How to Balance Character and Action!

How to Balance Character and Action  by Julie Hyzy

Characters, whether sympathetic or despicable, are the fuel that keep a plot moving. I’m sure you’ve heard many writers—whether plotters or pantsers—compare writing a novel to taking a trip.

Characters are fuel

Whether they start with a detailed road map or simply with an idea and a general direction, writing is likened to driving from one place to another with stops at interesting sites along the way. While that’s a fine analogy, allow me to offer an addendum: Drivers/authors aren’t going to get far without fuel. Compelling characters are what provide the power to keep a story moving. Without them, readers won’t feel an urge to join the journey. In that unfortunate case, even the most exquisitely devised route—with all its fascinating must-see attractions—may never be fully explored. Put another way: Until a reader is emotionally invested in a character, any actions in support of or against that character’s well-being fall flat.

A guy and a truck

Allow me to offer a very basic example: In an opening scene a guy gets run over by a truck.Let’s say the author manages to incorporate a measure of suspense into the story. Our unlucky guy—staring at his cell phone—steps onto the street as a truck barrels around the corner.

A talented author may do a phenomenal job of drawing out the seconds before impact with descriptions of the man, the truck, weather conditions, and time of day. This same author, knowing that details are key to believability, may work hard to depict an accurate accident scene, using, say, three pages of exposition to illustrate the horrific destruction.

After the collision occurs and the guy has been smashed to bits, readers may keep turning pages if they wonder why this guy’s death was important or why the truck didn’t stop. But unless this story comes from a trusted author, readers will only keep turning pages if they care.

In the example above: Do you feel any sadness at the street-crosser’s demise? Do you feel anything at all?

Probably not. It’s hard to truly care about the dead pedestrian yet because we readers know nothing about him yet.

But what if there’s more?  Let’s back up a little.

What if, moments before the poor fellow steps onto the street, he’s on the phone with his pregnant wife who called to tell him she’s gone into labor, that there’s blood everywhere, that she’s called an ambulance? Worried for her and their child, he steps up his pace and swears he’ll meet her at the hospital soon. His car is on the next block. He looks up from his phone to face the oncoming truck.

Now, how do we feel about this character?

While the example above is no one’s idea of a brilliant opener, I’d suggest that the second approach—the one where we learn a little about our soon-to-be-deceased’s family life—provides enough characterization, both for him and for her, to provoke an emotional reaction from the reader. And it does so without slowing the action. I’d argue the characterization adds to it.

In this imaginary tale, if the next scene shifts to the wife at the hospital, we’re immediately invested in her welfare and that of the baby. She’s unaware of her husband’s death but we readers know that the news will be hitting her soon.

That kind of tension—knowing that at any moment her world will come crashing down—is what keeps us turning pages.

Along the way, while the wife shifts from angry to worried, we also learn more about her character. And again, the action hasn’t slowed down one bit.

Conversely, if this same story started with the guy waking up in the morning, taking a shower, going to work, thinking about the baby and having that trigger a memory of his own childhood and playing on the swings and running with his dog, and, and, and… (see also: no action), only the most determined of readers will make it past chapter one.

How can writers effectively balance characterization and action, then, in a way that captivates readers and keeps them engrossed into the wee hours of the night?

Action is the accelerator, but characters provide the power!

According to the title of Christopher Booker’s oft-quoted tome, there exist only seven basic plots. Even if Booker’s estimate is off by several dozen, that still leaves millions of books per story line out there. Whether the story is tragic, comic, follows a protagonist on a quest, or one of the other plots Booker describes, what sets a tale apart is its cast of characters.

Because I believe this so firmly, I subscribe to this notion: While action moves a story forward, it’s the characters that truly drive the plot.

Action is key, and not only in crime fiction. To extend our take-a-trip analogy, action as the accelerator—we step on the gas if we want to get anywhere. When we exert pressure on the gas, our speed increases, just as action pumps a reader’s adrenaline to get those pages turning even faster. As our speed increases, however, we use more fuel. And that’s when we must rely on character power.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, taking time for character internalization during an exciting action scene can serve to intensify your reader’s experience. I’m not talking about slowing the action with a detailed flashback. Slowing the action is not our goal. But taking the time to include a sentence or two—perhaps a mere phrase—not only keeps your reader grounded, it has the potential to deliver buckets of delight.

In a key scene near the end of my new book, Virtual Sabotage, protagonist Kenna Ward doesn’t know if certain individuals in a virtual reality scenario are real or simulations. As she fights for her life, she takes precious seconds to evaluate and then re-evaluate whether to fight for their lives as well. These quick moments bringing the scene’s characters into sharper focus also serve to intensify the action.

Soul-searching

Another concern when balancing characterization and action is keeping your character’s soul in mind. Would he or she take the steps you need them to? Would he or she react the way the plot requires them to? If not, the story won’t work. Characters must follow the rules of their own souls. Plots can change on a whim.

Remember that your characters are always right—about themselves, that is. Try to figure out why they refuse to behave the way you need them to. Is it because you haven’t laid the proper groundwork for this behavior? You haven’t explored a dimension of their personality that a certain action depends on? Maybe that means rewriting a prior scene.

While there are few absolutes in writing, I will defend this as one of them:

Do not ever force your characters to do something against their will.

To clarify: I’m not suggesting that characters can never be encouraged to act against their wills. Putting a gun to your protagonist’s head often serves as ample encouragement. What I’m advocating against is forcing behaviors that don’t make sense and that your characters balk at performing. When an author forces such action from his or her characters, it shows. That author loses credibility. And readers.

Action vs. activity

Don’t confuse action with activity. Action propels the story forward. Activity describes what’s going on. And while well-placed activity can set the groundwork for action (think of the phobias and OCD tendencies of detective Adrian Monk, brought to life by the actor Tony Shalhoub on the TV series, Monk), activity for activity’s sake (filler) risks putting your reader to sleep.

Some of the best examples I’ve found that balance characterization and action come from the late, great Sue Grafton. In her excellent alphabet series, scenes are presented to the reader through Kinsey Millhone’s personal filter. Every one of Kinsey’s wry observations not only delivers sharp detail, it allows us to peer into her soul as well. Pick up a Grafton book to see what I’m talking about. The stories move at such a quick clip you almost don’t realize how well you’ve gotten to know Kinsey along the way.

There are so many complexities about balancing character and action that I’d love to have an afternoon of conversation to dig even deeper into what works, what doesn’t, and why. Next conference, let’s chat! Or let’s talk now on the Career Authors Facebook Page!

Julie Hyzy is the New York Times bestselling and Anthony Award-winning author of the standalone thriller, VIRTUAL SABOTAGE (October 23, 2018, Calexia Press), the White House Chef mystery series, the Manor of Murder mystery series and the Alex St. James mystery series

The Soulful Arc of the Universe

 “….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand dark midnights. Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

MLK

SEVENTH SON by Author A. M. Offenwanger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A. M. Offenwanger has written a magical fantasy that is a delight to read. I know when a book is really good and that is when I can remember with clarity the characters and the story weeks later. This tells me that the characters were memorable, likable, and the story interesting. Offenwanger’s writing is memorable, delightful and magical. The story involves a former Librarian, Cat, who is not happy with her life and decides to do some traveling with the money she has saved. She has been “dumped” by her boyfriend and life seems to be going nowhere for her. A lover of museums, Cat visits a museum of antiquities and admires several beautiful and strange appearing turquoise bowls, that apparently have a magical quality about them. Little did Cat know that these bowls would change her life beyond anything she could imagine.The world building is simple, but effective. I highly recommend Seventh Son, as a delightful summer read. It is uplifting, with a love story that will make your heart melt.

 

The Beautiful Words, A Poem by K. D. Dowdall

The beautiful words,

That ring so true,

Bring me but dark memories,

From a time and a place,

Best forgotten,

Yet always, just beneath,

The surface of a black night,

Filled with anguish and loss,

Of fear, trepidation, horror,

Not of this world,

Not now, I pray,

but then it crawled

Into being, by what force,

I know not,

They say, nonsense, but it lives,

Somewhere, now,

To come again,

To crush, destroy, all the goodness

The world has ever known.

The pinnacle has arrived,

Once again, we face, the face,

Of evil incarnate, we see it,

Daily,

but never acknowledge,

What we see,

We feign ignorance,

Deny what we see,

Yet, it creeps to our door,

Seeps under the floor,

The poison of its words,

It lies so beautifully.

 

 

 

 

The Boy With The Indigo Eyes – A Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jenna Sweet was taking a walk back in time. It was now mid-afternoon, sunny and warm. A slight breeze rustled through the trees. A dog barked in the distance. She walked along the side walk, not really aware of where she was headed. Jenna guessed it was by instinct alone, a path she could not forgot. A narrow bridge was ahead of her and Jenna knew it was the bridge that crossed over Stoney Brook.

It was a place where she swam and frolicked as a kid. It was where her mother and her aunt would bring lunch for Jenna and her cousins. Her mom and Aunt would sit around the picnic table talking, laughing, and smoking cigarettes. Both of them have been gone for a very long time now. It was a terrible accident. It changed all of their lives forever.

Jenna stood looking over the bridge, looking down into the rippling water feeling pensive and sad. She listened to the flow of the brook over the rocks and stones as the afternoon sunlight glittered on the water like sparklers on the fourth of July.  She breathed in the sweet smell of the glacier-fed brook and the musky scent of wet moss along its banks. A long kept memory of a young stranger came flooding back into her consciousness from the past.

Jenna was once again walking through the forest and it was cool and shadowy. She remembered how the sunlight coming through the tree tops dappled the forest floor with shades of sun-kissed yellow.  The forest, thought Jenna, was a masterpiece of infinite color, with shimmering emerald leaves, azure sky above, and chestnut brown earth below.  The pungent memory scent of evergreens enveloped Jenna’s senses. She remembered the feel of the waxy substance of the fallen leaves beneath her bare feet as she padded through the dense forest and listened for the sound of water against rock. She would follow the sound to discover the hidden part of the Brook that few had ever ventured to see.

Beneath the forest canopy she heard a slight rustle and then she saw the boy. His long slender legs moved with an effortless grace like a white-tailed deer through the brambles and bushes. He leaped dancer-like over decaying logs and skipped stone by stone over mossy growths, wet with dew.

The tall, dark-haired boy stopped now and again to smell the air as he made his way through the forest. Jenna, Indian-like, followed the boy through the brambles and bushes. She was almost close enough now to see his nostrils flare. In the distance, Jenna heard the flow of water over pebbles and stones as she followed the stranger who followed the sound of the brook.

Ahead of them were large granite boulders and the sound of rippling waters. She watched the boy as he skillfully scampered over the huge glacier boulders and disappeared from view. Jenna followed suit and climbed over the boulders to reach the rocky banks of the brook, but when she looked around, the boy was nowhere to be seen. She sat down for a moment and sighed as she wondered who he was and why she had never seen him before. After all, reasoned Jenna, this was a small farming community with only one middle school.

Jenna dangled her feet above the crystal clear water as she looked at her reflection that was gazing back at her. Her long golden brown braids framed a face that was tanned from the summer sun, hazel eyes now as deeply green as the moss beneath her feet.

She then slipped her slender pubescent body into the cool waters of the brook and was suddenly struck by an incredible sense of freedom within her being that was exhilarating and daunting at the same time. She was growing up and her life and all of life was before her.

Jenna looked down and saw that the wet cloth of her blouse had fallen away, revealing how her body was changing. Suddenly, she was aware of someone looking at her from above. It was the tall dark-haired boy. He was looking down at her. She was sure he had been watching her and then he smiled. Jenna blushed crimson. The boy’s broad shoulders and long muscular legs glistened in the warm sunlight as he stood high on the rocky over-hang above her.

Without acknowledging it, both Jenna and the boy were awakening to their bodies as they grew and changed. Soon, thought Jenna, they would no longer be the carefree children who swam with abandon and ran like deer through the ancient forest. Jenna turned away from the boy, but secretly smiled at this sweet flirtation as the sunlight sparkled like diamonds on the rocks, the trees, and the water’s surface.

The boy, not unlike an Indian brave stalking his prey, suddenly appeared near Jenna, having silently slipped into the water. It was his indigo blue eyes that startled her. The depth of emotion that emanated from his eyes, she didn’t understand. The boy smiled knowingly at Jenna. He could read her thoughts, she knew.

“Listen, he whispered to Jenna as he placed his hand near to his ear. “The water is whispering – do you know what it is saying?”

Jenna leaned into the water to hear the voice of the brook. The brook murmured as it gently flowed over the rocks.  Puzzled, Jenna could only shrug her shoulders.

The boy leaned closer to Jenna—his face just inches from her up-turned nose. His indigo blue eyes, now glittering in the sunlight, looked into Jenna’s eyes, willing her to somehow absorb the mystical knowledge of the brook that he so easily understood.

“You must hear it for yourself” he replied gently, in a voice that was softly mesmerizing. Jenna felt spellbound by his presence and she opened her mouth to speak, but she could only shake her head.

Suddenly, a flock of Canadian Geese flew over their heads and broke the spell. Both of them she remembered, had looked up together to see the geese majestically crossing the azure blue of the endless sky. So close to them, she thought, that she could feel the air move around them. A single feather swirled downward to the water’s edge and the boy gently cupped it in his hands. He then placed the feather in her hand. She brought it to her lips to touch and smell the still warm and fragrant odor of wheatgrass, marsh, and meadow. The white quill was downy soft and still warm. She would always keep it.

When Jenna turned to thank the boy, he had already climbed back up to the rocky ledge and was staring at her.

“Wait”, she cried out. “Who are you?”

“Someday you will know, Jenna.” And then he was gone.

Jenna stood on the bridge over-looking the brook remembering those moments long ago. She was now twenty-four years old and her life had taken many twists and turns since the day that seemed a lifetime ago. It surprised her how constant the memory of the boy stayed with her. How many years, she thought, have I returned to this town, to stand on this bridge, wondering whatever happened to the boy.  Jenna took the single white quill feather from her pocket and brought it to her lips. It still held the scent of wheatgrass, marsh, and meadow.

Jenna suddenly became aware that someone was watching her. She then turned to see a tall, dark-haired young man. He was staring at her. His long slender legs moved with an effortless grace as he walked toward her. She was stunned. There was something about him, she thought. Her mind raced with speculation.

The young man came to stand in front of her. He leaned in, closer to Jenna—his face just inches away from her up-turned nose. His indigo blue eyes, now resplendent in the afternoon sunlight, looked into Jenna’s, willing her to remember. “The water is whispering,” he said with a grin. “Do you know what it is saying?”

Jenna’s eyes opened wide. She nodded to the tall, dark-haired young man with the indigo blue eyes and smiled. “We are like the brook–a constant thing, she told him. “Nothing is ever truly lost, if one seeks to remember.

“Yes,” he said, “that is the secret of the brook.” The young man took her hand in his and together they walked down memories road, into the future.

Also posted on <a href=”https://www.bloglovin.com/blog/18450453/?claim=aaxzcdmsmpa“>Follow my blog with Bloglovin</a>

 

 

 

Dark Cold Water, A Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted two years ago. One of my most favorite short stories.

The Indian summer began like any other when I was twelve years old growing up in the small colonial era farming community of Granby, Connecticut. The last fields of the summer harvest had been shorn of their corn, alfalfa, hay, and tobacco. The wet smell of fresh cut hay filled the air as well as the mingling aroma of tobacco fields that now lay bare of their crops. The large tobacco leafs would hang neatly from wooden poles to dry underneath white-sheeted tents. The smell of tobacco, sweet and pungent, hung in the air. It was a grown-up smell, a smell of intimacy and secret goings-on. My cousin Garrett and I would sometimes sneak up behind the white-sheeted tents and listen. Giggles, laugher, and strange noises were not unfamiliar sounds to our ears as we listened. More than tobacco leafs nestled under the white-sheeted tents.

Not far from the tobacco field was an ancient apple orchard that looked like something out of a wicked fairy tale. Walking through its darkly gnarled wood was a rite-of-passage experience for anyone under the age of twelve. To this day memories of Canton road, where I grew up, float across my senses.  I envision its tar paved darkness as it crosses over Salmon Brook, cuts through McLean’s game preserve, wanders by weird old Stewart Duncan’s farm, and the said-to-be-haunted Sperry colonial homestead. Canton Road weaves it way over-laying the swell of land occupied for ten thousand years by the indigenous people like the Massaco Indians who were a part of the Algonquian tribes. Evidence of their inhabitation is still visible by those who know what to look for.

Spirit Pond is one of those places. There are sightings by the locals of ghost warriors that still drink the dark cold waters of Spirit Pond and are not as rare as one would like to believe. Spirit Pond is a large spring fed body of water surrounded by tall reeds and weeping willows. Its dark cold water and deep recesses still hold untold secrets as well as the body of Minnie Brogan. My rather strange cousin Garrett was drawn to the story of Minnie Brogan and I followed suit. Young Minnie Brogan lived in a small dwelling at the edge of Spirit Pond in 1680 not far from our home in the Salmon Brook Settlement.  She was said to have met with a ghastly end. It is a haunting legend of sorts and the story appears in the town’s tourist pamphlets as a way of advertising its colonial history to visitors.

It was said that young Minnie Brogan lived a solitary existence in her meager dwelling on the edge of Spirit Pond and tended a few chickens and a vegetable garden. She also grew medicinal herbs. In colonial times, a female living alone who also concocted remedies was sure to raise suspicions of witchcraft. Yet, Garrett and I doubted this explanation and we would often sit by the edge of Spirit Pond trying to envision that long ago crime. Minnie Brogan was dragged from her thatched hut. She was bound by her hands and feet and thrown into the spring fed pond. We wondered how scared she must have been as she slowly sank into Spirit Pond’s cold dark waters. I personally believe there was more to it than just medicinal herbs. Minnie was young, alone, and was said to be hauntingly beautiful. She was accused of conjugating with evil forces. As a six grader, I had no idea someone could actually be murdered for not knowing how to conjugate a verb (although there were times I was sure by teacher had thought of it).

So, it was in winter when Spirit Pond was frozen-over that Garrett and I would go ice skating and just as often we would look to see if Minnie Brogan’s ghostly apparition would rise up from the ice. Although we never actually saw her ghostly-self rise from the pond, we imagined what she would look like if she did. I wonder about Minnie Brogan’s secret hopes and dreams that vanished into the dark cold waters of Spirit Pond one nefarious moonless night long ago. Sometimes I even imagine I can feel her presence as I dip by fingers into the waters of Spirit Pond. It is though the earth remembers her and still holds her secret longings. I, too, will always remember Minnie Brogan.

 

What to Write About When You Don’t Have Anything Interesting to Write About!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I came across three blog sites (not on WordPress) that dealt with this situation. I have been doing lots of reblogging instead of writing something myself, however, reblogging is a way of saying something important too. Mainly, that I appreciate the great writing and interesting subjects of writers, authors, and bloggers I follow, that need to be shared with others because they are so good.

Here are some points of view I found unusual:

From: http://shynesssocialanxiety.com/what-to-talk (write)-about/

  1. It doesn’t matter what you talk (write about) about because people forget most conversations completely a few days after they happen.
  2. . You have to be in the moment, not thinking about what happened 10 seconds ago or what you should say 10 seconds in the future. You have to trust that your mind can come up with the right thing to say automatically, you just have to stop “filtering” or censoring what comes out of your mouth so much.
  3. Most people have no idea what’s going to come out of their mouth, even as they’re talking. They are spontaneous when they are socializing. That’s the level you want get to.
  4. Next time you’re in a conversation, talk without thinking. Stop putting pressure on yourself to say interesting, unexpected or funny things all the time. Sure, some conversation topics are better than others, but most of the time people talk about nothing significant. Over time this approach will feel natural.

(with this attitude – I doubt this writer of the above suggestions has many friends left that care – whatever he or she is writing.)

From:  http://www.wisebread.com/4-ways-to-always-have-something-interesting-to-say

  1. Potluck: The Bite-Sized News App: Reading newspapers? Who wants all the printer’s ink on their fingers? Reading full articles online? Ain’t nobody got time for that. Fortunately, Potluck boils down the day’s events into bite-sized little chunks that allow you to initiate conversation as well as keep up with your friends. It’s the perfect app for the professional on the go who wants to be able to have something of value to contribute to a conversation, but just doesn’t have the time to follow the news.
  1. Now I Know: Trivia to Your Inbox: How about just getting a list of cool facts and the story surrounding them sent to your inbox on a daily basis? That’s just what Now I Know does. Whether it’s the story of how the Secret Service was created by Abraham Lincoln on the day he was shot or the real facts on how carrots were once purple, Now I Know is going to give you a small army of brain candy factoids to deploy for just about any occasion.
  1. Mental Floss: Listicles That Matter: Mental Floss is the gold standard when it comes to brain candy journalism. Their online incarnation is head and shoulders above the rest of the listicle-style websites populating the Internet today. Read a couple of articles every day — or just skim them even — and you’re not only going to be amused, you’re going to be filled to the brim with delectable tidbits of pop science and pop culture information to wow friends and colleagues alike.
  1. Turn Twitter into a Fascination Feed: Here’s an interesting way to use Twitter. Instead of following friends and boring news outlets, follow trendsetters, thought leaders, and other sources of bite-sized knowledge. Whether you’re into WW2 history or the latest developments in mobile content marketing, there’s a Twitter feed for you. Time’s list of the 140 best Twitter feeds is a great place to start.

(Ahhh.. “don’t follow friends? What?  Just write to strangers? Ahhh…no thank you. I really do prefer writing to people I know/follow – a little less awkward sharing things that way.)

From: https://verysmartbrothas.theroot.com/what-to-write-about-when-you-cant-think-of-anything-to-say

  1. What’s your absolute favorite thing on the planet? For me, it’s music. Usually I can default to something music related—an ode to an artist here, a list of songs or artists there. Music is the great deliverer of ideas. But for you, maybe it’s crocheting. Or cooking. Or hiking. More than likely, there’s an article in your soul about that thing you love that hasn’t been written because you haven’t written it.
  2. What’s something interesting that’s happened to you?: I’m an experience person. I’m just as likely to write about something mundane and attempt to turn it into something interesting as anybody else. Seinfeld isn’t my favorite show, but I appreciate the show’s premise as a way of doing business. Life keeps lifting, and I promise you that there are people out there dealing with or experiencing the same things you are.
  3. Lists, lists, lists!: Some people abuse lists. But a list is something you can put together that gives folks something to argue about. Is Hotel Rwanda the best movie set in Rwanda? I have no idea. Rank them. Movies starring Meg Ryan, ranked from best to worst? Has it been done? Probably. Did you do it with your own ranking and reasoning? Nope. Do that. Greatest TV dads of all time? Talk about something you can argue about all day, every day. It’s Charles Ingalls, by the way. Fight me.
  4. Find a new take on something everybody’s talking about.That might be difficult, but there are always takes out there that have yet to be explored because most people have the same take with different words. Give it a go.
  1. Have you tried something new lately?: Write about it. You’d be amazed at how many folks might be interested to read about, I don’t know, a stepladder. Or paint. Or an app you’ve just discovered. I’ll bet you just got some new shoes or a new hammer. Or maybe not, but if you did, what about a non-review review, or a functional living review? Or “I copped some new old Adidas shell toes that were awesome in 1985—here’s how they feel today.” There are options. Avail yourself, homie.

(Actually, writing about a stepladder, an old pair of shoes you’ve copped, starting an argument, or a writing about a new hammer, isn’t such a bad idea.)