Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 2, 2013

Seven Ways to Spark Your Writing with "Golden Lines"

by Fae Rowen

On the plane home from Atlanta in July, I re-read my notes and handouts, highlighting tips that resonated with me as I prepared for a major edit on my WIP. When I participated in the UC Irvine Writing Project, I learned the technique of highlighting a few word in an article, an essay, or short story that were lessons for me and my writing. The instructors called these highlighted snippets "golden lines." This method is different from using up the ink of a yellow highlighter as if you're getting ready for a test. It's much more selective. Think of it as a "for immediate implementation" list.

Here are my Golden Lines (in no particular order) and how they've helped me step it up a level (or two) in my writing:

1. Be grounded in emotional reality. We 're human. We feel. I've run the gamut of writing characters who are off the chart emotionally--mean and angry without enough reason--to "pump up" the story. And I've written characters that are human but act like unfeeling robots. My critique partners cried foul (and rightly so) on both counts. If you missed them, last week Tiffany Lawson Inman wrote about Emotional Barriers: Part 1 and Part 2 and how to break through them to become better writers.

2. Secondary characters have their own lives. Especially in a series. I'm working on a New Adult series. This Golden Line helped me see my secondary characters as people rather than props. In my revision I'm adding their feelings and reactions to scenes. And guess what? They are becoming much more three dimensional. I think that's another hook to keep my readers turning the pages. And readers are going to want the stories of my secondary characters!

3. When your story is bogged down is a good time to have the character realize she's going after the wrong goal. I tend to have so much plot and action that "saggy middle" is not a big issue. But, pantster I may be, I think this is a great tool for those plot points/turning points that outliners and diagrammers have at the ready--and I rarely know when they should happen.

4. What would be the biggest shock to the reader now? This can be a hard one to figure out and even harder to implement in your writing. But think about your favorite books or movies. I'm a sci fi freak, so my example is from Star Wars. Do you remember how you felt when you found out that Darth Vader was Luke's father? Nooooooo.

I'd been thinking of adding a short scene at the beginning of my book to work in some necessary backstory between the heroine and her mother. Laura Drake suggested I write the scene between the heroine and her step-father. I wanted the reader to have a visceral response, so I got out the metaphorical wires and water and sent a little jolt through the reader at the end of the scene with a question the step-father asks the heroine.

5. Give the secret to the reader, but not the character. This accomplishes a multitude of possibilities for foreshadowing and creates curiosity in your reader to see how your character is going to deal with this secret. As you stack the deck against your character with details that revolve around the secret and possibly obscure the hidden information, your reader has a heightened awareness of danger, betrayal, or whatever plot-twist is in the works and will turn the pages to find the answers to their questions. Readers will want to know how the character finds out the secret and then how the story changes.

6. Hooks keep us on the edge of our seats. Hooks entice the reader to find out more. I used to make sure that I had a decent hook at the end of every chapter. I tend to write longer chapters with up to four scenes. Now I make sure that I have a hook at the end of every scene. If readers are emotionally involved in the story, they're hooked.

How about a hook from this year's Oscar winning movie, Argo? The body hanging from the crane as Ben Affleck drives through Tehran foreshadowed very bad things. Here are some other types of hooks:

  • Small "bread crumbs"
  • A discovery
  • A new awareness of something
  • A lure
  • Something left unsaid
  • A surprise or secret
  • Reveal something that will create emotional fallout in the next scene
  • Sexual tension--moments of denial, resistance, exploration and acceptance are all hooks (It's not about the sex.  It's about building the tension before the sex!)
  • Something forbidden
  • Anticipation

7. Emotion grows out of conflict. In our lives, and in our character's lives, when do we get most emotional? When the stakes are high. That conflict can be internal or external, but you have to show your readers the character's emotional reaction to what happens to them. Otherwise your characters are just chess pieces you're moving around your story board, and who cares when the rook falls? (Seriously, if you didn't read Tiffany's blogs, go read them now.)

Do you have some golden lines to share from a class or lecture? Or maybe a quote that keeps you writing?

28 comments on “Seven Ways to Spark Your Writing with "Golden Lines"”

  1. ...so I got out the metaphorical wires and water and sent a little jolt through the reader at the end of the scene with a question the step-father asks the heroine.

    Lacking the ability to highlight this gem [frowns at WordPress programmers], I copied and pasted it here, and I'm going to paste it into my writing notes. I think you're a Margie grad. Regardless, this advice mirrors what she tells us about back story. Smash that looking-back mirror, collect the shards, and slip them into the story. It doles out splices without Backstory Dump Syndrome.

    The line itself carries so much power, it would earn a Margie NYT! NYT! NYT! in the margin.

    Fellow panster! [Hugs! Happy dance!] I look at my manuscript and mentally mark when the last major external conflict occurred. It helps me amp the tension in each scene -- earn one of those purple dots in the margin.

    Donald Maass also recommends free-thinking the worst thing that could happen to your character, and the One Thing they would never do. Then, make those two calamities happen. Even I get anxious when I write those scenes. I'm internally screaming at Molly not to do, say, think that.

    My next favorites of these golden lines? Build a back story for the key supporting cast. They might not get to play POV, but they're pivotal to the story. If they aren't, they need to be placed into a medically induced coma until the MS is finished.

  2. This blog is a keeper for me - it's a Primer on how to write a sparkly book!

    And Gloria, wait til you read that scene in Fae's book (WHEN she sends it out - yes, I'm talkin' to YOU, Missy.) It is a stunner!

    Great post, Fae!

  3. Very interesting thoughts in your #5. Giving the secret to the reader but not the character.

    I have been marinating on implementing the exact opposite for a few days w my own fiction. I finished reading Tana French's Broken Harbor in the beginning of the summer and it created a spark in my brain and then I started reading Gone Girl and the fire flickered again. Both are very different in their execution of giving the secret to the character and not the reader, both prompting the shape and growth of the reader question during every turn, hook, and trip.

    I was fascinated by how each author did it and i ow of course I want to creat something just as psychologically juicy. In some other stories I have felt betrayed by the author or awkwardly mislead. But these two were delicate in their story telling. So what I hope to be a golden line for my fiction is: delicately creating and growing a secret to the character and hooking the reader with the want/need to find out the truth. * and of course I might have to write a blog about this phenomenon 🙂

    Very cool ideas here, Fae! I am going to work on my own Golden Line list for sure!

    And thank you for including my blogs on authentic reality based human emotion!!!!

    Ok... Back to teaching... .

    Gonna tweet this rt now!

    1. I bow to those who understand emotion, Tiffany, since I didn't have any for most of my life. Seems like I'm on a catch-course that isn't always fun.
      Can't wait for that blog!

    2. Thanks! This was pretty helpful. Especially about making the secondary characters kind of think they're the main character and have their own goals and everything. I'm trying to work on that because some of my secondary characters are rather flat. I think I do too much emotion, though. My charries probably seem like super sensitive toddlers with all the whining they do... Oh, well. I've got plenty of time to improve. I was just about to watch Star Wars... My friend Julie loves it (her whole room is themed Star Wars) and so I finally was going to watch it. And then spoiler alert! That's okay, though. I'll try to forget that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father... It's not working...

  4. Well done Fae! Letting the reader know the secret hightens tension and when the character does find out, it can sometimes be that ah hah moment where they realize they were after the wrong goal or they haven't been thinking "big" enough etc. I love the way you simplify this for us. 🙂

  5. Fabulous post, Fae!!
    I love secondary characters almost as much as the main characters. Number 2 is absolutely perfect. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Orly. My secondary characters were merely sidekicks propped up by the plot before I started the revision. Now they are real people who sometimes talk to me over the main characters!

  6. Great tips, but I had to smile at this one: "In our lives, and in our character’s lives, when do we get most emotional? When the stakes are high." My experience is just the opposite, and the same is true of many of my characters.

    My emotions are always on high alert. ("I can't believe my husband left the ketchup out AGAIN! How could he disrespect me that way? I've told him a thousand times how much it upsets me when I have to clean up after him!") But when big things happen, I turn stoic. ("Sucks that my dad had that stroke and passed away. Sh*t happens.") When I can't express those big emotions, my body pays the price (panic attacks and 6 months on an SSRI after I lost my dad.)

    The key, I think, is understanding the nuances of how devastating events affect YOUR characters. If a character responds with stoicism, you need to set it up so readers realize that stoicism is a sign of a hurt so deep the character can't express it. Make readers worry, not wonder at the reaction.

  7. I started reading Writers in the Storm recently and am finally starting to comment 🙂 Thanks for the great post. Your second line about secondary characters having their own lives has been something already floating around in my head, so it was great to see your commentary upon the idea. It's so easy for a secondary character to fall flat and become a cliche/stereotype. By thinking through their backstory, it gives so much added punch to their actions and interactions with the protagonist. Plus, you never know when a secondary character needs to be promoted!

    1. Welcome to comments, Lauren. Yes, when I got to know one of my secondary characters better--and where he lived--I found out his mother is a fortune teller. Wow, some great plot twists with that one!

  8. Excellent, Fae! "Mean and angry without enough reason" resonated with me. Paul Bishop -- LAPD officer and talented writer-- was reading the opening of my second book and said, "Why is this character so hostile? He has no reason to be." He went on to suggest gently that unfounded hostility is a kind of lazy writing, when the writer can't come up with a real emotion. He was right, and ever since it has jumped out at me in books and most often on TV.
    True story -- in the same session I had a question about guns. Without missing a beat Paul reached into his boot top, removed a small revolver and answered my question. Okay, how many of you have had a reviewer actually pull a gun?

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