Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Basics: The Inciting Incident

We're going to move away from grammar this week (try not to weep) and focus a bit on story structure.  Because, yanno, that's important, too.

You may or may not have heard the term inciting incident.  In screenplay terms, it's known as the catalyst.  Basically, it's the THING THAT HAPPENS that creates CHANGE and STARTS THE STORY.

Notice I said CHANGE and not ACTION or CONFLICT.  Of course you want conflict from the get-go; it's what creates tension and intrigue in your opening pages.  But it's the incident that creates CHANGE for the main character that drop-kicks your plot forward.  And it's important to time it well.  As in, no later than the end of the second chapter (which seems to work well for me).

Some familiar examples:

The Chronicles of Narnia by Lewis:  Lucy discovers that the wardrobe actually leads to Narnia.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone by Rowling:  Hagrid tells Harry he's a wizard and says he's come to take him to Hogwarts.

Hunger Games by Collins:  Katniss takes her sister's place as the District 12 tribute.

Admittedly, it's easier to pick out these Moments of Great Change in novels that have already been written.  But it's important for you, as a writer, to identify the PRECISE MOMENT when something in your main character's life changes dramatically, thus setting the rest of the story in motion.  The event is life-changing in some aspect, and without the event, the story wouldn't happen.  So it's important to know exactly what this incident is, and how it leads to the unfolding of everything that happens afterward.

Examples of inciting incidents:

  • Someone dies
  • Something is won -- or lost
  • Something is discovered (not any old something -- a life-changing something)
  • Something happens that is the exact opposite of what was expected
  • Something is decided (by the main character) that changes the course of his life
Once you've got this incident nailed, it acts like a springboard.  Sure, it's easy to get derailed or defocused even if you DO have an excellent inciting incident.  But that's the beauty of this journey--we just keep learning and growing, one step at a time.  So make sure your inciting incident is clear and well-placed.  The rest of your novel depends upon it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Basics: Antecedents and Pronoun Placement

You're dying to talk about pronouns some more, right?

Actually, this one's pretty easy to cover.  It has more to do with clarity than with grammar, though there's a bit of grammar involved, too.

Here it is:  A misplaced pronoun causes confusion.  That is, the random use of "he" or "she" or "they" when the reader has no idea who he, she, or they might be.

Pronouns always have what's called an antecedent.  An antecedent is that which comes before.  So the antecedent is the word (usually a proper noun) that comes before the subsequent pronouns that refer to it.

To wit:

Deborah burst through the door.  She realized at once she was in the wrong bathroom.

Deborah is the antecedent for both uses of she above.  Without the "Deborah" in the first sentence, we would not know who "she" was.

Note that the antecedent is not necessarily found in the same sentence as the pronouns that refer to it.

Pretty clear, right?  Things start to get muddy, though, when there are more than one character in a scene, and the hes and shes begin to proliferate.  That's when we have to be especially careful with pronoun placement.

For instance:

Maria stared at the woman on the porch.  She raised her hand to her left nostril in the ancient greeting, hoping she would understand.

In the above, there are two antecedents:  Maria and the woman.  When we get to the second sentence, we don't know if the first "she" refers to Maria or to the woman.  Which one is raising her hand to her left nostril?  And then, of course, we don't know to whom the second "she" is referring, either.  The entire thing is unclear.

In this instance, rewriting is probably your best option, because you don't ever want to start two sentences in a row with the same word:

Maria stared at the woman on the porch.  Maria raised her hand to her....  (You see my point.)


Maria stared at the woman on the porch while raising her hand to her left nostril in the ancient greeting. She hoped the woman would understand.

Another tricky business is dialogue tags.  There are times when "he" or "she" can be perfectly clear.  There are other times, however, when we may not know who is actually speaking.  So be careful with that.

It comes down to asking yourself, "Am I being clear?"  It's easy to forget, sometimes, that we know EXACTLY who we're talking about, but the reader does not.  So be extra careful in the placement of your pronouns, and extra picky when you go back to edit your work.  Any time you've got a sentence with only pronouns in it, go back and FIND THE ANTECEDENT.  Does it come DIRECTLY BEFORE the pronoun?  (Note:  That doesn't mean it the word right in front.  It means the NOUN or PROPER NOUN directly before the pronoun.)  If it doesn't, your pronoun reference is most likely unclear.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Basics: Singular-Ending-In-S and Plural Possessives

Ready for some more apostrophe fun?  Let's talk about possessives some more.

1.  Singular nouns that end in "s"

It tends to confuse people when a singular noun ends in "s" but needs to show possession.  Often, the temptation is to simply stick a dangling apostrophe at the end of the word.  The CORRECT thing to do, however, is to add the apostrophe-s to the end of the word, just as you would if the word did NOT end in an S:

  • Rufus's backpack   NOT Rufus' backpack
  • the boss's wife  NOT the boss' wife

There are 2 notable exceptions:  It is generally accepted that JESUS' and MOSES' are correct possessive forms, simply because Jesus's and Moses's sound like you've got a speech impediment.

2.  Plural possessives

A plural possessive is a word that shows ownership by more than one person.  Here are the rules:

If the plural noun ends in an "s", simply add the apostrophe at the end.

  • girls' (belonging to more than 1 girl)
  • teachers' (belonging to more than 1 teacher)
  • friends' (belonging to more than 1 friend)
  • foxes' (belonging to more than 1 fox)
If the plural noun has its own, special form, add an apostrophe-s the way you would with a single noun.
  • children's
  • women's
  • firemen's
  • brothers-in-law's
That about covers it.  I highly recommend Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves for an entertaining and definitive source of apostrophe (and comma) wisdom.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Basics: Possessive Pronouns

Time to call out another extremely common mistake:

ITS vs. IT'S

It boils down to a simple rule.  Which is:  POSSESSIVE PRONOUNS NEVER USE APOSTROPHES.

Admittedly, this rule means nothing to you if you don't know what a possessive pronoun is.  So let's spend a minute on this:

POSSESSIVE PRONOUNS are pronouns that show ownership.  As in, something BELONGS to someone or something.

In a sentence, a possessive pronoun acts as an ADJECTIVE, because it will always modify a noun:

HER novel
THEIR team
MY chocolate

So, here they are, in all their glory:

First person:


Second person:


Third person:


There it is, right in the middle of the last list:  ITS.  Meaning, "belonging to it."  NO APOSTROPHE.

NONE of the possessive pronouns have apostrophes.  NOT EVER.

So, what is IT'S all about?

IT'S is a CONTRACTION that stands for IT IS.  The apostrophe in a contraction always takes the place of missing letters.  In this instance, it takes the place of the letter i.

IT'S raining today.  (Meaning:  IT IS raining today.)

IT'S hard writing novels.  (Meaning:  IT IS hard writing novels.)


If so, you'll see why it's ridiculous to say:

The baby fell asleep in it's crib.

The meaning of which is:  The baby fell asleep in IT IS crib.

And there's your litmus test.  Since IT'S always means IT IS, check by substituting IT IS for the IT'S in your sentence.  If it doesn't make sense, YOU'RE WRONG.


I understand why it's confusing.  "Normal" nouns get an apostrophe-S to connote ownership:

Authoress's chocolate
Lizzy's chocolate
Mad's black belt

But if you can remember that POSSESSIVE PRONOUNS NEVER GET APOSTROPHES, you will never use IT'S when you're supposed to use ITS.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Whom Do You Love?

Okay, it's time to grab the comment box and tell me who your favorite contemporary YA and MG authors are.  (As in, they're not dead and they're publishing books right now.)

I'd like to invite more authors here for you to learn about and ask questions of, and I'd love to supply you with folks you really WANT to see here.  Obviously I can't promise you JK Rowling, but I can do my best to rope in a few authors who aren't richer than the Queen of England.

Post 'em!  I'll be reading with interest.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Basics: The Subjunctive Mood

Did you know that verbs have moods?

Yes, they do.  Which makes me feel better about my OWN moods. *grin*

So one of my (many) pet peeves is the misuse of the SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD.  In fact, I'll bet you've all made this mistake countless times, both in your writing and in your speaking.  The misuse is so common that most people don't even realize it's a mistake.

But you are all WRITERS.  So you want to do things right.  Right?


Basically, the subjunctive mood is used when something is being declared with a WISH or a DOUBT.  In other words, if the outcome is uncertain, our verb gets MOODY.  The word "subjunctive", in fact, means DOUBTFUL.

So if the verb in your sentence has "IF" or "WISH" before it, it needs to be in the subjunctive mood.

As always, examples work best:

*WRONG* He would be taller if he was older.
*CORRECT* He would be taller if he were older.

*WRONG* I wish I was a better writer.
*CORRECT* I wish I were a better writer.

*WRONG* If it rains tomorrow, our plans will be ruined.
*CORRECT* If it should rain tomorrow, our plans will be ruined.

*WRONG* He spoke as if he was the only one in the room.
*CORRECT* He spoke as if he were the only one in the room.

*WRONG* If you are quiet, you will hear the baby birds.
*CORRECT* If you be quiet, you will hear the baby birds.

*WRONG* If it is hot, we'll go swimming.
*CORRECT* If it be hot, we'll go swimming.

Okay, I'll admit it.  The last one sounds like pirate speak.  I mean, who TALKS that way?  Yet technically it's correct.  One hundred percent.  (However, if you make your characters talk that way, I'll have to glue your fingers together for a while.)

But really, the most common error is the was/were confusion.  The rule is:  If "if" or "wish" comes before the verb, than it is "were" and NOT "was".

Clear as mud? I wish there were a simpler way to put it!