Paula Writes

Paula Puddephatt – Author

Writing Highly Emotional Scenes, Without Melodrama — January 26, 2019

Writing Highly Emotional Scenes, Without Melodrama

emotional-scenes

How do you, as a fiction writer, convey extreme emotions, minus the melodrama?

I mean, the tears and tantrums.

They happen, right? A lot. We are discussing extreme emotions here.

Our highly emotional scenes are surely going to involve crying and screaming? Perhaps the destruction of physical objects, and even other human beings? We are talking extreme, after all.

Okay, fine – your characters can cry.

They can scream, in some circumstances. And violent outbursts might also occur. All of these things can happen in your story, and it doesn’t have to be melodramatic, as a direct result.

But let’s start with acknowledging that none of the tears and tantrums, in and of themselves, are going to make the reader care. If the reader doesn’t care, your scenes aren’t making an emotional impact, and no amount of crying and door slamming will alter that.

Oh, and incidentally, the same applies to happier emotions. So, your character is experiencing intense joy, or deep inner peace: Why should the reader care, one way or the other?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, to anyone familiar with my blog posts – strong, believable characters are truly the heart of great fiction.

If you’ve focused sufficiently on character development, your highly emotional scenes are much more likely to be effective, when they do occur.

That said, we can work on the assumption that you’ve created awesome, well-developed characters.

Conveying powerful emotions, whilst avoiding melodrama, should come relatively easily.

Here are a few specifics to look out for:

Tears.

The frequency with which tears cascade down faces.

Go easy on the “cascading”, incidentally. Overwriting in this way is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. It’s melodramatic. Any kind of cliché is likely to be an issue, or any phrase tends towards OTT and even ridiculous.

But, returning to my point about frequency, keep in mind that crying loses its impact, in general, when characters cry too often. In real life, some people do cry more than others, and some allowance can be made for this. But there are limits.

Terms such as “weeping” and “sobbing” should only ever be used when they actually describe the level of crying involved.

People seldom weep or sob, and yet, these words are too often used, by writers, apparently seeking a synonym for “crying”: quite possibly a red flag, suggesting too many instances of “crying” and “tears”. Alternative words and phrases are probably not the solution.

One more point, on the subject of crying characters: Tempted to “show” the tears – perhaps by mentioning moisture on cheeks?

I would rather read: “Lucy cried.” Show, don’t tell has its limitations, and moisture on cheeks is definitely a cliché.

If your characters tend to cry a lot, it’s often best to let them. In the first draft, that is. I personally edit out excessive tears, as part of the revision process.

Feeling Like.

That’s another thing. Admittedly, these are realistic and relatable: feeling like screaming, being on the verge of tears, or fantasizing about punching some particular person in the face. The general tendency is to Feel Like more than we actually do.

Unfortunately, if characters are described as “feeling like screaming” or “being close to tears”, we’ve heard those phrases too many times, and barely register the words any more, when we read them.

For this reason, unless you can express these in an interesting and original way, it’s probably best to go easy on the Feeling Likes.

I also look out for Character Smashing Stuff Up In Temper Syndrome.

Common in TV dramas, and many novels. And yes, I too often find my characters behaving the same way.

Honestly, do you purposely knock over and smash up your own possessions, every time you lose your temper or get upset? I don’t.

I guess it’s an obvious – too obvious – way to indicate that a character is angry or/and hurting. But really, don’t resort to this one too often. It’s not standard behaviour in real life.

Foreshadowing is particularly important, when it comes to emotional scenes.

If a character is going to die, for example, what would make that even more poignant? Even more devastating for the other characters?

Sow seeds. This is more difficult, admittedly, for “pantsers” – who write without the benefit of an outline or plot – but not impossible. Rework earlier scenes to include the necessary foreshadowing. It’s worth the effort.

 

My general conclusion here is that, even though we’re talking about how to convey overwhelming and intense emotions, we often need to be more subtle.

The most powerful, and deeply emotional, scenes are those that stay with us, forming a lasting impression. Those are the scenes that we must endeavour to create.

 

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Show, Don’t Tell: Is It Good Writing Advice? — January 25, 2019

Show, Don’t Tell: Is It Good Writing Advice?

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Show, don’t tell: A useful writing tip, or not particularly?

I probably say this too often, but it’s too often true: There’s not a simple answer to this question.

Yes, in general, it probably is good writing advice. But the truth is that there are occasions when it’s actually better to tell than to show.

Excessive telling does tend to be a common problem, frequently encountered in the work of inexperienced writers.

That’s why many creative writing teachers have a tendency to drive home the message: “Show, don’t tell.”

Showing is being specific, not vague.

Showing is the pounding fist on the table, as opposed to the man “being angry”.

Showing is providing tangible details. It’s sensual, vivid. It’s involving the reader directly.

It isn’t info dumping pages at a time of tedious, indigestible backstory, but instead, weaving any relevant background information into your prose, in vibrant threads.

So, surely I’ve now confirmed that showing is, indeed, better than telling?

Absolutely not. There are many instances when telling is preferable.

The showing of everything, taken to extreme, can become ridiculous, and lead to a “rambling”, long-winded style of writing, which modern readers simply won’t tolerate.

Slipping information into the dialogue is often viewed as an alternative to telling.

Be very cautious when it comes to delivering backstory in this way, as it rarely comes across as natural.

For more on the subject of dialogue, refer to my posts Writing Believable Dialogue and Creating Realistic Dialogue: Additional Thoughts.

Showing and telling is a fine balance.

Different writers have different styles, and some naturally tend to show or tell more than others, which is fine.

But, whether you default to showing or telling, you need to be attentive to the pros and cons of each. Neither approach is all good or all bad, and you do need to show and tell, in your fiction.

 

I hope that this post helps to clarify some key points, in relation to showing and telling in fiction, as this subject is often misunderstood.

My recent post about how to identify and fix White Room Syndrome is relevant. This post does discuss the need for more sensory, descriptive location details, in the work of some writers.

 

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Author and Character Voice in Your Fiction — January 17, 2019

Author and Character Voice in Your Fiction

voice-fiction

When discussing voice, in connection with writing fiction, we need to distinguish between author and character voice.

Author voice refers to the style of the author.

This can include word choice and tone. Author voice will be somewhat consistent, although there may be variations between voice used in one work and the next.

Consider your favourite authors, and what it is that appeals to you about their particular writing style. When you read their work, you just know it’s that author’s work, right? Even if the writer in question writes in multiple genres, there’s something that marks each story out as being their own. Daphne du Maurier comes to mind for me, personally.

All writers, then, have a voice – but should you consciously develop that voice?

Such as, intentionally focus upon absorbing the styles of other specific authors, so that this will influence your own?

As with most other aspects of being a writer, this is an individual choice. Most of us like to at least have some degree of awareness, when it comes to our personal writing styles.

But, yes – voice comes naturally, and will develop simply through the fact that we write and read, and live in general.

Character voice is also “exactly what it says on the tin”.

Each character in each story should, ideally, have a clearly defined voice – although it can be challenging to achieve in practice, and a common writing problem is that multiple characters, within a particular story, seem the same, or very similar, in terms of voice.

Character voice is distinct from author voice, although paradoxically, it’s also an element of author voice.

The extent to which author and character voice merge into one, definitely varies. The general tendency would be for character voice to blend most with author voice in a first person, single viewpoint narrative. However, this is by no means always the case.

The concept of character voice does tend to refer to viewpoint characters, but it’s worth remembering that it applies to other characters, too. But, if a character isn’t a POV character, we’re going to be relying upon dialogue exclusively, to convey voice.

 

As I mentioned, author voice does tend to take care of itself, but it can’t hurt to be aware of our own developing styles. And, when it comes to character voice – that’s definitely an area on which many of us need to focus.

 

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Exploring Your Characters’ Motivations — January 15, 2019

Exploring Your Characters’ Motivations

your-characters-motivations

I’ve discussed characterisation in various posts, and have always emphasized my personal belief, that strong characters are the heart of compelling fiction.

Whilst other factors, including plot, are undeniably important, weaknesses in these areas can often be forgiven, provided that the reader is sufficiently invested in the characters.

I’ve written posts about character creation, and aspects of character development, and would like to focus right now, on character motivations, in particular.

It’s vital to understand the why behind your characters’ actions and reactions – and to communicate this, via your story’s events, to the reader. I always return to the importance, as I see it, of character development, and exploring character motivations is very much a part of this.

With the possible exception of minor characters, it’s usual for each character to have an arc – a definite pattern of change in that character, from the starting point of the story to the climax.

Sometimes the change will be drastic, and sometimes, very subtle, but there will almost always be change, of some description.

Events in real life shape us, and alter our perspectives, and it’s the same way for our fictional people.

So, in terms of needs and motivations, these will shift and change accordingly, as the story moves along.

Your plot will be influenced by the actions and emotions of the various characters, and these actions and emotions can’t be understood without knowing what motivates the characters, on multiple levels.

Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, represented by a pyramid. Human needs range from the most basic survival – life or death – needs, to the highest human need, for self-actualisation.

At different times, and in different circumstances, our needs will change. When we’re fighting for mere survival, we aren’t focusing upon any need higher than that.

So, there may be times, during the course of your story, when your characters are literally fighting for their lives, and at these times, many of their usual priorities, hopes, and dreams, will fade into insignificance.

But there’s more to it than this, of course. Desires, goals, dreams – all change over time, even outside of life and death situations. True for all of us, and same applies for our characters. Motivations will be consistent, and yet, evolving, also.

The motivations of one character may be in direct conflict with those of another.

This is excellent, from a storytelling perspective, because conflict is essential, in order for your plot to progress, and remain interesting.

The timespan of your story is another consideration.

In my own case, my WIP begins in 1983, ending in the early 1990s. My protagonist, Lucy, is seventeen, at the start.

The epilogue takes place in 1993. The change between a girl of seventeen, and a twenty-seven year old, who has been through the novel’s various events, will obviously be significant.

Many of Lucy’s motivations and needs will be very different. These will have changed gradually, over the years, and the challenge is to not only understand these developments ourselves, but to communicate them effectively, and skilfully, to the reader.

 

There’s so much more to say, on the subject of character motivations, and character arcs, and it’s difficult to do justice to such a vast, and important, subject. But, for now, these are some thoughts on character motivations, which will hopefully be of interest.

 

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Addressing White Room Syndrome in Your Fiction — January 14, 2019

Addressing White Room Syndrome in Your Fiction

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What exactly is White Room Syndrome?

The term White Room Syndrome refers to a common writing problem. Most writers will be familiar with White Room Syndrome, even if they haven’t yet heard it referred to by that name.

White Room Syndrome refers to writing that lacks grounding in physical reality – lacks even basic description, in terms of setting. Scenes that might as well be taking place in a white room – hence the name.

Personally, I’ve been guilty of this, to varying degrees at different times, as a writer.

I become so immersed, at times, in the dramatic situations my characters are going through. I get deeply involved with writing dialogue, as well as describing the thoughts and emotions of my viewpoint character, or characters.

And, whilst I might be very aware myself of where the scene is located, I may neglect to communicate this, through my actual words. I would have described this as my characters floating around in the middle of nowhere, but White Room Syndrome is probably a clearer way of expressing the same idea.

So, that’s what White Room Syndrome is, but how do we fix the issue, in our stories?

Identify specific instances of this problem occurring, throughout your work. As you become increasingly aware of it, you may well be able to stop yourself from White Room writing, in the first place.

But, actually, it’s not that important to cure White Room Syndrome in your early drafts. It’s generally something that you will be looking out for at the revision and editing stage.

Having identified scenes that need attention – basically, your White Room Scenes – it should be relatively straightforward to improve your prose, and make them feel more real. My post about describing locations might be of some help, and also, one that I wrote about how to create atmosphere in your fiction.

Basically, you need to add details, such as physical descriptions of places, and sensory details – remembering to make use of all five senses. Maybe more action tags, within your dialogue? There are so many options.

And you don’t need to overdo it.

Less is so often more, in fact. Simply provide sufficient tangible information, to give the impression that your story is actually taking place somewhere, as opposed to anywhere, or nowhere, or in possibly some random white room.

 

I hope that this post was useful, and will help you to notice, and rectify, any problems with White Room Syndrome, in your own fiction.

My post on when to show and when to tell does relate somewhat, and might be of interest.

 

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Creating Realistic Dialogue: Additional Thoughts — November 20, 2018

Creating Realistic Dialogue: Additional Thoughts

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In this post, I’ll be expanding upon my Writing Believable Dialogue post.

I would, therefore, suggest reading that first, if you haven’t already.

I can’t emphasize enough that believable characters are the heart of great fiction.

Other elements, such as story structure, are important, but strong characterisation is essential. And, without convincing dialogue, you won’t have believable characters. That’s why I consider this subject sufficiently valuable to revisit.

It’s important, in general, to avoid exposition in dialogue.

Many writers will attempt to convey backstory via dialogue, but this rarely comes across as natural.

However, there’s one circumstance in which this can actually work: arguments. It’s important to include conflict in your stories, and although not all of this conflict will be in the form of rows between your various characters – well, arguments are bound to be in the mix, right?

In real life, arguments are very much a time when accusations are flying:

“And what about what you said, on Julie’s wedding day?”

“Well, how about what your mum said to my sister, last Christmas?”

“Aren’t you forgetting the time you…?”

Okay, you get the idea. Basically, people hurl anything and everything at each other, when tempers are high, so take advantage of this, as a writer.

In my Believable Dialogue post, I mentioned the overuse of character names in dialogue.

I still find myself doing this, and having to remove name tags, as part of the revision process.

One specific problem I find is that many of my characters are known by more than one variation of their name, used interchangeably. Some examples, from my WIP: Lucy/Luce, Catherine/Cath, Matthew/Matt, and Charlotte/Charlie. This tends to result, in my experience, in the inclusion of more name tags, in total.

There’s no obvious way to avoid this, other than limiting the number of characters, within any one story, who are routinely known by multiple versions of their names.

It really is worth paying attention to this. Listen intentionally to real life conversations, as these provide useful comparisons. It’s surprising how seldom we actually use each other’s names, during real interactions.

I mentioned this before, and will repeat: Said is not dead.

It’s time to get past this myth. I still occasionally come across infographics on Pinterest, providing extensive lists of “said alternatives”, most of which make me cringe.

Whilst there are some viable alternatives, less “exclaiming”, “confessing”, and “admitting” will make your writing sound more stylish. “Said” is an invisible word, and does its job.

Not every line of dialogue requires an attribution at all – particularly the case when a conversation involves only two characters.

Action tags can be useful but, as with every other device, some writers overdo these. They serve a purpose, and can be used effectively, but don’t use them too often.

If in doubt, keep it simple, and go with the functional, unobtrusive “said”.

 

Hopefully, these tips, along with those in my related post, will help you to improve the quality of your dialogue.

Creating realistic dialogue is vital, because without it, as I mentioned, you simply won’t have realistic characters.

But the good news is that it often only takes a minor tweak here and there, during the revision and editing process, to make a significant difference.

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Writing Diversity: Creating Working Class and Underclass Characters — November 1, 2018

Writing Diversity: Creating Working Class and Underclass Characters

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Most – although I can’t claim, all – writers acknowledge the importance of diversity, in general.

However, what do we think of specifically, when we hear and use the term “diversity”? Race? Sexuality? Age, even? Disability? These are all important, and we need to keep talking about all of them.

But how about working class and underclass characters?

Do you include “poor people” in your stories and, if so, how are these characters portrayed?

And yes, there can definitely be overlaps with some of the other issues. Race and poverty, and disability and poverty: It’s wrong to deny that there can be causal links. Social issues don’t go away by ignoring and denying them.

Poverty is a reality, and this is still very much the case in “wealthy” countries, including here in the UK.

Our NHS is a mess, before you even get into housing issues.

Families, such as my own, continue to treat particular members as “poor relations”, and shun and humiliate them, in numerous ways.

The benefits system is overwhelmingly difficult for many to navigate, and involves so much needless cruelty,

How often is any of this reflected in fiction? In my opinion and experience, not enough.

Rags to riches, and riches to rags?

Those have been done.

Yet, in reality, most people who are working class remain working class throughout their lives. Many go back and forth between working class and underclass, for various reasons. Let’s see more characters like these, and celebrate how strong many people have to be, simply to survive.

Some genres are particularly prone to the exclusive inclusion of privileged characters, especially as protagonists.

For example, romance and women’s fiction. Women who work as cashiers and toilet cleaners still have romantic relationships. Why, then, does almost every heroine, in such books, have to be either middle class or upper class?

Your cast is your own, but it’s worth considering these points, if diversity matters to you. And, in my opinion, it should. As for “not really knowing about people like that” – maybe you should learn, and not only for the sake of your writing.

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Character Development: Inspiration – Part 1 — August 31, 2018

Character Development: Inspiration – Part 1

character-inspiration-1

I definitely consider character creation to be one of the most important aspects – if not the most important – of writing great fiction.

Even in genres generally considered to be more plot-driven, characters matter – and excellent characterisation will set your fiction apart, giving it a definite edge over any other novels or short stories out there.

I have previously written post about my personal character development process, and about how to create believable characters – as well as various related posts, covering topics, including naming characters, and writing realistic dialogue. I would definitely encourage you to take a look at some or all of these, if you haven’t already.

I have already mentioned not finding “laundry list” style character profiles to be particularly useful.

I used to feel almost guilty for not liking this approach, but have learnt, over the years, that many other writers feel the same way.

I think the problem lies in the fact that we’re required to, in effect, give our characters the third degree.  We may well end up “writing anything”, in response to some of the questions, simply so that we can tick the “completed task” box, with regard to character profiles.

In real life, we usually get to know people gradually, over time.

It’s a natural process.  You wouldn’t suddenly go up to someone in the street and start interrogating them: asking about their childhood, favourite colours, favourite foods, and political views. Even if someone was prepared to tell all, attempting to absorb so many details, at a rapid pace, would become overwhelming. You wouldn’t remember half of it, or take in its significance.

So, here’s what I like to do instead…

Gradually, intuitively answer questions, that may sometimes be quite random, and sometimes, more obvious and generic.

When people include lists of nine thousand questions to ask your characters, I actually feel kind of inspired. But only momentarily. The questions may well be amazing, but they aren’t much use to those of us whose heads are spinning, from even attempting to take them all in.

So, my solution. A *series of blog posts, each including a few things to think about – properly, and slowly, minus the dizzy spells. *December 2018 note: I originally planned to write several posts in this “series”, which is why I used to term. However, I ultimately felt that two were sufficient, using this precise approach.

Let’s start at the beginning: your character’s name.

Presumably, your main characters already have first and last names. If not, you should probably read my naming characters post – mentioned earlier.

But does your character have a middle name, or middle names? Most of us do. Mine is Michelle. Okay, some people don’t have one – but, if the character specifically has no middle name, you should know that, as a fact. It’s probably not realistic to give every character in your novel a middle name, but it helps, when it comes to the main characters.

Also, consider maiden, and previous married, names for women, where applicable.

Now, pets – because pets are so important in many of our lives.

Do you know whether your MC currently has pets? And how about previous pets? Know dog breeds. The number and colour of gerbils, throughout the years. And yes, names. Our pets all have them, right? Then for personalities…

I believe in being thorough. That’s why too many questions in one go doesn’t work for me.

But if you do want to decide upon something with a simple answer – try your character’s birthday.

Date of birth is more specific though, so let’s go with that. Give your character a date of birth.

Oh, and if your head is currently spinning, from trying to approach this my way – maybe try one of those extensive questionnaires.

Each to their own. Just because I find them dry, doesn’t mean that they can’t help many writers. They wouldn’t be so enduringly popular, after all, if many people didn’t find them invaluable.

See also: Part 2, for more on character development

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How To Create Believable Friendships in Your Fiction — August 30, 2018

How To Create Believable Friendships in Your Fiction

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Fictional friendships are important.

How do you ensure that these ring true?

I’ve already shared a post about writing romance, but romantic relationships aren’t the only type that need attention – in reality, or in our stories.

It’s worth considering that, in the context of a story, we will often tend to focus upon maybe one to three close friendships.

This is fine. But it’s also useful to keep in mind that our main characters will generally have a wider friendship circle, of some description. It can sometimes be beneficial to include a name or reference here and there, in order to reflect this.

When developing a friendship, consider the backstory – the history behind the friendship.

My main character, Lucy, has been best friends with Charlotte since primary school. As well as going to school together, they used to be neighbours. This does mean that they have a great deal of shared history. Yet, they have also grown apart, in many respects. By the end of the novel, Charlotte isn’t Lucy’s exclusive “best friend” in quite the same way. At the same time, that shared history will always be there – and that would be the case, even if the friendship ended.

Think about the “why” behind the friendship.

There are usually multiple reasons. In the case of Lucy and Charlotte, obviously they would have become friends partly due to circumstances – because they lived so close to each other, and went to school together. So, yes – the met at school, through work, or at the local chess club, part is always going to be there.

But then there will be other factors, including shared interests, shared secrets, a similar sense of humour – or, going deeper, the same core values. Maybe the friends are actually opposites, in many respects? Which can be good or bad – or a bit of both.

All friendships have their ups and downs, and this definitely needs to be reflected.

In some stories, it will be a major plot point, or a subplot – but, even if it isn’t, it should ideally be communicated, to some degree. No friendship is perfect, after all. The problems and misunderstandings are part of what makes the relationship feel realistic. In this way, hopefully, your reader will be able to relate, and being able to relate leads to caring.

Make sure that your friend characters are fully developed in themselves, and not simply “sidekicks”, with no other obvious role in life.

They need to have their own lives, and not everything they do will be about their friend, even if said friend happens to be your protagonist.

Hopefully, these tips will help you to create believable friendships in your fiction. You might even start to envy your fictional characters, for having such strong friendships. That’s a good sign, because it shows that you believe in your own characters, and can feel the strength of their friendships.

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Writing Cliffhangers: Creating Suspense Through Your Chapter Endings — August 17, 2018

Writing Cliffhangers: Creating Suspense Through Your Chapter Endings

suspense-chapter-endings

Ending a chapter with a cliffhanger is a powerful device.

Not every chapter necessarily needs to end in this way. In fact, that wouldn’t generally be advisable and, for some genres, would be entirely inappropriate.

That said, not every cliffhanger is going to be a literal matter of life and death – and therefore, they can probably be used more frequently than many writers believe.

In some stories, there won’t be a single life or death cliffhanger – and yet, there will still be cliffhangers, of some kind. A line of dialogue, containing a revelation or an accusation, can often provide the perfect cliffhanger.

A cliffhanger compels readers to continue beyond the chapter they had originally intended to read.

That’s the aim, anyway.

Many writers make the mistake of keeping the suspense going for too long.

There’s actually nothing wrong with providing a resolution to a cliffhanger almost immediately, in the following chapter. More problems will inevitably arise, and the plot will continue.

Delays can sometimes be effective.

So, yes – you can even finish on a cliffhanger, and then switch to a subplot. But do so with caution, because you do risk losing readers, in the process.

As for continually switching between different knife’s edge situations – I don’t claim that this can’t work out, but it definitely takes skill, and wouldn’t work well in many stories.

When it comes to ending an entire novel on a cliffhanger: rarely advisable, in my opinion, unless you’re planning to write a sequel, or the book is part of a series.

Or perhaps an epilogue could provide some sort of resolution. But, in general, I would reserve cliffhangers for chapter endings.

In a previous post, I discussed how to build suspense and tension in your fiction, which definitely ties in with this subject.

I personally do tend to use cliffhangers, of various kinds, a great deal, in my own writing. They’re one of my favourite aspects of fiction, both as a writer and reader.

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