Thursday, April 17, 2014

Keep Your Story Moving Forward by Guest Cheryl St.John

 
Cheryl St.John
A lot of writers have had trouble reading Dwight Swain’s book. I did for a while, too. It kept putting me to sleep. But as a new writer, I was hungry for the principles it held, hungry for the education, and so I persevered. Finally, after many tries, a light bulb went off over my head and I understood what his teaching was telling me. I got it! I saw the techniques in every book I had ever loved. And my writing changed forever.
 
Everything that happens in your story, every piece of information learned, every obstacle faced, every conversation, should propel the story toward the conclusion—something I learned and took to heart from Techniques of the Selling Writer. Keep your character's goal in mind. Everything should impact the main character and his goal. Make things worse for him. Make sure that all the changes that happen complicate things. Box him in. Impede his goal. Each obstacle should change things for the character
 
> Change forces your character to adjust. Change won’t let him stand still. Your character must react to what is happening. Your character needs a reason why he can’t simply quit. At each disaster ask, "Why doesn't the character quit?" and you should have a powerful reason why. The reader will lose interest in a character that is fighting without good cause. Your hero is only as strong as the villain or the force opposing his goals.
 
> Make the stakes high enough to fight for. Each person in the story should have something at stake that makes him willing to fight. Increase intensity. Drag your character further and further from his goal.
 
> Make sure the conflicts are important—life threatening or life changing to your character. Remember anything can be important. We’ve all seen entire movies based on saving a single tree or a coffee shop or an animal. Your job is to use the focal character to show the reader why he should care and make him believe. If it’s important to your story person and the reader cares about that person, then the outcome is important to the reader. Show the reader why he should care. Never forget for a minute that your story is about feelings.
 
> Box in your character. Keep whittling away until you take away his choices. Take away the heroine's options, run down the clock, increase the degree of the threat, make each action result in a dead end. This forces your story person to make a choice between two specific courses of action. Keep the reader guessing. Turn an assumption on its head. Slam the hero with a disastrous surprise. Kill off someone. Crush a dream. Do anything to keep the reader turning pages and wondering what will happen next.
 
> Balance peaks of action with valleys of introspection or humor. Hook the reader with action, but allow him to catch his breath before you drag him back into the dilemma. You want a peak and valley pace that will keep the tension from exhausting your reader. At the same time, never end a scene or a chapter without a hook or a dilemma so that your header is forced to keep going.
 
> In action scenes use short sentences and vivid words. Use longer sentences and a gentler story rhythm to slow the pace. Choose your words carefully, and contrast them with the tension of the peak that happened just before. Give the character something to ponder. After the action of the previous scene, make the character figure out what to do next. This is a good time to show who your story person really is because of his thinking process and his courageous or wise or heart-felt decisions. Change of viewpoint dissolves tension, so explore another person’s reactions.
 
> Don't use trivial scenes or conversations just to impart information. Too often I see new writers having their character tell another character something that they both already know, just to get the info into the story. Fill your scenes with true conflict and action, and end them with a disaster or dilemma.
Click to Buy on Amazon
 
> Don’t rehash. And I know we hear repetition in classes and we often repeat things in real conversation, but don’t repeat yourself. Remember readers aren’t dummies. They got it the first time. You’ll insult your reader, or at the very least, irritate him with repetition. If there’s a television show you’re invested in, take note of how quickly events happen and how you can miss something important if you miss an episode or a scene. Yes, some things are repeated for effect, but that is mostly for the sake of characterization. For example, I think Meredith Gray and Christina Yang, started the whole “Seriously? Seriously,” thing when the show premiered ten seasons ago. And several times Meredith herself says she’s all “dark and twisty.” But for the most part, don’t have your character thinking the same thing in chapter six that she thought in chapter three. If it’s something important that characterizes and makes a point, show the dilemma or personality trait in a different way to emphasize.
 
Seriously, if you don’t have a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer, do yourself a favor and order one now. It’s a training manual for writers.
 
And guess who is speaking at the Writers Digest Conference in NYC this August? I am still incredulous over the invitation and will appreciate your prayers for the trip. Sherri Shackelford is joining me, and I am so thankful and excited. Neither of us have been to NYC, so we’re going to enjoy every minute. Thank you, friends, for helping to make Writing With Emotion Tension & Conflict a popular book among writers! So many of you have recommended it. It has an average 5 star rating on amazon. I am completely humbled and grateful.
Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for a Kindle copy of any book of your choice of Cheryl's.
xoxo

68 comments:

Tina Radcliffe said...

AMEN TO ALL SHE JUST SAID.

And get Swain in paperback because you'll want to mark it up and write in the margins and use lots of sticky notes.

Wilani Wahl said...

Thank you so much. A lot to think about and digest as I write.

Please consider me in the drawing.

Marianne Barkman said...

The more I read Seekerville, the more in awe of the authors I am. Who knew you worked so hard for my enjoyment? I do appreciate it. I really do. YOU GUYS ROCK!!!

Virginia Carmichael Munoz said...

I love both of these books!
I think my worst sin as a new writer was the "trivial scenes to impart information". I really thought just having two people standing around talking was good enough, as long as the information being given to the reader was important.
Uh... nope.

Have a wonderful time in NYC!

Jackie said...

Hi Cheryl,

Congrats on speaking for WD! What an honor.

Thanks for this post today. From taking Tina's class I've decided my story needs more than editing. I need to change many things, and you've put the exclamation point to what I'm learning from Tina. I appreciate what you said today. It's just what I needed.

Thanks again!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Cheryl and welcome to Seekerville. What a terrific post and I second Tina's Amen to all you said.

This is perfect timing for me also because I am starting a new project.

Have fun today and thanks for joining us.

Glynna Kaye said...

Good morning, Cheryl, and welcome back to Seekerville! I have Swain's book sitting on my bookshelf but haven't read it in years, so I need to pull it out again. Thank you for the refresher!

And thank you for this, too: "Remember anything can be important. We’ve all seen entire movies based on saving a single tree or a coffee shop or an animal." When thinking up a new story I often feel pressure for the hero and heroine to have "save-the-world" goals. Something big and flashy. But--as you said--that's not necessarily, well, necessary! The goal needs to be something deeply important to the character, then build a backstory and a current story and obstacles that make the reader CARE whether they reach that goal or not. Thank you for the very timely reminder!

Rose said...

Cheryl,

I'm reading your writing book now! I've finished a rough draft and thought it would be good to read before I start revisions.

I recommend to everyone!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

NEW YORK CITY???? THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS????? I WANNA WAKE UP THERE!!!!!

Oh, this country girl loves going to the big city! LOVE IT!!!!!

And Cheryl, just seeing your name on the calendar brought me running, racing across the prairies and plains to the lakeside vistas of Seekerville!!!!

LOVE IT WHEN YOU VISIT!!!!! I love the wisdom.

YAY!!!!!

DebH said...

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this post. Uber helpful to me. I'm printing this out right now because I need all the help I can get. Thanks for making it so well defined and clear.

please put my name in the draw. i'll probably be glomming on your Writing With Emotion Tension & Conflict.

Thanks again for sharing here.

Kav said...

This is awesome!!!!! Thank you so much even though I had a laugh at my expense over: "Don't use trivial scenes or conversations just to impart information." I just stumbled upon such a scene in a story I am editing. How embarrassing!!! But at least I recognized I'd done it...only to hope over to Seekerville and see the rule emblazoned in bold here. Oops. :-)

Larissa Reinhart said...

Great post! I think those are all such important points and I especially paid attention to the "don't repeat yourself." I have trouble with this in real life & writing! LOL

Jeanne T said...

Cheryl, I love all your great tips here! :) I think I'm going to cut and paste this so I can highlight and mark it up. So well done!

A number of things you shared struck me, but this one got me thinking..... "But for the most part, don’t have your character thinking the same thing in chapter six that she thought in chapter three. If it’s something important that characterizes and makes a point, show the dilemma or personality trait in a different way to emphasize."

I liked this, and will definitely be referring back to it often.

Crystal Ridgway said...

Wonderful post! All of this is so true! I try to give each scene a goal and ramp up the conflict with every event. Sometimes it flops and I yank the scene later.

Oh, well. :)

Connie Queen said...

"Your character needs a reason why he can’t simply quit."

I know this, but when I read it, a bell went off. I added a sentence yesterday that if I expanded on, it would make my hero's goal stronger.

This is one of those posts I need to print off for my files. Thanks so Cheryl.

Tina Radcliffe said...

Since Virginia is going into the confessional, I will too.

I've discussed this with my April Self Editing for Beginners Class...

My personal favorite sin is characters eating. Meal after meal with nothing going on but good food.

Sherida Stewart said...

Cheryl, thank you so much for sharing your awesome advice. I see why you have impressed so many writers! I'm HIGHLIGHTING the whole post

Please enter me for your book. Praying for you and Sherrie to have a fabulous trip to NYC!

Myra Johnson said...

So glad to have you back with us, Cheryl! I am a HUGE fan of Swain's book and recommend it often to beginning writers. Tina is right--buy a copy you can mark up with highlighters and sticky notes!

And I do appreciate these timely reminders. I've just reached the middle of my wip and am working hard to make sure things stay on track and build toward the climax and conclusion.

Myra Johnson said...

Oops, Tina, you caught me! I have a terrible habit of putting my characters together over a meal.

I also got nailed by an editor once for having too many telephone conversations. She explained face-to-face meetings have much more dramatic impact.

Bridgett Henson said...

Cheryl, thanks for the reminder to keep the action moving forward. I tend to be "nice" to my characters.
Most of my revisions are identifying and replacing tea scenes.

Myra, telephone conversations or texting? I'm guilty of both.

Dawn Ford said...

Cheryl I am always in awe of your writing wisdom! I am using your book to help me with my two manuscripts I'm editing. I like to think I am always moving my story forward, but I find I do a few of these once in awhile.

Great book, by the way and I'm so excited for you to go to NYC!! You and Sherri will have so much fun. I can't wait to see photos.

Hey, Tina. You should do what I'm doing: write a story about a cook or a chef. Then you could put those food scenes in without guilt!!! Ha. (FYI, my husband is a chef. I know way too much about food prep, service, and all that goes with it)

Mary Connealy said...

You know....from reading this....I think I do know Swain only I've learned it in bits and pieces over the years from online classes and conference classes and helpful critique partners and contest critiques.

His teaching in this book is like this foundation to so much of what we need to know as writers that EVERYONE is jumping off 'Techniques of a Selling Writer and a whole lot of them don't even know it.

I've never read him but I read this post and I've learned it...somehow.

No doubt I learned it the hard way when I could have just read a book! :(

Thanks Cheryl. As always we're learning great stuff from you.

Mary Connealy said...

THIS>>>>> Don't use trivial scenes or conversations just to impart information. Too often I see new writers having their character tell another character something that they both already know, just to get the info into the story. Fill your scenes with true conflict and action, and end them with a disaster or dilemma. <<<< I'm a big preacher of NO BACKSTORY DUMP and once in a while I read a scene in a book that is NOTHING but a backstory dump disguised as a conversation. It's better than a straight dump but it still grinds your story to a halt.

Donna said...

Cheryl, I have been looking forward to today's post!

Techniques of the Selling Writer was the first book on writing I read. I hope to get Writing With Emotion Tension & Conflict soon. You have such a wonderful way of getting your message through your writing.

Thank you for sharing!

Jan Drexler said...

Cheryl, this is a wonderful post.

I'm in the dreaded middle of my WIP, and this point hit me right where I needed it:

"Box in your character. Keep whittling away until you take away his choices. Take away the heroine's options, run down the clock, increase the degree of the threat, make each action result in a dead end. This forces your story person to make a choice between two specific courses of action. Keep the reader guessing. Turn an assumption on its head. Slam the hero with a disastrous surprise. Kill off someone. Crush a dream. Do anything to keep the reader turning pages and wondering what will happen next.

It fits so perfectly with what I need to do to my characters. After all, if things are smooth and simple for them, who is going to want to read about that?

I'm printing off this post and sticking it in my notebook. Thank you!

Lorna said...

Good morning, Cheryl! Can I hide in your suitcase when you go to NYC? I think I could sit and listen to you talk about writing all day. Loved your post and love you!

Now, back to moving that story forward since its due on June 1. :)

Mary Hicks said...

A wonderful post, Cheryl! Thank you—just what I needed to read first thing this morning as I get to spend the whole day working on my novel. :-)

I'll be posting this information near my computer.

Would love to win a copy of "writing with Emotion Tension & Conflict"! :-)

Cheryl St.John said...

I actually have two copies, Tina. I guess I was paranoid about losing one. lol And here's the kicker--I had three! LOANED ONE AND NEVER GOT IT BACK. So there you go, my paranoia served me well. lol

I have the old yellow cover, not the new one shown here on the blog.

Cheryl St.John said...

Wilani, I'm tickled to offer some nuggets to think about this morning. :-)

Marianne, the beauty in a finished book is that you see none of the blood, sweat and tears that went into it creation. It's a nice reminder. :-)

Thank you, Virginia! We plan to have a great time. I know what you mean about those scenes. The first book I showed to a mentor, she Xed out page after page and wrote in the margins in red: Nothing happening. WHAAAT? lol

Jackie! Good for you for applying those excellent techniques to strengthen your story and your writing. Wishing you all the best as you move forward.

Debby Giusti said...

Another great post, Cheryl. You are a dynamic teacher. So glad Writer's Digest recognizes your gifts! Would love to be there with you and Sherri! Enjoy every minute!

Love Dwight Swain! Your post helps make his wisdom easier to digest.

As Larissa mentioned above, I fall into that repeating myself trap in my stories. Slapping my hand and promising to do better.

As Larissa mentioned above, I do repeat myself... LOL!

Happy Holy Thursday to all!

And a joyous Easter.

Cheryl St.John said...

Thank you, Sandra! <><><>waving<><><>

Glynna, you are so welcome. I'm plotting a new book right now, too, and I still go over some of the same stumbling points from time to time. I am taking my own advice that these two people aren't trying to save the world. Their own world is what's important to them.

Thank you, Rose! BIG HUG!

Susan Anne Mason said...

This is great information, Cheryl! Thanks so much! Your writing book is on my wish list!

Wishing everyone in Seekerville a happy and blessed Easter!

Cheers,
Sue

Cheryl St.John said...

Ruthy, you are always a ray of sunshine. Yes, NYC. I was kind of freaked out at first. (Sherri will tell you that's an understatement.) You know that feeling when you've had the call for your first book and you think they called the wrong person? It was like that. Clear up until they called to make travel arrangements for me. Clear up until I saw my photo on WD's conference page as a featured speaker. It's still a little unreal, but it's finally sunk in. I'm going!

Cheryl St.John said...

DebH, you are SO welcome! Thanks for letting me know my post was helpful.

Kav, no doubt we've all done it a time or two. I've even been guilty of slipping in research, just because I did the research. lol

Larissa, I repeat myself too. Did I mention I repeat myself? lol

Cheryl St.John said...

Jeanne, thanks for letting me know you took something away from the blog today. Happy writing THIS SPRING DAY!

Crystal, sometimes I discover I needed to write a scene for myself, but then when I admit it doesn't move the plot or characterize, I pull it out or use something from it in another place.

You're welcome, Connie! Have a great writing day.

Cheryl St.John said...

Tina, sometimes I get a couple of people on a ranch and there's nothing else to do but work and EAT!

xoxo

Sherida (I do love your name),
Thank you for the prayers. You have blessed me this day.

Myra, my advice for the middle is think small. We tend to think big and get overwhelmed, but one scene and one conflict in the moment will carry us through.

Cheryl St.John said...

Bridgett, I can remember being too nice to my characters. They were my "babies" and I wanted to help them out. lol

Thank you, Dawn! If we didn't do some of this stuff once in a while, we would be perfect, and what would be the fun of that? Picturing you in your steampunk hat. :-)

Heidi Robbins said...

Fabulous information! As a reader, repetition of a character's conflicted thoughts without progress makes me start skimming. There is so much great advice and rules for authors to be aware of- it seems daunting!
Thanks for your giveaway and please put me in the hat!

Cheryl St.John said...

Mary, a lot of the techniques Swain explains in his book are things we've learned to do unconsciously from reading and watching movies, tv. And you're right, many other instructors have built on the principles because THEY WORK!

And you are probably one of the few natural-born writing geniuses out there. :-) Thank you for inviting me to join you today. It's always a joy.

Cheryl St.John said...

Donna, reading Swain as your first taste of writing guidance was probably intimidating, but I can't think of a better way to initiate yourself to fiction basics. I'll bet you went back and read it again later and learned even more, didn't you?

Jan, the best part about the middle is that you've moved past the beginning. lol Seriously, the middle is always a place where we paddle around, wondering if we've forgotten how to swim. You haven't. Just keep swimming...

Cheryl St.John said...

Thank you, Lorna. BIG HUG! I enjoy listening to you talk about writing, too. We are the Admiration Society of the Midwest. I'm sure your book is awesome. You go, girl!

Cheryl St.John said...

Good morning, Mary and Debby. I've noticed no one brought food yet, so here's my special quiche with a hash brown crust. There's plenty for everyone!

Cheryl St.John said...

Good morning, Sue Ann and Heidi! It's so great to see all the writers chiming in this morning. Coffee?

Cheryl St.John said...

You can click on that cover above to travel to amazon and leave a review on Writing With Emotion Tension & Conflict if you've read the book.

THANK YOU to those who have already left reviews! xoxo

BelleC said...

I really enjoyed this post Cheryl. It is resonating with me and the current WIP. I need to box my heroine in even more than I have been. I've been trying to work on making every scene count and moving the story forward. Sometimes it is not easy. As a newbie I have to admit I struggle with being successful in this area. Thanks for the awesome tips.

Cheryl St.John said...

Thank you, Belle! I am reading a book on writing today. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Getting some thoughts for my current plot.

Meghan Carver said...

So many wonderful points to remember here, Cheryl. Thank you for your time and efforts. I'll be printing this off and using it as a checklist. Please put me in the drawing.

Have a wonderful and blessed Resurrection Sunday!

Janet Dean said...

Welcome back to Seekerville, Cher! Your post is jam packed with valuable information. I have the Swain's book but I appreciate the succinct reminders. I struggle with redundancy. I'm prone to rehash in my personal life too. LOL Will be printing this post!

You and Sherrie will love NYC! I've been twice for RWA conferences and loved every minute that I toured and walked the city.

Congrats on the success of your How To book!!! Know you'll do a fabulous job speaking at the Writer's Digest conference. What's your topic?

Janet

Anna Weaver Hurtt said...

Great post! Thank you for sharing... I'm about to start "Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict." I've heard great things about it! :)

Charlene Sands said...

Hi Cher - I read your writing book from cover to cover. I highly recommend it! There's a wealth of knowledge between those pages and your blog today, reminded me of what is missing in my story right now. Wishing you luck in New York. How fun that you and Sheryl got to experience it together. Love and hugs,
Charlene

Cheryl St.John said...

Thank you, Meghan! You have a blessed Easter as well.

Janet, they've asked for a workshop on emotion as well as one on writing the middle of the book. Looking forward to a great time!

Anna, thanks for picking up my book! Smooches.

Big hug, Charlene! So glad you enjoyed today's post. xoxo

Shannon Taylor Vannatter said...

Hey Cheryl,
I recommend Techniques of a Selling Writer in a novel writing class I teach. I tell my students to read it in small chunks and let that chunk sink in before reading more. That book is so packed with info, it's too much to keep reading like a normal book.

Shannon Taylor Vannatter said...

Hey Cheryl,
I recommend Techniques of a Selling Writer in a novel writing class I teach. I tell my students to read it in small chunks and let that chunk sink in before reading more. That book is so packed with info, it's too much to keep reading like a normal book.

Natalie Monk said...

Wonderful post, Cheryl! Makes me wish I could hear you speak in NYC! Hope you have a great time. Prayers with you.

lizzie starr said...

Swain is always a good thing--even if he is a tough read. I'm on my second copy. :)

Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict--or ETC! should be on everyone's shelf next to Swain. I'm still on my first copy of this one.

As always, another learning experience. Thanks, Cheryl!

LeAnne Bristow said...

Wow! This post couldn't have come at a better time. Thanks for the tips. Please put me in the drawing.

Pam Hillman said...

Wow, Techniques by Swain is no longer the "ugly yellow" book? That's what we used to call it. lol

Oh, and thanks for mentioning Swain...

I pulled my copy off the shelf, and found some note cards with forgotten ideas, and a print copy of Deb Raney's "The Revision Process" c 2003. Good stuff! :)

Cara Lynn James said...

Great tips, Cheryl! I've gotten so much from your book and Swain's. I learn an awful lot from writing books and avoid reinventing the wheel.

Sherri Shackelford said...

I'm late to the party! Wonderful article :) I'm bookmarking this for future reference. I'm still absorbing Swain. Thankfully, we have people like you who can make his instructions interesting.

(We're going to take NYC by storm! And by 'storm' I mean - tentatively and terrified.)

Deb Garland said...

Congrats on speaking at WD in the Big Apple! We in WA must be the little apple? I love your emphatic emphasis in your post. It reminds me to be stricter in the areas covered in my WIP. And yes, I've been guilty of giving a history lesson through dialogue in my 2014 ACFW First Impressions contest entry. Thanks for a great post, Cheryl! I have your book on my list to be read SOON!

Janet Kerr said...

Thank you so much for your great post. And, please enter me in your draw. I have your book on conflict on hold in the Library and about to get it.
Jan

Rebecca DeMarino said...

My hubby gave me a stack of books for Christmas the year I decided to write my first novel and Dwight Swain's was one of them! Invaluable! I need to read yours, Cheryl! Enjoyed the post - and you and Sherri are going to LOVE NYC!! Congrats on the speaking gig!

Sybil Bates McCormack said...

I confess that Dwight Swain's book has been sitting dormant on my Kindle for some time. *** tips away sheepishly to read book containing gold mine of helpful info *** LOL!

Cathy Richmond said...

NYC - be sure to hit Grom's Gelato!!!

Thank you, Cheryl, for all these great techniques! Any advice for writing a "lighter" book?

Janet Dean said...

Great topics, Cheryl. Wish I could be there for the speeches!

Janet

Ruth Ann Dell said...

Thank you for all the valuable tips, especially the one on not using trivial scenes or conversations just to impart information.

Please enter me in the drawing.

Thank you
Ruth Ann Dell

Janet Syas Nitsick said...

What great comments you imparted. You will enjoy visiting New York. We did although I would never want to live there, especially with that new mayor of theirs. Take lots of pictures and share those at a Romance Authors of the Heartland meeting. God bless.

Terri said...

Me too! An editor even told me I slowed my pacing down doing this and since it was a suspense book that was a bad thing.