How To Write Better Stories, OR: Harry Potter And The Blurb.

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your humble host

Writing the hundred words or so that adorn the back of your book – and the Ammy listing – is hard. Looking at examples of other people’s work, when applicable, is… well, it might be easy to look at their blurbs, but what can we learn from their blurbs?

Aha. Glad you asked.

Let’s start yet another analysis of blurbs by studying a book we already know and seeing what information the blurb includes or doesn’t include.

For this, we need a popular book where many of us know the story. That way we will know if it’s accurate or gives away too much, etc. Harry Potter is called upon once again.

Blurbs are advertising copy.

The dreaded M word – Marketing.

And it’s easier for most writers to write 100,000 words of a story than it is to sell a potential reader in 100 words. We all struggle with that. It’s a different skill set than storytelling, but as wordsmiths I believe we can eventually master it.

Although there there are numerous formulas that will give you a blurb you can live with, you want a blurb that sells books. Maybe studying Rowling’s blurbs will help us do that; maybe not – but we will almost certainly learn something, so let’s have a look. (Her books seem to have sold well, after all. Maybe the blurb played a roll.)

If you could look at an example of the original cover and the original blurb, and then maybe tweak it for today’s standards, you might learn a lot about blurb writing.

After reading the story, I finally turned the book over to read the blurb. Because I was reading it not for the story per se but to find out about the description of the castle and to see what all the fuss was about, I never read the first blurb until I was done with the book.

And what I see is kind of a formula. Yes they do ask some questions (which is considered bad form by some) but really, who cares – if it works?

You could ask yourself now that you know the story – as most of you do – read the blurb and see: does it tell you enough to make you want to read the book? Does it say too much? Does it skip things that you might have put in?

First, some givens:

  • You must write a good story.
  • It must be as error free as possible.
  • It needs a professional-looking cover.

After that, let’s look at a blurb – because the best blurb likely won’t get read if the cover sucks, and if the story is awful, you’ll die a slow painful writerly death of by way of many bad reviews.

Here’s the back cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes I know it was originally the “philosopher’s” stone, and maybe the blurb changed with that wording, but we have to work with what we have. Maybe those changes helped it become more successful.

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yes, that’s my thumb. we’re working on a budget here

I’ll transcribe the text so we can play with it:

Harry Potter has never played a sport while flying on a broomstick. He’s never worn a cloak of invisibility, befriended a giant, or help hatch a dragon. All Harry knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to a wonderful place he never dreamed existed. There he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic around every corner, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… If Harry can survive the encounter. (125 words)

Okay.

A friend recently did an outline of the steps necessary in a traditional blurb, so let’s put HP into it.

  1. The situation. This is where you briefly describe life as it was for your character before the crap started hitting the fan. (Depicted in GREEN TEXT as follows.)
  2. The Problem. This is where you describe a few of the rocks you’ve thrown at your character, and use only the rocks that are in line with your main plot. (BLUE TEXT)
  3. New hopes/stakes. This is where you describe how your character starts to address the problem and the stakes, which also functions as THE HOOK. (If the character must do something but can’t, what happens?) (RED TEXT)

I’ve color coded these steps (GREEN, BLUE, RED) so we can easily identify the following text parts in the same manner (on some phones, you won’t see the colors so I’ll make them Green/bold and underlined/blue and plain/red):

Harry Potter has never played a sport while flying on a broomstick. He’s never worn a cloak of invisibility, befriended a giant, or help hatch a dragon. All Harry knows is a miserable life with the Dursley’s, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to a wonderful place he never dreamed existed. There he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic around every corner, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… IF HARRY CAN SURVIVE THE ENCOUNTER.

Okay, now: having identified the parts, let’s see what was told here and what was left out. You’ll need to know the story, and for this one, the book and movie are pretty much the same story line.

We can see what was left in, but think about how much of the story you read in the book before you get to the part where Harry is living in a closet under the stairs – which is basically where the blurb starts. There’s no mention of the wizards that take him to the Dursleys’ as a baby. No nastiness explained in detail of his treatment by Dursleys (aside from “miserable” and “awful”), nor about how fat Dudley is, or how spoiled, or how there appears to only be one child living in the house when there are two. (That got me; I’d have included it – wrongly). There’s not visit to the zoo mentioned nor the ability to cause errant stuff to happen – like the snake glass disappearing, or Harry flying onto the school roof when the bullies – Dudley’s gang – are after him.

It’s gloriously narrow in its information.

Next, the blurb for HP2:

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yes, that’s my thumb again

I’ll transcribe the text so we can play with it, too (already color coded):

Ever since Harry Potter had come home for the summer, the Dursley’s had been so mean and hideous that all Harry wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts school for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he’s packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature who says that if Harry returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike.

And strike it does. For in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck up new professor and a spirit who haunts the girls’ bathroom. But then the real trouble begins – someone is turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, who’s mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects… Harry Potter himself!

Again, look how much of the story is not included.

And that’s the key.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the situation? What was life for your character before the crap started hitting the fan.?
  2. What is the Problem? What are a few of the main rocks you’ve thrown at your character?
  3. What are the stakes? (Or what is the new hopes?) How does your character start to address problem and if the character can’t, what happens?

and do not add anything but the basics, then shape it so it attracts readers’ attention.

  • Does the blurb tell you enough to make a decision about reading the book?
  • Is it confusing? Or enticing?
  • Are there too many names?
  • Is there enough detail or too much?

Done correctly, this helpful outline gets a reader’s attention!

 

 

 

 

The Most Important Lesson In Storytelling

img_2351-19My job as an author is to get readers “lost” in my story – as in, they lose track of time, can’t put the book down, and are fully engaged to the point of not realizing they stayed up until 2am reading and the house is on fire.

They. Are. Immersed.

Never un-immerse your reader from your story.

In order to have a great story, readers have to become fully immersed, never pulling their head up to see the world happening around them but only flowing along with where your story goes and what your story does. They get lost in the world you created.

You need many things. An interesting plot. Relatable characters. Good pacing. On and on.

You must avoid mistakes. No typos. You can’t be dull.

When it’s right, readers know it.

You see it in movies all the time. When people leave a movie, they’re pumped up after watching Rocky or they’re feeling adventurous after watching Indiana Jones. Or they are sad, crying their eyes out at the end of Love Story or Dr. Zhivago or Titanic.

When it’s wrong, readers know it.

The Angry Birds movie, if you are over the age of ten. Finding Dory. Zoolander 2. Heck, just about anything 2. Independence Day 2, whatever it was called. The Johnny Depp/Through The Looking Glass thing where he wore all the clown makeup. Come on. Clown face? That’s awful on the cover. Nobody’s seeing that.

All the things we advise you to do – spell checking, trimming, grabber openings, cliffhanger endings – are the things that help immerse your reader in your story.

Your goal is to never un-immerse them.

Typos and run-on sentences and things like that all serve to pull your reader out of the story, even if only for a nanosecond.

Un-immersing your reader from the story is the ultimate sin.

The goal is to keep them in, so anything that takes them out has to be addressed.

Look, at some point you’re going to have to end a chapter. That’s a great place for the reader to say oh it’s time to make dinner – and then they get busy with a phone call and email and then the next day they have to work late and then the air conditioner breaks and then soccer practice starts and it’s their day to make brownies for the team – and your book never gets picked back up. I’ll get to it tomorrow…

A DAY becomes a WEEK becomes NEVER.

The third Harry Potter book still waiting for me. I got halfway through it because I took two airplane flights to go snow tubing. Killing Jesus took me four months to read because I read half of it in one sitting, got busy, and didn’t get back to the second part until four months later! And those are both good books. Anything slightly less and I would not have picked it up, such as Bird By Bird or The Hero With A Thousand Faces or any of a number of other books. Or movies I recorded that I started watching and never got back to. Or TV series with multiple episodes DVR’ed and every time I get a chance to start back up at episode three, I’m kinda sleepy and Law And Order reruns looks better. A month later, the folder gets deleted from the DVR in a fit of digital spring cleaning and no one notices.

Is that what you want for your story after all your hard work writing it? No.

So you have two goals.

1: Tell a great story, and

2: Keep your reader completely immersed.

That’s what makes writing difficult.

We can all learn to tell good stories.

We can’t all tell smooth ones that readers stay completely immersed in. It’s hard work and it requires concentration and hours of furrowed brows, rewriting the same line four times and still hating it. It’s hard work to ACCEPT when somebody tells you to cut a whole chapter. It’s hard work getting up the courage to show your story to a critique group. It’s hard work to call local book store sand ask them to let you do a signing. It’s hard work = whatever you don’t like doing.

That’s why Hemingway said we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

If you were ever wondering HOW writers do that amazing stuff with multiple subplots and layers, most write out an outline and ADD that stuff, reworking it so it meshes and makes sense. Add layers at every level, and watch movies and read books that are like that to see them doing it – and take notes. That’s what I do, and unless you think I’m just an amazing genius, you can do it, too.

There are lots of great example. Get Shorty. Pulp Fiction. Others.

Get Shorty: A shylock needs to track down a runaway customer who owes him money. That’s a simple enough plot. Most of you would leave it there.

But.

The shylock, a movie fan, has a few hurdles in his path:

  • He just got a new boss
  • The new boss is a guy he was having a fight with
  • The shylock doesn’t want to be a shylock any more
  • while tracking down the runaway customer, who has run to Vegas, the shylock is asked to go to LA to track down a runaway customer of a casino
  • while in LA, he meets a movie producer
  • the movie producer gambled away the money for his latest project
  • the money he lost was lent to him by mobsters
  • the mobsters borrowed the money from drug dealers in Latin America and they need it back BIG TIME
  • the mob guys kill the drug dealer’s “mule” – who also happens to be the drug king pin’s nephew

Is that enough layers or do you need more? Add some witty dialogue and memorable characters and you are off to the races.

Keep throwing “what if” scenarios into your story, and make them objects the MC has to overcome – and that secondary characters have to overcome.

Emulate the best examples you can, so your stories are the best they can be.

That’s how you tell a great story.

How you keep your reader immersed is: fast pace, cliffhanger chapter endings, great dialogue, memorable characters, etc. Use the search button to track those topics down. They’re here.

img_2351-18Dan Alatorre has had a string of bestsellers and is read in over 112 countries around the world.

To get free books and updates on his newest novels, join his Readers Club HERE.

3 Tips To Write Amazing, Memorable Characters Readers Will Remember Forever

img_2351-19Tip 1: Write Endearing Characters

Readers love discovering an endearing character in a story. They will sympathize with them and cheer for them. They will consider them as a friend. They will remember them FOREVER.

You have some characters from books and movies you’ll never forget, and certain scenes you love.

But what makes a character endearing?

It’s the same things that make us like people in real life. Endearing characters are lovable. They are charming, witty, funny. They enjoy other people (us). They laugh at our jokes and they are outwardly happy. They have flaws we overlook or accept. Hero or underdog (I wish I could do that/I’ve felt like that), we identify with them in some way.

 

Tip 2: Other Characters Help

Angel Cover 18 eyesIn An Angel On Her Shoulder, the character of Father Frank is bold and brash. At the same time, the MC (Doug) is somewhat shy and reserved. The two personalities contrast each other, and through the course of their scene together we see Doug go from being somewhat reticent about Frank to really bonding with him and trusting him. The two opposing character types heighten each other. Doug’s insecurity heightens Frank’s bold nature to a reader. (You can read the scene below.)

As Doug begins to trust Frank, the reader does.

Tip 3: Be Unique = Be Memorable

Father Frank says and does things that are unique. Readers like a character who is smart in the moment. Frank cusses, and has to put a nail in a can every time he does. That’s memorable. He has a loud, booming voice that makes Doug flinch at times. That’s memorable. And he brings up things in a unique way that make us realize he’s intelligent.

Readers love a character will say the things we wish we could say.

Have a character do that stuff.

Frank is described as being barrel-chested, with thick fingers; not that he is necessarily big or tall. We begin to create a mental image based on how the other character reacts. When Frank refers to Doug as “son,” we probably picture Frank as older and probably possibly taller then Doug.

The fact that Doug goes to him to confide in him also conveys a difference in age, but we never said that in the chapter.

And the fact that Frank is so forthcoming with his information gives him the appearance of being wise.

We associate all that with age, but we never said how old Frank is, or described him as old.

Anyway, he’s a likable guy! He’s funny!

Endearing Characters Relate To Your Reader

When Doug says things about his daughter Sophie, Frank says complementary things in return.

“We read signs to her.”

“That’s cute.”

and

“She’s four.”

“That’s a fun age.”

I did that because I have a small daughter and most readers will have had a small child. They will relate to the part about reading signs to them and teaching them words. Frank paying a compliment to the parent in that discussion is a way of connecting with the reader and paying the reader a complement. Who hasn’t done those things with their own kid? If you told that to Frank, Frank would’ve told you that was cute.

So we as readers are connecting.

And all of those things will make this particular character endearing to readers. And memorable.

And it’s not a bad thing to have your book be memorable.

Read the sample below, and see when/where/why you start to become enamored with Father Frank.

 


I eased open the door to the massive church and stepped inside. The metal latch echoed off the big walls as the glass door clicked shut behind me. Only three other people were visible in the rows of pews, their heads bowed in prayer. The bright, green and white windows behind the altar greeted me from their place behind the enormous wood cross.

Our Lady Of Mercy had an open floor plan like an auditorium. It was bright even on rainy days, with lots of tall windows to let the light in. That contrasted greatly with the dark, gothic St. Matthews I’d known in Indiana, full of oil paintings and stained glass windows, arched ceilings and stone columns—but ancient relics like that were built for a different time. St Matthews was erected by German stone masons over a hundred and forty years ago, modeled after cathedrals in Europe. Our Lady Of Mercy had been built in the 1970s, and it had that look.

Things tend to be done a certain way in any Catholic church, though. Holy water is located near the doors, a rack of prayer candles would be off to one side, and lining a quiet wall somewhere would be a row of confessional booths.

I crept into the quiet church. To the right stood the glass partition for parents with young children, allowing the family to attend the service but not interrupt it if the baby cried. To the left was a row of wooden structures, about the size of three phone booths all in a row, with curtains. Those would be the confessional booths. The priest sat in the middle one, and the confessors sat on either side. Protocol dictated that you wait your turn by praying in the pews, but if the side curtain was open, you were being invited to come on in. Some churches even had a little light over the top of the center booth, to show that the priest was actually in there. No point in telling your sins to an empty box and having to do it twice.

Confession is a touchy thing. Nobody likes to talk about all the stuff they’ve done wrong. If a thousand people were at Mass, maybe a dozen would be at confession, unless a big holiday was coming up, like Lent. In places like New Orleans, confessions were standing room only after Mardi Gras.

That was sure not the case today. The church was practically empty. In a far corner, an old lady in black prayed quietly. Seems like there’s always an old lady in black praying when you go to a church. That’s also part of the way things are done.

Outside the confessional booths, two people sat in the closest pew. They were probably waiting their turn. I checked the time on my cell phone. There was more than an hour to go before they wrapped up the confessions. I stepped around the end of the last pew and sat on the cold, hard wood.

People get intimidated about making a confession, me included. The longer you have to wait, the more nervous you get. With good reason. Admitting, out loud, the sins they’ve committed and the other things they’ve done wrong? Supposedly, you feel better for having gotten it off your chest. I always just felt relief that it was over.

After a few minutes, a woman emerged from the confessional and joined the others who were waiting. They all got up and left together.

My turn.

I took a deep breath and stood up, stepping sideways to the end of the pew and out onto the carpet as I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants. I made my way to the confessional booth and reached out to take its red velvet curtain in my fingers, taking one last look around the spacious church. Aside from me and the old lady praying at the candle rack, the place was empty.

Good. This might take some time.

I slipped past the curtain and kneeled down, staring at the small screen that prevented the priest on the other side from knowing the confessor’s identity. It had been years since my last confession, so I was antsy, but I felt relatively certain I remembered the routine.

I waited, tapping my toes. On a busy day of confessions, like a long day of interviews, the priest might need a few moments to relax before starting the next series. Who knows how long he will have to sit there listening. Hours, maybe. On a slow day, he might be in there reading Field & Stream from the table in the reception room.

Maybe I should come back later.

“Are you ready to begin?” The man’s voice boomed into the confessional.

I about jumped out of my skin. “Jesus!”

“No . . . Frank.”

I caught my breath and shook my head. “Right, Father. Sorry.”

“Been a while for you, huh?” His thunderous words filled my side of the little box. People in the pews could probably hear him. Maybe people in the parking lot.

Crouching, I managed a miniscule peep. “Yes.”

“We’ll go slowly, then. In the name of The Father . . .”

The screen between us prevented being able to see faces, but some movements were still visible. He made the sign of the cross. “How long has it been since your last confession?”

“Uh, a long time.” I squirmed on the kneeler. “And to be honest, I’m not really here to confess. I just sort of need help with a problem.”

Father Frank sat motionless. “So your first confession in a long time . . . is not a confession?”

It was harder than I thought. “That’s right, father.” I swallowed hard. Time for some salesmanship or he might shut the whole thing down on me. “If it’s okay, I really need to talk.”

That might be a good hook. Clergy are always open to helping a member of their congregation.

Father Frank was silent.

I hooked a thumb at the curtain. “If it’s any help, you don’t have anybody else waiting. You can check. There aren’t any other . . . customers.”

I winced at my own ineptitude. Through the screen I saw him close the book in his lap—hopefully it was The Bible and not a John Grisham novel. He opened his curtain and leaned forward.

I put a finger to my own curtain and peeked out a little. The church was completely empty.

Drawing a loud breath, Father Frank tapped his book. “Where would you like to talk? Here, or in the regular seats? There isn’t another service for a few hours, so nobody will be coming in.”

I pulled back my curtain a little wider to ensure my assessment was right. The hall was vacant, and kneelers tend to get uncomfortable quickly. Probably part of a leftover medieval torture setup during The Inquisition. A wood seat sounded like a nice upgrade. “Oh, the regular seats will be fine.”

“Good!” He said, rising. “My butt was really getting sore in here.”

I smiled. My kind of priest.

I stood up and went through the curtain to greet him. He was a barrel chested man, dressed in plain clothes. Guess he wasn’t expecting to be seen outside the confessional box so he skipped the black shirt and white collar.

I held my hand out. “Father, I’m Doug.”

His massive mitt took mine. “Call me Frank.” Gesturing to the empty pews with his book—The Bible—he smiled. “Shall we sit? Or would you rather walk a little?”

I opened my mouth to speak but he answered his own question. Rubbing his butt, he turned toward the exit door. “Let’s walk.”

I followed. Father Frank walked with a slight limp, almost unnoticeable. His shoes were old and faded.

“What brings you to me today?” His voice boomed off the walls of the empty church, making it sound that much louder. “What’s the problem you need to talk about so strongly that you dare disrupt the sanctity of my confessional booth?”

My stomach twitched. I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic.

At the door, Frank looked out. “Ah, it’s raining. Damn.” He turned back to me. “Looks like we’ll have to talk here. Just a moment.”

He took something out of his pocket and dropped it into a can by the rack of candles. It hit the bottom with a metallic plunk.

“Do you mind if Joseph listens in?” He pointed over his shoulder to the stature of St. Joseph behind the candle rack.

I shook my head.

“You’re not talking much for a man who wants to talk about his problem.” Father Frank noted. “Wanna know why I put that nail in the can?”

I blinked. A nail?

“I tend to swear a lot. I enjoy it. I find it helpful to me in my work. However, the powers that be within this fine institution find the use of profanity to be . . . undignified. And unworthy of any representative of the Holy Church.” He grinned. “Can you imagine? And so a crafty method was devised to cure those with of this horrendous affliction—that is, the bad habit of cussing.”

He put his hands in his pockets and tipped his head toward the statue. “I have been given a hammer and some nails, not unlike Joseph here, a carpenter. Every time I use a swear word, I hammer a nail into a piece of wood in the rectory storage room.”

“Does it work?” I asked.

“We don’t know yet. Some days it sounds like a machine gun going off over there.” He burst out laughing at his own joke, a thunderous whoop that bounced around the cavernous room.

Plopping down in the pew in front of me, he threw an arm over the back of the bench and cocked an eye. “Now, what’s on your mind?”

I drew a slow breath. “Okay. But it’s going to sound crazy.”

“Nobody’s keeping score, son.”

“I have a daughter.” I swallowed, searching the ceiling for the right words. “We do—my wife and I—we have a daughter. Sophie. That’s her name. We call her Sophie.”

“Cute,” he said. “Go on.”

“She recently turned four years old . . .”

“That’s a fun age.”

I nodded. “And there has been some trouble. Not trouble like she’s a bad kid. God, she’s a great kid.” I caught myself. “Oh. Sorry.” Using the Lord’s name improperly. And in a church yet.

Father Frank dug into his pocket. He reached over and plunked a nail into the can by Joseph. “That one’s on me.”

“Thanks. So . . .” The words were hard to say out loud. I had thought about it and thought about it, and still I was at a loss as to how to describe what was happening. Or what might be happening. “There just seems to be some sort of big event that occurs, a really bad event, every year.” I looked at him directly. “We feel jinxed, or cursed or something. Possessed, maybe.”

I watched Father Frank’s face to see if the crazy alarms had gone off yet. So far, so good.

“It’s just, things don’t make sense.” I folded my hands, then unfolded them. “They don’t add up. I mean, if you almost get killed at a winery are you lucky because you weren’t killed, or are you unlucky because you were almost killed?”

He nodded. “I see what you mean.”

I was surprised. “You do?”

“Yeah. It does sound crazy. Have you seen a psychiatrist?”

I opened my mouth to speak.

A burst of laughter erupted from deep in his barrel chest. “Just kidding.”

Relief swept through me. This guy was quite a character.

Father Frank scratched his chin. “I supposed how a person sees events like that all depends on their perspective. If you’re an optimist, you see it as lucky. You weren’t hurt, right? You and your family, in this winery incident?”

“No, not my family. Others were hurt, though. One lady was nearly killed.”

“Mm hmm.” The thick fingers massaging his jaw stopped. “Why does it bother you?”

“Because we should have been killed. It scared us.” It sounded terrible when I said it out loud.

A frown crept over Father Frank’s face. “Why should you have been killed? Did you do something wrong, to be punished?”

“No, nothing like that.” I leaned forward and dropped my elbows onto my knees, running a hand through my hair. I had gone over this so many times in my head but it still sounded insane. “We, my daughter and I, we were walking out to the parking lot right before the wreck happened. We were going to have a picnic. We had a cooler in the van, and it was a nice day, so why not? Spend some time with my daughter while my wife sampled wines.”

Frank nodded. “Go on.”

“Anyway, we went to go have our picnic by the side of the van. Only, on the way out, we got distracted.”

“What distracted you?”

“Nothing really. Dumb stuff. Sophie got fussy so I read her some t-shirts.”

Frank gave me a sideways glance. “T-shirts?”

“We’re always encouraging her to tell us what the words are on things. Like if there’s a poster or sign, we read it together. Things like that.”

“Oh. Okay.” He smiled. “That’s cute.”

“So we were in the winery, they had some wine t-shirts and I read them to her, to distract her because she was getting fussy. She was hungry. And they had some funny shirts that said ‘I like to cook with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food.’ Stuff like that.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“But here’s the thing.” I looked into his eyes, watching his face. “It was that little delay, reading the stupid t-shirts, that was just enough time for us not to get hit by the pickup truck in the parking lot. It smashed right into the car next to us and pushed that car, a sedan, flat up against our rented minivan. That’s where we would have been sitting for our picnic. We would have been killed.”

Frank let this sink in. “It sounds like you were lucky. But it also just sounds a lot like a coincidence.”

“I don’t disagree,” I said. “In fact, that’s pretty much where my wife and I left it. Until we started talking about it that night. There have been other things that happened to us. They always happen around the same time of year, around our daughter’s birthday. That made us start thinking that maybe there was a connection. Once they were all laid out, you start to realize there has to be a connection. I mean, I just don’t see how it can be coincidence anymore.” I swallowed hard. “That’s when we started to wonder if maybe we . . . you know, if we were cursed. Or possessed. Or just plain crazy.”

“Well, I can see your concern.” Father Frank sat straighter, adjusting his shirt. “You’re her parents. You job is to keep her safe. If bad things are happening around you, around your daughter, you feel as though you aren’t doing a good job.” He stood. “But bad things happen. There are good things in the world and there are bad things. Necessarily.”

He stepped into the aisle, pacing and shaking out his legs.

“You cannot have good without evil,” he said. “You look at the embodiment of goodness in the world. A child. A baby. Is there anything that you have seen in your life that was not as good and as pure as your daughter, or any baby, when they are born?”

“I suppose not.”

“You suppose correctly!” Frank boomed. “So we agree that some things are good. Absolutely good. But remember, as a Catholic, you believe that your daughter was born with original sin, yes?”

I nodded.

“And so therefore we see that the good is always accompanied by the bad. But you didn’t come here for scripture. Let’s look a little deeper, and from a different angle.” Frank meandered past Joseph and the candles.

“If we allow that things can be good, they are only good in comparison to other things. If there was only one color in the world—the color blue, let’s say—we could reason that there were no colors at all, because everything would be blue. That would be all that we know, and maybe that would not be enough information to let you understand that blue was even a color. Like air, blue would just be. It isn’t until the addition of a second color that we can see blue, because we now have something else that is not blue. So that allows the comparison, and the comparison allows for the whole spectrum. Do you see?”

“I think so.”

He cocked his head, apparently looking for a bigger commitment.

I gave it to him. “I’m with you so far.”

“Okay.” Frank strolled the aisle, gesturing like crazed professor. “Now, if we allow that something is good—and we do—then we have to allow that something is bad. Good and bad, or good and evil, et cetera.” He stretched his arms out. “And between them, a spectrum. Varying degrees of goodness, and badness. Or evil. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“So why is it hard to believe in God and not believe in a devil? Or in this case, if someone can be lucky, can they not also be unlucky?” He threw his hands up. “Of course they can. Usually, they aren’t too much of one or the other.”

Launching himself into my pew, he brandishing his finger like a pirate’s broadsword. “Do you recall the paintings you have seen? Of God and angels?”

I leaned away from the pointer in my face. “Like on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Yes.”

“Very good. Now—do you believe that they were just imagined by the artist, by Michelangelo? That he just made them up?”

I thought for a moment. “I suppose he was creating a visualization of something that he had read, or that had been told to him . . .”

“Again you suppose correctly!” Frank beamed, retreating into the aisle. “And let’s not forget who Michelangelo’s boss was. The Pope. So it’s safe to say that he was getting his information from a good source.”

He spaced back and forth in the aisle, his head down, one hand behind him and the other out front leading the way, stabbing the air as he spoke. “Now, if you can believe that there is a God and that there are angels, some sort of Old Testament embodiment of energy, that can bring down a sheep to interrupt you from sacrificing your son on the altar, like Abraham, or an aberration that can talk to this man’s wife.” He hooked a thumb at the statue of Joseph. “And tell her that she’s pregnant, why would you not think the other possibility is true as well? That there are beings from the other side of the spectrum that could also interact with us? Why is that so hard to believe?”

Frank stepped into my pew and plopped down. “Most people believe the other way. They see a movie like The Exorcist and after two hours they completely believe in the devil. They’ll have nightmares from that belief, and it may stay with them for the rest of their lives.” His eyes fell on mine, seeming to study me. “Or, when nothing dramatic happens to them, like hovering over their bed, or their head twisting around backwards, when nothing like that ever actually occurs, they eventually shrug it off. The devil becomes a boogeyman, not a real thing, and stories they read about people who think they are possessed become things to ridicule.” He sat back with a grunt. “And why shouldn’t they? You only can focus on so many things, so you don’t pay attention to what’s unimportant or what never happens. But some of those same people can’t make the leap to get their heart and mind to believe in a God, even though the proof is all around. In the beauty of a flower, in the magic of a child, on and on. What sense does that make?”

He stared at me. My turn to talk.

“Because if one exists, the other has to.” I whispered. “And if God and His good angels exist, the others can, too.”

His eyebrows raised at my revelation. “Aha!” Bounding up again, he went back to pacing the aisle. “You understand that there is a lot more to this.”

I nodded.

“God can still exist even if people don’t believe in Him, right?”

It was a rhetorical question. I didn’t try to answer, and he didn’t wait for me to.

“The devil and his dark angels can exist even if people don’t believe in them. And until something bad happens that can’t be explained any other way, most people choose not to believe in dark angels and Satan. It’s pretty simple, really.”

He put his hand on the back of my pew, leaning on it like he’d exhausted himself. “Let me ask you this. In the story of Abraham, he is told to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to God. Was Isaac lucky, or unlucky? Had his father Abraham gone mad, ready to sacrifice his own son on the altar, and at the last minute God intervened? God sends down an angel with a sheep, and Isaac is spared.”

I shook my head. “Nobody mentions luck in that story, do they?”

Frank erupted in a laugh. “They sure as shit don’t!”

He dug into his pocket and clanked another nail into the cup. Then he settled into the pew again, apparently happy with the progress we were making. I was, too.

The thick fingers returned to his jaw. “When do you think you may have seen other things like this, that make you wonder if your daughter is possessed? Aside from ones around her birthday, and even aside from being connected to your daughter at all?”

I shrugged.

“Think about that. It’ll help. Maybe you’ve been missing things. Signs.”

“But not possessed.” Mallory would have none of that. “I don’t believe my daughter is possessed.”

“There are different types of possession. Degrees of intensity. Allow that thought in your head, too, purely as a discussion point. You want to consider—and eliminate—all the possibilities you can.”

I took a breath. “Okay.”

“Think about when in your life these things may have happened. Let them come to you. Then, think about those examples when they do.” He lowered his voice. “This is like making tea. It won’t happen just because I suggested it, but as you allow the possibility to steep in your head, you may think of something. Consider it, and what it might mean.”

He glanced at his watch and stood up. “People will be filing in for the next service soon.”

I followed him as he walked back toward Joseph. “Think about all of it. And then, please, come back and see me, and we will chat some more. You can talk to . . .” Frank gestured toward the church offices.

“Mrs. Clermont.”

“Okay, sure.” He smiled.

We walked out the door together. The rain had stopped again.

Father Frank looked at me “What does your family say about all this?”

“You mean my mom and dad?”

He nodded.

“I haven’t told my dad about it. My mom passed away.

“Recently?”

“No, mom died years before Sophie was even born.”

“Hmm.” Frank eyed the cloudy sky. A light breeze tugged at a tuft of his hair on his forehead. “The mother is usually the religious force in the family.”

“Yeah, she was,” I said. “Especially when I was a kid. It’s a shame that Sophie will never meet her grandmother, somebody who was so influential in my life.”

“As a Catholic, don’t you believe she will see her grandmother in Heaven someday?”

I squinting at him as my eyes adjusted to the brightness outside. “To be honest, Frank, I spent the first week of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I kinda see my job as trying to keep her from returning to Heaven for as long as possible.”

“I’m just teasing.” Frank patted my shoulder. “We talked about a lot of things today. You have some thinking to do.”

I shook his hand. “Thanks, Frank. You helped a lot.”

“Talk to my boss.” He smiled. “Maybe I can get a raise.”

I pulled my car keys from my pocket.

Frank lifted his face skyward, scanning the clouds. “Remember, there have been many iterations of good and evil throughout time. Fire. Dragons. All kinds of things. The original burning bush was God, and then later fire represented Satan and Hell. Nobody connects fire with God now, do they?

“I guess not.”

“Angel of light, angel of darkness.” Father Frank held hands out like weighing scales. “The Church believes these things exist, and so do I. Most people just find it easier to believe one way or the other. Why not both? Why should only the bad guys get to have all the fun?” He laughed. “Fuck ‘em!”

“That’s a two nailer!” I said, smiling.

“At least!” Frank chuckled as he waved goodbye.


 

ANALYSIS

How’d I do? Don’t you love that Father Frank? NOT EVERYONE DOES, BUT MOST READERS DO.

Readers have told me years after they read the book that they remember that character and liked him.

Now you’ve seen an endearing character get created. What were the things that caused him to be memorable? Emulate those elements in your own story.

img_2351-18Dan Alatorre has had a string of bestsellers and is read in over 112 countries around the world.

To get free books and updates on his newest novels, join his Readers Club HERE.

The 3 Steps Needed To Write Great Dialogues (because you are messing them up)

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DIALOGUE IS WHERE YOU MESS YOUR STORY UP.

I write good dialogues in my stories.

It’s true.

Actually, I write great dialogues.

And occasionally I overdo the dialogues. I can admit it.

Thank goodness for critique partners. But anyway…

There are several components of great storytelling: a cool idea to serve as the plot. Engaging characters. A fast pace (unless that’s wrong for your book about the birds of Lake Michigan, but you get the idea). And most of you will adequately do those things, but

DIALOGUE IS WHERE YOU’LL MESS YOUR STORY UP.

Bad dialogues send a bright flashing neon sign to the reader that the writing isn’t very good.

So avoid that. Write GOOD dialogues.

Yes, but how?

Glad you asked.

My characters tend to talk a lot, but they – like yours – have to do things during the conversation or it gets dull fast.

So I laid out the process. I’m nice that way.

This is what you want if you wanna learn to write great dialogues like mine (there are other ways; if this doesn’t ring your bell. emulate a different author’s way), and I show you my step by step process with real examples from my books.

A: The Idea. WHY are we having this scene and its dialogue in the first place?

Dialogues exist in stories to:

  • ask a question
  • exchange information
  • advance the plot
  • maybe other stuff, but I doubt it

Basically, everything in a story is supposed to reveal character or advance the plot, so dialogues will do both – if they’re done well.

B: The Process.

First, I think up what these people need to convey in the scene.

Then I try to have each person’s speeches be quick, pithy, and irreverent. Sarcastic. Not mean, because they love each other, but instilled with the barbs that only friends and family can trade.

Second, I add the beats

Beats are the little actions people do while talking, like scratch their head when they’re confused – to make the scene seem real.

THEN it gets edited.

 

Okay? Okay.

BEFORE YOU START (things to avoid so you don’t mess up)

  • DON’T just have your characters sit at a table and talk. That’s boring.

  • DON’T have all the information come easily. That’s boring.

  • DO have somebody interrupt or disagree. That’s teasing the reader as you wait and wait and wait to tell us what we wanna know. Teasing is good. It’s also known as TENSION – and tension drives stories.

  • DO add as much witticism as you can stand. Some people are funny. They’re more interesting to listen to in a book. Try to inject some of that into one of your characters. Readers love it. (So do moviegoers. Think Han Solo in Star Wars, or Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park.)

Here’s our first example from my forever Work In Process fantasy novel The Water Castle. (This scene may or may not appear in the final version, and it may appear but with changes.)

PART ONE: JUST THE WORDS

When I do this, I just bang it out like a script or a play. This is big part of your voice, how you’d say something.

Gina took the passenger seat as her aunt Sam settled in behind the wheel. “Okay, kid, time to roll. Which way?”

“That way. Airport exit.”

“Aha. I think I missed that one last time.”

“Last time?”

“So tell me what’s up. You seeing any guys? Going steady? Getting laid?”

“Oh, my God! No.”

“Really? I mean, good. That’s good. How’s your mom been lately? I worry about her.”

“She’s okay. She’s all work, all the time, just like always.”

“What about this weekend. Is she okay? That’s partly why I came.” (NOTE: This is a tease. Why is this weekend special? Don’t answer right away. Make your reader wonder.)

“I guess so. She…”

“She what?”

“I guess – it’s just not fair sometimes. I mean, how things went.”

“Like what things.” (I said punctuation doesn’t count in a first draft, especially in dialogues.)

“Like everything. I’ve seen pictures from when I was a kid. We had a nice house, we had a pool. She alternates between idolizing him and being mad at him for not being here and our lives turning to shit.”

“Him, who? Your dad?”

“Yeah. Now we live in a crappy part of town and- ”

“She made decisions she had to make.”

“She made bad ones.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“She’s so boring. She never goes out, except for work. She doesn’t date or anything.”

“Sounds like somebody else I know.”

“All she does is work and fuss at me.”

“Well that sucks. Meanwhile, you’re suffering because you lost one parent but you’re pushing the other one away. Look, the big house, the swimming pool, those are just possessions. Money was tight after Steve passed away. Your mom did what she had to do for you and your little brother. He was a baby.”

“That I practically had to raise myself.”

“Yeah… so she scaled back. And I admit it, you did have to grow up kinda fast. But money, well, it doesn’t buy happiness.”

“Said the woman who reserved a Corvette for the weekend.”

“Good point. You drive. You need some practice anyway.”

“Drive what?”

“That.”

The headlights illuminated the sports car’s glistening yellow exterior as it sat in front of the house. Its fiberglass body was so sleek and curvy it looked more like a Transformer or space ship than an automobile.

Gina leaned forward. “I get to drive that?”

“If you want to. Consider it additional punishment for accidentally acting like a regular teenager by skipping school.”

“I don’t know. Mom would get mad.”

“Good thing she’s not here. The text message says the keys are under the driver’s side door mat. And if I reply with my confirmation number, they’ll unlock it with the Onstar. So let’s see. Send. Let’s go check.”

They walked to the car.

“Do I really get to drive this?”

“Only if it unlocks. There we go. Get in.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Time to loosen up and have fun, sweetie. Be a kid for a while. Break a few rules. And if you drive, I can have a nice glass of merlot with my aged beef, bacon wrapped, cooked medium, filet mignon.

“I’m under age. That would be illegal.”

“Not as illegal if I drink and drive. C’mon.”

Doesn’t really read like a book, does it?

But you see the fast pace and seemingly thoughts going all over the place. Questions raised but not answered.

Now, you see this plot (as expressed in this dialogue) potentially going all over the place, but in that single (and somewhat long) dialogue, how many questions did we raise – and how many did we answer?

Is your reader intrigued? Are you?

You are already starting to like Sam aren’t you? Why? (Because A, Gina does; and B, Sam is witty and irreverent. A rule breaker. People like witty and irreverent rule breakers if they are charming, and charm comes from empathy and charisma. But C, Sam is concerned for the family members.)

Let your reader put two and two together. They’re smart. They’ll get it.

No spoon feeding.

PART TWO: JUST THE BEATS

A list of some things you do when you get in a car to go to the airport.

Get in car

Adjust seat belt

Touch up makeup

Fix hair

Pick at or check your teeth

Start ignition

Start driving

Look in mirror

Look at passenger

Notice other cars

Take the exit into the airport

Pull up to the curb

Get out the bags

Hugs and kisses

Go inside

Drivers pull away from the curb

Take the exit on the interstate

Merge into traffic

Make a few turns

Pull onto your street

Next, after dropping off the traveler

You get in car

Maybe you start the engine

You put the car in drive

You slowly pull on the street

You get some instructions on how to keep the car the proper lane, with a new driver

You speed up or slow down

Usually more issues on keeping car centered, with a new driver

Then making a turn

Turning onto a side street

Speed up

Hold onto dashboard

Grip wheel

Yell at each other

PART THREE: COMBINE AND STIR

Blend. It’s not math, it’s jazz. Put in what feels right from the list and add whatever else comes to mind. Visualize what the people are doing and try to describe it. The list is really a prompt, not something to use verbatim. Stuff for here and there, that you might add. Now it should read more like a story.

Gina took the passenger seat as Sam settled in behind the wheel. “Okay, kid, time to roll. Which way?”

“That way. Airport exit.”

“Aha. I think I missed that one last time.”

Gina buckled her seat belt. “Last time?”

“So tell me what’s up.” Sam put the car into drive and pulled away from the curb. “You seeing any guys? Going steady? Getting laid?”

“Oh, my God! No.” (NOTE: Probably would be fun to show Gina’s facial reaction here.)

“Really? I mean, good. That’s good.” She merged the vehicle into the flow of the airport traffic. “How’s your mom been lately? I worry about her.”

Gina stared out the window. Somewhere behind the office buildings and housing developments, the sun dipped into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, sending brilliant orange and yellow reflections onto the clouds. “She’s okay. She’s all work, all the time, just like always.” (This description of the sunset totally sets the mood and scene, and does it in very few words.)

“What about this weekend. Is she okay? That’s partly why I came.”

“I guess so. She…”

Sam glanced at Gina. “She what?”

“I guess – it’s just not fair sometimes. I mean, how things went.”

“Like what things?”

Gina threw her hands in the air. “Like everything.” She sighed. “I’ve seen pictures from when I was a kid. We had a nice house, we had a pool. She alternates between idolizing him and being mad at him for not being here and our lives turning to shit.”

Sam looked for her exit. “Him, who? Your dad?”

“Now we live in a crappy part of town and- ”

“Hey, your mom made decisions that she had to make.”

Gina continued watching the scenery go by. The houses got smaller and older as they went. “She made bad ones.” (Another drip of setting, noting the houses getting smaller and older. What’s that tell you? Dribble it in here and there.)

Sam made a turn. “I… I don’t know about that.”

“She’s so boring. She never goes out, except for work. She doesn’t date or anything.”

“That sounds like somebody else I know.”

Gina propped her elbow on the door, resting her chin in her palm. “All she does is work and fuss at me.”

“Well that sucks. Meanwhile, you’re suffering because you lost one parent but you’re pushing the other one away. Look, the big house, the swimming pool, those are just possessions. Money was tight after… your dad passed. Nikki did what she had to do for you and your little brother. Kyle was just a baby.”

“That I practically had to raise myself.”

Sam nodded. “Yeah… so she scaled back. And I admit it, you did have to grow up kinda fast. But money, well, it doesn’t buy happiness.”

“Said the woman who reserved a Corvette for the weekend.”

“Good point.” Sam pulled over. “You drive. You need some practice anyway.”

“Drive what?”

“That.”

The headlights illuminated the glistening yellow exterior of a sports car as it sat in front of the house. Its fiberglass body was so sleek and curvy it looked more like a Transformer or space ship than an automobile.

Gina leaned forward. “I get to drive that?”

“If you want to.” Sam sat back, folding her arms. “Consider it additional punishment for accidentally acting like a regular teenager by skipping school.”

“I don’t know.” Gina’s voice fell to a whisper. “Mom would get mad.”

Sam chuckled. “Good thing she’s not here.” She plucked her phone from her purse. “The text message says the keys are under the driver’s side door mat. And if I reply with my confirmation number, they’ll unlock it with the OnStar. So let’s see.” She pressed a button. “Okay. Let’s go check.”

They walked to the Corvette. Gina stared at it in amazement. “Do I really get to drive this?”

“Only if it unlocks.” Sam stared at the doors, waiting. A short, slightly rumbly noise emanated from the car, along with a flash of the tail lights. She smiled. “There we go. Get in.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Sam opened the passenger door. “Time to loosen up and have fun, sweetie. Be a kid for a while. Break a few rules. And if you drive, I can have a nice glass of merlot with my aged beef, bacon wrapped, cooked medium, filet mignon.”

Gina opened the driver’s door. “I’m under age. That would be illegal.”

“Not as illegal if I drink and drive. C’mon.”

Okay, so you see how it’s coming together – but still needs some smoothing out of rough edges.

Remember, I don’t really make a list of beats per se; I do lay out the speech and then go back and add the linear actions that have to happen (you have to get to the airport before you take your suitcase out of the car), but stuff life resting your head on your palm, that needs to come from the feel of the scene.

Then I add placeholder beats – you’ll see quite a few sighs – to remind me to have an action there, just not necessarily that action. Or that action conveyed differently.

That’s it. That’s the process. The final draft will be completed later, but I this is one step-by-step method for writing amazing dialogues!

YOU CAN DO IT!

The changes are obvious when placed side by side (and so is the need for another pass at it) but hopefully you can see some of the process.

 

Feel free to ask for me to address areas where you have problems!

Dialogues do NOT need to be difficult.

BUT MOST OF YOU STRUGGLE WITH THEM

Learn the method and use it in your stories.

You may not have such talkative characters but your story will benefit from the process.

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Dan Alatorre has had a string of bestsellers and is read in over 112 countries around the world.

To get free books and updates on his newest novels, join his Readers Club HERE.

Farewell 2018! What’s in store for 2019?

img_2351-19For those of you who enjoy this blog, you should use the contact me button to send me a message so I can add you to my newsletter.

I’m going to spend more time writing books in 2019, and less time blogging.

Please take this for how it’s intended. Blogging is fun but I want to focus more on writing books.

I’m gonna miss you guys. So join me on the Facebook page or email me via the newsletter so we can stay in touch.

The blog will stay here but I probably won’t be posting new content as much; it’ll serve more as a landing page for my books and a post on the first of each month discussing an important writing tip. We’ll see about a writing contest in July, but you’ll find out about that – anything else –  faster in my newsletter.

It’s been a blast.

Full: we are currently not taking new manuscripts for editing or the private critique group.

My apologies. It’s an embarrassment of riches – too many customers. We cannot accept new members to the private critique group or new manuscripts for editing at this time.

If you are a former member of the private critique group or editing customer, please email to see if we can accommodate you in 2019.