Friday, July 29, 2011

Once Upon A Time...

“Once Upon A Time…”
By Lea Schizas

Fairy tales continue to have a glamour and grip on readers, whether young or old. The ‘Once Upon A Time’ beginnings told you some moral and dilemma would unfold. Nowadays, a writer needs to cut right into the core of their book. Readers aren’t apt anymore to read page after page of descriptive prose to get to the meat of a book.  They need to connect with the theme and character from the start. Although such classics as ‘Lord of the Rings’ continue entertaining readers, the ‘now’ generation prefer to know immediately who the character is and what they will be facing.

The beginning of a story needs to capture either the essence of your character or the theme of the book. In many mysteries, a scene may open up with the onslaught of a murder in progress or the detectives on the scene after the fact. This gives the reader the premise of the book.

The best tip is to start at a point where the character’s ‘problem’ comes to surface. For example:

Jane hates heights but is an avid swimmer and has taken the challenge to join the diving team. Her first attempt at the low board causes a panic attack.

This tells the reader Jane will have to face these ‘height’ demons at some point in the book. It’s fleshing out a part of her personality readers will ‘dive’ right into to understand her obstacle. In the above scene you can begin with the teacher calling out her name and then describe her inner emotions as she is walking and staring at the diving board, as she climbs the ladder looking down at the increasing level of height. Eventually, by the time she hits the board she is so overcome by emotion she might hyperventilate, throw-up, or run back down humiliated. The secondary characters around her are now tossed into the game plan for some ridicule at some point in the book. You’ve now established her obstacle to overcome.

These types of beginnings bring the character’s dilemma and the reader to a connecting factor – a sympathetic involvement to see what is going to happen. Engaging the reader like this motivates them to continue reading to find out the outcome: who might help her, who stands in her way/ridicules her, how she overcomes. You are creating ‘conflict’, the problem area in her/his life the character needs to face and conquer. The worse thing a writer can do is to have someone else solve her dilemma. This cheats a reader and reads like a ‘quick fix’ to the conflict. Imagine yourself reading a few hundred pages only to discover the main character never changes because he/she never gets the opportunity to prove they can do it. I, for one, would never pick up a book written by that author again.

However, having a secondary character involved adds extra dimension to the conflict because now we are offered more possible questions to add spark and interest to the story:

Will this character continue to support the protagonist?
Will this character place the protagonist in a face-to-face moment with her dilemma?
Will this character heighten and add to the protagonist’s obstacle?

Another interesting area with the ‘Once upon a time’ fairy tale theme is using fairy tales to come up with interesting storylines. For example, let’s take The Three Little Pigs:

3 little pigs = 3 upcoming musicians
wolf = their agent who swindles them at some point of their earnings
straw hut = their small apartment
brick house = their mansion when they make it big

You’ve now used a fairy tale to come up with your own storyline by altering the characters, their setting, and added a motive for a conflict with the antagonist-the agent. Let’s dig deeper.

The three musicians are childhood friends or brothers a la ‘three pig’ theme. They’ve been playing as a band since high school. During college an agent signs them up and takes them on a tour. The boys are inexperienced in finances and trust their agent explicitly. During the story, however, seeds are dropped that this agent is a bit on the shady side prompting the readers to wait for the bomb to drop eventually on the boys. Although the readers have an inkling what’s going to happen, the questions keeping them posted to the book are:

  • How will the boys react?
  • What will they do?
  • What’s going to happen to the agent?
  • What’s going to happen to their musical careers?
  • Will the band ever make it?

Readers love drama, action, happenings that take protagonists to a lower level of no return, especially when they can identify with a crisis relevant to their own life. That’s not to say we need to be musicians to understand the characters plight, but as general people we’ve had someone who may have disappointed us in one way or the other. When you can connect a social issue or relevant emotional event to a reader, enough so they can place themselves in your character’s shoes, then they are drawn deeper into your story world.

Using the same fairy tale above, you can come up with literally tons of good storylines to expand and use.

*-3 spinsters on a road trip to get away from the stress of work
  -1 man comes into their lives
  -1 cheap hotel fling with one of them causes a rift between the ladies
  -1 secret the man is guarding will have these women on the run

*3 lawyers defending 3 men for the same crime
 -1 lawyer bribes a witness to lie for his client
 -1 house holds the key to this crime
 -1 twist near the end will have the witness charged with the crime

As you can see from the examples above, one simple fairy tale has now the potential for three different storylines, characters, and settings.

So…Once upon a time when I had nothing to write about, I sat down and remembered my childhood fairy tales…

And my page filled with story ideas…

And my Muse lived happily ever after.

Character Workshop Transcript unedited

Who is your character?

Your character has a story to tell. But what’s the reason for his actions? Writers confuse a writer’s voice with a character’s voice. A writer’s motive for his story is not the same as what the character wants to achieve. When these two areas become confused then the writer risks the chance of plot holes, and lack of depth in storyline.

In other words, a character needs character, period! Each character in your story should stand out as unique. Not carbon copies of each other.

Even heroes can have flaws: bad temper, quick to judge, a tic, a scar, gambling or drinking problem, etc. Something that differentiates them from others.
Your task as writer is to determine what your character needs to achieve by the end of the story.

Knowing his/her goals will help you throw obstacles in his path.

But more than that, you will know how his character will react to these obstacles.

This ‘need’, compelling him to achieve it will be your driving force.

It will help you determine what risks or actions he is willing to take to be victorious.
In a romance it can be as simple as wanting the girl but proving to her he’s the man for her.

He knows she’s got a ‘thing’ for him but can’t understand why she’s not opening up to him.

Finding the answer to this problem might be one of his obstacles before he wins the girl.

In a mystery, the detective needs to solve the crime yet… Other things can come in the way of achieving this. He knows someone in the department is dirty—new obstacle in his path-- Yet within a few pages we see how he is drawn to his next case and he’s suddenly pulled into a plot he doesn’t want anything to do with it.

To a reader, this is interesting because they now want to find out if his incompetence or lack of interest, or anger will pit him in more danger.

One simple way to find out who your character is is to interview him/her. With each profile trait I’ll give you further in, ask him/her for the answer. You’ll be surprised as to your answers. This will cause you to step into your character’s shoes and really play the part.

Another reason for fleshing out a character is to avoid as many dialogue tags as possible, especially when there are 2 people talking. If your character is distinctive enough, then the “John said” tag can be eliminated.

This is why I mentioned above to make sure you don’t have carbon copy characters.So not only do you have to make up or think about your character’s profile but you need to know his speech and pattern.

Is he a tough guys, a la Clint Eastwood, “Go on, make my day.” Or is he more like Columbo, cigar smoking, timid, yet a brainiac in sizing people up discreetly.

which comes first, the character or the story?

it depends who is driving the story. Can be character driven or plot driven
usually it's the character who drives the story

Readers need to connect with your characters. 

Your protagonist must have qualities of distinction, emotional outcries, and elations, and all the other ‘humanly’ qualities a ‘real’ person possesses. Without them, he or she is nothing more than a stick person. How many readers would continue to read about a stick person? I don’t suppose many. The best way to create a fictional person is by observing real people. Real people have motives, goals, disappointments, evil/good in them and this categorizes them as humans. 

However, your fictional character needs to go one step further…actually, you the writer need to go one step further. You need to give the reader the ‘why, what happened, when’ answers and more about your character in order for them to fully understand and bond with them. 

And let’s not forget the villain. He needs to have a background to be fully fleshed out and believable as well.Let’s take Dracula, the all favored villain. We know his background, we know he once had a true love. This brings him down to a level of ‘human’.What is in your character’s background will affect his emotions and reactions to certain things.

For ex: A woman raped as a teen would have her guard up…She wouldn’t go on a date very easily unless…You portray ulterior motives such as the rape has caused her to see all men as scumbags…And her goal is to bring misery to each of her dates…But this inner emotion needs to be fleshed out and shown in snippets either…By actions or inner dialogue

Uncovering the reason for aberrant action like paranoia or realizing it's paranoia - would that be part of the story-mystery or disclosed from the outset?

no you don't have to disclose it right off. That's what will pull the reader in to find out what is wrong with her
it helps them try to deduce as they read
builds suspense

Can a villain be unseen or in the MC's mind?

both. you can have an actual villain, like a person, or the villain can be the character himself.

Janie_Franz: of the plot necessarily?

oh be careful with backstory. Backstory should come as the story develops. Never tell a reader something about the character's past life unless... there is a situation that comes up where the character is tossed back in time in his mind.
When you have backstory you go into narrator's pov and that's passive.

exercise: I want everyone to shoot the name of a character that has stood out for you in a book but--- Also add 1-3 words that define that character for you, ex--
Superman-nonhuman, compassionate, hero

What this exercise helps is to show you the main points that have stuck in your head with a character---
After the book was read, something about them stood out for you---
This is exactly the kind of reaction we want from readers and--
To achieve this we need to build our character sketch/profile, fully rounding out our character---

 I use index cards for each of my characters to remember their traits/appearance---

the next part to this workshop is going to give you areas to flesh out your characters. 

Physical appearance: body shape (fat, slim, athletic, etc)—eye and hair color—any facial hair (maybe hiding a scar)—eye shape (bug-eyed, slanted, etc)—height---

Any physical attributes like a limp, scar, hunch on his back, etc---what he likes to eat, wear, drive—where he lives---

If you need visuals, then cut up pictures from magazines and staple at the back of these index cards

Speech-stutter-mumbles-accent- uses slang a lot –Body language-does he do anything with his head/arms when angry, agitated, happy…

In one of my stories I have a detective who rolls his last unlit cigarette when he quit behind his ear as a soothing method while on a case.

Speech: stutters-mumbles-accent- uses slang a lot -don’t forget characters need not be 100% healthy or fit- think out of the box

Last – his name. Make sure to give a name that really defines who this person is. Now if you want to dig deeper and find out more about him---Who were his parents? Divorced, happily married, fighting all the time, etc…Was you character a meek or in your face child, an instigator---

Did a girl break his heart? Can he hold a job? Does he have any goals in life? 

These questions might sound a bit far off but if you are writing a novel and really want the reader to know him, then YOU have to know your character first.

What you can do is set up a few index cards with these questions and fill them in as you create your characters.

Other areas to really flesh out and make them three dimensional are:
Their humor – do they respond to jokes or gags? Are they hard-nosed bastards/bitches with a superiority complex? Do they have any hobbies, a love for music, ambitions in life? What about their educational background? Do they have a degree? Are hard working characters who succeeded life on their own?
All of these things help to define who your character is…Helps to show why he reacts as he does, or backs off from certain topics of discussion, places, people…Knowing them inside out can only help to connect them to a reader…
But more importantly it will show why he/she is in the predicament they are in now.

There are several ways to portray this:
1-angry with women for having placed him in a position to feel sorry for himself so he might---End up being a murderer—or a heartless bastard to all women he dates until he meets his match and she begins to change him---Remember- a character must somehow change in some big or small way from the way he was portrayed in the beginning…I know I am repeating some things but it’s important otherwise you have a robot who has learned nothing from his adventure.

and that's it for my workshop. Questions?

So before we write the story itself, we should have a bio written out? or learn some things as we as writers go along?

elements of their live come out in snippets via narration, dialogue
you should interview your character every step of the way
for example
let's say your character has a notion to kill someone
ask him why
why that person
why now
do you know the consequences
having him answer will give you the details to write down that given scene
because you will know your character's actions and reactions in that scene.

So it's an ongoing dynamic between the character and writer, not a character 'sketch'

that's right although many writers prefer to sketch then write
so your book will tie in M with your main character’s reactions to certain situations at the end readers will then come up with A HA -- that's why she did what she did
everything your character does as in life must have a purpose and meaning
someone asked about plot driven and character driven
I"ve had this discussion with a few in the past and some agreed and some didn't but for me Potter is character driven
because a reader connects with Harry's predicament, his situation and they are connected to him so whatever Harry feels, experiences, the reader does too

how many of you here have interviewed your characters? and did you discover anything new while interviewing them? 

what is the hardest part in creating a character for you guys?

okay so let's brainstorm different voice and dialogue
a different voice can be as simple as having him repeat certain phrases...
always posting a question after an answer

Distinguished dialogue is difficult for me.  My daughter once said all my characters speak like English teachers.
Sometimes my characters are too much alike when they are siblings.

reading your work aloud helps tremendously---
for flow
and staleness
how many read dialogue out loud?

distinguishing who is speaking by fleshing out your character is important
action tags gives the reader a sense of body stance which is good
but those two at times can be over done. Use them in between tags

over a long bit of dialogue the tags become annoying most readers skip over said and there is no loss of flow

that's right
said is one of those invisible words for readers
they skip right over them
when you add another word in 'said's' place then you cause them to stop and read and miss the flow. so using tags smartly is a must
another be careful area is beginning with backstory
no reader can connect with a character's backstory if they haven't been introduced to the character yet

writer's interjection is when the writer now is telling the character's story-narrating what he is doing like
John stood for a long time thinking what she said to him. That's telling. We are not in the character's head any more,  but telling the reader what John is doing.

If you are writing in third person how do you make it clear that it is inner dialogue. Do you jump to first person for their thoughts and then back again for actions?

I use it in third person all the time. Place it in italics and it's known it's the character thinking --  in present tense.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hi, I’m Elizabeth Ashley,

 heroine of May I Have this Dance. During the summer of 1955 I fell in love. Deeply in love. I met Danny Sullivan while we visited Lakeview Resort, where we went every year ever since I could remember. That summer was special, I was finally of age. It was my coming out year. That’s high society talk for looking for a husband.

Well I found mine. Danny! We were inseparable, much to my father’s dismay. My father was… well, let’s just say old fashioned.

Wait, old fashioned wasn’t even the word to describe my father. He should have lived in the Victorian Era. Honest, he was such a stick in the mud. And strict. Good lord, you can’t imagine how strict he was. Nothing I did pleased him. And me dating Danny Sullivan definitely did not please him. He tried to forbid it, but I pretty much ignored him. Something I’d never done before. I wouldn't have this time either, but I knew he wouldn’t do anything because he wouldn’t go against Danny’s aunt, Mrs. James. Actually, she really wasn’t Danny’s aunt, but that’s another story. She called him her nephew and that was enough for the people at Lakeview.

Mrs. James was the most prominent person in Lakeview. Heck, she pretty much owned most of it. So no one went against her. To suffer Mrs. James’s wrath just wasn’t worth the risk. No one did it, including my father. But that didn’t keep Father from disapproving of Danny.

Oh no, Father didn’t approve of Danny in any way, shape or form. He never passed up a chance to lecture me on Danny’s lack of breeding. Not that it mattered to me. Danny was everything I was looking for in a man. He was sweet, caring, sensitive and attentive. What more could a woman want?

So I did pretty much what I wanted. Danny and I soon became a couple. That meant none of the other guys even asked me to dance, which was fine with me. None of those guys held a candle to Danny.

When he asked me to marry him, I couldn’t believe it. I mean me, Danny wanted to marry me! I was in seventh heaven. Until it came time to ask Father that is.

To find out what happened, you’ll have to read May I Have this Dance is available soon from MuseItUp Publishing
To learn more about me, visit my website:
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