Monday 29 December 2014

Repost: How To Find Your Writing Muse


If you’re lying awake in bed, and you look over at your sleeping partner with their tongue hanging out, snoring, making odd farty noises, and your heart starts beating faster and you think, “Of course! What a brilliant idea for a horror story,” then congratulations, you have a genuine muse on your hands.

Sadly, that’s not the case for everyone. Having someone who can inspire great ideas and put thoughts in your head that lead to marvellous stories is something we would all love, but the muse as an independent being who feeds out creativity is a rare and unreliable creation.

So where can you go for a refill when your well runs dry?

Monday 22 December 2014

Repost: Draft Zero: Where Writing Begins


Whether you’re a dedicated outliner or you wing it with no idea where your story might take you, the first complete draft you produce will have problems.

A lot of the time you will know a section isn't working before you even reach the end of the paragraph. Just not good enough. 

You can stop and fret and worry about how to make it better, or you can keep going.

Monday 15 December 2014

Repost: Let Characters Be Wrong


Nobody likes a perfect character. Someone who is super good at everything and gets everything right is annoying. 

Even the most suave secret agents of indestructible superheroes need to make mistakes in order to make the story interesting.  

There are two parts to using wrongness in a story. There’s the actual mistake (which sometimes isn’t known to be a mistake at the time), and there’s the consequences of the mistake, usually forcing the character to deal with powerful feeling of guilt or regret.

Monday 8 December 2014

Repost: The Reversal


The Reversal is a technique when things appear to be going one way, but they end up going another. It helps stories avoid being predictable and you can use it to subvert clichés. It also pulls the reader deeper into the story.

In its most familiar form a reversal is a plot twist, usually big and important. You thought the murderer was Dave, everything pointed to it being Dave. But it was BILL!

What you can do though is use it in a more simple, subtle form, to keep a reader engaged and wondering what will happen next. This is especially useful in genre fiction where readers who are familiar with the form start guessing what happens next and rapidly lose interest.

Monday 1 December 2014

Words, The More The Muddier


Taking a seasonal break, in the meantime here's one from the vault first posted in October 2012. See you in the New Year.
The idea that the more words used the clearer the meaning becomes is one that trips up a lot of writers.

Not that additional details are always a bad thing, but the ‘a little more information couldn’t hurt’ approach is very definitely wrong. It can very much hurt.

If I want to visit you then there is a minimum amount of info (street and house number), and an optimum amount (best route, which exit to take) that I need. And then there’s an excessive amount (the name of your neighbour’s dog).

On the other hand, what difference does it make if you mention the neighbour’s dog? It’s not going to make the address harder to find.

Monday 24 November 2014

The Parts Readers Tend to Skip


One of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing was “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Excellent advice that makes very good sense, only exactly which parts are those?

On the surface it would seem obvious—the boring stuff, the longwinded explanations and unnecessary interludes, right? We all know what he meant. But when it comes to recognising the skip-worthy in our own stories it’s never quite so clear cut.

Scenes that are really going nowhere and have no purpose being in the story aren’t too hard to spot, but the bits that are just bland or that we’ve convinced ourselves have to be there for the story to make sense, they can slip through draft after draft.

So how do you spot the skippable parts and skip them before the reader gets a chance to?

Monday 17 November 2014

The One Piece of Writing Advice

There is a lot of advice out there for writers. Rules, guidelines, tips. Most of it has some merit, but if you were to follow every little suggestion it would be very constricting and frankly would rob you of a lot of the fun of writing.

But if you were only willing to follow one piece of advice, what would it be? Is there one piece of advice that trumps all others?

The sensible and reasonable answer is that it depends. It depends on what kind of writer you are, what your personal strength and weaknesses happen to be, what your goals are. Each writer is different, each writer may require a different blah, blah, blah. 

And that is all very true, but putting all sense and reason to one side, I say yes, there is one piece of advice which if you follow, ignoring all others, will still improve your writing immeasurably (or measurably if you happen to be particularly adept at measuring things).

Monday 10 November 2014

Kids, Impress Your English Teacher!


My 10 year old nephew asked me if I knew of a book that taught kids how to write a story. It would be nice if this was because he already wanted to be a writer, but my nephew has no love for writing. He enjoys reading and watching movies, but when it comes to writing something himself, he’d much rather stick his face in an iPad (for several hours).

However, his English teacher keeps giving him story-writing assignments, which he finds a chore. In addition to which, there are other kids in his class who can spit out a story rat-a-tat-tat

He would also like to be able to write a good story quickly and without having to spend ages staring at a wall. 

I’m not aware of any “how to write fiction” books specifically aimed at children. So, instead, I sat him down and attempted to walk him through the basics of what makes a story a story by having him come up with something on the spot.

Monday 3 November 2014

What Is Your Story Missing?


Let’s say you’re familiar with most of the basic guidelines when it comes to writing fiction. You know none of these suggestions guarantees a good story, but you try to apply them as much as possible. Can’t hurt right?

So you have a sympathetic main character with a clear goal, obstacles in the way, high stakes, an action-packed opening, a minimum of adverbs, active characters and you keep it all moving at a breakneck pace.

But when you show this tightly constructed thrill-ride to people whose judgement you trust, you don’t get the reaction you were hoping for. They don’t hate it, in fact they have lots of nice things to say about it, but it just doesn’t grab them.

They like the genre, have no problem understanding what happens and why, and certainly there are bestselling books out there with similar premises and characters so this sort of story definitely can work, and yet... it just doesn’t.

What is the missing ingredient? And what’s the best way to make sure it isn’t missing from your story?

Monday 27 October 2014

Romancing the Reader

If you write a book what you would like is for the reader to fallen hopelessly in love with your characters and their adventures. Ideally they should be smitten the moment they read the title or catch a glimpse of the book cover.

As a reader, this has probably happened to you at some point. The thing you’re looking for and the thing you find intersect in a wonderful manner and you feel like the universe is tilting in your direction. Hurray!

However, forcing someone to fall in love at first sight is as impossible with books as it is in real life. It happens when it happens and, unless you’re a master hypnotist with no scruples, beyond the control of mere mortals.

But a love affair doesn’t always require an aligning of the stars and planets. Sometimes people take a little time to come around, sometimes they rush in and regret it later. And our relationships with books are no different.

Monday 20 October 2014

Do Spoilers Spoil Stories?


No one likes the surprise to be ruined, whether it’s a book, a movie or a birthday present. Even if the reveal isn’t all that great it’s still annoying if someone blurts it out before you get to see for yourself.

But the truth is finding the solution to the puzzle isn’t what makes a story work. The identity of the murderer isn’t the reason you feel satisfied when you turn the last page. Discovering the fate of the lovers isn’t going to transform a terrible book into a worthwhile one.

We often reread books and rewatch movies and enjoy them knowing full well what’s going to happen. In fact we often know how a story is going to end even the first time round. When you read book four of a seventeen book series, exactly how much danger do you think the hero can get into, seeing as he has at least another 13 adventures to endure?

But isn’t “what happens next?’ the driving force behind getting the reader to turn pages? And if it isn’t, why do spoilers annoy us so much when we can happily revisit stories for the umpteenth time? 

Monday 13 October 2014

The Problems of First Person Narrative

There are many articles about which is better when writing fiction, 1st or 3rd person. And most of the time they end up making quite generic points and then put the decision back in the hands of the writer without any real reason to choose one over the other.

The two main points tend to be: 1) Both can be made to work if handled appropriately (which, frankly, could be said about anything) and 2) 1st is trickier to get right than 3rd

Which is true, yet most first time writers are drawn to 1st person, while the majority of published books are written in 3rd. So why is it trickier to writer in first person? And how can you overcome these difficulties?

Monday 6 October 2014

Different Rules for Different Writers


Readers do not treat all writers the same. This may seem obvious but a reader does not approach the latest best-seller from a well-known author with the same mind-set as they would a writer who has no track record. This means well-known authors tend not to be held to the same standards as someone trying to get people to read novel number one.

Not that those standards are necessarily better or worse, they’re just not the same.

However, much of what we think of as good writing and good storytelling comes from the books we read. And most of these books are from the established authors we all know and admire.

But if they can write in a way that less experienced writers might not be able to get away with, is it worth using these authors as role models? And exactly what, if anything, can we learn from them?

Monday 29 September 2014

Story Structure: Pity, Fear, Catharsis


More than 2000 years ago Aristotle deconstructed drama in his Poetics. I only just came across it (well, the abridged version), but better late than never.

His ideas on what makes a good story boil down to pity, fear and catharsis, which more or less constitutes beginning, middle and end.

Greek notions of theatre back in the day weren’t exactly varied (I believe they only had three television stations—primitive times) but I think his core ideas still hold true today.

Monday 22 September 2014

How to Unstuck a Story


At some point we have all reached some kind of impasse when writing a story. It might be a specific problem the character finds himself facing which you can’t figure out how to resolve, or it could be a more general structural issue and you’re not sure what should happen next.

Both of these types of problems can be sorted out with a little patience and a moment of inspiration. You think and think and think and then the answer comes to you. Usually. Sometimes, however, the answer does not come. Everything you come up with seems not quite right.

When this happens you should remember two things. First, no matter how unsolvable your problem may seem your brain has the capacity to solve it. You know this from experience, from all the times you’ve been in this position before (whether in writing or in real life) and you have that eureka moment and you know exactly what to do.

And secondly, just because your brain can give you the answer doesn’t mean it will. It’s one of those inexplicable evolutionary traits that don’t really makes sense. Sometimes your brain just doesn’t want to help you and needs to be poked with a stick. Well, here are some sticks to give it a little push in the right direction.

Monday 15 September 2014

Where to Start Your Story (Exactly)


There are basically two ways you can start a story. You can have all guns blazing action or you can establish the ordinary world of the character before things change.

Both approaches have their pros and cons and a lot of it depends on various factors to do with your story and what you consider to be right for you as a writer. But the problem comes when you show your first chapter to someone else and they don’t react in the way you’d hoped, making you lose confidence in what you had thought to be quite a good scene that set things up nicely.

Questions arise such as maybe the other approach would be better for this story, for this genre, for you as a writer. But the truth is these are the wrong questions. So if the start of your story isn’t attracting the kind of response you want, what are the questions you should be asking yourself?

Monday 8 September 2014

When A Scene Isn’t Working


There comes a time when you have to face facts. You’ve tried to convince yourself that scene where your main character goes back to her old house and stares at it for four pages is a good scene, an important scene where the reader learns things they need to know, but... it just isn’t a very interesting scene.

You know this because none of the people who’ve read it have ever said anything good about it. Quite a few have said bad things about it. And most have not mentioned it at all. You could take their silence as a sign they’re okay with it, but do you really want to write a story that’s just okay?

So, something’s got to change.

Monday 1 September 2014

Waiting For A Story To Get Going

Story is about character. There’s what happens to the character, and there’s what the character does (not necessarily in that order).

Of these two key elements, what the character DOES is far more important than what is DONE TO the character.

Readers want to engage with a character who makes decisions and choices and takes action.

If it’s all about what happens TO the character, then chances are it’s going to turn out to be a boring story.

Monday 25 August 2014

Dramatic Action Is More Than Doing Stuff


Often the reason a scene doesn’t work, or doesn’t seem to have any life to it, is because what’s happening in the scene isn’t very interesting.

People may be doing things, moving around, attempting to reach their goals, but how they’re going about is too straightforward or too easy.

There are various ways to achieve things in life that are reasonable and sensible. You want to be a doctor, you go to medical school and study hard. If you portray that within a story it may feel realistic and true, but it won’t be very gripping.

There is more to a good story than holding a mirror up to life.

Monday 18 August 2014

Interesting Characters: You are what you eat

Story is viewed differently by the writer than it is by the reader.

A writer knows what kind of person he is writing about, and uses that to inform what that character does on the page.

A reader knows what a character does and uses that to understand what kind of person that character is.

Both are looking at the same thing, but from different ends. The thing they are both looking at is this: what people do reveals the truth of who they are.

But truth and fact are NOT the same thing.

Monday 11 August 2014

Action Stations!!!

There are some basic rules to writing action in fiction that are straightforward and make sense. Keep sentences short to add pace. Be clear and use simple language when describing complicated moves. Show don't tell.

This doesn’t just apply to fights and chases. Any confrontation, any physical movement, any visual scene will have an action element to it. However, you can’t just replicate Hollywood movie visuals, the picture in the reader’s head won't automatically have the same impact as stunt-work on the big screen. You have to find a way to translate what's on the page into an emotional experience for the reader.

Monday 4 August 2014

Rewriting: Longer, Faster, Harder

This post specifically relates to getting from the first draft to the second draft. This rewrite is key to the whole rewriting process. Further down the line changes in small details and polishing of the text become important, but at this stage the transition from raw material to story-worthy narrative is what’s going to keep you interested in coming back time and again in order to get the story told. 

By establishing exactly what the story is about now, you can save yourself a lot of trouble later.

Monday 28 July 2014

Don't Overstuff Your Verbs: Unpack

There are time when it’s obvious an adverb is unnecessary. 

He ran quickly to the phone. It’s redundant to have quickly in there, running already implies speed, so you should cut it out. He ran to the phone. 

Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to use an adverb (no, really , it is). An adverb is a modifier, and if you’re modifying the verb in an unexpected way that changes the meaning of the verb it can be a useful tool. Examples: 

She smiled sadly.
His arm was partially severed.
He whispered loudly. 

But most times the adverb is modifying the verb in a way that there is already another word for. Examples:

Monday 21 July 2014

Build a Story, but Leave the Door Open


People tell stories every day and it is fairly easy to tell the difference between something worth listening to and something that is just small talk. It is a natural ability we all have, to know when something that happened is going to be of interest to others.

Do you want to know why the guy at work locked himself in an office and refused to come out until the police came and broke the door down? Or do you want to know what I had for lunch? You don't know the answer to either, but one is more of an unusual occurrence than the other, and that's what draws our attention.

When writing a story it is just the same, although often it may not feel like it.

Monday 14 July 2014

Your Book In One Sentence

I'm taking a break for the summer, but in the meantime I'll be reposting some of my old articles you might have missed. Here's one from last April.

When someone asks you what your book is about, it can be a very difficult thing to sum up in a line or two.

Even after you’ve finished it, capturing the essence in a way that does it justice can be more frustrating than writing it in the first place. I usually end up rambling like I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Not only would it be very handy in social situations, but also professionally. A clear concise way to tell people about the book in a way that lets them know what it’s about, but also hooks their interest in some way.

So how do you do that?

Monday 7 July 2014

Making Characters Face Their Demons


In real life people have many different problems to deal with. In fiction, characters tend to have the one problem. They struggle to deal with it but it’s always there, affecting them and the story you’ve put them in.

This is necessary for fiction, otherwise things would be too vague and woolly. We need the cop to be an alcoholic, the kid to be scared of going to school, the woman to be obsessed with getting married, and so on. It doesn’t really matter if their issue is one we’ve seen before (like the ones I’ve just mentioned), because it isn’t the actual problem that people are interested in, it’s how it’s dealt with.

Which means you have to show it being dealt with.

Monday 30 June 2014

Life, Plot, Story

A story is more than stuff that happens to a person. And yet, if a friend were to tell you something that happened to them at work or at school or wherever, you wouldn’t be uninterested.

In fact, if it was something amusing or surprising or touching in some way, it might even be quite compelling. This incident might involve coincidence, luck, randomness and have no real conclusion, but that won’t necessarily stop you hanging on every word.

However, put that same story down in print, and it doesn’t have quite the same effect. Now it’s contrived and pointless and banal.

Why? What makes fiction—whether it be a short story or a novel—different from real life? And how can we use this difference to help create more engaging and entertaining stories?

Monday 23 June 2014

Tricking The Reader By Choice


No story is full of high drama all the time. Sometimes you’re setting things up or dealing with the aftermath of some event, and the characters are on their own or in a non-volatile situation.

Introducing a problem or a struggle at this point, even a small one, often helps to keep the narrative interesting, but there are times when you don’t want your character to be fighting battles or solving puzzles.

So how do you turn a mundane moment into something more gripping without resorting to enemies to battle or mountains to climb?

Monday 16 June 2014

The Power of Story Compels You


A story with high stakes and deadly dangers can still bore you to tears. Equally, a character folding laundry while contemplating life’s absurdities can be deeply moving and affecting.

While there’s probably more to work with if your story is about an exploding volcano than creased shirts and an ironing board, the fact that neither subject-matter guarantees how the story will be received demonstrates that whatever it is that draws readers into a tale, it isn’t just a matter of sticking a character in a perilous situation and seeing how they cope.

So what is it that grabs a reader and keeps them engaged through many hundreds of pages?

Monday 9 June 2014

The Emotion of Changing Your Mind


Throughout a story there will be moments where the central character will do things that are interesting, exciting, scary or whatever. These kinds of scenes where key events occur are what you build towards, and their aftermath will provide the momentum/motivation to keep the reader turning pages to get to the next one, and the one after that.

But even though the chase, the rescue, the attack on the enemy base, will be an entertaining set-piece, there is another, equally important, part of this moment: the decision to do it.

Every big scene will be preceded by the character having to choose to engage with whatever scenario they’re faced with. This choice is incredibly important, both to the character and to the reader.

Monday 2 June 2014

The Escalation of Complications


The worst thing a story can be is boring. A dull tale, whatever the genre, whatever the length, will be a hard sell no matter how well written.

The most common advice for making a story more interesting is to increase the conflict.

More problems, sharper tension, higher stakes. The harder you make life for you main character, the greater the interest in how they’re going to reach their goal.

This isn’t particularly revolutionary information. Both as readers and as people we know that the most interesting stories are the ones where people face the greatest adversities, so it stands to reason that the tougher you make things the better.

However, while it’s pretty clear more conflict is a good idea, it isn’t always obvious how you go about this. If you just throw everything you can think of at the protagonist it can feel unrealistic and melodramatic. Random events overwhelming a character can also overwhelm the story and shift the tone in a direction you might not have intended. So how do you make life worse for your protagonist in an organic manner?

Monday 26 May 2014

What Motivates The Bad Guy?


Some characters are just born bad. Serial killers, werewolves, bankers—evil is in their blood and they are driven by a compulsion to do terrible things.

But not all antagonists are out and out villains. Just because your mother stops you doing anything fun, interferes in everything you do and guilt trips you into giving up your exciting plans to go curtain shopping with her, does that mean she’s a psycho who can’t be stopped? Hmm, okay, bad example.

My point is while there are some types of characters whose motivations don’t need to be explained because they are basically insane and can’t help themselves, most of the time the person acting against your hero needs their own reasons for pursuing their goal in such determined fashion.

Monday 19 May 2014

Uncontriving Characters


In writing a story you want to limit the number of characters you use. Instead of your main character having one friend to commiserate with over a drink and another friend drive him to the airport, they might as well be the same person. 

Sometimes it can be obvious which jobs should go to which characters, but other times it can take a while to realise you can meld two into one. As well as making things more manageable, there are a number of useful consequences of doing this.

Fewer characters are easier to remember and makes the story easier to follow. Giving a character more than one thing to do gives them depth and complexity and generally makes them more interesting. And having familiar characters turn up in different parts of a story is something readers like.

However, simply conflating a bunch of characters into one person can come across as contrived. 

Monday 12 May 2014

Should Secondary Characters Change?


There are some good reasons to keep secondary characters (both friend and foe) fixed in how you represent them in a story.

A lot of these kinds of characters  aren’t going to be in the story all that much and they have specific roles to play. Whether it’s to move the plot along or reveal aspects of the main character, playing a supporting role doesn’t always benefit from too much fiddling.

You also don’t want to confuse the reader with a constantly changing cast that makes it hard to remember who’s who. Nor do you want to steal focus from the main players by going off on a tangent.

But then, you also don’t want to create a roster of one-dimensional automatons who walk on to the page to deliver the same old shtick every time, like a bad sitcom.

So how do you balance the two? And do you need to?

Monday 5 May 2014

Digging for Writing Advice Gold

Advice, for writing and for everything else, is situational. In some cases it applies, in some it doesn’t.

When a concisely phrased suggestion fits perfectly with what you’ve been trying to work out it can be mind-blowing. Everything suddenly slots into place. You know exactly what you need to do. Not only does it seem to give you the answer to the problem at hand, it can change the way you look at the world in general.

But advice, no matter how apropos, never applies to everything. The camera never lies, love conquers all, honesty is the best policy, they all have their exceptions and so does every other piece of wisdom.

Monday 28 April 2014

Scene Simpatico

In a scene where your character gets angry, you want the reader to share that anger. If the character is scared, you want the reader to feel that fear. If a character being interviewed for a job feels nervous and his leg is bouncing up and down, it’s very rewarding to be told by a reader that their knee started sympathy-bouncing when they were reading that scene.

Putting the reader into a character's shoes by having them experience the same emotion is a powerful tool and a great way to form a connection between story and audience. But this isn’t always just a simple matter of describing what the character is experiencing and hoping the reader will be immersed into their world.

Moreover, not all states of mind are equally interesting to be immersed in. An insane character, a disoriented character, a bored character, these can all be accurately conveyed, but should they be?

Monday 21 April 2014

Getting Characters Going


It doesn’t matter what kind of character is at the centre of a story, they will all face the same fundamental issue. Something needs to be done and they have to be the one to do it.

The world needs saving, a toy needs buying, or a heart needs winning, but before you get to that, first the character has to make the determination that they are going to act rather than give up and go home.

Whether they succeed or fail depends on the story you want to tell, but whether they try is not up for debate, because otherwise you wouldn’t have a story. So you have to have a character that decides to act and keep going no matter what. But what is that makes them unable to walk away? Understanding what drives them will provide you with a core element of the character, and the driving force behind your narrative.

Monday 14 April 2014

All Character, No Plot


Occasionally I will get questions from new writers and by far the most common concern plot. The aspiring novelist will have a very strong grasp of who they want to write about and where proceedings will be set, but actually coming up with a plot seems daunting.

For some people the events that take place are the first things they come up with, but if that isn’t how it works for you then having an intimate knowledge of your main character is still an excellent route to working out what the story will be about.

Bear in mind that even the most inexperienced of writers is still a hugely experienced reader. We have all been reading, hearing and watching stories for many years. But while everyone feels confident in their ability to judge whether those stories are good, bad or indifferent, when it comes to our own writing it becomes much more tricky to gauge.

If you have a strong sense of how a story will go that’s all well and good, but if you don’t then here are three steps that will help demystify the process.

Monday 7 April 2014

What Struggle Means For Character

As readers we like to see characters struggle. It’s entertaining and thrilling. But that’s what it’s like for the reader. For the character, struggle serves another, less obvious purpose. One that can easily be overlooked.

When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it is frail and weak. But it has to use up all the energy it has to break out of the little prison its caterpillar-self made.

However, if you were to lend a helping hand and make an incision in the side of the cocoon, enabling the butterfly to emerge quickly and easily, the butterfly would die.

Because that immense effort isn’t just there to make life hard, it’s there to give the butterfly the strength it needs to be able to fly. By struggling against its surroundings, the new body is able to stretch and flex and gain power.

Struggle provides the conditioning necessary to meet future challenges.

Monday 31 March 2014

Story, Character and Contradiction


Human beings are full of contradictions. We want what we don’t have. We get tired of what we struggled to get. We say one thing but do another.

It’s not just people who behave this way, throughout the universe things are happening that aren’t supposed to be happening. We think we know how something works and then it does something completely different.

We like patterns, we like working out the rules and being able to predict events. But there’s always an exception to the rule. An anomaly will arise. The unexpected will turn up with alarming regularity. And when this happens our reaction is to take a closer look. We are fascinated by contradiction and want to examine it for answers, even when there are none to be had.

This urge is powerful and is just as strong in the fictional world as it is in the real one.

Monday 24 March 2014

The Three Dimensions of Character

A well-rounded character who feels like a real person is obviously what we all want to write. Sometimes this naturally occurs, maybe because the character is based on a real person or on an archetype of the genre. In some cases they may be based on another fictional character from a favourite book.

The writer feels comfortable with writing about them because they know exactly who they’re writing about.

There’s no reason why that approach won’t work. Obviously there’s the danger of creating a cliché or stereotype, but even then that can work if the story is strong enough.

If, however, you want to write a character from the ground up, a character who is as real as any person living, yet wholly your own creation, then there are three aspects you need to know in depth: the physical, sociological and psychological.

Monday 17 March 2014

Double Dipping Tension

Tension is an important part of any story. You want the problems gripping your characters to also grip your readers. But tension is not a one off thing that you can create and leave to do its job.

If tension remains at a steady state it decreases over time. If a guy is in a locked room waiting for the killer to come back and finish the job, and he waits, and waits, then he’s eventually going to stop freaking out. He might even get a little bored.

You either have to face the problem (leading to some kind of resolution) or escalate the tension in some way. But even then not all tension is created equal.

Monday 10 March 2014

Motivating Your Inner Writer

You’re writing your story, maybe you’re a few days in or perhaps a few weeks, and suddenly you feel the compulsion to do the dishes. Or the laundry. Or tidy up that closet. And if, like me, you aren’t overly fond of housework or tedious chores, it may occur to you that it’s rather odd that you now feel compelled to do something you dislike rather than do the thing you’ve loved since you were a kid.

Not that writing can’t be a frustrating endeavour, but why would you actually want to do that menial job you usually find any excuse to avoid doing? Why not go do something fun? Or nothing at all? Seems a bit strange, no?

There is in fact a pretty simple reason why, and once you understand it, it can actually make it easier to get your head back in the game.

Monday 3 March 2014

Setting as Part of Story


You want readers to feel like they’re in the world of your story. When the character enters a place, you want the reader to feel like they too have entered that place.

How you do this would seem fairly straightforward. You describe everything the character sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches, right?

But you may have noticed that while description of setting in a good book is immersive and entertaining, when you write something like that in your own story it can often feel longwinded and unengaging.

You paint a clear picture of the world but it’s like you’re not actually in the picture, you’re just viewing it from a distance. So how do you close that gap so the reader is pulled into the setting rather than skimming over it?

Monday 24 February 2014

Status as Character Calling Card


The main character in a story will tend to have something about them that marks them out. They need to be distinct from everyone else just as a matter of practicality. It might be a special skill or ability—they’re the best at what they do—but it could also be a behavioural or psychological thing. A character who’s good-hearted or brave or willing to sacrifice or whatever.

While their job or social standing will give the reader a rough idea of the kind of person the story will be about, it’s this unique quality, this thing that marks them out, that gives them their true status. It is also what makes them appealing to read about.

However, while you as the writer may have a very clear idea of what’s so great about the character, the reader doesn’t. And letting them in on it halfway through the book is not going to do you any favours. You have to win them over in the first few pages. So how do you do that?

Monday 17 February 2014

A Protagonist’s Moment of Realisation


At some point in a story a character will realise that he’s got to do what he’s got to do. There’s no turning back.

This can happen at any time. On the first page, just before the climax, or anywhere in between—it doesn’t really matter as long as it makes sense within the story. The important thing is for the reader to see this moment so they understand how the character feels and why.

It isn’t enough to just assume the character’s reasons will be taken for granted or accepted without question.

Monday 10 February 2014

Lifting Characters Off the Page


Sometimes a character is born fully-formed. You know them as well as a member of your family and you don’t need to figure out what they think because they’re more than happy to tell you.

Other times, the character just sits on the page, lifeless and uncooperative.  You can write up a biography, have a folder full of background details and still they’re no more alive than a robot.

Creating a character that’s more than just a bag of bones is key to making a story live and breathe. But characters don’t always appear with an interesting personality and unique voice all ready to get the adventure underway. You can give them all the quirky habits and dark secrets you want, but when it comes to carrying the story from your imagination to the reader’s, something feels a little flat.

So, how can you get your characters to talk to you, and how do you make sure that what they have to say is worth reading about?

Monday 3 February 2014

Three Goals for Every Character


You can break down each character’s goals into three types: professional, private and personal.

‘Professional’ refers to the job that needs to be done. A monster has to be killed, a treasure has to be found, a wedding has to take place etc. This physical goal drives the main story and gives the hero something to do.

‘Private’ is something that characters want for themselves. It may not be the main focus of the story as it doesn’t necessarily affect other characters, but a character that only acts out of pure altruism and self-sacrifice is both unrealistic and a little annoying.

‘Personal’ is more about the psychological needs of the character. Whatever flaws or hang-ups the character might have (and he should definitely have some), there will have to be a resolution or understanding reached at some point in the story. This aspect is often the most rewarding and satisfying in a novel, but also risks being the most clichéd and obvious.

These three elements are often very closely linked and intertwined, but they can also be very separate.  Both approaches have their advantages and their disadvantages.

Monday 27 January 2014

Where Is Your Story Headed?


When asked if he knew the ending when he started a story, E. L. Doctorow said of his process:

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Taken in isolation that quote can seem very freewheeling and unfettered. The romantic idea of novel writing often has this sort of outlook: just set off and every time you come to a fork in the road just choose whichever path seems most appealing.

Sounds great but this is a somewhat disingenuous view of storytelling that can lead to dead-ends and pointless detours. Even the most improvisational of writers usually know the ending they’re aiming for (even if they’re not always consciously aware of it).

It’s not often you get in your car without having a destination in mind.

But at the same time, just because you know where you want to go doesn’t mean you know what you’re going to find when you get there. What it give you, though, is a framework to help create a cohesive narrative rather than a random sequence of events that might come together through happenstance and good luck.
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