What’s your Storytelling Super Power?

storytellingsuperpowerIf there’s one thing I learned from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it’s that when you’re up against tough odds, it only makes sense to play to your strengths.

To be sure, having a crack team to support you makes a huge difference. But there’s only so much Ron and Hermione can do for you. At some point you have face the dragon. And when you do, you’ll be totally on your own. The only way you’ll be able to defend yourself is if you know your strengths.

Discover your writing strengths

Knowing what kind of stories you are drawn to can help you figure out which projects to focus on. There’s nothing worse than spending hours banging your head against the wall over a project that you’re not equipped to handle. Sometimes you can gain valuable experience from working on things that you’re not good at. That’s how we grow and gain new skills. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing to your strengths, with knowing what you’re good at and doing that thing.

Not to mention, unless you’re a complete masochist, nobody enjoys forcing themselves to do something they’re not good at. The good news is, at least with writing, you don’t have to! You can figure out what you’re good at and focus on those kind of projects and your readers will love you for it! Why? Because you’ll get better and better at telling those kinds of stories… and the enjoyment you take from creating projects that resonate with you on that kind of level will shine through in your writing.

Why your storytelling super power matters

Me? I’m an underdog. Well, I like underdog stories. My favorite movies are Field of Dreams and Empire Records, both stories with characters trying to overcome tough odds and beat the establishment. (“Damn the man! Save the Empire!” Am I right?) And my current WIP will end up reflecting that. Full disclosure, though, it doesn’t right now! I had been trying to write a Survivor story (think Castaway or The Fault in Our Stars). But after taking the quiz and taking stock of where I was at in my manuscript, I realized my main character was telling me she was an underdog and that she wanted a few changes made to her story to reflect that.

The result: Now my story has a clearer direction! You don’t always have to throw out what you’ve been working on when you realize it should be something else. Sometimes, a few tweaks or the introduction of a new antagonistic force will make all the difference. For me, the key was to NOT give the main character everything she wanted right away, and to raise the stakes so that she has to choose between what she wants and who she loves.

What’s your storytelling superpower?

Wondering what your storytelling strengths might be? Gabriela of DIY MFA and I developed this awesome quiz to help you figure out which stories interest you. I recommend you give it a try! Click here, answer 7 simple questions, and find out what your strengths are.

Once you’ve taken the quiz, hop back over here and let me know what your superpower is! And then dig in and figure out what that means for your writing! Just knowing what your strengths are won’t make your stories stronger. What strategy do you have to play to those strengths?

(Hey! Did you know that Gabriela has a book coming out this summer? Check it out and order your copy here!)

Want to know more about how to up your writing game? Sign up for the Writing Refinery email newsletter. You’ll also receive a free Character Detail Sheet that can help you learn everything you need to know about the main character in your current WIP!

Advertisements

Remembering Alan Rickman and David Bowie

This week two people who played some of my favorite characters in this story we call life turned the last page on their earthly journeys. It’s hard for me to imagine their passing. The characters they played will live on, but there are people, real live people, who play the parts of the characters that touch our lives. And because we live in this real world where death comes to all, no matter how revered or reviled, there comes a time when we must say goodbye, even if we aren’t ready.

These two men through the wildly different characters they played taught me something about myself: about the value of steady, true affection; about the cost of doing what is right; and about how to face and even embrace my shadow nature.

The story is changing, as it always must. And so today I light a candle for these two, and remember the characters they played that first and most impacted me.

JAH_Colonel-Brandon-Alan-Rickman-jane-austens-heroes-9173033-1024-576
Alan Rickman as the ever tender and noble Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility
snape
Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series
jareth
David Bowie as Jareth, Goblin King in Labyrinth

Rest. Peace. And thank you.

Writing Characters with Magic Powers

Harry Potter I love magicAs a reader, writer, and editor of fantasy fiction, I love a good magic ability in my characters. (I mean, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Name of the Wind… these stories make me so happy!) Something that sets them apart, makes them different from the rest of the people in their world. A secret weapon that they can pull out to use when it seems like they’ve reached the end of their rope. Magic and the possibilities that magic creates in a world are the reasons I read fantasy fiction.

However, in order to have a well-crafted story, you have to give serious thought as to how you use magic. If you don’t, you risk breaking faith with your reader and ending up with a story whose conclusion falls flat instead of creating a sense of satisfaction for your reader.

Here are four things to watch out for when writing characters with magical powers.

  1. Magic has rules. Figure out what yours are, tell your reader what they are, and then don’t break them. Make sure you set up what the rules are fairly quickly so that your reader doesn’t get the impression that you’re going to take advantage of them and stretch their suspension of disbelief too far.
  2. Magic powers should be set up fairly early. Don’t add a new power for each problem that your characters face. Let them test the limits of their power and, more importantly, let magic fail them occasionally. The story you’re telling will be infinitely more interesting if your characters don’t succeed every time they face a challenge.
  3. Magic has consequences in direct proportion to the power of their effect. If you’re going to give a character the power to save the day, it needs to cost something. If all your characters use magic for is cleaning up a mess, the cost goes down.
  4. Magic is not a convenient way to explain some difficult part of your story. Don’t give your character the power to read minds in order that they can have access to information they wouldn’t otherwise know. Remember that it’s a character’s weaknesses that make them interesting, not their all-powerful abilities.

What’s one of the first things that happens when a story with magic is released to the public? They try to figure out where the magic systems break their own rules or fall short of adequately explaining themselves.

If you can master these four facets of writing magic into your stories, you’re well on  your way to building a stellar magic system that your readers will enjoy for a long time to come.

4 Rhetorical Devices to Give Your Prose More Power

Harry PotterRhetorical devices come in handy when you’re trying to emphasize ideas (logos) or evoke specific emotions (pathos) in your reader. Using carefully crafted sentences, you can write in a way that persuades your reader to think or feel a certain way.

We’re mostly concerned with pathos in writing fiction. Your scenes and sentences all work together toward the goal of conveying the emotion of your characters and eliciting emotion from your reader.

You’re probably familiar with these rhetorical devices already, but you may not have known what they were. Using these devices will add emotion and emphasis to your scenes, and help your characters pop off the page.

Four rhetorical devices to give your prose more power

Here are four different rhetorical devices. The examples are from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (of course, because I love Harry Potter!).

  1. Asyndeton – omitting conjunctions in a list of three or more.
    ex. “It was stupid, pointless, irritating beyond belief that he still had four days left of being unable to perform magic…”
  2. Alliteration – repeating initial consonant sounds, either adjacently to each other or spread out in a sentence or across several sentences.
    ex. “Harry felt that nothing but action would assuage his feelings of guilt and grief and that he ought to set out on his mission to find and destroy Horcruxes as soon as possible.”
  3. Anaphora – repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of three (or more) successive phrases or sentences.
    ex. “Was the man he sought down there, the man he needed so badly he could think of little else, the man who held the answer, the answer to his problem…?”
  4. Andadiplosis – repeating the last word of one sentence or clause at the beginning of the next sentence or clause.
    ex. “Was the man he sought down there, the man he needed so badly he could think of little else, the man who held the answer, the answer to his problem…?”

These are just four of many different types of rhetorical devices. We’ll go over other types in the coming weeks.

Rhetoric is a natural part of how we communicate our passion and our ideas with others. You may already use some rhetorical devices without even realizing what you’re doing.

Learning to recognize rhetorical devices in other works that you read will help you better analyze and discuss them. And taking the time to identify and then intentionally employ these devices in your writing will help you become a more effective and eloquent writer.

3 Reasons to Skip Writing Lengthy Character Description

DursleysWhen you’re writing a novel, it can be tempting to take a paragraph to describe every tiny last detail of how character looks. After all, you’ve spent so much time imagining your character and what he’s doing that you can see him vividly, even down to the brand of jeans he’s wearing.

But let’s talk about why you might not want to describe your character to the last detail.

  1. It’s boring
    If you spend a paragraph, or maybe more, describing your character’s look and fashion choices, you could risk your readers skipping ahead to reach the dialogue or the action–you know–the good stuff.
  2. It leaves no room for the reader’s imagination
    Part of the reader’s experience of your story is picturing it as it happens. This includes what the characters look like. Don’t be too quick to control what the reader gets to imagine.
  3. It’s probably not the most important detail you should be focusing on
    Usually character descriptions come at the beginning of the novel in an attempt to tell us what our character is like based on his (or her) appearance instead of showing us his (or her) character in action. Give your character something to do and sprinkle in bits of description where necessary.

And now I’m going to use examples from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, of course, because I think J.K. Rowling models this practice excellently (as per usual).

[Mr. Dursley] was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.

One sentence for each character, and we have what we need to know. We learn a little later that Mr. Dursley wears boring ties and that Mrs. Dursley has a shrill voice, but those details come in the moment, as needed, not all in a clump at the beginning. Especially if the characters you are describing are minor characters, there’s little to no need to get more detailed than this. The reader is perfectly capable of filling in the rest.

A lot of times, writers try to shove the details of their main character onto the reader at the beginning of the story because it’s something that they feel the need to get out of the way and then they never return to it again. Instead of spending a paragraph writing description that your readers are willing and able to fill in for themselves, choose details that will reveal something important about the character or that makes him different from other characters.

harry_potter_grows_01And now an exception to the rule. When introducing the main character, Harry, Rowling uses almost a paragraph to tell us what he looks like, but as you’ll recognize if you’ve read book before, nearly all of his features–from the color of his eyes to the scar on his forehead–end up having some significant role in the story, in the entire series, even.

Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tap because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember, and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had gotten it.

The skinny smallness and the baggy clothes tell us Harry’s aunt and uncle neglect him. The eyes are his mother’s, as he hears over and over once he’s around people who knew her. The broken and taped glasses reinforce the neglect and show the bullying nature of Harry’s and Dudley’s relationship. And the scar is PIVOTAL in the entire series.

Again, it comes down to the details. If your character’s appearance is important enough to spend words on in the first place, use it to your advantage. Use it to paint more than just a picture. Use it to tell your story. Use it to make your characters come alive.

Writing Tips: Don’t Neglect Your Villain’s Motivations

Voldemort; villain
Lord Voldemort, from Harry Potter

Ever find yourself watching a movie or reading a story and wondering what the “bad” guy’s problem was? And when there’s no real motivation, do you find yourself disappointed? Unable–or unwilling–to suspend your disbelief and stay with the story?

Believable villain motivation separates the memorable stories from the forgotten ones. When you can help your reader connect with, even empathize with the villain in your manuscript, they will forgive all kinds of crazy schemes and tactics that the villain uses to get in the hero’s way.

This doesn’t mean giving away everything right at the beginning of the story, either. It’s ok not to understand exactly why a character does something. But you have to give the readers a sense, a hint, an inkling, of what’s going on inside your villain’s mind. Otherwise we don’t care.

As your character’s motivations become more clear throughout the story, your reader develops more empathy with the villain. This can sometimes even raise the stakes. The more powerful the cause your villain has for his evilness, the more important it is for the hero to defeat him.

My favorite example of villain motivation is in the Harry Potter series (of course). Let’s take a brief look at Voldemort throughout the series.

Books 1-4

In books 1-4, Voldemort’s basic motivation was returning to his corporeal state. Completely understandable, of course. Who wouldn’t want to return from a weird, amorphous half-life to flesh-and-blood? (If you wouldn’t, let me know in the comments).

Books 5-7

In books 5-7, Voldemort has two goals. One, to be the most powerful wizard (and therefore the one in control of all the other wizards) and two, to kill Harry Potter. Being powerful is more than just about being in control for Voldemort. It’s about staying alive. If he doesn’t control everyone, then he will surely be killed. He’s done enough horrible things in his previous quest for power that he’s made plenty of enemies. He has to kill Harry to prove he is the most powerful wizard. Rowling sets us up to understand that fairly early in the series, and confirms it by the end of book 5.

As the series progressed, Voldemort’s motivations became more complex, but at the same time remained the same. He wanted to live just as much as Harry did. The reader can understand that, can even get behind some of the steps he takes to achieve that goal. The difference is that the readers wanted Harry to live more than they wanted Voldemort to live.

It’s important to recognize the role that back story plays in strengthening the villain’s motivations. When the time is right and you share that back story with your readers, the conflict becomes more powerful and your readers become more invested in the final outcome.

So don’t neglect your villains! Don’t let them be evil just for the sake of being evil. The better the villain’s motivations, the better the story.