Monday, 2 March 2015

Waiting For A Story To Get Going

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Repost: How To Find Your Writing Muse

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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?
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