Great Storyworlds!

Wow, I’ll tell you we have some excellent writers among us! I really loved the entries I received – so many just captured their story world with such active description they pulled me right in. It was so hard to choose! Here’s a couple of my favorites:

*****

The minute she stepped onto the beach, hot sand filtered into her shoes. The faint scent of coconut tanning oil carried on the scorched breeze. Sweat trickled down her ribcage. A gorgeous hunk of a man jogged around the edge of the lake. Talk about eye candy. Too bad she was on the career advancement diet. No sweets for her

****
When I stepped out of my dressing room into the dim hallway, I should have heard death’s gentle taunting. I should have seen it hovering in the glow of the flickering lights. I should have felt its talons pulling me closer to the abyss.
Instead, I rushed through the hall toward the campus television studio, my heels clicking on the tile like a ticking time bomb.
I pulled out my compact mirror and checked my make-up once more. The intoxicating aroma of grease-laden pastries wafted my way, tantalizing my taste buds. Mental note: Find the Einstein who put the breakfast buffet between my dressing room and the green room and have him lobotomized.

And here’s the winner of the StoryWorld entry this week! I loved the use of the precise nouns, and a couple of well-placed, vivid verbs that take you from feeling festive, to knowing there is something deeply wrong. Thanks Roxanne for your scene!

The colored lights and festival atmosphere had charmed April when she’d first arrived. She loved strolling among the cafés, boutiques, street vendors, and hotels that lined the shallow, murky water. Anonymous in the crowd of tourists, Latinos, and cowboys, who flooded the riverbanks seeking entertainment. No one called her name. No one needed more than she had to give.

But the sultry afternoon heat drove her into one of the air-conditioned restaurants. In the evenings, she sipped margaritas and sat beneath the bright umbrellas at tiny, wrought-iron tables next to the river, listening to Mariachis dressed in traditional black, short jackets and tight pants. The musicians filled the air with the rich sounds of their vihuelas, or round-backed guitars, along with their sweet violins and brilliant trumpets.

Yet, now that she worked on the River Walk night after night, the place had lost its allure. Tonight, the carnival atmosphere wearied her.

Roxanne will be getting her choice of a SMW or RH book.

Thank you to all who sent in such wonderfully vivid scenes. Getting that storyworld set is essential in order to take the next step – the inciting incident! We’ll be talking about how to choose the best inciting incident for your hero to jump start him on the journey. We’ll also talk about how this fits into the classic “Heroes Journey” structure, and some options for story structure. Have a fabulous weekend!

Wooing your Reader with Words

What makes a great book stand out? Is it the story? The words? The characters?

All of the above. In today’s competitive market, a story has to sing, it has to woo the reader with its premise, a hero or heroine who stands out from the mundane, and sentences that connect with oue hearts. However, the truth is…most readers don’t even notice these components. They say – wow, what a story, I loved the characters. Or, it made me cry. But, most don’t know the secrets that are embedded in every page.

But you will. *g*

We’ve been talking over the past weeks about premise, and characters, even setting, but today, we’re going to turn our attention to the words we put on the page that beckons our reader into the scene.

Take these two sentences:

The wind was cold on her face, and her legs were tired as she hiked through the blizzard to the cabin in the woods.

It’s okay, and we get the picture.

Now, let’s woo the reader.

The wind cut at her skin and, as she plunged her foot knee-deep through another layer of crusty, ice-glazed snow, her legs trembled — so brittle, as if with one more step she’d shatter, and crumble into a ball, only to be erased by the blizzard howling in her numb ears. Oh, please, where was the cabin?

The key to wrapping a reader in a scene is filling your writing with active verbs and vivid nouns, and an occasionally placed strong adjective. Can you feel the cold? I hope so. If not, then I haven’t done my job as a writer.

I have a kind and willing participant (thanks, Chandra!) for today’s blog – someone who submitted an already strong scene. With her permission, I’m going to re-arrange and offer some ideas that might make it even more powerful.

****

Original:

The coal truck careened around the snake curve, horn wailing, and Andrea lost her footing. The root she held gave way and she slid rapidly down the ravine. Kudzu vines wrapped around her like tentacles. Briars grabbed and ripped her flesh. She landed crumpled in a terathum bush. Needles of pain chased up and down her bare legs. Kicking only tangled her deeper into the tenacious thorns.

It’s strong, and we can really see it – great story world!

Let’s tighten it up a bit.

The coal truck careened around the snake curve, horn wailing. Andrea’s feet jerked off their perch, and the root in her grip ripped free. “No!”

She plummeted– fast, too fast – into the ravine, kudzu vines whipping at her, briars shredding her flesh. She landed hard, every bone jarring, yet her relief gusted out in a gasp of pain. Thorns from a terathum bush speared her legs, and a ferocious, panicked kick only embedded the needles into her bare skin.

Help.

****

Let’s take it apart so you can see why I made the choices I did:

The coal truck careened around the snake curve, horn wailing. (When you have something that abruptly happens, shorter sentences enhances that sense).

Andrea’s feet jerked off their perch, and the root in her grip ripped free. “No!” (I like to add dialogue for emotional depth. Also, think of precise verbs that convey the feeling of falling, and panic – jerked, ripped)

She plummeted (instead of slid rapidly — -ly adverbs can slow the action) – fast, too fast – into the ravine, kudzu vines whipping(I like her metaphor, but sometimes during fast action, it’s stronger to pick a vivid verb. I also thought of clawing, like tentacles, but having never been caught in Kudzu, I wasn’t sure of the right verb. *g* And, this is just an option) at her, briars shredding (instead of grabbed and ripped – rule of thumb, two verbs are weaker than one strong one) her flesh.

She landed hard, every bone jarring, yet her relief gusted out in a gasp of pain. (I wanted to make the pain of the thorns instant, so I combined the landing with the realization of her pain. Just another option).
Thorns from a terathum bush speared her legs (it’s the thorns that are causing pain, so moving that word up to identify them as the culprit helps the reader know the situation without having to read further), and a ferocious, panicked kick only embedded the needles into her bare skin.
Help. (After a long piece of action, a line of dialogue or thought helps the reader catch their breath)

Like I said, the scene was already strong, and rich with description, but shortening the opening sentence, combining a few others and adding strong verbs that convey the horror of sliding down the slope is a way to make it pulse with emotion.

One element I’d like to applaud from this piece is that she already used rich details – Kudzu vine, a Terathum bush, a coal truck. The only thing I might add is the five senses — the decaying smell of loam digging into her nose as she flew through the forest, maybe the tinny taste of panic, or the taste of blood, if she bit her lip. And, she could scream, the sound of raising her own gooseflesh.

The reader won’t even realize you’ve used these little tricks to win their hearts. Only that you have wooed them into the story. And that’s the goal of every author.

You have two more days to submit your storyworld scenes to me at booktherapy@susanmaywarren.com. We’re giving away your choice of a SMW or RH book this week, and we’ll post the winner’s entry tomorrow! AND, if you want ideas on how to add vivid nouns and strong verbs to your scene, post it on the Storyworld thread on Voices, and your fellow Voices will chime in!

Populate your Storyworld

Every book, regardless of what kind – Suspense/Romance, Fantasy, Thriller, Historical romance – every book starts out someplace. In a world. At a moment. And, in today’s literature, with a person. Whether it’s a firecracker start to a book, or something that begins with a wide-angle view, drawing into the scene, it needs to have action. Movement. A place for your reader’s eye to land, and a perspective with which to view it.

A good way to see storyworld is to watch the opening scenes of a movie. Note the details of the scene, and how they pinpoint on just a few and then move into the action with the character.

I recently wrote a book that started in Night Market, in Taiwan. I could have started with description, the hundreds of tables pushed side by side, hawking chicken legs and squid on a stick, the cloying smell of sweet potatoes mixed with the pungency of tea eggs. I could have talked about the voices of the vendors, each rising above the other in a wild, chaotic cacophony that outshouted even the seagulls at the nearby shipyards.

However, if I simply describe the scene, then the reader doesn’t know how to interpret what they see. They need a character to perceive the sights, and sift them through their grid of understanding. Scenery without pov interpretation is, well, boring. (Unless it’s in omniscent pov, but then again, you do have a pov — the narrator).

Yet, put someone in the scene with a purpose, even something at stake, and it becomes compelling. What if they’re looking for a small boy, lost in the crowd? Every vendor would be suspect, every vat of boiling oil a horror. Or, hiding from someone? Suddenly the market becomes their salvation. What if they’re hungry, and have no money? Then night market becomes tantalizing, and perhaps pushing them over the edge.

Here’s the secret – move your character through the scene, experiencing the DETAILS as they go, and the scene will go from static to alive.

Here’s the first scene with my hero from an upcoming book called “Wiser than Serpents.”

*****

He’d never eaten deep fried frog on a stick, but David Curtiss was a patriot, and he’d do just about anything for his country.

“Shei Shei,” he said as he took the delicacy from the vendor, fished out a New Taiwan Dollar and dropped it into the vendor’s hand.

He wondered what might leave a worse taste in his mouth, fried frog, or meeting a man who had beheaded the two undercover agents that had tried this trick before David. But if all went as planned, his culinary sacrifice would lead him to the identity of Kwan-Li, leader of the Twin Serpents, the largest organized crime syndicate in eastern Asia.

The smells of night market were enough to turn even his iron gut to mush — body odor, eggs boiled in soy sauce, fresh fish and oil redolent from the nearby shipyard. Even worse, the fare offered in the busy open market sounded like something from a house of horrors menu: Grilled chicken feet, boiled snails, breaded salamander, poached pigeon eggs, and the specialty of the day — carp head soup.

“What did you get me into, Chet?” he whispered, wondering if Chet Stryker, his co-hort for his unfortunate op, were grinning at the other end of his transmitter. “Squid, or even snails, okay, but a frog?” Chet had set up this meet — and the frog signal. “Next time, you’re going to be drinking asparagus juice, buddy.” He hoped Chet’s silence meant he still had eyes on him. David hadn’t seen his partner in the forty-five minutes he’d been walking around the market — a sign of Chet’s skill, no doubt.

David looked at the brown and crispy frog and wondered if he was supposed to add condiments —he’d noticed a sort of ketchup, and horseradish at the bar.

A few more seconds and he’d have to take a bite. It wasn’t enough to just stand here and try to blend with the crowd — not an easy task given that every man who brushed by him stood around chin height. Even with David’s long black dyed hair, silk Asian shirt and designer jeans he knew he looked like a walking American billboard. Thankfully, foreigners flocked to the novelty of night market in this part of Kaohsiung in Taiwan.

He saw a couple of Americans stroll by, listened to their comments about the food, the smells. A short blonde, slightly pudgy, wearing a blue Taiwanese shirt and shorts set probably purchased in a local beach shop sucked on the straw of a Ju Ju Bee shake. Next to her, her husband was finishing off a grilled squid. Aid workers, probably — the island had a plethora of Americans working in relief and humanitarian aid agencies. Especially after the last earthquake.

He checked his watch. Kwan’s man was late. Which meant he’d have to take a bite of froggie.

He lifted the amphibian to his mouth.

****

Everything that happens in Night Market is through David’s eyes, as he’s waiting for his contact. Because it’s a thriller, I go right into the action, but I still want readers to know where they are.

Creating storyworld is more than just an overview of scenery. It’s details, and the perspective of the character in it.

I received some wonderful opening storyworld scenes today! You still have a couple days to find a particularly rich paragraph that shows YOUR storyworld (in chapter one), and send it to me at booktherapy@susanmaywarren.com. We’ll pick ONE to share on Friday (and that person will win their choice of a SMW or RH book. Rach has a new one out that you DON’T want to miss!) And, if you want to refine it a little before sending it in, hop over to Voices, and we’ll work on it together!

See you tomorrow, when we talk about active writing, and using the right nouns and verbs to woo your reader into the story.

What’s in your world?

I love the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I can’t help it – the music, the love story (and the hope of movie #4!), the rich characters. But what makes the movie come alive is the textures and sounds of the world they live in. I can almost taste the salt and smell the briny wash of the gooey Davy Jones. For nearly 3 hours, I become a pirate, and come out of the theaters saying, “Ahoy, Matey!”

It’s that same for a well-written book. A well –written story world swallows me into the story, and I’m lost, with no desire to be found. Storyworld is one of the key elements that makes a book rise from the mundane to stellar.

What is storyworld? It’s more than just setting, or costumes. Great storyworld contains what I call the DETAILS. It’s the rich combination of all the elements that go into the background of the scene.

Here’s how it breaks down:
1. Dress – It’s not what color gown she wears, but why. It’s not whether he wears a suit, but what kind of suit, or tux. The reader wants to see the character, but don’t thorw your character into any old outfit – pick their clothes carefully, to betray their goals, and persona, their attitudes and intentions for the scene. I recently read Karen Hancock’s “The Shadow Within” (and if you want to learn how to build story world, pick up her Light of Eidon series – it’s amazing). The returning King doesn’t dress himself in the poppycock fashions of the court, but picks his attire to reflect his somber attitude toward the throne, as well as his desire to be able to grab his rapier (note, I didn’t say sword – there’s a difference!) and his dagger should someone leap from the crowd to assassinate him. It’s a terrific portrayal of his character, and his goals for the scene. Be specific and thoughtful with your character’s dress.

2. Environment – This is more than the setting, it’s the season, and the place, and architecture. Stories set in New York should note the garbage laying on the streets in July, and the beauty of Central Park in September. They should include the smell of the subway, and the noise it makes as it rushes into station with a shudder that the character can feel to their bones. Stories set in Montana (my current favorite setting) should note the trailer houses, the rough-cut terrain covered with bramble, the undulating fence lines that ride over gully and knoll, and if it is in winter, the patches of gray snow, the brown-yellow grass, the trails of hay that beckon the cattle. Make it real, and use finite details to bring your reader into the world of the character.

3. Time Period – Even if it is a contemporary, you can build in the faces, music, and norms of the time. But if it is a historical novel, be rich with the nuances of the culture. Do your research to discover things unknown to most readers. It will make their reading even more rich. This also includes influences of movies, books, political figures – anything to help build the appropriate time period for your world.

4. Attitudes – insert the attitudes of the place, culture, setting, time period. What social circle does your character run in? What would be normal for him to say, do, allow, think? How about those around him? Dropping clues through dialogue, dress or action about the prevailing attitudes of the world of your story will help your reader understand the situation and motivations of your character.

5. Inferences – or Expectations. Think about the things in your life that you “expect.” Your internet to hook up. Your cell phone to ring. Your character will have things he/she expect to happen – and writing that expectation into the scene will help it flow, and keep the reader in story world. What do I mean? Let’s say you are writing a Biblical fiction story. Going to the well for daily water would be an expectation. You wouldn’t expound on it like you’ve never done it before. Another common way to say this is R.U.E. (Resist the urge to explain).

i.e “Rachael searched for the wooden bucket that she always used to fetch water, which she did every morning. It had a rough handle, and she hated how it dug into her hand when she lugged home the family’s water, although she was careful not to spill it. She had done that yesterday, and earned a beating.”

That’s a lot of information, and probably something your character wouldn’t think. Instead, infer the expectation that she goes to the well, simplify the details, focusing on the most vivid, and most profound.

“The rough handle of the water bucket gouged her hands as she trudged back from the well, but she bit back her pain and held it out from her body. Mamma would be furious if she spilled it, again. Her back still ached from yesterday’s beating.”

6. Language – every place, time period, social strata and even age group has their own language. Utilize it to illuminate the world they live in. A great example of this is, of course, Liza and Henry Higgins, from My Fair Lady. Is anyone else amazed at the transformation right before our eyes of Liza as she begins to speak proper English? Language is a powerful tool for StoryWorld (as well as characterization). Don’t let your Scottish warrior sound like a Englishman from Parliament. (Or your Bostonian sound like a Minnesotan!)

7. Senses – I know I’m constantly harping on people to use their five senses when writing a scene but USE YOUR FIVE SENSES! Don’t just tell us what it looks like! We want to smell and taste the scene, hear the creak of the pirate boat in the doldrums, the rattle of the chains of other prisoners. The five senses help the reader enter Storyworld with your hero. Don’t leave him staring as if through a glass.

Those seven points should spell the word…DETAILS. And that’s what Story World is. It’s specific nouns, and rich (yet sparing) adjectives, and vivid verbs. It’s taking the time to build your world around your hero.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to build your storyworld around your hero’s actions. Meanwhile, if you want to find a particularly rich paragraph that shows YOUR storyworld (in chapter one), please send it to me at booktherapy@susanmaywarren.com. We’ll pick ONE to share on Friday (and that person will win their choices of a SMW or RH book. Rach has a new one out that you DON’T want to miss!) And, if you want to refine it a little before sending it in, hop over to Voices, and we’ll work on it together!