The Tip Cauldron #3: Subplots, Writer’s Block and British vs American Grammar
Welcome to the third edition of the Tip Cauldron – featuring a brand-new banner by our Scribe, Shin! How cool is that?? Look how the title is all steamy! And the little fire underneath – Ahem. We’ve got an exciting column for you this week, focusing on style and grammar. Read on if you’re struggling with description/dialogue balance, keeping track of your ideas or the much-dreaded writer’s block. And remember, the tips provided may or may not work as advertised…
What’s the right balance between dialogue and description?
As always, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, because the ‘right’ balance between description and dialogue depends heavily on individual style and genre. If you’re writing, for instance, a contemporary romcom, you might have to focus more on building character chemistry through witty banter, rather than describing their surroundings (which most readers will be familiar with). If you’re writing a historical drama or high fantasy, you’ll have to work harder on familiarizing your readers with this new world you’re building – via description of the setting, customs, etc.
Whatever the case, the ‘right’ balance is what feels right to you. As a writer, you must always keep in mind that you’re telling this story first and foremost to yourself. You must be happy with how it’s being told because you will never be able to please everyone. If adding in more description feels forced, then you have to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation.
Why does it feel forced? Why is it a problem that your work is dialogue-heavy? Has more than one person complained about too much dialogue/too little description, or offered specific, constructive feedback on how to improve? If the answer is no x2, then there probably is no real problem.
As long as the narrative is clear enough to follow and compelling enough to keep the readers engaged, then you, as the writer, get to determine what is the ‘right’ dialogue/description balance suitable to your own style and story.
How do you motivate yourself to keep writing one project instead of multiple and abandoning them all?
This is a case of pure discipline. We all know that we constantly get shiny, new ideas that seem a lot more fun than your current project, and all you want to do is abandon your project to start that shiny new idea. No matter what, don’t do it. Keep going. Write the shiny idea down and then put it in your mental corner of shame. I (Jane) keep the ideas there until they go quiet and eventually fade away, while my real work in progress gets closer and closer to the end. And when the manuscript is complete, I look back at the list of shiny ideas and choose the one I like the most.
That said, it’s a matter of fun as well. What makes these new ideas seem shinier and more fun than your WIP? Why would you rather go write them than your actual project? Why can’t your actual project be just as fun or even more fun so that you won’t want to abandon it? I personally follow the ‘rule of cool’, which comes down to making your world and your plot as cool as possible. If I see something I like, I find a way to fit it into my book. Does this cause some weird plot issues? Yup. Is it one hell of a lot of fun? Yup! I know that whatever happens, I will always be excited for my manuscript. After all, if it isn’t fun, why are we writing?
How do you streamline your ideas?
Much like with book or story ideas, write down the plot ideas you have and choose the one(s) that 1) makes the most sense and 2) you’re the most excited for. I (Jane) have to admit that I have never had a lot of issues with this because all the puzzle pieces end up falling in place in my books, but I think that’s partly because of this. I simply go for what I like the most and what works best. This means that I can only focus on one plotline at a time, with maybe another one in the background.
You say that you had to axe half your cast. This means you had way more characters than you needed. Honestly, I have the same problem. A lot of characters appear for maybe 1-2 chapters, never to be seen or mentioned again. The best way to fix this is to read your first draft through entirely (you can get beta readers to help you do this, too!), figure out what characters can be cut away or combined together, and re-write the story to match that. It’s an arduous process, but it’s the best way I’ve figured out so far.
How do you push through writer’s block?
The short answer is – you don’t. I (Mari) recently came across this quote from Toni Morrison, which lifted a huge weight off my chest that I hadn’t even really known was there:
I tell my students there is such a thing as ‘writer’s block,’ and they should respect it. You shouldn’t write through it. It’s blocked because it ought to be blocked, because you haven’t got it right now.
Some writers may tell you that ‘writer’s block’ doesn’t exist. Even Jane and I argued about it! This is why we always preface our column with a disclaimer: our advice may or may not work for you. So if you feel blocked, then something is blocked and you should take a step back to reflect as to why.
Has work or school been getting very busy? Have you been feeling unwell, physically or mentally? Did something happen at home? Have you burned yourself out writing?
Because, yes, burnout is a (medically recognized) thing and I personally see writer’s block as a ‘branch’ of burnout. Forcing yourself to write through a blockage is a Sisyphean task – that boulder isn’t getting anywhere if the path is blocked. But should you stop writing altogether? Not at all.
Graham Greene used to keep a dream journal in order to maintain his creativity flowing. In our previous edition, I talked about combining structure, discipline and inspiration to get that book started. You shouldn’t let writer’s block control you, but it is a huge relief if you respect it. It’s not wrong and it’s not shameful.
So make yourself a nice, hot drink, grab a book or put a movie on, go on a (socially distanced) walk, take in the sights, snap some photos if you like, scribble down some thoughts in a pocket notebook. Take a break and put some distance between yourself and that pesky project. Sometimes, all it takes is a fresh perspective to get those juices flowing again.
How do you create subplots?
I (Mari) would say the clue is in the name – subplots, aka side plots, should follow side characters. And just how side characters are wingmen to the protagonists, side plots should also serve to strengthen the main storyline without overpowering it.
Now, in order to better understand how to do subplots, let’s take a look at why we need subplots. We mentioned their purpose is to strengthen the storyline. How? Well, by supporting character development, deepening conflict, and broadening the setting. In a fantasy story, for instance, you can expand the world-building by diving into subplots that explore more than the protagonist’s surroundings. In a mystery novel, you can use subplots to drop hints and clues for your reader.
The how-to specifics vary greatly from genre to genre and according to one’s own individual style. For example, after years of experimenting, I’ve found that my preferred method of doing subplots is through time skips or parallel/contrasting scenes. I always make sure that there’s a thread connecting the scene transitions, so that readers can keep up. If I mention a character’s ex, the next scene might feature a flashback from their relationship, which underlines a character trait that contributes to the conflict, such as trust issues or self-consciousness.
Writer’s Digest details seven great way to do subplots, but like everything else about writing, I believe “subplotting” is another tool in the author’s shed which you must sharpen through experimentation and experience. What works for other writers might not work for you, so try out a few methods and see what sticks. My recommendation would be to just follow your (side) characters. If you have none exciting enough to want to follow on a side story, then you should probably work on improving those first.
What are the differences between British and American English?
The most notable difference between British and American grammar is the spelling, starting with the usage of S and Z. In British English, S is used in most words. For example: organise, realise, and verbalise. In American English, the S is almost always replaced by a Z. For example: organize, realize, and verbalize.
Another one is the usage of U in specific words. In British English, the U is added to a lot of words. However, the letter has been removed from many American words to save space back in the days of newspapers. For example: neighbour vs neighbor, honour vs honor, and colour vs color.
You mentioned the difference in dialogue tags. Indeed, the British use single quotation marks (’) while the American use double (“). This is why some books have different marks than others. Generally, American is used more often, so you’ll find double quotation marks more than single.
Of course, we cannot forget the switching around of letters. This is quite the confusing one, and it was one that haunted me during school. School taught me British English, while the internet taught me American, and that caused quite a lot of conflict. But I digress. Words like these include centre vs center, metre vs meter, and theatre vs theater.
Last but not least, we have words that are entirely different from each other that mean the same things. These are especially tricky and confuse a lot of non-natives. Heck, they even confuse natives! So, here we go. Janitor vs caretaker, pub vs bar, football vs soccer, trousers vs pants, film vs cinema, picture vs photo, toilet vs restroom… This list is near endless, so I’ll cut it short here.
The one thing I have learned about these differences is to just say ‘nope, I’m using Canadian English’ and simply use a hideous mismatch of both British and American. So long as you’re consistent, you can get away with it. Good luck!
And that’s all the Tip Cauldron tea for today, folks! Can you believe it’s already December and the next edition will be coming out in 2021?! Now, since the first Friday of January is the very first day of the year, we’ll be making an exception and sharing the fourth edition on the second Friday of 2021, January 8th. Be there or be square!