Monday 18 May 2015

Maximising Want-To-Know Value

When someone is reading a story they are assigning a value to what they are reading. This value can be anywhere from ‘I have absolutely no interest in this’ to ‘I have to know what happens next, sleep be damned’. Obviously you want them to be nearer one end of the scale than the other.

While it’s impossible to have a story where the reader’s engagement is turned up all the way to 11 from beginning to end, there are ways to help you get the most out of a scene, no matter what the premise might be.

Action, conversation, or even a familiar set up that’s been written about a zillion times before— they can all be vastly improved if the reader actively wants to know what’s going on. And there are ways you can help nudge them in that direction.

Monday 11 May 2015

The Other Senses

When writing a story, using the senses to make scenes more vivid and visceral is simple and obvious advice. You want the reader to feel like they’re right there with the characters, experiencing what they’re experiencing.

Using what the characters see, hear, smell, touch and taste will further reader engagement, but these are not the only senses people have. There are in fact a host of other senses that are often overlooked or are so abstract that it isn’t clear how to convey them on the page.

A simple google search will produce a list of senses other than the big five, but it isn’t enough to be aware of them, or to be able to define them. You want to be able to capture the feeling in a way that the reader will relate to, and relate to strongly.

Monday 27 April 2015

Chapter One: Gone Girl

Chapter One is a series of posts where I take apart the first chapter of a successful book to see what makes it work, how the author hooked the reader, which rules were followed and which were broken to good effect (previous entries can be found here: Chapter One Analyses).

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was published in 2012 and made into a hit movie last year. The author’s previous two novel were moderately successful, but sold nowhere near as many copies as this one.

It’s a contemporary mystery thriller, written in the first person by two narrators, both of whom seem fairly unreliable. Chapters are alternated in a he said/she said format. The story starts with the husband (Nick) writing on the day his wife goes missing. The wife (Amy) is represented by a diary that begins on the day she first met Nick at a party in Manhattan.

I’ll be looking at both first chapters (his and hers) to see how they differ and how they complement each other.

Monday 20 April 2015

Integrating Tone into Dialogue

Dialogue is a key part of any story and it’s usually what readers find most engrossing. They might skim long descriptions, but when they get to someone speaking that’s where they’ll get pulled back in.

What people say and how they say it not only tells the reader what’s going on, it also sets mood, gives an idea of character and provides a natural back and forth that will naturally keep readers engaged.

It helps to keep the flow going when characters are talking, and being able to convey how characters are saying things without explicitly stating it is a very useful skill.

Monday 13 April 2015

Stronger Emotions Through Melodrama

Melodrama makes people think of bad soap operas. In fact, melodrama is about emphasising the emotional aspect of a story, but when you do that you can very easily tip over into hysterical characters who overreact to every little thing.

It’s a bit like overacting in a movie; a big performance can be enthralling if done right, and ridiculous if pushed too far. Melodramatic stories suffer a similar problem, although, like bad acting, they can still be entertaining when preposterous.

However, emotions are important in all stories. You want the reader to feel connected to the character and to empathise with their plight. And there are a number of techniques used in melodrama that can be applied (in moderation) to your story and help those feels reach your readers.

Monday 6 April 2015

Bad Emotions Made Good

When writing a story you may find that the good guy has access to a limited range of emotions compared to the bad guy.

Basic emotions (happy, sad, angry, etc.) are easy enough to evoke, but more complex or darker feelings tend to be more difficult to justify.

For example, if the hero’s best friend wins the lottery, a good guy would react how? If he’s a decent human being, probably by being pleased for his friend.

If a friend of the villain—usually a not so wholesome individual—wins the lottery, then the response can be more varied. Pleased (because he plans to ‘share’ in the wealth), jealousy, resentment, maybe even plans to steal the money. These darker thoughts are often more interesting and offer more ideas for where to take a story.

While making your main character evil but still likeable is a very hard thing to achieve, that doesn't mean you can’t give them (and the reader) the chance to experience the darker side of their personality.

Monday 30 March 2015

Getting Characters Out of Work Mode

Most characters have a profession—doctor, cop, assistant in a cupcake store—and in the course of doing their job they will slip into work mode. They will talk and act in the way you expect someone in that position to talk and act. The problem is that this can make them come across as stereotypical.

This is especially true for secondary characters who might not appear often other than to perform a job related task, but it can also be true for main characters where every time they have to do their job they start acting in a very specific manner—a politician uses a lot of meaningless double-speak, a doctor uses a lot of medical jargon, a cop becomes focused on factual questions and answers.

This makes it clear what they do for a living but little else.

What a character says and how they say it not only tells the reader what kind of a person they’re reading about, but also helps to set mood and tone for a scene. There’s a lot you can do through dialogue beyond asking and answering questions and imparting information.

Monday 23 March 2015

Tricks of the Trade 4: Hero Upgrade

Making sure readers actually care what happens to your main character is integral to any story. You can’t just take it for granted that just because your story has stuff happen to a guy that the reader will automatically be interested.

If your story happens to be about a noble main character who has exciting adventures this is less of a worry since this is the basic story archetype from fairy tales and myths, but not all stories follow this template.

While the simplest way to endear your MC to the reader is to demonstrate their general decency, what’s sometimes referred to as a pat the dog or save the cat moment—the MC goes out of their way to be helpful to some innocent in trouble and their good guy credentials are confirmed—not all main characters are straight out of a Disney family movie.

Fortunately there are a number of other ways to boost your hero’s general appeal.

Monday 16 March 2015

Reinventing Clichéd Scenes


The good thing about clichés is that they impart information quickly and reliably. If someone says it’s raining cats and dogs, you know exactly what they mean.

The bad thing about clichés is that they get overused which leads to them feeling unoriginal and lazy. When you know what’s someone’s saying before they’ve even finished saying it you stop paying attention. And a reader who isn’t paying attention is not what a writer wants.

Weeding out familiar phrases isn’t too difficult. Getting rid of overused scenes and premises is not so easy.

Certain types of scenes occur so often because readers want them—in some cases even expect them. They want the guy and the gal to end up together; they want the evil plot to be foiled. And different genres have tropes that readers enjoy seeing again and again. But while commercially there may be an acceptance of the same old story, artistically it can feel less satisfactory for writers and more discerning readers.

So how do you write scenes that readers are eagerly anticipating without simply producing an imitation of every other book already out there?

Monday 9 March 2015

Interesting Chit Chat


Small talk is boring. Characters who waffle on about the weather and the dream they had last night and their favourite toy when they were a kid don’t hold a reader’s attention for very long.

At the same time, characters who enter a scene, get what they want, and leave can make the story feel rushed and sterile.

There are, of course, plenty of books that use the more rushed approach and it can work very well. It makes it much easier to keep the reader hooked and turning pages. Many bestsellers use this approach, although they don’t win many literary awards.

But we’ve all read books that had long passages of seemingly random observations and conversations that not only didn’t read as boring, but actually added to the story. You felt a stronger connection to the character because of the glimpse into their personality. So how did they manage it when your attempts feel like meandering asides and unnecessary tangents? 

Monday 2 March 2015

Waiting For A Story To Get Going

No new post this week as I've been struck down by a mystery illness (or possibly just a cold). In the meantime here's one from the archives.
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 23 February 2015

Tricks of the Trade 3: Electric Writing


Orson Welles once told an interviewer that he considered the greatest screen actor of all time to be Jimmy Cagney. The reason he gave for this was that Cagney always played at the top of his range but was never fake or over-the-top. 

The effect of this full-on style of acting was magnetic. When somebody is pouring their all into what they’re doing, you can’t help but watch. Most actors can do this when the script requires. Cagney could do it all the time. Love scene, death scene, action scene.

It doesn’t matter how big you go if you can make it feel real. And because the audience believes the actor cares, they care. 

When it comes to writing fiction you can use a similar approach to keep the reader engaged with what’s happening in the story.

Monday 16 February 2015

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell


Generally speaking showing is considered a better type of writing than telling, but there are times when neither feels quite right. Fortunately there are a couple of techniques that use neither approach.

Telling is something like “John felt sad” and has the advantage of being short and quick, but it tends to lack emotional engagement. You know what the writer means, you understand the character’s experience, but you don’t necessarily feel it too.

Showing might be something like “John let out a barely audible sigh and a single tear rolled down his cheek” which lets you see what’s happening rather than being told. This, when done right (unlike my horrible example), enables the reader to feel more present and empathetic with the character, but it can take up a lot more space.

But what if you want to create an immediate and visceral effect for the reader without taking up too much room?

Monday 9 February 2015

Tertiary Characters Have Their Own Issues

In the last post I talked about contentious issues and how they can be used to grab a reader’s attention. But sometimes issues can sneak into a story without the writer being aware of them, and in a way that can reflect very badly on the story and on the writer.

The main character is usually well defined, as are the core set of supporting characters, but there are a whole host of other smaller parts, from the neighbour with the occasional line of dialogue to the girl at the coffee shop who never says a word, that populate a fictional world and give it a life beyond the two or three people that really matter to the story.

And it is these small, seemingly insignificant roles, that can lead readers to infer things about the writer’s view of the world that the writer never intended and doesn’t think.

Monday 2 February 2015

Writing Issues


Often the most engaging stories, the most affecting stories, are those that involve contentious issues.

War, sex, religion, race—highly emotive subject-matter that people tend to have strong views about are a quick way to draw a reader in. You don’t have to worry whether people will be interested in your story’s themes, because everyone’s interested in these sorts of themes.

At least, that’s how it seems. 

In practice, while it’s easy to catch a reader’s attention with a topic that they already have strong feelings about, it can be a lot harder to maintain and build on that interest through the 300+ pages of a novel. And even harder to follow through with a satisfying ending.

Monday 26 January 2015

Tricks of the Trade 2: Red Herrings


Although the term red herring is usually associated with murder mysteries, most stories contain an element of misdirection to keep the reader guessing at the outcome. When it’s obvious where it’s headed, even if the route contains interesting obstacles and encounters, you miss out on that feeling of discovery when you realise the answer isn’t A, as you thought, but B (which seemed impossible but now you can see of course it was B, it was always B, sneaky, sneaky B).

In order to create the delight a reader feels when their view of the world (even when it’s a made up world) is spun around 180 degrees and they see things how they truly are you have to first convince them of the way things truly aren’t. 

So you lie to them.

Monday 19 January 2015

Every Story Is a Mystery


When we think of a story being a mystery the tendency is to think of the mystery genre. An investigator (usually a detective), a puzzle to be solved (usually a crime), a person to be caught (usually a criminal).

But to all intents and purposes every story is basically a mystery. There is always a burning question that needs answering and someone who is tasked with finding that answer. It’s just that it might not be as obvious what the question is in Looking for Love as it is in Who Killed Johnny?

And if it’s well written the reader’s desire to also discover the answer should be just as strong in both stories. Which is why when that desire isn’t so strong we can use the mechanics of the mystery genre to help work out what’s gone awry in other types of stories.

Monday 12 January 2015

Tricks of the Trade 1: The Plant


This is the first in a series of posts looking at common writing techniques that can be both very effective and horribly misused. The focus here will be on how to get the most out of them while avoiding the obvious, hackneyed and contrived.

In most stories you will employ some kind of plant. This is where you establish something early on that will come back to have some significance later on in the story.

It could be an object, a name or an idea. Typically you make the reader aware of it in the first few chapters and when it turns up towards the end the recognition combined with the important role this seemingly innocuous thing/person/concept now plays can be very satisfying. It can also be crass and clunky.

Monday 5 January 2015

Repost: The Little Reasons A Story Works


It’s not enough to have something dramatic happen in a story. The reason why it happens is also important.

In terms of impact on a reader, there’s a big difference between a character getting upset about losing their house to the bank and getting upset because their favourite tv show got cancelled.

What happens keeps the reader interested in the short term. Why it happens is what keeps them interested over the course of an entire novel.
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