My writing buddy Nightmare and I were doing some joint critiquing for WriteOnCon together (because we’re nerdy gals and just love doing that sort of thing) when a scene we were reading struck me. At first I couldn’t figure out why some of the writing didn’t work. As Nightmare pointed out, it wasn’t bad writing, but there was something about it that didn’t scream good writing either. This isn’t to single out the person we were reading because I’ve come across this style often in writing, especially in fanfiction (where I first started writing) but also in various bad books I’ve endured. In talking to Nightmare (as always happens because we tend to read each other’s minds), I figured out why some of these things bothered me. Here are some lessons I’ve figured out how to explain from our joint analysis so far:

1) In a story, especially in the first chapter, most especially in the first few pages, pick a scene, pick an action. Do not spend the first ten pages dredging up the entire back story of the universe we’re about to dive into. Think of the reader as a tourist. We just got off the plane and we’re walking down the terminal with her carry on in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. We walk out the sliding glass doors and the sudden whoosh of compressed air behind us says ,“This is it. This is somewhere new.” Even if you’re writing about a nonfictional place, make sure you have a specific location for the reader to land – somewhere real, somewhere tangible. Stories never start at the beginning. They start in the middle. That means everyone involved already has a past when they walk into the first chapter. They don’t necessarily think of their past every single time something happens, but it’s still there to shape their reactions. Now take that reader, who just got off the airplane, and stick them in the first chapter of your story. Get them acquainted with their new surroundings. What do they smell? What do they taste? What do they hear? Who is there to welcome them? What conversations will they overhear?

2) I recently participated in a theater intensive workshop with Tom Todoroff, a pretty amazing guy. Something in particular that stuck with me after my experience in his class was what he called the biggest question an actor should ask him/herself:

“What are you fighting for?”

All characters in a scene are fighting for something. Whether it is to be heard, to save a friend, to save yourself, to be invisible, to get the girl, to make it to that show, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is fighting for something. If they’re not fighting for anything, then you’ve got a problem. No one wants to read about someone who isn’t fighting to do something. Even apathetic characters are fighting for something (to be left alone, to find someone who understands them, to get attention). So find out what your characters are fighting for.

3) Now that you know your characters are fighting for something, look at them in an interactive setting. When two or more characters stand in a scene together and talk, they aren’t just talking. They are fighting. Even friends and allies are fighting. They may be on the same side or have different plans but either way, find their driving force. Find what connects them in the scene, why those particular characters must interact (just because the “plot says so” is not a good enough reason). This is the “chemistry” between characters, that thing that actors have to have with each other or the love scene/hate scene/whatever doesn’t work. Find the passion, find the connection between your characters. This can include setting (as setting can often act as a character). These were my exact words to Nightmare: “It’s kind of like… the MC (main character) is fighting against x and the villain is fighting for y. What you should have in a scene like this is the MC fighting against x and villain fighting for x. But if you have them essentially fighting different battles, they don’t interact. What you end up with is two characters who are monologuing at each other. There’s no unity to the scene, no sense that these two are actually fighting in a room.”

Just as a disclaimer, I am learning a lot of these lessons as I go along and I’m integrating them into my writing slowly. If nothing else, writing has taught me that I am a novice (even after ten years of writing) and that I am constantly learning to improve my craft.

After this, we read the next person’s excerpt (we had to read five of them) but those lessons are for next time.