Monday 27 February 2012

A Near-Miss Is Not A Story

One of the main tenets of drama is conflict. In real life getting what you want without fuss or bother is seen as a win. In fiction, it’s a loss (for the reader).

A common approach in stories by aspiring writers is the near-miss. This is where a character is faced by a problem, one that they know is coming, so they take steps to be ready for it. The build-up is all there. And then the problem disappears. Either they were mistaken, or they weren’t discovered, or a distraction pulled the bad guys away.  Something enables the character to avoid conflict. 

Whatever the reason for doing this, the effect on the reader is pretty much always the same: disappointment.

Thursday 23 February 2012

You Don't Put The Punchline First


 A joke consists of two parts: the set up and the punchline.

However, one part is all flash and laughs and attention grabbing, and the other does the more mundane, ordinary stuff.  So, if you want to grab the audience by the throat straight away, show them you mean business, you should start with the punchline, right?

Nonsensical as that is, it’s pretty much the standard advice most aspiring writers get. And it’s just as wrong in fiction as it is in joke-telling.

Monday 20 February 2012

Readers Love A Surprise

This isn’t about the big twist ending or amazing revelations (Wait, she’s a guy!), although people love those too. This is about keeping the reader from finding a story predictable and obvious.

Any story where characters do unexpected things, solve a problem in a way you never would have guessed, or make decisions that solve the unsolvable, will hook the reader. But at the same time they will lose interest if things get too random or unlikely.

Thursday 16 February 2012

No Drama


At the heart of any dramatic story is someone who want something.

Makes no difference if it’s  a big action thriller, or a slice of life literary piece, somebody somewhere needs to be jonesing for what they haven’t got.

The actual thing they want doesn’t have to be of a particular size or type, but generally speaking, the more they want it, the better.

But wanting isn’t enough. You have to take into account why they want it, and what they’re prepared to do about it.

Monday 13 February 2012

Condition Of Your Transition


The simplest kind of story is where the goal of the main character is clear and all-encompassing. He has nothing else to distract him, at least not for very long. It’s all about the thing

This kind of story is usually a genre piece, a crime, a romance, a mystery, something like that is driving the MC, and their emotional state is pretty easy to work out.

However, not all stories are that single-minded. Often a character will switch moods, or have more than one thing to deal with. And when they switch, whether because of time passing, or having to deal with different people, the writer has to transition the reader from one mind-set to another.

This is a good thing, even the most engaging stories can become monotonous if there’s no variation in tone. But if you just go from one emotional state to another without due care, it can be very jarring for the reader.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Story Arranging


A story is just a matter of revealing information to someone who doesn’t have that information. What can make the difference between a good story and a not so good one, is the order in which you reveal that information.

A bunch of information on the page will, by definition, be informative. But nobody wants to read an informative story, unless it’s in a newspaper. What people want from fiction is to read something that’s dramatic. 

That doesn’t mean you need to fill it with D-RAMA! It means you have to have an understanding of what turns information about events and characters into an engaging and arresting situation.

Monday 6 February 2012

Writing and the Ugly Duck Syndrome


When somebody tells you what you’ve written doesn’t work (for whatever reason), that doesn’t mean you should rip it up and throw it away. It can be easier to think of writing as an all or nothing process, since the horrendous idea of having to rewrite everything is often a really good way to convince yourself to do nothing.

But something that doesn’t work doesn’t have to be removed or recreated from scratch, it just has to be improved. That goes for any kind of writing, whether it’s central to the plot, or a minor subplot, or backstory, or exposition. 

Things that may seem vital to the integrity of your idea, key to the development of the narrative, or the very reason you wrote the story in the first place, never are. Nothing in your story can’t be reworked in a way that does whatever you want it to do, and does it better.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Chapter One: The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a debut novel from 2011. It is one of those books that publishers decide will be culture-changing and so market the hell out of it. Most reviews praise the ideas and imagery of the first 150 pages or so, and criticise the story and plotting from there to the end.

Luckily, that is of no consequence here. We shall be looking at the (rather short) first chapter to see how Miss Morgenstern uses it to grab the reader’s attention, which she certainly does (even if later she loses her grip).

The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theatre office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.
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