Monday, 9 April 2012

How To Write Better Fiction

Sometimes a scene in a story has nothing wrong with it (nothing obvious, anyway) and yet it doesn’t work. It’s a necessary scene, important to the story, but it feels flat and uninteresting. People who read it will notice it’s a bit lacklustre, but not really know why, or how to fix it.

Usually it’s a more sedate scene, a moment of discussion or reflection, maybe dialogue heavy, but artificially turning it into an action scene doesn’t feel right.

For those instances, I offer the following techniques to make a flat scene more immediate and engaging.

1. Silent Movie — Read the scene so you know what it’s about (of course, if you’re into revisions you probably have it memorised anyway). Put the text aside and go over the scene in your mind without any dialogue. View it like a silent movie. What are the characters doing?

If they’re sitting at a table, or walking in a park, something arbitrary and meaningless, then consider giving them something more interesting to do. You can talk and do stuff at the same time.

2. Actions Reveal Character — Whatever it is your characters are doing (even if it’s just sitting down chatting), does it tell the reader something about the character? If characters are just doing stuff the way anyone might in that situation, you are wasting an opportunity.

In real life, people do what needs doing. In fiction, they do whatever you decide they should do.

Let’s say Ellen is talking to her daughter Kelly about going to the school disco (do they still have those?). In order to make it feel less static, maybe Ellen is washing the dishes as Kelly begs to be allowed to go.

If Ellen is just washing dishes in a normal fashion, even the most beautiful prose won’t make it very interesting. However, if she starts off inspecting dishes that have already been washed and are stacked in the drying rack, chooses one she feels isn’t washed well enough, and then re-washes it (all this happens while she argues with her daughter), then that tells you something about the kind of person Kelly has for a mother.

That kind of opportunity is available in every scene you write.

3. Opposition — Whatever a person is doing, just telling (or even showing) the reader what’s happening isn’t enough to make it interesting. Sometime it is, if the thing they’re doing is unusual or unexpected, or educational or illuminating. But if you introduce a difficulty into the process, if there’s someone or something working against the protagonist accomplishing their task, it becomes more interesting.

This doesn’t have to be anything to do with the main storyline or the antagonist. If your MC offers a girl a cup of coffee and then finds he doesn’t have any in the apartment, that’s enough to make an everyday nothing scene into a pivotal moment.

However, problems shouldn’t be so easy that they can be instantly and predictably solved. And how your character fixes things should again in some way reflect who he is as a person. Don’t waste an opportunity to use action to reveal character.

4. Don’t Hold Back Information — If there is some element of the story you’re holding back, try stating it clearly and unambiguously. This may feel counter-intuitive, but raising curiosity by implying there’s a secret to be learnt is a difficult thing to get right, especially for less experienced writers.

In most cases knowing what a character has learnt, or what’s driving them to do what they’re doing, makes a story stronger and more engaging. I’d say 90% of withheld information doesn’t live up to the build up. It’s far easier to tell if a plot point works if you reveal it as soon as the character becomes aware of it. And if it doesn’t work, dragging it out and then revealing it down the road won’t make it any better. In fact it will just piss off the reader.

5. Give Other Characters A Life — Having one character hold court while everyone else just feeds them loaded questions can end up feeling contrived and unrealistic. Your main character is obviously the most important person in the story, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to treat them like the centre of the universe.

Not that you should create multiple subplots and tangential storylines for every minor character, but working in details can make it feel more immersive.

For example, if a cop visits a witness, they don't have to be just waiting, doing nothing (although unlike Law & Order, they don't have to be loading boxes into the back of a van either). 

What a character was doing just before the scene where the MC enters can influence their attitude, behaviour and actions.

Not all these tips will apply to every scene or character, but I think most stories will benefit from bearing these techniques in mind as you revise and edit.
If you found this post of use, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


November Rain - k~ said...

Nicely done... there is a lot of good information in this post about bringing characters to life, and using characters to bring a sedate portion of the story to life. Thanks... RT in order:-)

Kirsty said...

Excellent post - have bo.lted it for future reference.

Chantel Rhondeau said...

Nice post! Very good points!

Karen Lange said...

Thank you for the inspiration! Have been going over a few scenes in the WIP and this will help a lot. Have a lovely week! :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Like the idea of removing dialogue so one can see the characters in action without distraction.

momto8 said...

thank you for this great and very helpful information...insightful!!

Gina said...

These are great advises that I'll be sure to follow the next time I end up in a pickle. Thanks! Also, thanks for following my blog. I'm also a follower and can't wait to see what new interesting things you post. Happy Easter!

Angela Ackerman said...

I love all of your posts, but this one is pure gold. Great strategies to find out why a scene isn't quite as strong as it needs to be. :)

Sonia Lal said...

Good past! I like the about not keeping info secret. This took me awhile to learn. Also is this h post for the a to z challenge? Early but that's good. Mine goes up tommorow.

mooderino said...


@Kirsty- I don't know what bo.lted means, but thank you.


@Karen-you're welcome.

@Alex-I find it helpful.

mooderino said...

@momto8-glad you found it of use.

@Gina-Happy easter to you too.

@Angela-your posts aren't bad either.

@Sonia-not early, just in a different time zone.

Vero said...

Great advice, Mood!

I particularly liked the first tip, replaying a scene in your mind as if it's a silent movie. Many writers often forget that you can have dialog at the same time with action, and needlessly separate the two. The little trick you describe certainly does prevent that from happening.

J.J. John said...

Hey I like your blog. You should check mine's out, It's one big fantasy story and I've just began. So there's not much catching up. It's called Traveri.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Great tips, Moody I especially like the "silent movie" idea. I'm definitely going to apply that one to my own writing.

mooderino said...

@vero-cheers. I find it reveals just how dull some of my scenes are (luckily brfore anyone else notices).

@JJ-thanks for the offer, sadly you didn't leave a link bank to your site.

@Madeline-gald you liked it, hope it will be of some small use.

Maria said...

View like a silent movie is a good tip, I'll try it later as I have such a scene which got poor feedback recently.

Good post.

Annalisa Crawford said...

Great tips. I love to throw in really random stuff for my characters to do - like origami. Or in one story a woman who used to stare at pictures on the wall - I have no idea why, but in every scene she was looking at the walls.

Althea said...

Good advise, I'll be sure to use it!X

MSBjaneB said...

I love the silent movie tip. I tend to think of my books as old black and white films anyway. My current WIP is set in 1935 so it is easy for me. :)

mooderino said...

@Maria-the silent movie thing is proving very popular. I should copyright it and put it in a book.

@Annalisa-bear in mind it will have greater impact if it reveals something about the kind of person she is.


@Jane-must be difficult having to describe everyhting in black and white.

Paula Martin said...

Useful tips, I like the idea of viewing the scene as a silent movie.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I need to work on this. In my sequel, the betas told me that some areas of conversation dragged. I got to thinking, how can I up this scene? So I'll be looking at doing that this summer.

sulekkha said...

Some great tips for writing great fiction here, I loved the one about actions revealing character. Enjoyed reading your post.

Chris Fries said...

Excellent suggestions!

Great blog and wonderful H-entry in the A-to-Z!

Sonia Lal said...

Oh. Yeah a different time zone does explain it.

Sarah Pearson said...

The 'silent movie' tip in particular is an excellent one, thank you.

Hektor Karl said...

"raising curiosity by implying there’s a secret to be learnt is a difficult thing to get right,"

So true. Often people mistake this withholding of information for plotting, which then worsens the situation.

Debra Harris-Johnson said...

Good post. Very true for characterazation.

mooderino said...

@Paula-gald you found it useful.

@michael-good luck with book 2.


@chris-thanks very much.

@Sonia-hello from the future!

@Sarah-apparently so.

@Hektor-it's also very hard to convince someone they're not doing it right. You sort of have to figure it out for yourself.


Stacy Jensen said...

Great tips. Looks like I've missed some fun posts so far this month. I'm making my way through the list.

Buffy Armstrong said...

I'm starting a big revision project at the end of the month. This post will come in handy. Thanks!

Margo Berendsen said...

This is VERY helpful post - off to tweet it and add it to my writing tips list. I love the Silent Movie suggestion, but they are all excellent tips.

mooderino said...

@Stacy-never too latet to join the party.

@Buffy-you're welcome.


Anonymous said...

Great tips, I'll be sure to use those going forward; I know they'll help me.
Thanks for posting!

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Laneshia Moore said...

Thanks for the tips! Very useful!

Anonymous said...

I love advice like this: come at a scene from a new perspective, tweak a little and find that it becomes so much more compelling, even when the 'action' may be limited or internal

mooderino said...

@ruthwords - thanks, glad you found it useful.

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