On authentic-sounding writing

I love a book that immerses you. The character interactions feel legitimate, the worldbuilding makes sense, the scenes feel cinematic…and the plot organically builds on itself. Below are some of my thoughts on how to write a book that does the above.

I hope to add more to this post. Please check this section for any updates. – June 4, 2021

Working out the plot via the characters

I tweeted the following the other day:

#writingtips: explore concepts and points of tension and similar through scenes. Then stitch the good ones together.

Also, having your character work out something in their mind – asking questions etc. – is not only not info dumping (imo), but can help you work out plot issues.

When I was writing my series Aestus, I had to really work through some of the characters’ thoughts on things: the political situation, one’s role (past and potentially future), etc. Not just from a narrative standpoint, but from a character standpoint. What do they know about what’s going on? What are their values/thoughts on things? How do they interpret x or y? I was able to have the characters think through these things in a manner that (in my opinion) wasn’t info-dump-y. This also helped me work out plot holes and similar. (You can edit out some of it, but getting the entirety down can be very helpful for your own thinking/understanding of the plot/characters.)

Additionally, as I write, I think of things that need to be addressed: for example, things that I realize that the characters may be struggling with, potential arguments brewing, etc. I go ahead and write scenes around all these points of tension. The scenes that stick, I keep, and stitch together or insert into the plot as needed to form a coherent narrative (and then edit surrounding/later scenes accordingly). The scenes that don’t stick still often have very useful explorations of a specific theme/thought/etc., so I hold onto them and edit them as needed.

This is so important because it gives me a fuller understanding of both the situation and the characters. It takes more time, but it’s always worth it to me.

In one case in my latest WIP, I wrote one of these scenes (specifically, something that a character realized/was struggling with), but it was bothering me because while character X was authentic-sounding – he has his own particular “voice” – it wasn’t an authentic conversation. Why? (A) It wouldn’t be appropriate for X to be out that late with character Y. (B) He wouldn’t normally be that vulnerable with Y, no matter how he might feel about her.

Yet I wanted the scene/needed to address the subject. So I thought about it for a bit and ended up switching Y for Z…and suddenly got a strong, emotional scene that gives me chills.

Characters may each have their own distinctive “voice,” but that voice may be different in interaction with various characters, just as people often act in real life. It’s yet another layer to pay attention to, but a very important one. It can take a reader out of the story if it feels off. I know it can do that to me. As to how to get to that point of understanding the character’s voice…I don’t know how to describe that process. I just sit with the character for a while, I guess.

Also, it’s fun to sum up characters’ relationships without saying much at all:

“Did you check the southern caves?” Pricey asked.

Tskoulis gave him a look. Pricey shut his mouth.

Aestus, Book 1: The City

Establishing relationships/subtext

I notice a lot about people. When I was small, I had to wear glasses and really struggled to see faces far away. So I memorized how people walked. On one occasion, I specifically remember memorizing the shirt color of a friend so I could recognize them. (It was teal.) That, plus me struggling somewhat with social cues as a child, meant that I observed…a lot.

Now, I incorporate these things into my writing. It’s not just me trying to “show, don’t tell” – it’s actually how I notice people interacting. For example, a small excerpt from my WIP (note the sideways look):

Peter got to his feet too. The night felt very dark. He glanced nervously toward the windows, but William had already drawn the curtains.

“What do you need?” he ventured. He didn’t know what he’d gotten into, but he didn’t like it.

But it was his cousin. And his mother, he thought, glancing toward the other room miserably.

William sat back down. He looked up at Peter sideways, his gaze heavy.

“I need you to come with me,” he said quietly.

My pirates WIP

It’s a natural movement, one that can communicate both a sharp gaze and preoccupation, but one that people might not think to include, per my discussions with my writing group. (Thanks, writing group!)

I use people’s eyes, direction of gaze, etc. to communicate a lot of things. For example, a scene from Aestus (Jossey is recovering from her horrific experience with an Onlar):

Sally blushed a little again as he glanced at her, and Jossey tried not to laugh. The poor girl. It was already bad enough when Gavin was around.

Speaking of Gavin – “Has anyone seen Gavin?”

Caspar glanced at her. Perkins shrugged. “Not so far today.”

Or yesterday, Jossey thought. She knew he had Patrol, but still. With her being in the hospital, she had thought–

She took another doughnut, bit into it. Good. Maybe he finally saw her as a grown-up.

Caspar held one of the books out to her. “Here, Jossey. Please, do us the honors.”

She pushed it away. “I only have one working hand. You read.”

“Oops, right. Sorry.” He looked at the book.

He’d grabbed The Desert Rider.

Perkins noticed the cover. “Oh, I had that book as a kid. It was–” He seemed to search for words.

“Amazing, right?” Caspar winked.

Perkins snorted. “If you say so.”

Caspar made a show of making himself comfortable in one of the cushioned visitor chairs. He pushed the loose strands of hair out of his eyes and opened the book dramatically to page one.

“The sun beat down on the blinding sands,” he intoned. “Dax Draperson stared off into the distance, remembering…”

“Wait – Dax Draperson?” Jossey interrupted. “Are you serious? What kind of a name is–”

“Are you going to let me read?” Caspar said, eyebrows raised.

Jossey held up the doughnut in surrender and took a giant bite of it.

“Dax Draperson was pretty sure they were coming for him,” Caspar continued. “The secret agent glanced down at his bike. The gauges were shot, but by his estimate he had fuel enough for five hours, maybe six. The heat was intense. He was beginning to regret that he’d chosen his battle gear…”

“Duh,” Jossey muttered. Caspar shot her a look. She mimed zipping her lips.

He went on, remarkably straight-faced, as the writer waxed eloquent about Dax Draperson’s super-secret background as a spy.

They were howling with laughter at the terrible writing when Gavin opened the door silently and entered the room.

Caspar stopped short, looked over at him. “Commander. Please, join us.”

“Where have you been?” Jossey asked.

“Patrol,” Gavin said shortly. He took a seat, gestured for Caspar to go on, grinning a little as he noticed the book in the young Engineer’s hands.

Despite his casual expression, Gavin looked like he hadn’t slept. Jossey frowned. When he noticed her looking at him, he straightened, giving her a smile.

Caspar was glancing between them. “Shall I go on?” he asked.

“Yes. Please.” Gavin smiled. “I’ve read it before. No back story necessary.” For a minute he looked like a kid. “I really hope I haven’t missed the motorcycle battle.”

“Don’t spoil it!” Jossey hissed at him.

Caspar grinned widely. “I thought you didn’t like it.”

“It’s awful, but in a great B-movie kind of way. Don’t spoil it.” Jossey crossed her arms.

“The things humanity chose to preserve after its near-destruction,” Caspar said, grinning even bigger. “Very well, Miss Sokol.”

Sally passed Gavin the doughnuts. He took one absently, muttering, “Thank you.”

Caspar leaned back in his chair casually. He glanced at Gavin, one eyebrow raised dramatically. “So, Commander, just to orient you, our protagonist, Dax Draperson, super-secret-agent extraordinaire, has just found himself trapped in a burning desert cave against an overwhelming ambush…”

He cleared his throat and read.

“Dax reached for his trusty energy modulator. It was top-of-the-line technology. He’d paid dearly for it on that secret mission in Mumbai. That was when he’d met HER–”

Caspar continued on, gleefully narrating as the writing spiraled downward into what could only be described as flaming wreckage.

Gavin looked like he was trying hard not to react, but when Caspar got to the epic motorcycle battle, he lost it.

Aestus, Book 1: The City

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of back-and-forth communicated largely by glances, people’s expressions that Jossey (MC) notices, etc. There’s also a lot of subtext: Gavin barely noticing Sally, who clearly notices him…slight tension between Gavin and Caspar (due to previous incidents, although they’re mostly strangers)…closeness between Jossey and Gavin that he doesn’t really have with the others…lots to get out of a single scene. Keep in mind all this is what Jossey notices. Others may not see things quite the same way.

I try to use direction of gaze, and similar, to communicate a lot of these things. It’s a very moment-by-moment type of approach but not in a jerky way (ideally). I just add in things of note to the MC as I go. (In my drawing lessons, they described this as sketching the impression/shadows of something rather than all of it – enough to give the general sense of it, and any important details. The reader/viewer can then fill in the rest.) And isn’t that how we tend to approach social situations anyway (even if we aren’t necessarily conscious of the things we’re observing)?