Monday, 23 March 2015

Tricks of the Trade 4: Hero Upgrade

Making sure readers actually care what happens to your main character is integral to any story. You can’t just take it for granted that just because your story has stuff happen to a guy that the reader will automatically be interested.

If your story happens to be about a noble main character who has exciting adventures this is less of a worry since this is the basic story archetype from fairy tales and myths, but not all stories follow this template.

While the simplest way to endear your MC to the reader is to demonstrate their general decency, what’s sometimes referred to as a pat the dog or save the cat moment—the MC goes out of their way to be helpful to some innocent in trouble and their good guy credentials are confirmed—not all main characters are straight out of a Disney family movie.

Fortunately there are a number of other ways to boost your hero’s general appeal.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Reinventing Clichéd Scenes


The good thing about clichés is that they impart information quickly and reliably. If someone says it’s raining cats and dogs, you know exactly what they mean.

The bad thing about clichés is that they get overused which leads to them feeling unoriginal and lazy. When you know what’s someone’s saying before they’ve even finished saying it you stop paying attention. And a reader who isn’t paying attention is not what a writer wants.

Weeding out familiar phrases isn’t too difficult. Getting rid of overused scenes and premises is not so easy.

Certain types of scenes occur so often because readers want them—in some cases even expect them. They want the guy and the gal to end up together; they want the evil plot to be foiled. And different genres have tropes that readers enjoy seeing again and again. But while commercially there may be an acceptance of the same old story, artistically it can feel less satisfactory for writers and more discerning readers.

So how do you write scenes that readers are eagerly anticipating without simply producing an imitation of every other book already out there?

Monday, 9 March 2015

Interesting Chit Chat


Small talk is boring. Characters who waffle on about the weather and the dream they had last night and their favourite toy when they were a kid don’t hold a reader’s attention for very long.

At the same time, characters who enter a scene, get what they want, and leave can make the story feel rushed and sterile.

There are, of course, plenty of books that use the more rushed approach and it can work very well. It makes it much easier to keep the reader hooked and turning pages. Many bestsellers use this approach, although they don’t win many literary awards.

But we’ve all read books that had long passages of seemingly random observations and conversations that not only didn’t read as boring, but actually added to the story. You felt a stronger connection to the character because of the glimpse into their personality. So how did they manage it when your attempts feel like meandering asides and unnecessary tangents? 

Monday, 2 March 2015

Waiting For A Story To Get Going

No new post this week as I've been struck down by a mystery illness (or possibly just a cold). In the meantime here's one from the archives.
Story is about character. There’s what happens to the character, and there’s what the character does (not necessarily in that order).

Of these two key elements, what the character DOES is far more important than what is DONE TO the character.

Readers want to engage with a character who makes decisions and choices and takes action.

If it’s all about what happens TO the character, then chances are it’s going to turn out to be a boring story.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Tricks of the Trade 3: Electric Writing


Orson Welles once told an interviewer that he considered the greatest screen actor of all time to be Jimmy Cagney. The reason he gave for this was that Cagney always played at the top of his range but was never fake or over-the-top. 

The effect of this full-on style of acting was magnetic. When somebody is pouring their all into what they’re doing, you can’t help but watch. Most actors can do this when the script requires. Cagney could do it all the time. Love scene, death scene, action scene.

It doesn’t matter how big you go if you can make it feel real. And because the audience believes the actor cares, they care. 

When it comes to writing fiction you can use a similar approach to keep the reader engaged with what’s happening in the story.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell


Generally speaking showing is considered a better type of writing than telling, but there are times when neither feels quite right. Fortunately there are a couple of techniques that use neither approach.

Telling is something like “John felt sad” and has the advantage of being short and quick, but it tends to lack emotional engagement. You know what the writer means, you understand the character’s experience, but you don’t necessarily feel it too.

Showing might be something like “John let out a barely audible sigh and a single tear rolled down his cheek” which lets you see what’s happening rather than being told. This, when done right (unlike my horrible example), enables the reader to feel more present and empathetic with the character, but it can take up a lot more space.

But what if you want to create an immediate and visceral effect for the reader without taking up too much room?

Monday, 9 February 2015

Tertiary Characters Have Their Own Issues

In the last post I talked about contentious issues and how they can be used to grab a reader’s attention. But sometimes issues can sneak into a story without the writer being aware of them, and in a way that can reflect very badly on the story and on the writer.

The main character is usually well defined, as are the core set of supporting characters, but there are a whole host of other smaller parts, from the neighbour with the occasional line of dialogue to the girl at the coffee shop who never says a word, that populate a fictional world and give it a life beyond the two or three people that really matter to the story.

And it is these small, seemingly insignificant roles, that can lead readers to infer things about the writer’s view of the world that the writer never intended and doesn’t think.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Writing Issues


Often the most engaging stories, the most affecting stories, are those that involve contentious issues.

War, sex, religion, race—highly emotive subject-matter that people tend to have strong views about are a quick way to draw a reader in. You don’t have to worry whether people will be interested in your story’s themes, because everyone’s interested in these sorts of themes.

At least, that’s how it seems. 

In practice, while it’s easy to catch a reader’s attention with a topic that they already have strong feelings about, it can be a lot harder to maintain and build on that interest through the 300+ pages of a novel. And even harder to follow through with a satisfying ending.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Tricks of the Trade 2: Red Herrings


Although the term red herring is usually associated with murder mysteries, most stories contain an element of misdirection to keep the reader guessing at the outcome. When it’s obvious where it’s headed, even if the route contains interesting obstacles and encounters, you miss out on that feeling of discovery when you realise the answer isn’t A, as you thought, but B (which seemed impossible but now you can see of course it was B, it was always B, sneaky, sneaky B).

In order to create the delight a reader feels when their view of the world (even when it’s a made up world) is spun around 180 degrees and they see things how they truly are you have to first convince them of the way things truly aren’t. 

So you lie to them.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Every Story Is a Mystery


When we think of a story being a mystery the tendency is to think of the mystery genre. An investigator (usually a detective), a puzzle to be solved (usually a crime), a person to be caught (usually a criminal).

But to all intents and purposes every story is basically a mystery. There is always a burning question that needs answering and someone who is tasked with finding that answer. It’s just that it might not be as obvious what the question is in Looking for Love as it is in Who Killed Johnny?

And if it’s well written the reader’s desire to also discover the answer should be just as strong in both stories. Which is why when that desire isn’t so strong we can use the mechanics of the mystery genre to help work out what’s gone awry in other types of stories.
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