Monthly Archive: June 2006

Five of a Writer’s Deadliest Enemies

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Many of you who read my posts asked for more essays on the business and technical aspects of writing, so I’ve decided to offer a handful of basic — what I hope are common sense — suggestions on how to fine-tune your writing by avoiding certain mistakes that can sink your story in a hurry.

1: “Its” and “It’s”

The first one — and, man, am I getting sick of seeing this one — has to do with “its” and “it’s”.

Look at those two words, will you?

I’m going to over-emphasize this, just to get it through your heads:

THOSE TWO WORDS ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE.

They do not mean the same thing.

“Its” is a possessive, as in, “Its components are too complex.”

“It’s” is a contraction, as in, “It’s not my problem if its components are too complex.”

This is not something that is up for debate.

If I seem grumpy about this, it’s (meaning, “it is”) because, in two recent manuscripts sent to me to read for a possible blurb, the friggin’ proofreader corrected the author’s use of “its” (when it was used correctly) for “it’s.”

Once more, with feeling:

THOSE TWO WORDS ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE.

“Its” and “It’s” are not the same. Stop doing it. It makes you look ignorant.

2: Profanity

First of all, unless you’re writing Christian Young Adult (and even that’s up for debate), it would be unrealistic to write a novel or short story wherein one of the characters didn’t swear at some point; our lives have become much more fast-paced and frustrating, and a result of that frustration is that people swear more now than they did, say, back in the days of Booth Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons.

However (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), there is a difference between the way people swear in real life and how they should swear in fiction. I know a guy who would have a full one-third — if not half — his vocabulary hacked off at the knees if he were unable to say f**k. I’ve passed strangers’ conversations wherein I picked up at least nine different profanities before they were out of earshot.

I remember one instance, while reading Skipp & Spector’s The Light At The End, where in a single line of dialogue, one character used eleven profanities — including all of the Biggies — in one sentence; it was rather impressive … but it was also way too much. Yeah, I have no doubt that there are people out there in the real world who do speak like that, but (and here comes the tip), if you over-use profanity in your dialogue, you rob it of its most important function: profanity is simply violence without action; it should be employed in fiction to either foreshadow or replace violence. If you follow this suggested guideline, you’ll not only use less of it your writing, but what you do use will be so well-placed that it will have ten times the impact of an endless string of curses.

Example: in my novel In Silent Graves, there is a sequence where the main character (who’s just lost his wife and newborn child) enconters two guys on a city bus who are swearing and cursing and spewing the most unbelievable filth (Andrew Dice Clay wouldn’t say some of the things these two guys do); their language is upsetting a young woman who’s sitting nearby the main character, and as the intensity of the profanity and filth builds, so does the main character’s frustration and anger. It’s the only time in the book that profanity of this level is used, and that was a deliberate choice on my part: I wanted it to be as shocking to the reader as it is to the main character, and I wanted it to build along with his anger. Everyone who’s read the novel has mentioned this sequence as being very effective, and
inwardly I cheer; I wanted it to be effective, I wanted their language to be shocking, because the increased intensity of the filth that comes out of their mouths foreshadows the violence that ends this sequence.

So: remember that profanity is simply violence without action, and that it should be employed only to foreshadow or replace violence; you’ll find that you use less of it, and that what you do use will be all the more effective.

3: Exclamation Points

Admittedly, this one is a personal quibble. However: The exclamation point belongs in dialogue and only in dialogue.

Whenever I encounter an exclamation point used outside of dialogue, I am suddenly pulled from the spell of the story (assuming that it was cast in the first place) and made painfully aware of the writer’s intent. It’s the writer telling me, the reader, that this! Is! Supposed! To! Be! Exciting! Or! Shocking! Or! Revelatory! It automatically tells me that the writer doesn’t trust my intelligence and instincts as a reader enough to let me figure out for myself that something is supposed to shock or stun or scare me.

Consider the following examples, all of them lifted from recent horror stories I’ve read:

He realized that he hadn’t locked the door behind him!
And now they were going to kill her!
They weren’t alone in the house!
He was lost!

You get the idea. To say it’s melodramatic would be to succumb to gross understatement. The use of the exclamation point outside of dialogue is, to my mind, a lazy cop-out all too frequently embraced by horror writers (and we’ve all done it, myself included). Think I’m overstating my point? Then try this simple exercise: Pick any of the above-quoted lines, and when you reach the exclamation point, imagine that it’s been replaced by the first four notes of the Dragnet theme. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Makes its use seem absurd, doesn’t it?

They weren’t alone in the house Dum-Da-Dum-Dum.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to use an exclamation point somewhere other than in dialogue.

4: Italics

Like profanity, italics are most effective when used sparingly. From my point of view, italics should only be used to:

  • place emphasis on a particular word or phrase;
  • indicate a foreign word or phrase;
  • cite the name of a book, film, television or radio program, or musical work (as in the name of a symphony or a specific album, such as Mahler’s 1st, The Who’s Tommy, Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, etc.);
  • to insert a brief flashback – be it a sequence of events or a snippet of recalled conversation – within the body of the current narrative; and,
  • to set apart the contents of a letter, excerpted lines from a poem, or a snippet of song lyrics (which could arguably be accomplished with the use of block quotes instead, making this last “rule” more of a stylistic choice on the part of the writer).

(Parenthetical pause here: when citing the name of a song or a story, quotation marks are what’s required, as in: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or Stephen King’s “Sometimes They Come Back”. The title of the album or collection in which the piece is included would be italicized, as in: Simon and Garnfunkel’s Greatest Hits and Night Shift. The differences are subtle, but profound, and not necessarily as easy to discern as one might at first think.)

Remember the Dragnet-theme warning I suggested when it came to using exclamation points? Well I’ve got a similar warning cue to employ when it comes to italics: imagine that whatever is italicized is being either whispered or Shouted Through A Bullhorn (however circumstances dictate); it’s a matter of extremes, like it or not.

An italicized letter or quoted poem? A whisper.

A panicked warning (as in: “Look out!”)? A shout through a bullhorn. (And bear in mind that when you combine italics with all caps — “LOOK OUT!” — it’s overkill; the circumstances under which something like the above is italicized give the words or passage an immediacy that presenting them in all capital letters only diminishes; it’s hitting the reader over the head with your intent: DEAR GOD, THIS IS REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT AND I’M GOING TO MAKE DAMN SURE YOU KNOW IT!. Overkill. Don’t do that, please. (If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll know that there’s a spot in theis very essay where I overkilled with italics; I did that on purpose, to be annoying, just to help me hammer home the point when you arrived here.)

There is another — and less directly acknowledged — reason that it’s a good idea to use italics sparingly: like it or not, a prolonged passage of italics quickly tires the eyes while reading. It’s that simple.

As a writer, whenever I come to a passage that I know is going to have to be italicized (such as a letter or brief flashback), I apply the same rule to my own work that I do to anything that I might choose to read: no more than 3 pages. That is all that my eyes can take as a reader, so I assume that’s my readers’ limits, as well. After 3 pages, it just gets annoying; and the last thing you want is for a reader to become more aware of how you’re presenting something than of its content.

So: a whisper or shouted through a bullhorn, no more than 3 pages, and you just might find that italics can be a useful ally.

5: Sibilant City

Read this and see if you can spot what’s wrong:

“Get out now!” he hissed.

Figured it out yet?

In order for someone to “hiss” something when they speak, there has to be at least one sibilant present.

Too many writers are doing this, and it must stop.

“Stop it!” she hissed. That works because there is a sibilant present. Otherwise, it ain’t hissing, folks.

To recap: It’s a question of sibilants being present in speech before its hissing can happen. (Subtle, ain’t I?)


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Getting To Know Your Characters (Part 2)

by Gary A. Braunbeck

In Part 1 we discussed an approach to characterization that was based on nuance — specifically, visual nuance. I used an an example how much you can tell about a character from the way he or she eats a bowl of cereal. This time, as promised, we’re going to take a look at how you can get to know a character from the way he or she puts on or takes off a coat.

I know this may seem silly on the surface, but it works for me. Nearly every story I have written has begun with an image of the central character doing something mundane, but it’s the manner in which this mundane task in done that instantly tells me a great deal about them.

Just as a mental exercise, try this: the next you go out to a club, movie, party, or restaurant, over the course of the evening choose five people at random and watch how they both remove and put on their coats. Does this person treat their coat with care, removing it slowly, one arm at a time, and then drape it carefully over the back of their chair (making sure that the lower part doesn’t touch the floor), or do they just all but let it drop off of them, and then thoughtlessly sling it over the back of a chair without a second glance, even though a full one-third of it is now spread out on the floor?

As far as putting the coat back on, watch this, as well. Do they exercise care when they do this (again, one arm at a time, slowly), taking time to smooth it out a bit once it’s on their body, or do they make a bit of a show out of it, swirling it around their shoulders like Zorro’s cape and then jamming their arms into the sleeves with such wide flourish there’s a good chance they could take out someone’s eye should that other person be standing too close?

This can tell you a lot about your character, albeit in broad strokes, but that’s where characterizaton starts. The character who takes care of their coat, who is careful to remove it and hang it off the back of the chair so no part of it touches the floor (and who also exercises quiet care when putting it back on) reveals several things by these actions: this coat is something that has some meaning for them — it may have been a gift from a family member who is no longer alive (it may even have belonged to that family member, it’s your call); it may have been something for which they had to save money every month in order to purchase because they don’t have a lot of disposable income; it may be that this coat is one of the few things they feel they look good in; or it may be that this is the only coat they own. The possibilities are endless.

But here is the one thing that you’ll know immediately: this is, in all probability, a shy person, one who wishes to blend in as much as possible so as not to draw attention to him- or herself. This is a person who will be all to happy to join in the conversation, but will rarely begin one of their own volition.

Whereas the other person — the one who just tosses the coat down without a second thought and then makes a bit of a show when putting it back on — this person is not only an extrovert, but also quite probably someone who, though he or she may have a job, has never really known what it’s ike to work in order to possess the basics (like said coat). The coat may have been a gift from a parent (who is still probably alive, and thus able to provide them with a new coat when this one becomes trashed by having half of it draped across the floor so many times); it may be just one of several coats they own, so what the hell do they care?; or it may be that — like our other person — this is the only coat they own, but because they need to foster this devil-may-care persona among their friends, they treat it with indifference … until, of coursde, it’s time to leave, and putting it back on allows them to be showy, thus making sure they remain the center of attention.

Like I said, these are broad-stroke examples, but it’s a way to begin. Other factors must be called into consideration in order to enrich this scenario; the age and sex of the character in question; the kind of coat he or she is wearing (expensive, something off the rack at Target, something tailored specifically for them, etc.); the circumstances under which he or she is wearing the coat. (I imagine that our first character would exercise the same kind of deliberate care with their coat whether he or she were with a group of people or eating alone — and wouldn’t it be interesting if our second character, when alone, treated their coat with the same care and didn’t make a show of putting it back on? It’s fun how this works, isn’t it?)

Now take it a step further: imagine what’s in the pockets of each character’s coat. Going with the original conceit that our first character is a shy person who, for the sake or argument, was given the coat as a gift by a deceased parent (perhaps the last gift this person ever received from said parent), they’re not likely to stick a used candy bar wrapper in one of the pockets because they couldn’t immediately find a trash can after polishing off … what? (Ask yourself that: what kind of a candy bar would this person prefer, or would they like candy at all? Hmmmmm ….) I imagine that our shy perswon would keep a pair of gloves in the pockets (for when the outside tmperature gets cold) and perhaps their car keys, but little else. Simple and uncluttered.

Whereas our second character would have receipts, loose change, car keys, two or three wadded one-dollar bills they’ve forgotten are even in there, half a dozen phone numbers scribbled on slips of paper, and a half-eaten candy bar from six months ago that has begun to grow a fungus that is starting to breathe and develop a rudimentary language.

I could go on, but I think you probably got the point of this at least three paragraphs ago.

Keeping in mind what I’ve discussed, allow me to present you with someone:

Female. Mid-30s. Her coat is wool, with a removable lining. It’s tan. It’s in very good condition and, in fact, might be thought brand-new until you get close enough to see that it’s at least ten years out of style. She removes it carefully after entering the restaurant (she’s alone) and instead of draping it over the back of her own chair, places it lengthwise across the other chair at the table, so that the collar is just hanging a little over the back of the chair, and the bottom of the coat hangs a little ways past the seat of the chair, nowhere near touching the floor. She’s wearing a wedding ring, but it’s on the ring finger of her right hand. She takes her cloth napkin and spreads it across her lap, then smoothes it out. She picks up the menu, takes a small sip from her water glass, and begins reading. If you watch closely, you can see that her hands are trembling slightly.

What’s her story? Write about her character in a single paragraph.

Getting To Know Your Characters (Part 1)

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I’ve been very lucky in that readers and many of my fellow writers feel I have a certain skill for creating three-dimensional characters. I’m often asked how I manage to do this, so I thought for my next few columns here, I’d go over some of the methods I employ for characterization. Please bear in mind that these methods are those which work best for me and are not being offered as absolutes or — God forbid — a template that will guarantee you’ll get the same results. There is no such template; creating a multi-layered, believable, sympathetic character is, like everything else one learns about writing, a matter of trial and error.

Before getting any further into this, I need to give you a little personal background so you’ll see how I arrived at these particular methods.

For the better part of a decade — between the ages of 19 and 30 — I worked as an actor, mostly summer stock and dinner theatre, but I actually got paid to pretend I was someone else. During those years, I worked with an assortment of other actors, all of whom had their own approach to interpreting the particular role in which they were cast.

The late Laurence Olivier was a self-proclaimed “technical” actor — he worked from the outside in; he would find a walk, a speech pattern, various mannerisms, etc. through which the character would reveal itself to him. While rehearsing a Noel Coward play in which he played a prissy English lord, Olivier was having great difficulty getting a handle on both the character and how to play him. This semi-famous story reached its happy ending when Olivier, passing by an antique store, happened to glance in the window and see a walking stick for sale. He went in to the store, picked up the walking stick, and the moment it was in his hand, he knew the character. (The walking stick, by the way, was described by Olivier as “…one of the ugliest, most ostentatious things…” he’d ever seen, but knew that his character would think it was classy and tasteful.)

I worked with a lot of technical actors. I was one myself.

I also worked with a lot of Method actors. Method actors are an ongoing gift to the world from Constantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky, an actor, writer, and director from Moscow who created an approach that forefronted the psychological and emotional aspects of acting. The Stanislavsky System, or “the Method.”

Without boring you into a coma, I’ll try to simplify what “the Method” is. It requires that, if an actor is to portray fear, he must remember something that terrified him and use that remembered fear to instill reality and credibility into his performance. The same with joy, lust, anger, confusion, etc. Stanislavsky’s Method also requires that the actor know everything about the his or her character, usually by having the actor write a short “inner history” for their character, past details of their lives that — while never used on stage — would nonetheless give the performance even deeper authenticity.

In theory, Stanislavsky’s Method is an amazing tool for an actor. It requires the complete submersion of the self into the body, psyche, and thoughts of another person so that an actor’s performance rings of the truth.

I use the phrase “in theory” above because, in my opinion, too many actors use Stanislavsky’s Method as an excuse for self-indulgence masking itself as research. Don’t misunderstand — when you get a Method actor like Marlon Brando (in his prime), Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn, Gregory Peck, Johnny Depp, Lance Henriksen, or Bob Hoskins (to name a small handful) who have the discipline and wherewithal to employ the Method to all its power, and you can have something glorious.

But I didn’t get to work with any of them. I got to work with Method actors who would spend weeks researching and writing their “inner history”, demand that I address them only as their character (even when off stage), and never, never make light of anything at any time.

The prime example of how Stanislavsky’s Method can be turned into rampant silliness happened when I was doing a stage production of Sherlock Holmes and had to do several scenes with the actor playing Dr. Watson. (I played a slimy little safecracker named Sidney Prince.) The actor playing Watson had written a 25-page “inner history” for Watson, researched hand-to-hand combat methods used by British troops during the Boar War, studied medical procedures practiced in London in the 1800s … and when the curtain rose each night, audiences were treated to his imitation of Nigel Bruce for two-and-a-half hours.

But that’s not the silly part. The silly part always happened off stage, right before the third scene of the second act (where Watson confronts Prince). As he and I waited for our cues, the actor playing Watson would drink a cup of vinegar. I asked him why, and this, word for word, was his reply: “Because, Mr. Prince, dealing with you leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Time to run, not walk, to the nearest exit.

I finally came to the conclusion that for me, as an actor, Stanislavsky’s Method was useless. Every Method actor I had worked with wound up giving stiff, overly-mannered, obvious performances (in that it was obvious they were “acting”). I don’t know that I’ll ever do theatre again, but if I do, I’ll use the same “technical” approach that I always used.

But I came to realize that, while Stanislavsky’s Method might be useless to me as an actor, it was priceless to me as a writer. I still approach characterization — especially during the early stages of a story or novel — from a technical starting point, but almost always fall back on Stanislavsky’s Method when it comes time to add emotional depth and authenticity to whichever character is coming to life on the page — and I won’t commit a single word to the page until said character is someone I recognize as an old friend.

I always start with two simple questions, questions that are going to strike you as being a bit silly on the surface, but questions that, for me, reveal so much more than what is simply seen; for the purpose of this column, let’s say those two questions are these: How does this character put on his or her coat? and How much milk do they use when having a bowl of cereal?

Since this is already running a bit long, I’ll address the second question, and we’ll get to the coats next time.

Let’s say that this particular character uses just enough milk to barely cover the cereal, thus ensuring that both milk and cereal will be finished at the same time with nothing left in the bowl but the spoon. That’s the technical starting point, the outside. Now, let’s go in and look a little closer. They do this because they don’t believe in waste; they’re not the type to dump the last bit of milk down the sink after the cereal is gone. (And if there is any milk remaining, they either lift the bowl and drink it, or set the bowl on the floor so the cat can finish it.)

Why do they not believe in waste? Because they can’t afford to be wasteful. They work long hours at a job that manages to pay the bills, the rent, and buy a set amount of groceries each week. But no excesses, no luxuries, ergo, no wasting of the milk. This also suggests that this character may not be the happiest person you’ve ever met; after all, if they have to be this frugal with milk, then that frugality has to extend to every other aspect of their existence, as well, and with that comes an endless string of commonplace worries that, taken individually, may not seem like much, but cumulatively drain a lot of enjoyment from life.

This character is sitting at a kitchen table that also doubles as the dinner table, because he or she lives in a 3- or 4-room apartment; a nice-enough place that’s affordable if not fancy. I’m willing to bet that stashed up in one of the kitchen cupboards is a set of china cups and saucers left to them by a dead relative, cups and saucers that they only use on special occasions, like those rare instances they have company. I’ll also bet you that on this character’s chest of drawers in the bedroom we’ll find a jar filled two-thirds of the way with an assortment of spare change — mostly pennies, dimes, and some quarters — that this character is planning on using to buy themselves a nice little something-or-other once the jar is full, maybe a new pair of dress shoes at Target or K-mart.

I could keep going but I think you’ve got the idea. All of this from simply looking into their cereal bowl to see how much milk they used. And it doesn’t matter a damn whether or not any of the information from the above paragraph makes it into the story because I am now well on the road to knowing this person; and the better I know them, the more authentic and believable they will be to the reader, and we will have achieved what Stanislavsky’s Method demands: complete, unflinching, undistilled truth when depicting the human condition of the character in question.

Next time, the coats. In the meantime, you might want to think about what we might find in the pockets….