strictly for entertainment. Escapism is my friend! In my own writing time, I generally write what I like to read, which most often means fictional stories. That being said, I do find my fictional storytelling generally holds some truth, some meaningful nugget, which I hope reaches my audience. That’s the “So what?”

This is, of course the key to writing success: identifying and connecting with our readers’ need to know “Why?”. It helps to keep that in mind when writing, because while we will sometimes simply write stories that we like to read—I certainly do—there is also a better chance of connecting with readers, if we take the time to define our audience for a specific story and tailor our writing to match that audience. Who your intended audience is will dictate what you write and how you write it, the language you use, the vocabulary you utilize, and the detail you invest in your story.

The Final Analysis
However you answer the questions about why and how you write, there are three basic questions to ask yourself about any story you write. You might ask these before you start writing, or you may ask them as you edit, but it is a good idea to address them somewhere in the writing process, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction.

  • What is the point of this particular story?
  • What do I want to accomplish by writing it?
  • What do I want readers to get out of it?

I will often ask these questions before I even start when I am writing nonfiction, as they provide guidance as I go. My fiction, on the other hand, is rarely planned ahead, so I will wait until I am editing a completed draft of a story and allow these questions to guide my editing.  Whenever you ask them, do ask them, because they can truly help you as a writer—not to mention give you guidance when you seek to explain what you have written to a potential reader, agent, or editor.

Next time, we’ll look beyond the 5 Ws to strategic thinking, or how thorough topic analysis can build a strong foundation for effective writing.

__________________________


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Christian editors · Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 5

Where: Location, Location, Location—It’s Not Just Important for Real Estate!

Where-are-youLocation is more than just a place on a map. It has a real affect on the behavior and attitude of your characters too. The obvious issue is urban vs. suburban vs. rural, and this factor will definitely predominate whether the story takes place in the United States, Europe, or Africa.  But there are other things too, from food preferences to sports to laws, requiring your attention as you write of people in other places.

Scale, or How We Visualize Distances

Distance and transportation access are real issues affecting characters in any story location, but this also includes a very real change in scale, or how people view distances from place to place. For example, back in 1982, I spent eight weeks in a little place in Scotland called Edrom, which was quite rural and surrounded by sheep farms. One day we had the opportunity to attend a concert in Edinburgh. Coming from the Pacific Northwest in the United States, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was less than fifty miles—just over an hour away—but they packed the car as though for an entire day’s outing. Back home, my parents commuted an hour and a half each way to Seattle every day, a commute that included over an hour on a Washington State ferry, so it was difficult for me—who’d grown up in a very large scale area—to relate to the much smaller scale mind-set of the Scots.

Forty-eight miles was a long way to drive in Scotland in those days, but because my family had driven the 3,000 miles coast to coast across America three times back in the 1960s, I knew what real long distances looked like. (These family trips occurred in 1965 and 1966 before the U.S. Interstate system was completed, so we took the much slower U.S. highways most of the way.) My new friends in Scotland couldn’t even imagine those kinds of distances living in a country that was only 874 miles from the extreme southwest tip to the extreme northeast tip. When everything in your country is less than a thousand miles away, you simply don’t have the same perspective on distance as we do here in America, just as people who never leave New York or Washington, D.C., can never really understand how challenging it can be to get from city to city in the fly-over zone, and why we must have cars to get anywhere.

How Big or How High?

If you do live in the fly-over zone in America and have never been to a coast, you can’t know what a big body of water feels like. Yes, you can look at pictures, but pictures and even movies cannot replace knowing personally what it is like to stand on a Pacific or Atlantic beach. There is an immenseness to an ocean that you can’t get from any other body of water. At the same time, someone who only knows the crowded beaches of Atlantic City or Malibu can’t really picture what it’s like to walk along an empty, wild stretch of beach on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula on a rainy day.

 Likewise, mountains feel quite different, depending upon what you have experienced. A story set in the Rockies or the Cascades will not read the same as a story set in the Appalachians or the Great Smokey Mountains, where altitude and year-round snow won’t be an issue. I remember when I was a kid, going back east to visit family and driving up into the Appalachians with my aunt and uncle to pick up one of my cousins at summer camp “in the mountains.” We got there, and my sister and I asked, “Where are the mountains?” Believe me, once you’ve crossed the Rockies or stood at the 10,000-foot level of Mount Rainier, every other mountain range, short of the Himalayas, seems small!

Why These Things Matter

The old adage, “Write what you know,” can be good advice when you’re telling a story, because, of course, it cuts out all sorts of necessary research. A simple scene in a restaurant can tell readers a lot about what the author knows about regional preferences. For example, my Southern friends can’t understand why I don’t like seafood, when in fact I do like it very much—when it’s not so spicy it bites back! (I have learned living in southern Mississippi that Cajun cooking is an acquired taste, and I am absolutely certain I will never acquire it!) Our Yankee visitors were sincerely shocked when they came to visit us while we were living in Kentucky and learned they had to drive fifty miles, or at least to the Tennessee state line, before they could buy any alcoholic beverages, since our county was dry. And just try wearing any jersey other than one from the New Orleans Saints’ during the NFL season in my current home town, and see how far you get without odd looks or comments.  These are the details that make a story come alive, but they can also trip up storytellers who decide to stretch the geographic boundaries of their writing without thinking things through.

 Remember, Research Is Your Friend . . .

This does not, of course, mean you need to go live someplace for a time before you can set a story there (though it might be fun), but you do need to be aware of the unique characteristics inherent in any location you select and research accordingly.  Read books—both fiction and nonfiction—set in your location of choice and see how other writers deal with the specifics of a location’s topography and culture. Travel guides, memoirs, autobiographies, or even interviews can help you get a feel for a place through the firsthand experience of others.

 The next time, we’ll look at the “why? or the “so what?” of a story.


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 


Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com 

Christian editors · Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 4

When: Timing Is Everything

timing-is-everything (1)They say timing is everything, and it certainly is when you’re writing a story. I’m reading a novel right now set in 1982, and oh what technology these characters do not have at their disposal! I’ve mentioned before the Larry D. Sweazy series set in rural North Dakota in the 1960s (see Also Murder: A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery, Seventh Street Books, 2015), when most home phones—if they even had one—were party lines. And remember Sleeepless in Seattle (1993), in which Tom Hanks and his son escort a lady all the way to her gate at SeaTac airport?

I have written about doing research on “ Historical Stuff” (see October 12, 2018) in order give your writing credibility with your readers, but it is more than just whether or not a character needs to find a payphone and a nickel (or a dime or a quarter?) in order to make a phone call. There are also the intangibles, those worldview changes that affect an entire society when something extraordinary happens, whether it’s the invention of the automobile, the Emancipation Proclamation, or 9/11.

Three Examples of Major Worldview Changes

Travel

The ability of the average Joe to move from one place to another has changed so drastically over the years I think we forget the dramatic impact this has had on human society. I’m told by those who visit there that one of biggest surprises in the Holy Land is how close everything is. We read Scripture and imagine hundreds of miles between events, when in reality there are actually only a handful of miles between the locals. But we assume—at least in the U.S.—that everything is farther apart, because when we travel for three days, we might put 1,500 miles on our car!

Even our own view of distance here in the United States changed dramatically as transportation improved. How different it must have been for someone in 1850 contemplating traveling to California by covered wagon than for someone living in the 1870s planning to travel by rail (following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869). Even the changes in motor transportation between the mid-1960s (when my own family traveled by station wagon along U.S. Highways from Philadelphia, PA, to the Pacific Ocean) and today (when we have the vast Interstate network) alters how we think about distance.

 Ask yourself, “Where and when do my characters live, and how big or small is their worldview in light of how easy or how difficult it is to get from place to place?”

Credit

Try to imagine life without a credit card. I know there are a lot of Americans today who still don’t use credit cards for various reasons, but according to Gallup, that’s only 29 percent of us. The rest average 3.7 cards each. How will life be different for your characters if none of them have credit? If you are writing a story that takes place at a time when credit might be limited to the local general store, then your characters’ spending habits are going to be a whole lot different from today. And faced with an emergency, without credit, what can they do? What will their attitude be?

The Sanctity of Life

This is a significant issue, depending upon a story’s location and time, and a character’s view of this issue can prove a major part of your story. Does your story take place in ancient Rome, when people died by the hundreds of thousands in the various games? Does it take place in China, where until the 2015 abolishment of their one-child per family policy, untold numbers of girl babies were exposed? Are you writing about gunfighters and bank robbers in America’s wild, wild west?

This issue is a particularly timely one here in the United States, as attitudes ebb and flow concerning abortion and euthanasia. If you touch on either of these subjects, you have to be really aware of the prevailing attitude within the decade in which your story takes place. In the 1982 story I mentioned above, An Accidental Life (Pamela Binnings Ewen, B&H Publishing Group, 2015), a district attorney is prosecuting an abortionist, who is charged with second degree murder in the death of an infant who survived an abortion, only to be put aside to die. This act would have been outrageous at the time of the story, only nine years after Roe v. Wade made abortions legal in the United States, and even when Ewen published this book in 2015, readers might have still been shocked by the plot. But today, a number of states are passing laws legalizing infanticide.  How things have changed since the decade following Roe v. Wade—and how quickly they have escalated in just the past five years.

 And it’s not just about Roman, Chinese, or American law—the details of which you do need to get right for your story to be believable. It is also about social norms and attitudes. Times do change—sometimes radically—for example when even a handful of years ago a group of American lawmakers cheering infanticide would have been inconceivable.

Know the Time of Your Story

 This is why it is critical to know the time of your story well—and how it affects the cultural and social attitudes of your characters. As I’ve said before: read, read, READ! You may be writing fiction, but if you are dealing with a specific period in history—even recent history—you need to read primary documents published during the period in which your story is set. Head to the library or the Internet to find newspapers, popular magazines, and books published in the time frame that interests you. Ask yourself, “What are the critical issues of the period?” and “What were the prevailing attitudes of the people living in the kind of community about which I am writing?”

 When the average life-expectancy is nearing 80, people behave quite differently than they do when it is only 40. When most people never leave their hometown, their attitudes will generally be provincial rather than global. If your characters live in a time where most people never go beyond the eighth grade, they will not see the same world as those living at a time in which college is the norm. If you want your characters to be “real” to your readers, you owe it to them to put your characters in the right mind-set for the time period in which they live.

Next time we’ll look at location, and how it can affect your story.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Developing the What? of Your Story

What is your story? - Comic book style phrase on abstract background.The “What?” of your story is the plot.  What happens to your characters? What do they do? What adventures do they have?  What is the action of the story? The Three Little Pigs provides some pretty funny characters, but there is no plot until the Big Bad Wolf comes calling. A hike through the woods can be beautiful, but it’s not much of a story unless . . . one of the teens in the party steps off the trail and gets lost . . . a late/early winter storm strands your characters in the wilderness . . . a mamma bear takes exception to your characters getting between her and her cubs . . . a dead body riddled with bullets is found at the base of a cliff. Setting and characters are important, of course, but they are not the thing that prompts your readers to keep turning the page.

 It is the plot—the action—that drives the story. Whether it’s a romance, a mystery, an adventure, a comedy of errors, a space epic, or a western—whatever the genre—the plot is the story.

To Outline or Not to Outline, That Is the Question.

Using an outline to write a story is an age-old trick to help writers get started and stay on track, but an outline it not an absolute necessity. Some writers can’t write without an outline, and some never use one. This is another one of those “it depends” topics. For me, an outline is a useful tool when (1) I have an assignment to write about a certain topic, and I don’t want to miss something I was supposed to include; or (2) I have a specific and firm number of words and/or pages to write.

(1) When you don’t want to leave anything out:

When I was in school, I almost always used an outline to make sure I covered the material I was researching thoroughly. From my first college paper back in the dark ages, when I was pounding out papers on a typewriter, to my twenty-first century master’s thesis composed on a computer—and all those essay exams I wrote long-hand in between—I used this writing technique. I still will use an outline when I’m writing nonfiction for the same reason. I generally don’t actually use a formal outline, but I do make a list of points I wanted to cover, move them around until I feel they are in a logical, linear order, and then sort my research into the appropriate sections. It is a way for me to check off each subtopic and make certain I use all the resources I want to use in the proper place.

(2) When you have a firm page/word count:

Today, I’ll use outlines when I ghost write short stories, because if I am assigned to write a complete story in 4,000 or 6,000, or 10,000 words, I need to figure out ahead of time what scenes I’ll need in order to tell the entire story. Again, I don’t do a formal outline, but I will do a list of needed scenes, note what has to happen in each, who needs to appear when, and through whose point of view the scene should be told. Then once I have the number of scenes, I can get a general idea of how long each scene needs to be to reach the final word count.

I don’t, however, use any kind of outline for a novel. For me, that’s the joy of writing book-length fiction. I start with a general idea of a plot, create the characters, set them up, and then just let them go. For me, part of the adventure of writing book-length fiction is that I can create the scene, place the characters, then sit back and watch what happens as I write. Sometimes, I end up with a 60-page novella and sometimes a 400-page epic. It just depends on how the story unfolds—and how long my characters want to play in my story.

Plays and screenplays—the ultimate outline:

 Drama—whether a full-length stage play, a one-act, a television script, or a screenplay—is particularly wedded to a certain number of pages, making a loose outline imperative for me as a writer.  The general rule for script writing is, on average, one page of a script equals one minute on stage. This is, of course, a very general rule, because how long a page takes depends entirely upon how much action is required. A page of straight dialogue will generally take about a minute to run, but other issues, such as conflict, choreography, laughter, romance, etc., can change everything.

 Again, when I’m writing plays or screenplays, I don’t do a formal outline but rather think in terms of the acts and scenes needed to tell the story in an effective way. Come to think of it, what I’m really doing is what in the movie business is called creating a storyboard. I am certain my background in theater—my first fiction writing was a full-length play script—is what has me always thinking about story in terms of scenes and dialogue. This has always made it pretty easy for me to write effective dialogue in my fiction, but it did make moving from brief “stage directions” to narrative prose a challenge when I first started writing novels.

Focusing on the Plot

 I am currently in the middle of turning one of my novels into a screenplay, and boy has this exercise given me a new appreciation for those screenwriters who take on book adaptations! The decisions about which scenes must be included and which can be cut are sometimes agonizing—after all, they were all necessary to the original story when I wrote it!—but this exercise has also given me incredible insight into what makes a scene truly essential to the plot of a story, and how clearly narration should be kept to a minimum. “Show, don’t tell” is a lot easier in a play, because unless you create a narrator as a character (think of musicals like Once Upon a Mattress or Into the Woods), the plot is completely defined by dialogue and action, leaving all descriptive narration up to the scenic designer and costumer.

 This move from prose to play script is an exercise you might want to explore, if you have, for example, a long story you need to cut for a contest or magazine submission. Try rewriting it as a play script, cutting your page count in half as you do so. The scene analysis required by this exercise will help you to really focus on the plot—the core of your story—allowing you to see which scenes really are essential in order to tell the story, and which might actually prove superfluous.

Next time, we’ll look at the “When” of a story and the details that put it in its place.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.