Giving Characters Downtime

Characters are puppets. Ultimately, they exist solely to make your story happen, to pull plot levers and fall into deadly pits, to weep and laugh and leap and dance as per the program you feed into their CPU.

Of course, part of the challenge is taking these puppets and making them seem like real people, to weave that illusion that this collection of words is actually a person whose life and internal monologue we can magically tap into. It ain’t easy, and if you recently wrote a manuscript in which your characters basically stand around until the time comes for them to pull a plot lever and unleash some hounds, if all their dialog serves to explain plot mechanisms and the like, well, you aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last.

There are a lot of ways you can make your characters feel more like human beings with motivations and depth as opposed to automatons following your script. One of the most enjoyable and effective ways is to be generous with the words and page space and give your characters some downtime.

Now is the Time on Sprockets When We Dance

If you’ve ever watched a TV show and noted a scene where characters just sort of hang out, a scene where no plot work is done, a scene that seems to exist solely so the writers can tell a few jokes, that’s downtime. Essentially it’s a scene which accomplishes zero plot advancement and isn’t even concerned much with character development. It’s just a relaxed moment where the characters hang out, interact, and exist. It’s also a fantastic way to make them seem like real people, for the simple reason that we all engage in a lot of downtime.

It can feel like an expansive waste of space, because you’re not moving the story along. You’re just having some fun and letting your characters talk. But it does so much to make them seem like real, rounded people it’s totally worth it. Plus, since it doesn’t have much to do with the plot, it’s something you can actually insert into your story after the first draft is done. You’ve got the plot, you’ve got your characters in their positions so they can pull those plot levers. Now you just go back and insert a few downtime scenes to flesh them out.

It’s also fun, assuming you actually like your characters.

Of course if you overcorrect and write an entire novel composed of downtime, congratulations, you’ve just invented the mumblecore literary genre, you bastard.


The George Costanza Rule of Unreliable Narrators

Let us pause for a moment and consider the joy and genius of the Unreliable Narrator, a literary trick that offers a way to forgive a multitude of sins. Plot makes no sense? Character inconsistent? He’s unreliable, natch!

I kid, of course (mostly). The Unreliable Narrator is a super weapon when writing a story, because when handled well it offers the chance to truly surprise and shock your readers. Handling it well isn’t always easy, though, especially when you’ve got a first-person narrator. Making a first-person POV unreliable is so challenging some newbie writers wonder out loud if it’s even possible, and you’re forced to direct their attention to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Fight Club with a sad shake of the head.

Writing an unreliable first-person narrator is challenging, but it’s not that hard. You just have to remember George Costanza’s advice to Jerry on the subject of lying: It’s not a lie if you believe it’s true.

This is Fine

The key to an unreliable narrator is that they have to be simultaneously aware of their own chicanery and yet unaware of it. If you think about it, we’ve all elided a few white lies or poor decisions from our personal recollections, we’ve all convinced ourselves that something was fine when it clearly wasn’t. Whether it was a relative benign self-deception like convincing yourself a certain job was okay even when it was stressing you out or something meatier like telling yourself that a romance was fine even though you were miserable, we’ve all lied to ourselves. On some level we know we’re lying, but it’s not always a conscious level.

That’s how an unreliable narrator works. They keep all their self-knowledge buried so they can believe their own lies. And convincing themselves that what they’re thinking—essentially, what they’re saying to the reader—is the key. Your narrator has to believe what they’re thinking. And you know exactly how to do that, because you’ve done it yourself. Don’t deny it. Denying the obvious is a dick move.

Of course, before figuring out how to make an unreliable narrator work, ask yourself if your story is well served by having one in the first place. Just because you can do something cool doesn’t mean it will work, and making your narrator an unreliable jerk only makes sense if it serves your story.

Plot twist: I’ve never seen an episode of Seinfeld.

Take Your Opportunities

There’s an old saying that goes something like ninety percent of success is showing up. The precise figure quote and the attribution changes depending on where you stumble on this gem, but the basic premise is the same: Success is more about doing the work than anything else. Yes, there are other factors—luck, privilege, talent—but ultimately if you don’t show up you’ll never get anywhere, but if you do show up you’ve just increased your chances at success tremendously.

This of course applies to writing, as well. Of course, often there’s nothing to show up for in a writing career; you’re working alone in your room, toiling away, and that’s the showing up part. But there’s another aspect to it that seems so obvious it doesn’t get discussed much: Part of showing up is taking the opportunities you come across.

Yes Man

This seems obvious, right? Not so much. A while ago I wrote an article for Writer’s Digest about my “year of saying yes,” in which I discussed launching my freelance writing career by basically taking any job I could get, no matter how bad the pay was or how boring or distasteful the subject matter was. And I took some low-paying, mind-killing jobs that first year—but I also established myself and paved the way for better-paying, more interesting work because I took every opportunity I could find or manufacture.

Fiction has a similar sort of dynamic. You have to not only read and write consistently, you have to seek and crate opportunities and then take them when they’re offered to you. Don’t just write stories, submit them to markets and contests. Don’t just work on your novel, submit it to agents and publishers (or publish it yourself). If someone offers to pay you to write a story for an anthology, you say yes.

This might seem obvious, but the twist in a writing career is how much you have to create your own opportunities. You can’t sell a story you don’t submit. You can win a contest you don’t enter. You can’t sell a story you don’t write, either. Selling your work requires a lot of research and constant diligence, and sometimes the main lesson regarding making a living as a writer is that you’re going to have to be willing to write stuff you might not necessarily want to write.

There Are No Bad Ideas

A writer acquaintance I meet for drinks once in a while is very critical of new TV shows, films, or novels; he’s really hard to please, and believes pretty strongly that there are, in fact, bad ideas for stories. I’ll mention a new movie coming out, for example, and he’ll complain that the premise has been done and it’s always terrible, so why would this new effort be any different?

Me, I believe firmly that there really aren’t any bad ideas. There are just bad executions of ideas. I think you can take any premise or plot twist or idea and create something amazing with it, as long as you take the right approach. The difficulty level is, of course, figuring out what that approach should be.

Worth It

I also believe that even failures teach us something. You have an idea for a book, you work on it, and in the end you have a steaming turd that you know you can’t show to anybody. A waste of time? I don’t think so.

Last year I wrote a novel that was inspired by some mainstream thrillers I’d read that had a Lost-style speculative twist. In other words, they were gritty thrillers, but had some kind of fantastic element to them. So I thought, heck, I can do that, and proceeded to write a novel using those stories as a template of sorts.

Well, I wrote a novel. And I was chatting with my agent and I mentioned the premise, and the first thing she said was “Well, as long as the twist isn’t XXX!” and then she laughed at how ridiculous such a twist would be. And yes, of course the twist in my story was precisely that.

So, I went home and stewed on this. I still liked a lot of the book, but even though it was just one person’s opinion, my agent’s opinion carried a lot of weight with me for obvious reasons, so I decided to revise. I still liked the idea—it wasn’t bad—but the execution was off. I kept the first twenty chapters or so and came up with an all-new twist, an all-new explanation for what was going on, and I wrote a whole new version of the second half of the book.

And yes, that second version was also: Bad.

The idea? Still a good one. I may take a third whack at it. Or it might find its way into a different book. Because there really aren’t bad ideas. There are just failed attempts at them. Unlike whiskey, which, let me tell you—there is bad whiskey out there, and it will change your life.

The Incompetence Variable

I’m kind of an incompetent—ask anybody who knows me, especially my wife, The Duchess. I forget things and I have a poor eye for detail, which is why any time I’ve decided to proofread and copy edit my own work I have a fool for a client.

The Duchess, by comparison, is painfully detail-oriented. Composing an email for her is always an odyssey of wordsmithing as she revises and revises until she is 100% certain she not only has the precise wording she wants, but that her words are completely error-free. Me? I like to close my eyes and hit the throttle, wake up a few days later and see what I’ve written.

One result of this approach is that the work I submit is often riddled with typos.

Failing Upward

Recently, I sold a short story. The editor attached a light edit to the congratulatory email (not uncommon to have a quick gloss before the real editing) and I was kind of horrified to note a large number of dumb mistakes in there, including one misspelled word that should have been caught by spellcheck, if nothing else.

And yet, I sold the story. The editor recognized that these were just dumb typos that had no bearing on the quality of the story itself. And that’s today’s lesson: If you think that a bit of sloppiness will destroy your career, if you think that your work has to be absolutely perfect or you have no chance, you’re wrong, and I am living proof. Living proof that the Incompetent can have successful writing careers.

Are there editors out there who will reject your work automatically if there’s a typo? Yes, there are. And yes, I’ve probably been rejected by them for that reason, and they may even have posted a photo of me on their office wall with a note to never accept work from this man. Fair enough. For me, that doesn’t bother me, because I probably wouldn’t work well with someone like that anyway. I need collaborators who are fault-tolerant, because I am more or less defined by my faults.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run spellcheck and review your work. Don’t be purposely incompetent—and there is a difference between a few minor mistakes and a trash fire disaster of a manuscript. But if anyone ever tells you that typos will kill your career, point them to my website and watch the expression of horror that they make.

Writing: Become a Critic

When you’re a creative person it’s easy to become embittered and combative towards critics, amateur and professional alike. While it’s never a good idea to confront people in public and demand satisfaction over a bad review, it’s also very difficult to not occasionally have the urge to do just that. You pour your heart and soul and skill into a story and then someone dismisses it with a one-star review that doesn’t even have any words, and you want to go burn down someone’s house. Preferably the critic’s, but any house, really, will do.

On the one hand, criticism is a necessity. And learning to deal with negative opinions and assessments of your work is a necessary skill for any writer. On the other hand, every writer should also be a critic, because that’s a big part of honing your skills.

Everything Sucks

Writers are always advised to read widely and deeply in order to become better writers. You can absorb a lot of techniques, ideas, and inspiration from reading other people’s books or watching TV shows, films, and plays. And a lot of that happens without any overt effort on your part—you read a great book, you walk away with a subconsciously stored set of new ideas.

Even better, though, is to understand why something worked in a story you didn’t write. Why can this writer get away with so many flashbacks? How come this movie’s use of a voice over worked so well? Why did this book start off so exciting and then get progressively more boring as you read? Why did that character’s dialog make you laugh even when it wasn’t supposed to?

Instead of walking away from other work with a vague sense of whether it was good or not, thinking about it consciously and trying to trace the why is where you’ll be able to fully control the techniques you acquire as you grow as a writer. That means becoming a critic, and thinking critically both while you’re reading/watching and after.

Whether you want to start writing up your critical assessments and making enemies is entirely up to you.

Dealing with Deflation

Man, ideas are hard. Not only are they hard to come by (good ones, at least), they’re also often hard to convey to other people in ways that capture the excitement and originality of the concept. And one of the worst experiences that every writer goes through is when they excitedly start explaining their new story or novel idea to someone and watch in horror as the other person’s eyes glaze over and your idea shrivels up, turns black, and dies.

I always think of the experience as Deflation: You start off all puffed up about your idea, then experience the slow deflation of that confidence and excitement, and walk away with your confidence zeroed out. It’s kind of awful. And there are two ways to deal with it, both of which are more or less prophylactic.

The Best Defense

First of all, the best way to avoid deflation is to avoid telling people about your story until you’ve written a draft. That’s not always easy, but if you shield your idea from deflation you can maintain your enthusiasm for it, and even increase it as you progress and feel better and better about what you’re pulling off. Does this mean you might waste your time on an idea that only seems great? Sure, that’ll happen—you’ll spend a year writing a novel draft only to realize that it was all shit from the very beginning. On the other hand, I think that scenario will be pretty uncommon. Much more likely is the scenario where you actually finish a book before people start tearing your ideas to shreds—because criticizing someone else’s book is so easy literally anyone can do it.

The other approach is to hone your Elevator Pitch way, way early. Normally writers don’t think too hard about how to sell their novels until they’re, you know, actively trying to sell it. That means that when you drunkenly announce that you’re working on a new book and start telling people about it, you don’t have a polished pitch, and you start to ramble like your Drunk Uncles at Thanksgiving. You will be actively smothering the life out of your idea as you go.

Instead, having a pithy couple of sentences that efficiently lay out the main ideas without a lot of unnecessary and potentially confusing details will let you get in and out without self-inflicted damage. It’ll also boost your confidence, because instead of getting mixed-up and confused about your own plot elements, you’ll already have the blurb ready to go.

These strategies won’t eliminate the dreaded unimpressed expression even your best friends will sometimes sport when you’re explaining your cool new SFF concept—but it will help. Does this mean you’ll probably write more bad books? Sure. In the words of Twisted Sister, that’s the price you gotta pay.

Never Bulk Up

So you have an idea for a novel. You carve out some time to work on it, you put thought and care into the story, the characters, the setting. You diligently pound out words. And when you’re done, your story is 25,000 words long. It’s clearly not a novel. What do you do?

a) Go back and start ginning up material to bulk it up into book-length proportions

b) Accept that you’ve written a novella

Neither of those choices is going to be correct 100% of the time, but in general I’d argue that you’re almost always much better off choosing option B. Because bulking up a story is usually a very easy way to wind up with a really, really terrible novel.

No More Words

Let’s backtrack a bit and admit that there are scenarios where bulking up a manuscript makes sense. For example, if you have something that’s borderline when it comes to word count and your agent or publisher says they think they can sell it except it needs 5,000-10,000 more words to make publishers see it as viable in the market, that’s a good reason. Or if someone whose opinion you trust says that the book needs something that naturally adds bulk, that can be a good reason too.

In both of those scenarios, the novel is almost there and adding material isn’t a Herculean task, and arguments can be made that the bulking up is beneficial. But when you’re just pouring in words like so much concrete just to hit a random word count you’ve decided is important—well, that’s everything that’s wrong with using word counts as a literary metric in the first place.

Because sometimes when you hit THE END and you’ve got a novella, that’s because your story should be a novella. And yes, novellas are hella hard to publish unless you’re already somewhat successful, and yes, maybe you’re disappointed because you wanted it to be a novel. But some of the best stories of all time were actually novellas—and even some books marketed as novels are really novellas. Point in fact, my first novel, Lifers, is borderline: It’s about 40,000 words. Would it have been improved if I wrote an additional 30,000 words? Absolutely not. It would have become the go-to example whenever writers were discussing noodling.

Now, if more story occurs to you naturally and you want to revisit a short work with more material, no reason not to. But dumping in words just to bulk up a story is a terrible idea. Don’t do it.

Unless someone’s paying you to do it. My advice is to always do things you’re paid to do, no matter how ill-advised, illegal, or ill-conceived.

Throw Out Your Thesaurus

I have an acquaintance who was trained as a kid to never use the same word twice within a paragraph. It’s one of those rules beaten into her by nuns that she can’t forget, and thus composing even simple emails is a chore of Olympian proportions when we spend hours searching for yet another word that means agreed.

This always makes me think of the posts that go around Facebook and other social media listing 50 alternate verbs or adverbs or what have you, with the implication being that if you keep using the word said for every dialog tag like an unimaginative loser your writing will be bland and dull.

Here’s the thing: Using oddball words to break up monotony won’t stop your work from being bland and dull. It might make it unreadable, though.

Priority: Being Understood

Look, a limited vocabulary can indeed be a problem, but you have to choose your battles. Having every dialog tag be some biazarro word like gawped or emitted (both actually suggested in some of these posts) will make your writing sound amateurish and, frankly, insane. On the other hand, having every character described as attractive will simply focus the reader on the fact that all of your characters are more or less physically the same.

So, yes, some word variety is necessary. But word variety should be the natural result of your own reading and word acquisition. Words you use naturally in your own conversation will flow into your prose and feel natural. Words you search-and-replace into your prose with a list of alternatives will always—always—feel forced and weird. And if a little word variety is necessary, a little also goes a long way. You don’t need 50 ways to say he said. You should definitely never say he keened (also one of the examples from an actual post about this).

Your priority when telling a story, especially in the first draft, is to be understood. To have your plot make sense, to make your characters into believable people. Vocabulary variety should be a natural consequence of your language skills—not a science project where you drop strange new words into rando sentences to see what happens. He importuned.

Dealing with the Unspoken

There’s a bit of bad writing I like to call The Moron Double Tap. It’s prevalent in TV shows, but can be found just about anywhere: The moment that bits of plot-important information are repeated because the writer doesn’t trust their audience to get it. It’s like this:

JEFF: I can’t go to jury duty. I’ve been drinking since noon … yesterday.

POLICE #1: <opening liquor cabinet> All these bottles are full!

POLICE #2: <gasps> But he said he’d been drinking since noon!

In other words, did you need that bit of info repeated? Of course not. But there are morons out there, morons incapable of retaining any sort of info. These are the folks who lean over to their date at a movie and literally need every single character identified and plot swerve explained, and if you want your story to have the biggest audience possible you’ll sink down to Moron Double Tap levels in order to ensure you don’t enrage the idiots when they become confused at your overly-complex story.

It can also happen to writers when they’re dealing with the Unspoken.

Don’t Speak

There are always many unspoken things between people. You don’t after all, greet your oldest friend by shouting “WHY HERE IS MY OLDEST FRIEND!” and you don’t refer to people as your spouse or boss in normal conversation with them. Normal interaction is riddled with unspoken subtext and context.

The trouble, as anyone who’s ever tried writing a story knows with soul-killing certainty, is that when you’re writing a story you have to find ways to get that unspoken stuff out there, and there aren’t many good choices. You can go with Exposition Dumps, which are awful and stop everything in their tracks (and read very artificial). Or you might wind up with a form of the Moron Double Tap by having everyone awkwardly identify their relationships or unspoken understandings verbally:

JEFF: Why look, it’s Tom, my literary nemesis!

TOM: Hello there; As agreed I will pretend not to notice the way you refer to me as if I’m a character in a story.

This is, obviously, shit writing, but it’s an easy trap to fall into, because you hear a lot about how exposition is bad, but not much about the Moron Double Tap, because it’s so widespread.

How do you handle the Unspoken, then? The trick is, don’t “handle” it. Go Method, and just keep your unspoken stuff in mind as you write, the same way we all do in real life. Let the unspoken stuff inform your characters’ decisions, statements, and reactions. Trust me, it’ll become clear.

Unless your readers are morons, of course, in which case a little MDT might be necessary.