#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing Camp NaNo this month with a goal of 30K words which translate to about a thousand words a day. I’m writing a romance novel, but the problem is I’m having a hard time developing romantic tension. I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

Thank you for all you do!

—Hopefully Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopefully Romantic,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to this letter during Camp NaNo, and I hope you found your way through and made your goal! But romantic tension is one of those things that’s often better managed during revisions, because it’s all about pacing, so I think this advice will still be relevant to you.

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#51: Writing Polyamorous Relationships, Part Two

Dear Story Nurse,

I’d love to see a follow up post to the last polyam one, one that was more in depth about the craft of writing individuals and meet cutes with non-monogamy in a way that doesn’t put the reader off or have them assuming there is cheating involved, aimed more towards people who didn’t need the poly101 as well.

—nicolefieldwrites (they/them)

Dear nicolefieldwrites,

What a lovely request! I’m happy to oblige. You’re right that my last post was very 101, and there’s much more to writing polyamorous relationships and people than merely avoiding clichés.

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#49: When Settings Are Fun and Stories Are Hard

Dear Story Nurse,

I love developing settings, but once I have my stage set, I find I have no idea what to do with the characters. Unless I force myself with NaNoWriMo or a similar challenge—and even then, I don’t often like what I came up with—my inclination is to circle the worldbuilding stages forever. For example, my current project is geography-focused, because I’ve been having a lot of fun researching historical cartography. I have kind of a unifying myth for my island nation, and now I want to explore this space through the lives of the people living in it, but I can’t seem to make a story happen. How can I come up with ideas when that’s not the part of the process that interests me?

Thanks!

—Masamage (she/her)

Dear Masamage,

When I first read your letter, I thought I’d answered it before, or one very like it. I looked through my archives and realized I was thinking of these letters from writers who find world-building easy and character development hard. You’re in a similar position, but facing a different challenge (though my response to them may still be of some use to you).

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#48: Writing Characters Who Share Your Identities

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently stalled out on both short stories I am writing. While they are both fantasy stories, each one deals with a theme that is important to me. One is a romance with a genderqueer shifter and the other features a character embracing her chronic pain. While both of these topics are important to me, I’ve not been writing them because it’s stirring up unresolved feelings in me on both of these issues.

My question is this: Writing #ownvoices is important, but how do I support myself in exploring hard topics that stir up unresolved feelings in me, and relatedly, how do I manage the fear that I’m not doing #ownvoices stories well enough, sensitively enough, or with enough compassion and good representation?

Thanks for your time, and I understand if you want to split the questions up!

With admiration,

Psygeek (she/her)

 

Dear Psygeek,

I sympathize a lot with this letter. I’ve run into this problem with my own novels in progress. We are surrounded by wonderful conversations about representation, but that can come with an increased feeling of pressure to get it right. That can then get tangled up with internal anxieties around identity, such as the feeling of being not [identity] enough or doing [identity] wrong. So I definitely think these two questions go together.

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#46: Guest Post: Ownvoices Advice for Autistic Writers

Hi,

I was diagnosed with autism two years ago at the age of 22. It explained a lot of problems with social skills I’ve always had. My problem is that I really want to be a writer, and I’m scared being autistic will get in the way of that. I read and write literary fiction, and there seems to be an assumption that if autistic people are interested in reading at all, it’s science fiction. I don’t know of any famous writers who were autistic and a lot of their lives are described like ‘He was the life of the party and would go out drinking with his friends in Paris until dawn’. I couldn’t ever do that.

I’ve won one writing competition and been highly commended in another and published several short stories. Before I got the diagnosis, I never doubted that if I worked hard, I could write and publish a novel. I’m currently writing a contemporary literary novel that’s partially autobiographical, although the heroine isn’t autistic. I’m about two thirds through the first draft.

I enjoy constructing sentences, but I’m scared that my characterisation will seem shallow and unconvincing. I sometimes have a hard time telling what other people are thinking or what’s socially expected of me, and I worry that also means I’m not getting into the characters’ heads a lot. I don’t ‘see’ the world through their eyes. A lot of the advice I’ve read for writers says ‘Ask yourself what your character is thinking and feeling at this point’, and sometimes I just have to shrug and say ‘I don’t know’.

The heroine’s actions, such as not speaking much, hanging back in social situations she doesn’t understand and not advocating for herself, are meant to show that she’s introverted and she’s been socialised to believe that girls should be passive and people-pleasing. But I’m worried she’s so much based on me that it spills over into her ‘acting autistic’, or acting in ways that don’t make sense to neurotypical readers. (I don’t want to change it to a novel about an autistic heroine, because that wouldn’t suit the story I’m telling, although I’d love to include an autistic main character in the next thing I write.)

You seem like you know a lot about writing and disability/ intersectionality issues, so my questions are: Can I be a good writer if I’m autistic? And do you have any ideas for working around the problems autism can cause to understand my characters better? Thank you!

—Autistic Wannabe Novelist (she/her)

Dear Autistic Wannabe Novelist,

I’m really honored that you trusted me to answer these questions. But I don’t think I’m the right person to give you an answer in depth, so I brought in two guest contributors, Corey Alexander (they/them) and Rose Lemberg (they/them). Both of them are published authors, wise teachers, and autistic. Their responses are below. I’m grateful to them for contributing their kind, thoughtful words to Story Hospital.

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#43: Describing Your Viewpoint Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently writing a story in first person POV and I’m finding it extremely difficult to describe my main character because of it. What are some strategies for getting across character description to the audience in a way that is not cliche?

—Noelle (she/her)

Dear Noelle,

This is a delicious technical question that I’m very happy to sink my teeth into. First-person POV can be a lot of fun but it also definitely presents some challenges, and one of those is conveying who’s speaking without a clunky or clichéd paragraph of self-description.

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#40: When to Kill a Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing again on my fantasy novel! Your advice about one of my other characters gave some great ideas about making her more proactive. This time I’m writing because I’m seriously thinking I need to axe a character.

I love her character and especially her backstory. I do have a bit of a hard time with her voice, but that’s something I think I could strengthen in revisions.

I’ve toyed with cutting her before, and it’s come up again now that I’m writing an Important Scene for her arc (a Setback). I just can’t make the dramatic tension come together. And when I look back and compare her arc to the other characters’ arcs, it’s much more reactive and plot-driven and contains less actual growth/change. She’s mainly a helping character, and I already have another character whose plot role is largely thwarting/helping the main characters—and the other character gets more character growth out of it. As I conceive of her character now, her character arc occurred more in her past, and now she’s at the place where the other characters are moving toward.

She serves a function in the plot of getting a character from place to place, and she serves as a POV character particularly in a location where none of the other POV characters are. She also is the primary worker of magic in the novel, and without her there’s very little of it (which may be fine, it would just change things). I think I could work around her plot/POV functions by moving other characters and possibly not showing some of these events on screen at all.

And if I do decide to axe her, how on earth do I tackle that? I’m still finishing up the draft. Do you think it makes sense to go forward as if she’s not a character or sort of minimize the whole thing and tackle all of it in revisions?

So I guess I have a two-part question:
1) How do you decide whether to axe characters?
2) If I do axe her, how do I approach the final drafting and then the daunting task of revising her out of the story?

—chocolate tort (she/her)

Dear chocolate tort,

Nice to hear from you again! I’m glad my earlier advice was helpful.

This time around you’ve sent me a classic advice-column letter of the “Should I break up with my partner?” variety. The answer is almost always yes, because by the time you reach the point of writing to an advice columnist, you’ve probably made up your mind to do the deed, and are just looking for external confirmation. I note that you didn’t ask me anything like “How can I keep this character while fixing the problems she creates?”; you went straight for “If I remove her from the book, how do I do it?” This is something like saying “Should I dump my girlfriend, and if I do, do you think email or a text is better?”

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#36: Excavating Internalized Biases

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a trans, gay boy and often write about trans and gay topics, but I often find that a lot of internalized transphobia and homophobia makes its way into my writing. I write poems and essays, and when writing them I always find these present, yet don’t know how to restructure my writing in a way that eliminates them.

Additionally, I am trying to come out to someone in a letter. While I realize that this website is not specifically about trans issues, I was wondering if you could help me figure out how to work up the courage to write a piece like this and how to make sure I do actually get to writing it.

Thank you!

—R.W. (he/him)

Dear R.W.,

It’s awesome that you’re tackling these things. I’ve had the same struggles with internalized transphobia in my own writing; being trans doesn’t protect us from breathing in transphobia along with the cultural air. Fortunately, there are some tactics we can use to filter out biases before they pollute our writing.

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#35: Making Side Characters Feel Real

Dear Story Nurse,

Once again I’m looking back at a first draft and making notes of what needs fixing. It’s my usual list: Slow down, set the scene, connect things better, and fill out the ancillary characters. It’s the last one that I continue to find the hardest, particularly in my longer fiction. (In this case a near-future science fiction novel.)

My main characters are generally good, each having their own full and distinct personality and voice. But my supporting characters, the ones who reoccur occasionally to help move the story along, are all the same generic piece of furniture, saying or doing only what is necessary to further the story. They usually embody some specific purpose. (The Informer, the Boss, the Scientist, etc.) I feel like it’s important to make these characters distinct for the benefit of the reader. If the character has been off page for several (or many) chapters, I’d like the reader to recall their value without too much prompting. These characters also tend to be the third (or fourth or fifth) person in the room, and giving them a distinct presence can help calm the mayhem of group scenes.

Since they aren’t main characters, I don’t want to spend too much page time developing them, so I feel the pull to draw from familiar clichés. (The sniveling Informer, the clueless Boss, the Scientist with bad social skills, etc.) But applying broad clichés doesn’t really do any favors to me, my readers, or the characters themselves.

On the other hand, when I sit down and give them all the consideration of a main character, they get away from me, doing all kinds of things. I love that behavior in my mains, but it’s downright rude of my supporting characters since it’s not particularly… uh… supportive.

How can I balance all of these competing forces to best serve the story and the reader?

—Ancillary Justice (they/them)

Dear Ancillary Justice,

There’s a broad range between “plot furniture” and “side character gets uppity, wants to be the protagonist.” I think you can aim for somewhere in the middle of that range and have it work out well, as long as you have the writerly discipline to keep your characters in line. Or you can develop side characters as embodiments of the setting, which will probably serve your books better in the long run.

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