Monday, 28 February 2011

Seeing is believing

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The problem with most obvious and familiar emotions is that a word like ‘angry’ gives us an instant idea of what angry means, but not a picture. But when you refer to a specific time when a specific character got angry, what does that really mean? What does it look like? All you really convey is a general, clichéd concept of the kind of mood that person was in. You don’t put the reader in the scene, seeing it.

There are two ways to overcome this.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

You can't trust what people say...

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video

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Build a story, leave the door open

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A story is more than a series of events that happen. Scenes have to be interesting, they have to build and they have to play a role in communicating the overall narrative. But how do you know if the scene you have written is helping to tell the story or distracting from it? One way to decide is to look at the scene and ask yourself what is its significance? Not to the character, or even to the writer, but to the story.

Most things that happen in a story can be said to have some sort of influence on the greater scheme of things if you really push it. A girl walking down the street on the way to school who notices a red sports car, which is then never mentioned again, could be said to have some symbolic or metaphorical resonance with the themes of the story. That's fine, but once you know that, you are then able to decide whether that's the best way to achieve that effect (which it may well be). Problem is most people don't do that and leave it hanging as a thing that happened in the story just because. And that's what it will read like.

If a woman is getting ready to go for a job interview and the phone rings and it’s some guy trying to convince her to switch phone plans, and once she gets rid of him she goes off to her a job interview, what’s the significance to her story? If it makes her late and she misses the bus, then that could have a very strong impact. If the guy tells her that she'd be stupid to pass up this limited special offer and she gets very irate, calling him a cocksucker who should stick his head up his own ass so he has somewhere quiet to eat his bag of dicks, and then puts the phone down and goes back to being very normal and getting ready (pink shirt or white shirt?) that tells us something about her but it has a particular significance since she's going for a job interview where that aspect of her personality may prove to be a liability (although personally I'd hire her on the spot).

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Yes, but that's just your opinion

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The goal for the novice (or even the not so novice) writer is to write better. That doesn’t necessarily  mean writing to a grammatical gold standard, or following the rules laid down by the late and the great. It just means finding the words to tell your story in the way you would like it to be told. In your voice.

The thing is, we are all capable of moments of clarity where we say what we intended, in a way that hits home and actually means something. But we are also capable of saying the wrong thing, doubting ourselves, stammering like a loon and then bailing on the big moment we had been building up to. The great thing about writing is we can sift through the first draft and keep the good bits, and keep reworking them until they say what we meant to say.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Flat Narratives

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The writer is a time traveller. He can see the whole of existence at once. He knows the end as well as the start. When someone says something that doesn’t make sense now, but will have an impact many pages from now, the writer smiles knowingly. All information is available to him. The problem is the rest of us are mere mortals who can only start at the beginning and work our way from one moment to the next, and when someone says something seemingly meaningless, that's all it is.

Leading the reader from A to B is not something where you can just set off and be confident you’re going to be followed. There’s no point relying on stuff that happens later to satisfy the reader if the reader never gets that far. The idea that ‘It will all make sense if you keep reading...’ is not taking into account how readers read. We keep reading because we like what we’ve read so far and want more. We don’t think ‘This isn’t working, I should keep reading and maybe it will...’

Each scene or chapter has to be engaging in its own right. Even if certain information needs to be conveyed, you can do that while other stuff is happening. Jack can tell Dave about an old school teacher who will turn up later in the story. But he can tell him that anecdote while they are in the middle of robbing a bank. Obviously it doesn’t need to be quite that extreme, but it shouldn’t be just them hanging out or driving in a car. It should tells us something about these specific characters.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Behold, my powers of description!

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Of all the different aspects of writing a story (character, story, plotting, theme, pace, suspense, what-have-you) by far the easiest to get on the page is description.  You may not know who Jack is, what he’s going to do or how he’s going to do it, but you can still get 400 words down about the boots he wears and the view from his window.

Describing stuff is a necessary part of any story, but it can also go on for quite a while. Certain genres suit a more flowery style (romance, fantasy, historical fiction) and literary fiction in general can tend towards a more deliberative use of language. But it's not enough to describe something well, you also have to know why you're describing it.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Boring Characters

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This is something I struggle with, and I’m not speaking about poorly written characters, I’m talking about the kind of story that starts off slow and then builds. I’m going to go over some of the problems I’ve encountered (in my own and other people’s works) and then later I’ll go into some solutions which I’ve thought of (but can never seem to implement in my own stories).

If your story has a normal guy (or gal) and then through the story things happen and they change, that is a legitimate story structure. But if at the start your character has many negative traits, and by that I mean they predominantly DON’T want to do stuff (they’re shy, they’re aimless, they’re afraid of taking a chance) it can make for a very slow, pedestrian start to the book. Obviously you want to provide a contrast, show their transformation, but boring is boring, whatever the reason.

Often writers use one (or all ) of the following excuses: 

Advanced Show, Improved Tell

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An old favourite I know, but I will be giving my personal view on this subject, which isn’t the usual back and forth from a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about (this will be just from one person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about).

Because these are common words that get used in other contexts, when specifically referring to the techniques I’ll type them as SHOW and TELL to avoid confusion. Also ACTION refers to people actively doing something, not to car chases and gunfights.

How you tell a story comes down to one basic rule – make it interesting. How you do that is completely open ended and there is no hard and fast rule. If a story is interesting you could write it with crayon on the sole of your shoes and people would be tripping you over to have a read.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Character is Plot

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There are many ways to structure a plot, but all plots have the same basic purpose: to reveal something about the character.

What people do tells us who they are.

And actions speak louder than words.

(The word ‘action’ does not mean car chases and explosions, it means any physical movement from turning on the tv to taking a shit to blowing up the Statue of liberty and everything in between)

The specific goal of the plot isn't important, it could be finding the lost Ark of the Covenant, or climbing a ladder to wash a window, the important thing is:
1. What does it tell the reader about the character?
2. Does this play a part in the rest of the story?
3.Is it interesting?

Taking these points one at a time:

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