Monday, 30 January 2012

What Do You Love About Your Dialogue?

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The general advice about writing dialogue tends to follow the same basic precepts. Conflict, goals, move the plot forward, don’t waste time with chit-chat, etc. That is certainly all useful stuff and will help keep the story moving.

But there’s more to dialogue than just getting across information.

People loves great dialogue. In books, in plays, in movies. In real life. Sparkling conversation holds the attention, even when it has nothing to do with anything. People like hearing it. It’s enjoyable to read. But it’s very difficult to write.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

What Do You Love About Your Characters?

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When it comes down to it, it’s the people in stories that stay with the reader. You may be impressed and delighted by a plot twist or a surprise ending, but that’s not what you’ll remember years later. It’s the characters that will stay with you.

Some fictional characters resonate strongly with people. They stand out as remarkable. You want to know more about them. You want to read more books about them. You want to see the movie when it comes out. Why? What is it that makes a character stand out? And more importantly, how does anyone meeting your character for the first time know how wonderful they are?

Monday, 23 January 2012

What Do You Love About Your Story?

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When you first come up with an idea for a story, you don’t have to think too hard about what it is you like about the story. Something catches your interest. One idea follows another and you’re off and running.

Later, when you’re deep in the belly of the beast, maybe stuck in the middle of the first draft, or struggling with the umpteenth rewrite, the very point of writing as a use of your time comes into question. You liked the idea as an idea, but this sprawling mess in front of you doesn’t seem to be that thing at all.

Why are you even bothering? Who is going to read this? Aren’t there already a thousand stories like this? What’s on TV?

You have to be able to hold onto the thing that made you want to write this particular story. When the going gets tough (and it will) you need that thing to get you through. But first you need to work out what thing is.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Writing Without Too Much On The Nose

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Story shouldn’t be obvious or predictable. Nobody enjoys being told about things that just happen in a nice convenient fashion, no matter how realistic and lifelike it might be. Don’t write on-the-nose.

On the other hand, story shouldn’t be vague or obtuse. Nobody enjoys being confused or bored, no matter how brilliantly the baffling events of Chapter One are explained in Chapter Sixteen. Don’t write wishy-washy.

Don’t be obvious. Don’t be vague. So what does that leave?

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Joys of Rewriting

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There are some people who love getting an idea down on paper, and that’s it, they’re done. The concept of going over it again and again is anathema to them. Nothing could seem more tedious and uncreative. But there's no writing without rewriting.

There are times when things come out fully formed. A short story. A poem. A sketch. A little ditty. But if you want to create a substantial piece of work, in any of the arts, you have to be ready to get down and dirty, and really work it.

This is true of all works of art. They all require slow, tedious, laborious effort. There’s a romantic idea of creativity, mostly from movies, that an artist creates spontaneously and at great speed. The writer bashes away at the old typewriter. The painter sloshes the paint on the canvas. The composer wakes inspired by a melody heard in a dream. 

Fast cuts and a driving musical score produce a montage sequence that makes it all look like so much fun. Sadly, that's not how it is in the real world.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Improvising Is More Than Making Things Up As You Go Along

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If I told you to go up in front of an audience and speak for two minutes about something off the top of your head, and make it interesting, could you?

What if I said the same thing, but this time added the proviso that you can’t use the word ‘the’?

A strange thing will happen as you struggle to get the words out without breaking my arbitrary rule. The audience, even though they don’t know why you’re speaking so weirdly, will recognise that you are struggling against something and it will catch their interest.

And an even stranger thing happens if I let the audience in on what it is you’re trying to do. They will join in the game with you, laughing at your weird story, going ooh when you nearly make a mistake.

The point is, when you are struggling against an obstacle, what you do to get round that obstacle becomes interesting. The same action with no obstacle takes a lot more effort to get the same result.

Difficulty stimulates the brain to be more creative. And difficulty is what makes improvisation engaging.

Monday, 9 January 2012

You Already Have The Answer

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Everyone has a natural facility for telling stories. It is part of our ability to communicate. When we instinctively tell someone else about something we consider interesting, we edit, fill in background details, provide backstory, even embellish—all without thinking twice.

When we start writing these things down, things aren’t quite so easy. Without the natural rhythms and purpose of spoken language—and the interaction of another person asking for more detail when they need it—we can freeze up and start doubting the value of what’s on the page. Which is often when we turn to books for guidance and instruction, and even reassurance.

The thing is, the basic structure of story is pretty similar in every book on craft. There may be variations on a theme, but generally all the advice is pretty much of a muchness. And if you have written a story you’re trying to fix up, and you go over it armed with the Indomitable Hero Flow Chart, or the 22-step Brain Map, or whatever method your favourite new book has revealed to you, what you will tend to find is that most of the things they say you need for a good story, you already have.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Inside A Story Part 2: The Hunger Games

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In part one of this post I discussed various techniques to keep each moment of a story interesting in and of itself. In particular, how a story is made up of a bunch of much smaller stories that keep the reader engaged as the bigger story is slowly rolled out. In today’s post I will use the first chapter of The Hunger Games to demonstrate what I mean (I get so many search hits for HG based on the one post I did mentioning it, that I thought I might as well give those people another article to read). There will be spoilers.

Chapter One introduces the MC, explains what The Hunger Games are, and ends with Katniss not getting selected—her sister is chosen instead. 

There is a lot of backstory and exposition and the key development is Prim’s selection, but a lot of other stuff is also going on during this chapter. I’m going to look at the moments in each sequence of scenes to see how the author manages to keep interest high, even when she’s being very digressive.

These techniques can help you energise quieter moments and also make backstory and exposition enjoyable to read.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Inside A Story, Lots Of Little Stories

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Let’s say in this chapter I’m writing Jurgen discovers he is the father of ex-girlfriend Maria’s teenage son. That revelation at the end of the chapter is dramatic and emotional and vital to the rest of the story. 

Let’s say the rough outline of this chapter is Jurgen bumps into Maria out shopping, he offers her a lift home, she invites him in for coffee, he sees a photo of the kid and there’s no mistaking the resemblance. Cue major drama.

It’s very easy to consider the reveal a big enough deal that everything else before it becomes very direct and simple. They bump into each other, say hellos, polite chatting, an offer of a lift etc. The big dramatic moment coming up is so omnipresent for the writer that everything else seems to take on added meaning. However, for the reader, that isn’t true. 

A series of bland, mundane events in the life of two people will read just like what it is. When the moment of realisation comes for Jurgen, its meaning and implication will be clear, but the experience of getting to that point won’t be a particularly enjoyable one.

Not every scene is going to be a high-octane ride where the momentum keeps the reader glued to the page. Some scenes need to set stuff up, slow things down, and even portray normal life. So how do you do that without boring the reader to tears?
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