Archive for category Writer basics 101

Bring on the empty horses: handle synonyms with care

5232325286_09d118be15_zI have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.

In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.

This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.

In times of trouble

This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.

In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.

9780340839959Accuracy and gusto

This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.

In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.

Ear and eye

To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.

But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’

In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.

Choose synonyms with care.

Thanks for the thesaurus pic, Julie Jordan Scott

Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!

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In your character’s shoes: give your everyman character a strong presence

Seven thingsSome central characters are intended to be a proxy for the reader – a person who’s thrown into a situation and acts as a conduit for the reader to have the experience.

However, there’s a big pitfall with this kind of character: writers are sometimes reluctant to make them people in their own right. They’re worried about being too specific and instead they create a bland nobody.

These are the symptoms of the nobody everyman:

The character doesn’t react to dramatic situations

- because the writer assumes the reader will apply their own reactions. But readers don’t want to do this. They want to share the character’s reaction. I particularly see this in writers who learn a lot of their storytelling from films and TV. But novels are an internal medium, a landscape of emotion, and the reader needs to be guided more.

In prose, if the character doesn’t react, it looks as though the event made no impression on them. In any case, you can’t guarantee what a reader’s reaction will be, and that it will be the one you want. (Readers certainly aren’t everymen!)

The character has very little history, background or personal preferences

Again, the writer is afraid of making the character unlike the reader, and so they don’t fill in any home background, hobbies or back story. This makes them look curiously empty. Think of when you meet somebody for the first time – there are certain things you want to know about them. What they do; whether they have kids; what hobbies they have. In real life, we need context about people. And so do readers.

They’re passive

Because the writer doesn’t want to presume any reactions, they make their everyman character wait around for the more interesting people to cause adventures. This can make us wonder why we are spending the most time with the dullest person. Even if the viewpoint character is surrounded by troublemakers and simply wants a quiet life, they need to fight back instead of being pushed around. That’s not to say the other characters can’t get them into scrapes; but our main character must also seem to cause some of the situations they find themselves in. If they simply wait to be shepherded, it’s frustrating to read about.

So how do we write an effective everyman character?

Is there even such a thing as an everyman character? We are all different. My reaction to a life dilemma won’t be the same as yours. If our characters are to be convincing, it doesn’t make sense to leave them as empty vessels for the reader to fill.

And besides, if we look at what readers respond to, it’s not as superficial as tastes, social background etc. Readers respond to something that’s deeper down – and that’s emotions that are universal for everyone: fear, difficult choices and dilemmas.

If you evoke those well enough, the reader will put themselves in that character’s shoes regardless of their circumstances or even the era the book was written. Think how many classic novels are still finding new readers because their protagonists strike a chord. A lonely orphan becomes a governess and falls in impossible love with her employer – Jane Eyre. A timid, inhibited girl is overwhelmed by her new position as wife in a grand house – Rebecca. These aren’t everyman characters by any means, but we connect with their stories and experience them vividly. It doesn’t matter at all that they don’t do what we would do, or that their circumstances are not like ours. They have loneliness, dilemmas and fears, which is enough to put us in their shoes.

So don’t make your everyman viewpoint character an undefined nobody. Make them a definite somebody who, deep down, is exactly like us. Let’s discuss some great viewpoint characters in the comments!

nyn2 2014 smlNEWSFLASH This seems a good moment to mention that I’ve got a whole bookful of advice on characters. And the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the title has been tweaked. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?

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Dialogue special part 2: dialogue is more than talking

jamie lucie sheffield pk 008Last time I discussed ways to make dialogue scenes easier to write. But dialogue is more than just what characters say.

Dialogue is action

Dialogue is a kind of action scene. Although the conversation is the main focus, the characters are more than just mouths.

Make the characters respond to each other

There should be give and take. A good scene will give a sense that something in the story has changed; in a dialogue scene you can make the conversation cause this change. And if so, the characters should respond to each other – listen, be surprised, perhaps refuse to accept. They could change each other’s minds or become more entrenched in their wrongheaded mission. Maybe strengthen their supportive relationships; deepen rifts and conflicts.

Non-talking responses

Some writers try to make the characters express everything in speech. For a radio play, that’s probably a necessary evil, but for a novel it’s not ideal.

It can also undermine the power of a character’s response. For instance, if a character has been upset, writers often try to put this in words – an understandable urge as they’ve got used to writing lines.

So I’ll see a lot of dialogue that goes: ‘how could you say that, I’m your best friend, I feel very hurt’ as they flail to convey the enormity. But not everyone is articulate and voluble when upset. Characters might react with a moment of silent shock, a gasp, an unguarded facial expression. Or they might stand up and put on their coat.

If you’re struggling to think of the right words in such a scene, consider whether you’re forcing the character to articulate when they would not.

Less drastically, you can build in other actions and reactions. I often see scenes where characters are sitting dummy-still while they’re talking. But most people get quite busy when they’re involved in a conversation. They might betray nervousness by kicking the table leg, or fiddle with their cuffs while they think. Even if the characters are on the phone – and therefore most of the communication is verbal – they are doing a lot more than simply speaking. They’ll be grimacing, smiling, biting their nails, straining to hear through a bad connection.

jamie lucie sheffield pk 007Go back and edit – how much talking do you need?

Once you start adding the non-verbal responses, you usually find you can refine the lines that are said out loud. If a character points across the loch at a monster, they might not need to say ‘look at that monster over there’ (thank you, Dave and Jamie, for the demonstration in the picture). If you edit the gestures so that they work with the spoken words, you make the point better. And you keep all the reader’s sensory channels open.

Don’t forget the setting
In the pressure to get the dialogue flowing, the writer sometimes forgets the environment. Then suddenly the character will stir their coffee. (Hooray for lattes, BTW: with just one prop you can slurp foam, add sugar and twiddle spoons.) But the environment is there all the time. If we don’t have continual low-key reminders, there can be a jolt when it returns to the scene. I often see long exchanges of chit-chat, then a sudden reference to the mahogany desk the character was sitting at – but the environment of the scene had long since disappeared from the prose.

A really vivid scene will keep the setting in the reader’s awareness. And that’s not just visuals, but sounds too – readers need all their senses fed.

A word of caution, though; it’s very easy to overdo. Details like this can get intrusive and irritating, so it’s better to use the setting to create natural pauses as the characters are talking, or when they need a beat to think. And don’t write ‘she thought’, try: ‘a police siren wailed in the street outside’, which will create the pause in the reader’s mind. It’s even better if you can make the environmental action echo an emotional point of the scene – for instance, a customer at the till who is arguing about his change.

These are ways to make a dialogue scene more fully rounded. And of course, there’s a whole other level under the words: the subtext. We’ll look at that next time.

For now, though, give me your thoughts: do you have to do separate passes to add these elements to dialogue scenes?
roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life 

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How to switch point of view without confusing the reader

point of viewOne of the deadly sins of writing is the ‘head-hop’ – inconsistency with the narrative point of view. The writer will be following one character’s perspective, then forgets to keep to it, or switches to another in a way that creates a logic hiccup.

The problem is often subtle, which is why it’s hard to spot in your own work. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and you’ll have lost your grip on their imagination.

First-person narratives usually don’t have this problem. The writer is usually extremely aware of what the character can and can’t know. (And often realises they need devices such as letters and diaries to get information across.)

But not all stories are written from one perspective only. Perhaps we have many characters whose experiences count. Or an omniscient narrator who contributes observations from time to time. Once you have these multiple voices, you need to be strict about how you handle them.

Here are my tips for keeping multiple POVs in control.

1 Stick with one POV per scene

Simple is usually best, so write each scene from the experience of just one character, making the POV clear in the scene opening. What if two equally major characters have a dramatic scene? I’ll discuss that below, but let’s get into good habits first.

gonetulip22 Imagine each scene is titled with the POV character’s name

Some novels with multiple POVs name their chapters according to who is ‘speaking’. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever hops around a large cast in short chapters, each following the experience of one character. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl alternates between the male and the female accounts in different timelines, and the headings allow her to show who’s talking and when the action is happening.

Of course, many other novels use multiple POVs without chapter headings, and that’s fine too. But if you get confused about what you can and can’t show, put them in your draft to focus your mind. Or tint the text in a colour according to whose experience we’re following. Later, remove these props and you should have a logically flowing story.

3 Establish the POV pattern early on

At the beginning of the novel, you need to establish the rules your narrative will follow. If you’re going to circulate through a big cast, give each of them an early chapter, then we’re prepared for the pattern. If you stick with one character for a while and then switch, you might need a more obvious signpost such as a chapter or section heading to ease the gear-change.

point of view 24 Some first person, some third, some omniscient? No problem

Want to narrate some of your book as first person and some as third? No problem. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.

Deborah Moggach presents one of her Tulip Fever characters as first person, and explained on BBC Radio 4’s Book Club that she wanted the reader to understand some of the cruel things she does. Everyone else is close third person.

Moggach’s device of the headings also allows her to slip into omniscient distance – to convey time passing and chaos settling. One chapter is ‘Autumn’; another is ‘After the storm’.

But whatever you do, stick to it. If you begin by narrating one character as first person and change them to third, you risk disorientating the reader unless you have set up a mechanism for them to understand it. (And preferably a reason why they should bother.)

5 Two key characters in one scene? Which POV?

Of course, some characters will have overlapping experiences. For these, you could:

  1. Pick the person who will have the most intense experience.
  2. Pick the person with the least intense experience and rely on the reader to intuit the turmoil in the other character (can be very effective, but needs setting up)
  3. Hop between their experiences in different paragraphs, but be very disciplined to make sure the reader is clear whose experience they are following. To do this might interrupt the flow of the scene, especially the dialogue. And often when I see writers do this, they’re missing an opportunity for more tension.
  4. Settle into one POV, then change. Start the scene from one character’s experience and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action, or even a line break,  so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again. Moggach solves this by writing a chapter in one POV, then starting a new chapter from the other character’s angle and winding time back to revisit the episode. (Do you notice something important here? She never breaks her rule. She’s schooled the reader to expect a framework and she never breaks it.)

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life 

Have you seen other ways to handle multiple POVs? How do you do it? Have you seen the rules ‘broken’ to interesting effect? Let’s discuss!

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How to pace a story so that it hooks the reader

2550606_3285dbc56f_z‘Tell me about pace,’ said one of the panellists in my video interview at John Rakestraw’s. If we hadn’t had a time limit I’d still be talking now.

A well-paced story is like an act of hypnosis. It has a travelling beat that takes control of the reader’s attention. It proceeds at just the right speed to trap the reader a little longer, urge them to turn another page.

How is it done?

With constant development and change.

You might assume pace is only a concern in fast-moving plots, such as thrillers. Not so. Every story will benefit if it is written with an awareness of pace; even a leisurely character journey.

Indeed, pace is a fundamental in most dynamic artforms – not just storytelling.

Video and music

If you’re making a video, you want to change something every 15 seconds. The change might be subtle, such as fading a colour, or panning a picture so the view reveals more. Or it might be obvious, such as switching to a different image or bringing in new music. Listen to a piece of music and you’ll hear how it’s being constantly modified. Even a simple verse/chorus/verse structure, which appears predictable, is developing. Other instruments are joining, variations are being made with the phrasing, note patterns or rhythm.

Singers do it too. When I used to take lessons, I was told that if a lyric is repeated, it must have different emphasis or emotion. (‘I get a kick out of you’ ‘I get a kick out of you’.) Listen to an actor repeat a line. The repetitions will not be the same (unless for a deliberate effect).

Law of physics

So audiences need change. This is, if you like, a physical law of any dynamic art. They need to be kept attentive while we have our wicked (or wonderful) way with them.

How can we do this in stories?

1 In a story, pace comes from change. Always be developing. In every scene. The change doesn’t have to be big. It can be tiny, such as the reader’s perception of a situation or a shift in a character’s attitude. But every scene should take the reader somewhere they didn’t expect. Scenes with no change lie flat on the page.

2 Remember the singers and actors. Look for repeated lines, emotional changes and plot events. If you repeat something, develop it or make sure it will be read differently – perhaps with new significance. (Unless you intend deliberately to keep it static.)  Another type The beat sheet step by step – starring Harry Potterof repetition is the function of a scene – in My Memories of a Future Life, I jettisoned a scene that repeated an emotional beat I had already covered. Here’s the post that explains. This kind of repetition is hard to spot. The surest way I’ve found is by making a beat sheet, where I summarise the entire book by writing the purpose of each scene. This reveals the kind of repetition that will spoil the forward momentum. More about the beat sheet (left) in NYN1.

3 Don’t be slow but don’t rush. An ideally paced story keeps up with the reader’s need for change. Although we want to pull them along, we don’t want to overtake them. Paradoxically, if you do this, they might feel the story is slow. So when your trusted critique partners tell you a scene flags, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut material. Try writing a version where you enlarge a moment, explore it more. See if that does the trick.

4 Use variety. Readers get numbed if too many successive scenes have the same tone (except at the climax). Vary the feel of each scene. Give readers a breather after major revelations. Give them a lighter moment or regroup around the campfire after you’ve put them through the wringer. Another way to use variety is to cut away to a subplot. The contrast will intensify the impact of all your scenes. Again, the beat sheet will show you this at a glance.

5 Become aware of your prose. Pace can come from your style. Not from show-off words or sparkling metaphors, but at a basic, moment-by-moment level. Virginia Woolf said ‘style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm’. What might she mean? I like to think of it as the fall of syllables in a sentence. This is independent of length; a well-paced long sentence is as easy to read as a short one. But often we use more syllables than an idea needs; we cram in adjectives, adverbs and similes when we’d be better to choose a more vivid verb. (‘She shouted in a harsh voice’ or ‘she roared’.) A smooth sentence, though, makes every syllable count and uses them with grace. It has a quality of control, which keeps the reader in surrender to the writer’s mind.

And so…

Pace keeps a story alive and restless, makes it grow in the reader’s mind. It sets up an imbalance, a need for resolution. When this stops, you let the audience go. And the proper place for that is …

…THE END.

thanks for the runner pic Jacobo Garcia 

Well that’s my take on pace. What’s yours? Let’s discuss!

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Why the fuss about characters in fiction? Post at Writers & Artists

w&a4Just why are characters the cornerstone of fiction? I’m discussing this – and tips for creating irresistible story people – in the fourth of my pieces for the Writers & Artists website.

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Your story needs two hearts

heartsStories need two hearts. I’m going to call them the warm heart and the dark heart.

The warm heart is the bond we feel with the central characters. It is the pleasure of spending time in their company. I hesitate to call it liking; it may not be so simple. Our attachment may be to just one person and their flaws and troubles, or it may be to a web of relationships. It is affection, but rough-edged. It is warm, but it might not be cuddly. It’s push and pull, trouble and strife, idiocies and idiosyncrasies. But it is where the reader feels at home.

And then there is the dark heart. The dark heart is jeopardy. The shadow at the end of the alleyway. The characters may have other problems in the story. They may fight miscellaneous foes. But the dark heart is an ultimate disturbance that will demand a day of reckoning.

Two long-running TV shows illustrate this in action. Fringe has both hearts. The central characters form a story family. Some of them are bonded by filial ties: the father, Walter; the son, Peter. There’s Olivia, the FBI agent who becomes Peter’s lover. There’s Astrid, a lab assistant sidekick who becomes a close friend. They are the warm heart of the show; the humans who have real and complex relationships and sally forth to do battle. And Fringe has its dark heart. The characters are on borrowed time; every day brings them closer to a confrontation they cannot escape.

One heart down

By contrast, Doctor Who, whose title character actually has two hearts, only has one of them working.

The story’s warm heart is in good shape. The Doctor and his TARDIS companion always have a vibrant relationship that brings us back week after week. We also get drop-ins from the extended story family: the Doctor’s wife; the occasional friendly alien he befriended while saving them. Previous companions are also available. This creates a galaxy family bonded by experience and affection.

The warm heart beats strongly. But the dark heart does not.

Now that might seem like nonsense. Doctor Who is all about getting into danger and fighting monsters, right? But they don’t treat these as seriously as they treat the character universe.

The threats are often negligible. Too often, the Doctor wins with a gadget, some fast-talking, an asspull or a vague wave of the omnitalented sonic screwdriver. He never has to raise his game to win. And the scriptwriters frequently bend the rules of their own show – thus disrespecting their own universe.

Although each series has an overall arc, which is where the dark heart should be beating its dreadful rhythm, it is false. It never produces a confrontation that will really put the Doctor on his mettle, or that could credibly destroy him. Even if the writers trick it up to look like that, he’s usually freed in one bound, and does not have to go through the wringer.

Because the writers don’t make us believe in the dark heart, the warm heart loses some of its power. You could say this demonstrates that we need the story to be taken as seriously as the characters are. Controversial.

fringeTwo hearts beat as one

Fringe goes one step further to genius. Here is why: the warm heart created the dark heart. Walter Bishop committed a crime that started an epic war. His son died, and so he opened a wormhole to a parallel universe and stole him back. The flawed warm heart let the dark heart in.

In a great story, the warm heart and the dark heart pump each other with life. The dark heart makes the warm heart more precious. And the warm heart makes the dark heart more terrible.

Thanks for the hearts pic Joselito Tagarao and the Fringe pic hherbzilla

Let’s discuss some stories – film, TV or prose – with warm and dark hearts. Buffy, anyone?

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How not to bore the reader with trivial details – book excerpt at Jane Friedman

friedTrivia is the stuff of life but you can easily have too much. There’s a fine line between sketching a realistic amount and boring the reader with shoals of baffling blather.

Today, Jane Friedman has showcased an excerpt from the characters book on her blog, and she chose the tutorial where I explain this tricky balancing act. If you’re curious about the book – or if you simply want to know how much of your carefully crafted background to include – come on over and see.

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Which choice? Create compelling characters by giving them dilemmas

choices unkreativesThe rock star had a seizure in his hotel room. He recalled little of it; just a long fight to breathe. As he came to, the other band members were telling the paramedics he’d be fine for the night’s gig, a doctor would take care of him. He didn’t want to let them down, of course, but he felt like death.

His girlfriend had witnessed the unremembered time: 10 minutes of jerking, clawing and choking, pleading for help; the brutal rescue where paramedics only just got him back. She saw the other band members playing down the dangers, arguing with the medics. She wanted to tell them how bad he was before any of them arrived, and how long it went on for; except he was so fragile that might trip another attack. And none of them would listen.

Who is in the worse situation? The rock star or the girlfriend?

If it was real life the answer is a no-brainer. But in story terms, it’s worse to be the girlfriend. So she’s the character we’re more interested in, the more natural focus for our curiosity. But many novice writers would make the rock star the central character.

Why is the girlfriend more fascinating to readers?

She has the heavier burden. She knows that if she could muster enough guts, wits and nous, she could stand up to the band and save her lover. Her conscience is telling her so. But she is outnumbered, has no clout, and even the boyfriend will listen to them rather than her. She is trapped and isolated with her problem. And even if he gets through this show, what about the next and the next? She is burdened with guilt and responsibility. He is burdened only with biology.

When writers want to make us concerned for a character they often try to enlist our sympathy with a trauma or a timebomb. But the reader knows the writer can use a timebomb as the whim takes them; either the rock star dies or doesn’t. Choices and decisions, though, exploit what stories do best; they pit characters against each other, against their own failings, fears and weaknesses. In the above scenario, although the reader might be concerned for the rock star as a fellow human being, they’ll really feel for the girlfriend.

Great stories make us walk in a character’s emotions. A terrific way to do that is to give characters difficult choices. Can she stand up to these people? Does she have the courage to do the right thing? What would it kick off? Will she muster the ability to convince people? We can follow this struggle. If she does the wrong thing, she carries it like a wound herself, but one that was made by the story and her own actions.

Thanks for the dilemma pic Unkreative.

Badge_topwebsiteIn other news, I just got the ‘Top website for Self-Publishers’ award from theroz birthday plus NYN2pics 052comp Alliance of Independent Authors. This badge is, according to their email, a benchmark to signify ‘excellence, integrity, creativity and helpfulness in the indie self-publishing world’. If anyone reading this helped it along – thank you. And if you liked this post, there is plenty more advice on getting the reader on your MC’s side in the Nail Your Novel characters book.

Okay, back to the subject. Let’s talk about stories where the writers get us rooting for the characters by the dilemmas they face. Indeed, have you done this in one of your stories?

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Past master: how to stop back story slowing your novel

Human – business evolutionI’ve had this email from Henry Boleszny, who is struggling with unwieldy back story:

My novel is more than 170,000 words without the back story, which I had to cull because it was 70,000 words. I tried eliminating it; the book was a shallow disaster.  I’ve tried summarising; it interrupted the story without explaining what was going on. The problem is that the culture and setting are predicated on an event 70 years before the story begins.  This is key to the protagonist’s behaviour, attitude and circumstances.   

The villain is involved 5 years before the story starts and works behind the scenes against the protagonist, who thinks the villain is dead. But if I don’t introduce the back story involving him, a lot of the story doesn’t make sense and characters’ reactions are hard to understand – especially in later books. I’m grateful for any suggestions.

Wow, Henry, I can see you’ve got a lot to squeeze in. And it’s far too much for the reader to catch up with. We need to restructure your story. This is what I would do.

Solution 1 – Try to simplify

DOES the story have to be this complex? Has it run away with you as you’ve added events and complications?

I frequently get myself into this kind of fix. I invent far more than I need. At some stage, I take a hard look and decide what I can streamline.

Take a blank sheet of paper and write down only the most important pieces of history. How do you decide that those are? They’re what help your readers understand the problems of your protagonist.

From other information you’ve told me, I know you’re writing a dystopia. There’s no better model than other novels that do it well – try Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both have a heck of a lot of explaining to do, but never overwhelm the reader. They begin with the protagonist on an ordinary day, coping with a feeling they don’t fit with the world. This is accessible and relatable to everyone, and lets the reader connect with the character’s humanity. So look at your world’s problems in terms of what disturbs or distresses your protagonist in their normal life.

Both those novels do eventually reveal a lot of back story. We do get to World 101 – why it’s in such a mess, on a knife edge and who made it that way. But we don’t find out for some considerable time. First, we bed in with the characters. When the larger chunks of back story are revealed, they are parallel to the protagonist’s state of mind. They come at a stage where the character is curious to ask these deeper questions: how did we go so wrong? How can I get out of it?

If you do this, you will see how little of your back story you need to get the plot running. Concentrate on the characters and what makes life hard for them – and preferably harder than for other people in the story, so that they are the canary in the coal mine. The protagonists of Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four are first and foremost unhappy misfits. Second, they are echoing a sense of humanity gone wrong.

Even so, the authors might not have told us everything they had developed. So while you’re simplifying, look out for ideas you could leave out (even if you’re proud of them).

nynfiller2Solution 2 – the opposite – expand and write the prequel

You made the back story this complex because it interests you, right? It’s become as important as the present story.

For instance, your villain had his heyday before your narrative starts. Why not write that story? And the main events happened 70 years before – that could be another story.

You could twine them together as parallel narratives – like The Godfather. Vito Corleone’s life is one strand: his son, Michael Corleone, is living in the world Vito made.

Now I can understand why you might not have thought to spotlight these stories. The outcomes, as we know, must be that baddies triumphed – a downbeat ending. But some books go like that – especially books about worlds. Think of A Game of Thrones – an epic series where some characters succeed and some fail. Your villain’s victory could surely be a dramatic story. People must have opposed him; he can’t have got away without a fight. Even if he succeeds, you could also suggest a twinkle of hope, a scrap of resistance that won’t stay quiet for ever.

 Solution 3 – add a newcomer

Another way into a complex world is to introduce it through a proxy character like John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series, who arrives on Mars from Earth. All the civilisation is new to him, which means he has to acclimatise along with the reader. (Same as John Carter in ER.)

You could also begin with a character growing up in the world, and having it explained – like Suldrun in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse series.

Thanks for the pic patriziasoliani

What would you say to Henry? Are there any books you would add to his reading list? Share in the comments!   

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compDystopias, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 are among the books and topics tackled in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life. Out now in all formats, including (ahem) combustible.

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