What I learned at the 2015 ACFW Conference in Dallas
Every year, ACFW holds a national writers conference. This year it was held in Dallas. Many writers go to connect to other writers, talk to agents and editors, or to participate in one of the many continuing education courses. This conference is usually fairly expensive, but the excellent quality makes the expenses worth it.
I decided to attend the conference for the first time and so two weeks ago, I hopped in the car and went to the conference. Since this was my first national conference with the ACFW, I decided to keep it simple. I didn’t sign up to talk to any editors or agents. Instead, I attended one of the continuing education courses.
Kristen Heitzmann taught a class titled Keys to Compelling Stories. The class was targeted toward beginning writers, though advanced writers would find her class useful as well. Kristen walked through what elements made for a compelling story and how to implement them in your novel. It was a very basic course, full of fundamental information any writer ought to know.
Elements to a compelling story included:
the first line/paragraph/page
point of view
I’m not going to rehash everything she taught, but I will list what tidbits of wisdom I came home with.
The beginning of your story is crucial. This is your opportunity to catch your readers attention. Fail to do that, and they’ll put your book down. A compelling story is not satisfied wit mediocrity. It cannot be skimmed.
Make sure your readers have a strong reaction to your story–a strong good reaction to it. You don’t want to chase away your readers right off the bat. A strong 1st line forms a story around itself. The 1st paragraph bonds readers with the protagonist, and the 1st page promises more to come. Why should your readers care to continue? Tell them.
Readers need to relate to your characters on some level. Characters usually have 3 human elements to them.
- Physical–what do they look like?
- Emotional–their emotions need to engage the readers’ emotions
- Spiritual–what do they believe? Atheist? Their relationship with God can create depth.
Something else to keep in mind is that characters have both inborn traits and variable traits, just like we do. Their inborn traits are the things they were born with–hair color, height, etc. These things are fixed and can’t be changed. Their variable traits are the things that are the product of experience. Do they have a fear of heights because they fell out of a tree as a child? That’s a variable experience.
However, don’t give characters a trait just for the heck of it. Traits have to function–characters don’t have them just for the heck of it. Meaning, reveal these traits during the plot of your story. If your character has a fear of heights, then put them at the top of a skyscraper. Otherwise, get rid of it.
Your characters need a reason for doing what they do. As the story progresses, your characters can grow and change based on what happens in the story. By the time the story ends, one of 4 things usually happens to them.
- Your characters don’t change. They end up with the same personality and same motivation.
- Your characters do change. They may have the same personality, but their motivation has changed.
- Your characters end up with a totally different personality and but have the same motivation.
- Your characters have a different personality and motivation.
Dialogue is obvious. It’s what your characters say, right? Well, yes. However, dialogue done wrong can drag your story. So avoid dialogue that repeats itself, and is stiff or stilted. Also, try not to over-use your tags. Even simple tags like “said,” or “asked” can get boring if used too often. That doesn’t mean you want to vary your dialogue tags by using “he stalked,” or “he yelled,” or something different every time you say something. This just means you use only the tags you need to use. Keep it sparse and appropriate.
Make sure you use period-appropriate dialogue for historical stories. Know your history and use the correct terms. If your character weaves tapestries, make sure you know all the names for everything involved with making tapestries. Using incorrect words and terms can irritate readers if they happen to know the subject better than you.
This also means that your characters can speak differently from each other. Age, education, personality, attitude and region can all impact the things your characters say. But try not to go overboard with dialect. If your readers have to try to figure out what your characters are saying because you phonetically spelled out their accent–that’s bad.
Plot and Conflict
Plot is what your character wants and everything that stands in their way.
Conflict is the angst, danger and emotions of the resistance. Conflict drives the plot forward.
It’s important not to lose momentum. If your readers get board, they could put down your book. That’s bad–we want them to be glued to the pages. This means you need to constantly build tension. Some ways for doing this include:
- strong verbs
- effectively interwoven backstory
- make the readers want something to happen/want something to stop happen
- switch point of view to a different character
- put the characters in a time crunch or have them misunderstand each other
Your character’s motivation plays a part in the plot. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it? What will they do if they are put in a situation out of their control?
Make sure to keep the stakes high. No matter what happens, it can always get worse. Your characters constantly will face death of some kind–physical death, death of self/beliefs/way of life.
Point of View
There are general three different points of view used to tell stories.
- First Person
- Third Person
Not many people write in omniscient point of view nowadays. It’s kind of fallen out of popularity. Omniscient point of view is when the narrator pretends to be God. The narrator knows what everyone is thinking at any moment and how they feel. This narrator head hops, and this is generally thought to be bad. The problem with head hopping is it can easily confuse readers. Wait, weren’t we in someone else’s head just a while ago? Writing from an omniscient point of view can be done well, but it takes practice.
First person point of view takes place in the head of a single person. Everything is written using “I did this or that.” We see through his eyes and we only know what he knows. We have only one narrator, and that is, “I.”
The biggest difference between first and third person point of view are the pronouns. “He or she did this or that.” We still only see through one person’s eyes at a time and we still only know what they know. Think of it like a camera. Third person is a second skin the readers put on, and the story carries them along for the ride. Readers get to climb into the character and experience the world through their eyes.
With third person, writers need to be careful not to head hop. Try using only one point of view per scene, and only use the character that tells the scene the best.
Did these tips help? Feel free to leave a comment below!