Monday 16 December 2013

The Best Way To Improve Your Writing


There’s only so much you can get out of preparation. 

If you want to teach someone to swim there’s certainly no harm in explaining the basics to them and giving them an idea of what to expect, but when it comes down to it there’s no substitute for getting in the water.

In fact, explaining nothing and giving them a shove is often the best method. Certainly the quickest.

Will they panic and flail around making things worse? Most likely, yes. But they’ll figure it out. They won’t drown (even if it feels like they’re going to). 

With writing—and pretty much everything else—preparation only gets you to the edge of the swimming pool. The rest you can only learn by diving in.

Monday 9 December 2013

The Logic of Illogical Characters


It is often suggested that when writing fiction you don’t want to tell your audience the answer is 4, you want to put 2 and 2 in front of them and let them work it out.

This is a powerful way of getting them involved in the story. If they’re putting things together in their head then they’re participating in the narrative, which is what you want.

But the way logic works once people are involved is not always the same as it works in mathematics.

Sometimes 2+2=5, and when you put that in front of your audience they will want to know what the hell you mean and demand an explanation. And there’s nobody more involved than someone wanting answers.

Monday 2 December 2013

Using Deadlines To Get That Story Finished


If you happen to be feeling very motivated and enthusiastic about your story, then sitting down and writing it isn’t going to be a problem. 

When you’re writing as fast as you can and all synapses are firing you really don’t need any particular structure or technique to your process. You write until you can’t write anymore, and then you get up the next day and do it again.

In a perfect world with plenty of free time and no distractions there would be no excuse for not getting those words onto the page. But things don’t always work out that way and most of us find plenty of reasons to give up and watch TV instead.

One method you might find useful if, like me, you’re not always delighted by the prospect of sitting at the computer with no end in sight, is to set yourself deadlines. Not just one, but many. 

Monday 25 November 2013

Consideration Of Theme In Story


When someone asks you what the theme of your story is, it can be a hard question to answer. This doesn’t mean your story doesn't have one, it just isn't overt, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, theme isn’t something you want front and centre.
That is, the reader doesn’t need to know from the outset what themes you’re going to be looking at. And even if by the end they can’t really put their finger on exactly what the overarching theme was, they just have a feeling that they can’t quite put into words, that’s fine. In many ways that sort of response is preferable to being too obvious or predictable.

However, for the writer, it’s important to know how theme is created, how you can shape it and what the mechanics are. 

Monday 18 November 2013

A Good Liar Makes A Good Writer


Stories are filled with unlikely occurrences. It’s hard to avoid unless you’re writing about very mundane events. But no matter how fantastical things get, and how willing the reader is to suspend their disbelief, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make what’s happening on the page feel believable.

And there are plenty of attributes of the good liar that can prove useful in doing this.

A lot of which comes down to not what you say but how you say it.

Monday 11 November 2013

Putting Ideas In The Reader’s Head


If Jack and Diane were about to have a baby so they bought loads of baby clothes, but then Diane suffered a miscarriage and was no longer able to have children and they ended up selling all the baby stuff, that would make for a sad story most people would sympathise with.

But if I put the story in this form: 

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn. 

...the impact of what happened is much sharper.

The difference, other than the impressive brevity, is that in Hemingway’s famous six word story, the realisation of what happened occurs in the reader’s mind.

Even though there are no details and no specifics, the part of the brain that puts two and two together and comes up with four adds that feeling of accomplishment to the emotion being expressed, magnifying it.

In short, if you can get the reader to work out the cause of what characters are feeling, then they are much more likely to share that feeling.

It is, of course, far easier to just tell the reader what’s going on. If the subject matter is an emotive one (like dead babies) then they’re still going to have some kind of emotional reaction. But we are so used to things unfolding in predictable patterns that we often become detached and distanced from what we are being told. We see it coming and we’re able to ease past it.

It’s the way we interact with each other. Most of the time we know what someone’s saying before they’ve finished saying it; and we’re already planning our reply. We’re very good at it because we get a lot of practice and nine times out of ten we guess right. But when things don’t turn out the way we expected it pulls us out of the noise and hubbub of everyday life and we pay attention to what’s being said—Wait, what did you say?—and then you’re much more likely to react on a deeper level.

In term of story, the emotional parts where characters are facing difficult situations and choices often get treated in a simple and straightforward manner because the subject matter speaks for itself. If Amy is going to have an abortion, the situation is already so infused with meaning and preconceptions that it may seem pointless to add anything. And if you do it can end up feeling heavy-handed or clunky.

You may think leaving it to the reader to form their own opinions is part of good storytelling, but there are few writers who write to encourage people to keep thinking whatever they want to think.

In most cases, the writer has set out a sequence of events to elicit certain reactions. Not necessarily to push a particular political agenda (although that can certainly be a possibility), it can just be to have the reader root for this character against that character, have them hope A falls in love with B or be on board with the idea that aliens ruling over us isn’t acceptable.

These are things the writer wants to happen, not just by chance but by design.

You can hope the reader falls in line with your way of thinking, and some probably will, or you can lead them to where you want them to go. Without them realising it.

Kind of sneaky, but pretty much the basis of all good fiction.

For example: 

Amy turned up at the clinic exactly on time. She didn’t want to have to wait around, thinking about how painful the procedure was going to be. But it was over very quickly and she didn’t feel a thing, not for many years. 

A little bit of wordplay to wrongfoot the reader and it stops being about my views on abortion, or even yours. Instead, you’re focused on Amy’s experience. You can still make a judgment on what happens and how she handles it, but for that moment when it isn’t clear what was said and then all of a sudden it is, everything else is removed from the equation and you get a pure blast of the here and now. This is what happened to Amy.

When you get the brain working on putting the pieces in place, even if it’s fairly obvious where they go, there’s less room for distraction, opinions and daydreaming. You fix the reader’s mind on those words on the page.

That’s the power of coming at things from an unexpected direction. Not to be vague or mysterious, or to try and drum up curiosity, but to lift the moment out of the narrative stream we’re so used to and give it the reader’s full attention, even if only for an instant.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers, you.

Monday 4 November 2013

Writers Write, Right?

Generally speaking, starting writing isn’t the problem. If you’re up for it then getting words on the page isn’t that hard. At first.

Enthusiasm, motivation, belief in your ideas — these things tend to be in abundant supply at the beginning.

Two weeks later, though, things may have changed. It’s all very well sitting down with the right intentions, but what do you do when all that drive you had goes missing?

Monday 28 October 2013

Writing The Spooky Scene


We’ve all read stories where we get a weird creepy feeling even though not much is happening on the page. No monsters jumping out, maybe just someone hears a noise, sees something out of the corner of their eye and it’s enough to give you the willies.

But when you try to write a scene full of psychological horror it’s not as simple as putting the character in a spooky environment and letting the reader’s imagination do the rest.

Monday 21 October 2013

Modern Storytelling


Predictability stems from familiarity. You know what’s coming next before because you’ve seen it before and you know where it’s going.

But familiarity is also a basic part of storytelling.

Good versus evil, boy meets girl, monsters in the dark — these sorts of stories have been told in one form or another since we developed the ability to communicate.

So, how do we write stories that satisfy our need for certain types of narratives, and at the same time make them seem fresh and original?

Monday 14 October 2013

Strong Character Is Strong?


In fiction, characters who show themselves to be strong are considered to be appealing to readers. But what exactly counts as strength and what doesn’t?

When it comes to female character this is an especially contentious subject, the main criticism being that “strong women” in books and movies are often just aping what a man would do.

Violent, aggressive, uncompromising, these are all seen as male traits.

But the thing that make a strong character strong, and makes for a weak character when absent, is the same for males and females. And it has little to do with how badass someone is.

Monday 7 October 2013

A Nice, Ripe Story Idea


Sometimes a story idea comes fully formed, or at least with enough detail of where it needs to go that you can’t wait to get writing.

Other times a character or a setting makes a strong enough impression on your imagination that you feel like you have the starting point of a story, but beyond that you have no clear indication of where to take it.

If you start writing with not much more than the germ of an idea it might work out, inspiration might strike when you need it—some writers indeed are only able to work in this fashion—but most people will struggle to fill three hundred pages off the back of a vague notion, even when that notion is full of potential. And there’s nothing worse than getting a hundred pages in and realising you’ve run out of steam.

So, how can you fatten up your idea, getting it into the kind of condition that means the ideas will lead you one to the next, rather than you having to force yourself to strain your brain to come up with stuff?

Monday 30 September 2013

Inside Inner Conflict


A character who knows exactly what to do and is happy to do it makes for little in the way of tension and drama.

Giving a character emotional and ethical issues to wrestle with adds depth both to the character and the story.

When dealing with the struggle that goes on inside a character there are three main areas to consider:

1. The difference between inner conflict and plain old dithering.

2. Demonstrating to the reader what’s going on inside a character’s head without resorting to endless inner monologues.

3. How do you make internal conflict as interesting and entertaining as external conflict?

I’m going to look at each of these in turn, hopefully suggesting some useful techniques for making the most of this element of storytelling.

Monday 23 September 2013

Multi-Dimensional Character Building


We all want to write characters that have depth and complexity. We want them to feel like real people who struggle with decisions and choices, and we want the reader to be curious about what path they’ll take.

The problem is that if you give characters all the reactions and moods of a real person, they can turn into a confusing muddle of contradictions.

Conversely, if you try to streamline a character’s motivations and goals in an attempt to create a strong throughline which the reader can clearly identify and follow, that can make the character seem one-dimensional and robotic.

How, then, do you make a character feel fully formed and yet at the same time easy to engage with? 

Monday 16 September 2013

The Exaggeration of Story


Once upon a time there used to be small bookshops on every street corner, run by helpful, wizened booksellers full of advice and oak shelves piled high with leatherbound tomes.

We have to fight to make sure Mr Barnes and Mr Noble and all those other those sweet, cardigan-wrapped, bespectacled and wild-haired book pedlars don’t end up penniless and destitute, right?

Hardly. The kind of rhetoric you hear in defence of the poor booksellers being steamrollered by Amazon is pretty much the same as the rhetoric back in the 90s when those same booksellers (Borders, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble) were crushing their smaller counterparts with huge book superstores.

But the down on his luck little guy makes for a much more compelling argument.

Which is a lesson all storytellers can learn from. If you want to make a point strongly, if you want characters to be memorable and for the stakes to feel high, there is one simple way to do it: exaggerate.

Thursday 12 September 2013

How to Learn Story Structure Without Even Trying


Guest post by K.M. Weiland (@kmweiland): 

Here’s a secret about story structure that you may not have realized: You already know it. 

Many authors are intimidated by the mere thought of structure. As if writing isn’t already enough of a juggling act, now we’re expected to also make certain our plot fits into some nebulous framework. It can be daunting, to say the least.

But here’s the great thing about structure: it’s neither nebulous nor difficult to learn. 

Monday 9 September 2013

Make Readers Appreciate The Wait

Keeping things from the reader is an important part of storytelling. They should read the book wanting to know what’s going on, who’s behind it all and where the story will end up. If everything’s clear from the outset it becomes predictable and boring.

Suspense and tension are created by selectively feeding information to the reader and leaving some facts out.

When done right it makes for an exciting and engaging experience.

When done wrong it can be confusing and tedious.

Deciding how much to reveal and when to do it is a tricky thing to get right. Here are some techniques you can use to help ensure the reader doesn’t lose interest while you dangle bits of info in front of them.

Monday 2 September 2013

Bad Characters Do Bad Things

A well-written villain can make all the difference in a story, but does that mean a complex portrayal of a character who believes in what they’re doing just as much as the hero? Or does it mean a guy with a black hat who’s a horrible bastard?

Intellectually we would probably all claim to prefer the antagonist with depth, but in reality people don’t particularly want their villains to be assorted shades of grey.

The idea of a specific, clearly defined baddie is very appealing. Seeing them get their comeuppance creates a sense of great satisfaction. The more uncompromising the depiction of them as evil, the easier it is to enjoy their downfall or even their death.

Monday 26 August 2013

Female Characters in Fictional Roles


In 1985, Alison Bechdel wrote a comic strip in which a character stated that she would only go see a movie if the following criteria were met:

1. It has to have at least two women in it

2. who talk to each other

3. about something other than a man.

The joke being that because of these rules she hadn’t been to the cinema since 1979.

The comic came and went, but these three rules stuck around and became known as the Bechdel Test. Its appeal comes from its simplicity and its stark illustration of just how poorly women are depicted in mainstream entertainment.

This is particularly apparent in Holllywood movies, but also in television shows and books. Once you start thinking about it, it’s quite staggering how many fictional representations of humanity as a culture fail to meet these rather basic requirements. 

And it’s as true now as it was 30 years ago.

Monday 19 August 2013

Conflicted Characters In Conflict

Drama is conflict. Smooth sailing doesn’t make for much of a story. Things have to go wrong.

The main character has to be involved in these conflicts. It can’t just happen to her, she must make decisions and choices that affect the story. A character who waits, observes, runs away or takes the easiest way out is much, much harder to make interesting. They are in effect avoiding the telling of their own story.

But as well as choosing which path to take and then seeing what happens next, the actual choosing is also part of the story. Why this option? What are the important factors that led to the decision? Which risks are worth taking and which aren’t?

Giving an indication of these things not only immerses the reader deeper in the story, it also gives them a better idea of who the character is and what they’re capable of.

And while you need to make sure there’s enough at stake or a sense of urgency so the character can’t avoid taking action, contriving events too such an extent that there’s only one option available won’t help characters reveal themselves.

If there’s only one thing to be done, then anyone would do the same thing, and that takes away the opportunity to learn about this character, something that’s very valuable early on in a story.

Of course, how they go about achieving their goal will vary from character to character, but that’s something that will become apparent over the course of the narrative. You also need to connect the reader and character early on so they want to know more about this person.

Providing a number of options and showing which this character chooses is a quick way to give the reader an early peek into a character.

Having a lot of options that are either impossible or too easy won’t add any interest. They have to be viable options and they need to have consequences. Choosing to go left or right at the crossroads is arbitrary. Choosing left through the crocodile swamp or right through the river full of piranhas is a much more interesting choice.

But there’s more to these sorts of decisions than flipping a coin.

Why choose one over the other? What’s the thought process? What are the precautions and preparation? These are the things that make the approach to the action as engaging as the action itself.

Once the decision is made and we understand why one path is selected over another, then the next step is to take that path and for it to lead to disaster.

This isn’t always going to be the case, but most of the time the way to get the most out of a situation that has obvious risks attached is for the worst outcome to come true. Because this requires character to act.

If the character goes through the swamp with crocodiles and luckily avoids any of them, that won’t be a very exciting story. That doesn’t mean they should head into the swamp and then get attacked and then fight their way across. First, how do they plan to get through the swamp?

If, for example, they decide to disguise a canoe to look like a crocodile and then cunningly float through the swamp, you can see the plan, and also get an idea of the mindset of the people involved. And to get the most out of it, they can’t just succeed.  So maybe an amorous croc decides to fall for the canoe and mount it in loving fashion...

The point is the plan should be specific to the character’s way of thinking, and the way it goes wrong should be specific to the plan.

A character’s struggle with which way to go will link directly to how they react when it goes wrong. The fact they knew things could go wrong and went for it anyway will make them more likeable. Their plan to overcome the obstacles will give the reader something to root for. When things go wrong they will get our sympathy. When they get in trouble but find a way to keep going, they will win our admiration.

All these things are linked and they start with a character who is conflicted about what to do.

This can work for any situation. You can take any choice and make it harder (by making the consequences clearer).

Showing the problems the character has with each option, and then why they choose to do what they do will help show the kind of person they are when facing trouble. Having things go wrong will show what kind of person they are in a crisis.

Let’s say Mary discovers her sister’s husband is a professional thief responsible for a bank robbery where people died. What does she do?

If she goes to police, the sister and her kids will be left without anyone to take care of them. The sister probably won’t thank her for it. If she keeps quiet, more people could die.

The question at this point is what kind of person is Mary? Is she shy and not the type to get involved in other people’s business? Or is she mouthy and always sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong?

If she’s the mouthy type, and she’s going to get involved, how is that a difficult decision for her? If she isn’t conflicted about the choice she has to make, it won’t feel like a big deal.

In this sort of situation where it feels like the path is obvious and that it will eventually lead to dramatic stuff, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how dramatic it is right now.

Mary's the type who wants to say something, that much is clear, but how can you make what she does less predictable?

If she goes to the sister to warn her and discovers that she already knows and is fine with it, then what?

But what if she sees the brother-in-law slap her sister around?

But what if the kids will get taken away if the law gets involved?

You can always find a way to make the right thing to do less clear cut.

It may seem more attractive from a writing point of view to keep things simple so you always know the next step for a character, but then so will the reader. When a character has good reason to pause for thought, what they decide to do next will be worth waiting for.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


PSD to Blogger Templates realized by & PSD Theme designed by