Archive for category Plots

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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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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3 ways the author temperament hinders our writing – post at Authors Electric

aecharsCharacters and personality. Not the ones in your books: I’m talking about you, the brain that’s parked snugly behind your eyes and the temperament that feels the urge to write. Sometimes our human wiring is not ideal for creating the kind of havoc we need for stories – which is quite amusing in its own way.

Anyway, I’m enjoying this conundrum today at Authors Electric – do jump the gap and see.

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How to strengthen a story idea

3974310450_ca7f340f7eI had this interesting question from Kristy Lyseng on Twitter: What would you do if you’ve tested your story idea and realised it wasn’t strong enough?

Once upon a time, an idea caught your eye. You wanted to spend tens of thousands of words exploring it. Maybe you now can’t remember that, or the work you’ve done has left you weary and muddled.

If we’re talking about an idea that hasn’t been written yet, the first thing I’d do is make it new again. Recreate the gut ‘wow’.

OMG I must write this

I forget everything I’ve tried to do with the idea so far. I identify what grabbed me when the idea was fresh and new.

I also forget what anyone else has done with it, if they have. It’s easy to end up intimidated by other treatments, especially if I’m frustrated. I disregard all that and find what originally demanded I work with the idea.

I create a mood board. I write down random phrases, images, dialogue snatches that the idea suggests to me. As a shorthand I might note moments from other novels or movies, or snatches of music. Anything to capture the excitement I first felt.

Make it fun

The chances are, I’m disappointed with the pointless work I’ve done so far. Ideas will flow better if I’m not reproaching myself. After all, the original idea came unbidden.

le moulin 2555As much as possible, I make this process feel like play. Instead of typing on a computer, I write by hand. I often use the gaps in expired appointments diaries, scribbling notes in a different-coloured pen, or using the pages upside down. This lets me brainstorm without judging the results. Or I go somewhere I don’t usually write – cafes, a bench overlooking a view, a Tube train.

If you use Pinterest you could also start a board for your idea, but I’m not disciplined enough and will probably get lost on a browsing spree. :)

Where to take the idea?

Once I’ve made the idea feel new again, I start thinking about where it can go.

I start new lists for

  • characters and what they want
  • themes
  • settings
  • dramatic events that fit with the idea.

Batteries recharged, I can now face looking at what others have done. I search on Amazon for books tagged with keywords. LibraryThing has even better tags – here’s the page for My Memories of a Future Life and its tags, which I can click on to find other books that tackle the same subjects. (I would do the same on Goodreads but haven’t been able to work out how.) I also use the website TV Tropes (here’s how I use it to fill gaps in my story outline). All these resources will suggest the kinds of events, characters, conflicts and quests I could have.

Importantly, they’ll also help me discard some possibilities. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I get a heartsink feeling whenever I look over some of my notes. Clearly I’m not interested in that aspect of the characters’ world, even though other writers have tackled it. So I’ll play it down.

When is the idea strong enough?

Ultimately the idea is strong enough when I know:

  • who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
  • what people are trying to do
  • how it will get worse
  • what the setting is
  • why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
  • a rough structure – what kicks off the drama and various twists that will form the turning points. Sometimes I decide the end beforehand, or I let it find itself once I’m writing.

You might have covered all these bases but the story still seems limp. In that case, beef up the material you have -

  • increase the stakes so that the goal matters more to the characters
  • make it more difficult for them to get what they want
  • turn up the conflict between the characters.

You don’t have to get it all instantly

villa saraceno 131

Compost – for now

This is important. Some ideas need to be shut away and wiped from your fretting brain. If the idea looks feeble, don’t junk it. Give it a sabbatical. The Venice Novel, which I talked about in the TV Tropes post, has worn out my ingenuity for now so I’ve put it in the deep compost department. Meanwhile another novel I thought I’d worried to shreds has – to my surprise – woken up with real substance. I’m working on the detailed outline. For now I’m calling it The Mountain Novel.

Partner it with another idea

Sometimes an idea doesn’t have enough juice on its own. But it’s still worth working it as far as you can. A few key elements in My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form 3 began as separate story ideas. Negligible on their own, they harmonised perfectly in a bigger work.

Don’t be afraid to restart

Sometimes we go wrong with an idea or get lost. If I’m in the early stages, trying to work out what to do with an idea, I return to the pure inspiration and look for a stronger angle. If I’ve already drafted and the story doesn’t seem to matter enough, I look at ways to turn up the heat. (Speaking of which, thanks for the distillation pic Brankomaster.)

Have you had to strengthen a story idea? What did you do? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. Book 2 is now under construction – sign up for my newsletter for details as soon as they become available. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

 

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What if… 3 ways gamebooks teach us how to tell terrific stories

This week I’ve been proof-reading one of Dave’s gamebook series, which is due to be rereleased next year.

Gamebooks, for the unnerdly, are interactive adventures (sometimes called Choose Your Own). The story is printed in scene sections, out of order, which end with a choice – trust the blind beggar or not, decide whether to look for your enemy in the town or the desert. Although I’m not a gamebook fan (apologies to those who are), I’m finding the process rather interesting.

Choices and consequences

First of all, what happens in each thread depends on the character’s personality and previous moral choices. So if they’re captaining a pirate ship, in one version they’re jolly tars and in the other it’s mutiny.

Choices are crucial to good stories. Stuff happens – not because a god dumped events into the plot, but because characters did things, usually under pressure. In a gamebook these choices create a unique path through the adventure. But whatever kind of story you’re writing, the chain reaction of choice and consequence is an essential.

Experimenting with scenes

To proof Dave’s books, I’m not reading one thread at a time, but front cover to back – which is jumbling the story into random episodes. It also means I encounter each scene in many versions.

This was like an x-ray of my plotting and revision process. I make copies of each scene and write umpteen iterations looking for tighter tension, more resonant changes, more interesting (but honest) ways to keep the reader on their toes. In fact my outtakes are rather like my novel in gamebook form, with all its possibilities – what if she says this, what if the characters had met before in different circumstances, what if y had happened before x?

(In fact Dave said this experimenting was part of the fun – he could play each scene several ways instead of having to settle for a single one as he would in a novel. The pic shows his flowcharts. BTW, the print books are Lulu editions for proofing only. Yes, we know the covers are horrible.)

Exploring possibilities is something that writers are often scared by. Often they want to keep a scene the way they first imagined it. But the more we squeeze a scene to see what it can do, the stronger a novel will be.

Endings

Because the gamebook contains many journeys, there are also many ends – deaths that are daft or valiant, failures to complete the quest, heroic rescues, solutions where honour wasn’t fully satisfied. Usually only one ending hits the mark. (In gamebooks that’s traditionally the last paragraph, by the way.)

Finding the right ending in a novel usually takes a lot of false starts. But you don’t get there unless you try all the permutations of success or failure and the shades between.

Get the experimenting mindset

To get in the experimenting mood, grab a gamebook and read it in a way it’s not intended to be – from page 1 to the end. You’ll see the many ways an encounter can go, the options for a scene of dialogue, the possibilities for your ending. Once you’re loosened up, go back to your WIP and play.

(Here’s the titles that are currently available in the series I’m proofing for Dave, but gamebook fans can probably point you to other goodies.)

Thanks for the signpost pic Shahram Sharif

Do you feel able to experiment with your stories? If so, what helps you? Share in the comments!  

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A site to help you fill the gaps in your story outline

I’m shuffling ideas for The Venice Novel and I’ve come across a fantastic site that’s helping me clarify where I want to take the story.

It’s called Television Tropes and Idioms. But don’t be fooled by its name. Tropes doesn’t mean cliches; it means story conventions and readers’ expectations. In fact, you can use the site as a cliche and stereotype warning – it tells you what’s already been done to death so you can keep your story and characters fresh and original. And the site includes movies and novels as well – of all types, all genres (and even stories that don’t fit easily anywhere).

I’m using it to fill gaps. At the moment I have a rudimentary cast of characters and a fundamental conflict, so I need to see what else could gather around it. Poking around in the subject sections (‘topical tropes’, in the left sidebar) suggested a lot more places I could take the characters and ways to develop the plot. It also gave me ideas for more defined roles my characters could play.

If you want to hit a particular genre, zip down the left-hand sidebar and look up ‘literature’ and you’ll find a list of categories to clarify where you fit. You can also check you’ve covered enough bases to satisfy readers and identify possibilities you might not have thought of.

But even if you don’t fit traditional pigeonholes (like certain folks I could mention), you can look up story ingredients, such as ‘war’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘family’ – just for instance, under the latter you get a delicious sub-list with suggestions like ‘amicably divorced’, ‘hippie parents’, ‘dysfunctional’.

Some writers get their first inspirational spark from a setting – if that’s you, you can research how other authors have done your setting justice, from pre-history to ‘4000 years from now (and no jetpack)’.

One of the other things I like about it – very much – is its tone. No judgements are made about whether genres are fashionable, overworked, lowbrow or highbrow. It’s all about celebrating how stories work – or sometimes don’t. As we know, that comes down to the writer’s skill anyway, not whether a ‘subject’  is en vogue. And after a few hours in the company of their rather breezy descriptions, not only will you be better informed, you will be spurred to avoid the lazy story decision.

If you’re sprucing up your outline – especially as NaNoWriMo looms – spend an afternoon exploring Television Tropes and give your story a thorough workout.

Do have any go-to sites when you’re planning a novel – and how do you use them? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

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If something matters in your story, your characters must earn it

Here’s one of the timeless problems with novels. The reader knows the author can do anything they like. And one of the things I see in manuscripts is that the author has the story firmly by the ears and is steering it. Enough to make me wince.

Being killed or falling in love

In real life, love can just happen, right? A glance across a crowded room might be enough. And, at the less optimistic end of the spectrum, people do just die.

But in stories they can’t if it’s convenient for the plot. You have to work harder to earn that development. There may have been a time when you could erase a villain by striking him down on the golf course, but very few readers will swallow that now.

Finding the murderer

In some manuscripts, detectives find their suspects far too easily. If the murderer is Chinese, all they have to do is go to the Oriental supermarket and chat. Hey presto, a vital clue.

When characters get information they badly want, it needs to be hard won. It’s a way for the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, bravery, doggedness. Or maybe gullibility, if that’s what you want.

In fact, it’s better if they chase the wrong lead for a while. Suppose the person he talked to was protecting the real villain. Remember, stories aren’t a linear escalator to a success, they need slips and reversals. In Silence of the Lambs, a SWAT team stakes out a house – and it turns out to be the wrong one. This blunder dramatically raises the stakes for the heroine who is about to confront the killer on her own. In The Day of the Jackal, the police seem to have discovered the assassin’s true identity but at the end he’s revealed as the wrong guy – a neat twist in the coda that preserves the mystery. (If you didn’t know that, um sorry…)

Fight scenes

Many writers mistake where the real drama is in a fight scene. They think it’s the trading of blows, or perhaps the natter that goes on (rather unrealistically) between them. But readers know that the writer can keep all that going as long as needed. The police won’t burst in until the right moment. The roof won’t collapse, no matter how much it’s wobbling.

What makes a satisfying end to a fight? It has to be a surprise. Perhaps it’s storytelling sleight of hand. In the film of Georges Simenon’s Red Lights, a whisky bottle bought earlier by the protagonist is smashed and turned into an impromptu weapon.

Perhaps the reader is convinced the hero can’t win. In the climax of Goldfinger the story has established that James Bond can’t beat Oddjob in a straight fight – so when he outsmarts him and electrocutes him with an electric cable, we’re so surprised that we feel the win is deserved. (Moreover, Oddjob had sliced the electric cable with his hat – a neat comeuppance.)

Another satisfying way for a protagonist to win a fight is if they complete an arc – perhaps defeating the monster inside themselves. Or – like in Blade Runner when Roy Batty saves Deckard instead of killing him – a complex victory for both.

A story is not just what happens, but how and why. And one of your jobs as a writer is to make failure possible and triumph surprising. The more an event or discovery matters, the more your characters have to earn it.

Thanks for the lightning pic, Opacity

Do you have favourite examples of earned victories or discoveries? Share in the comments!

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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Are dream sequences in novels always taboo?

I’ve had a question from Mark Landen, host of the website Criticular:

‘I’ve had an idea for my book that I’m loving, but it involves a dream sequence. Is that taboo?’

Listen. Can you hear that seething noise? It’s writers, readers and other lit-minded folk sucking their teeth. When bloggers list the top 10 things they don’t want to see in a book, dream sequences are consistently there.

But smart writers know nothing’s forbidden. What those lists really mean is ‘handle with care’. So how should we handle dreams?

First of all, why are dreams so attractive to writers?

  • It’s the chance to be more creative with setting, language, reality, whimsy, imagery. A very tempting opportunity to luxuriate in prose.
  • You can explore issues the character may not want to face in real life, either to give the reader clues or to prod the character to a new realisation (or strengthen their denial)
  • You can dredge up forgotten memories or show flashbacks

Where do they go wrong?

  • On a practical level, the reader knows dream sequences are not ‘real’. They also know your book isn’t either, but you persuade the reader to go with you. But an extra level of fictionality can be a step too far.
  • Dreams often don’t change anything in the story (depending on your genre, of course). Scenes that don’t result in some kind of change or new understanding feel static – again the reader might feel like they’re wasting time. If the dream does cause a change, it might stretch credibility – when did any of us actually do something because we had a dream?
  • There’s usually a better storytelling solution. If you want a flashback, why not use a flashback? Or, better, find another way to show the information? Many novice writers have a particular intention with a scene but aim for it too literally. Instead of a flashback, could you use the elements in a more organic way? Have a character find an old photograph, or learn something from a friend in a way that deepens their relationship or causes more trouble? Or instead of dumping the revelation in one place, could you dissolve it more thoroughly through the story, tease the information into a mystery, perhaps?

The too-creative dream

Dreams in novels can get too creative. In real life dreams are so delicious – a jumble of memories from the day’s events, minutiae you never knew you’d noticed, wonky input from anything you’ve ever forgotten. Possibly brought to you by TooMuchCheeseBeforeBedtime.com.

What makes them involving is the vast, surprising sense they make to you – and they probably make no sense to anyone who doesn’t have your exact history. Certainly to create such an experience for the reader would be a creative tour de force. But the effect comes from context. Without that it is no more than an indulgent digression.

The truest representations of dreams are usually found in magic realism – where they are, in fact, part of the real action.

Should you use a dream sequence? A checklist

  • Be aware that the reader is thinking ‘do I need to pay attention to this’?
  • And ask yourself: ‘is there another way?’

But sometimes a dream is just perfect. Here are two of my favourites.

Two divine dream sequences

Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca starts with a long, languid dream. That’s two taboos in one, according to the list-makers. So why is it justified? Because it’s very relatable – a puzzled visit to the burned-out shell of the character’s old home, Manderley, which would be impossible for the character in reality. It’s a startling moonlit exploration of memories and feelings and the romanticism of it charms us. It also sets up a note of tragedy for the story to unfold. And the character tells you up front that it’s a dream – whereas a novice writer might make you wander through the moonlit house and then pull reality away.

My other divine second dream sequence is from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Scattered, absurd and vivid, it’s a real cheese dream. Characters fade into each other, a butler announces that the only way to get to the dining room is to ride the pony there, a discussion of buses turns into ‘mechanical green line rats’. It comes near the end of the book, so the figures are familiar and it serves as a poignant wrap-up, and also marks the disintegration of the character’s life. Better still, because all good storytellers find clever ways to reuse their material, it has an unexpected consequence in the real world (which I’m not going to tell you…)

Do you have a favourite dream sequence in fiction? Or do you want to nominate a stinker? Tell me in the comments

Thanks for the cheesy moon pic, Davedehetre on Flickr. And in case you don’t know Mark, you might be interested in his website Criticular – a writing and critiquing community for fiction writers. Thanks for a great question, Mark!   

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Foreshadowing: how a sore thumb can prepare you for a brutal beating

I have a soft spot for hypnotists, as anyone who’s read My Memories of a Future Life will readily believe. Required viewing in our house is the illusionist Derren Brown – and part of the fun is how he puts a show together as a story.

In the first show of his latest series, The Experiments, he tested whether a nice ordinary bloke could be conditioned to assassinate a celebrity – and then, like the man convicted of shooting Robert Kennedy, have no memory of doing the deed*.

It’s a lot to believe, for both volunteer and viewer. There were the obligatory demonstrations. We saw the lucky chap develop super-marksmanship under hypnosis. He was put in a trance and did things he couldn’t remember.

But he could have been faking, of course. So before any of these demonstrations were done, the audience had to be primed to believe they could be true.

With some nifty foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing, sometimes known as prefigurement, is a way of suggesting developments that may happen later in a story so that the reader is more ready to accept them.

1 Foreshadowing amnesia

Derren mentioned moments of amnesia we all naturally have – driving a familiar route and not remembering the journey, or if you locked the front door. Hey presto, amnesia is something that could happen to us all.

This is what a writer might do if a story pivoted on an event the reader might find hard to believe if confronted with it cold.

Imagine a story that revolves around mistaken identity. Before you see the actual mistake, the ground is prepared obliquely. So a man meeting his wife off the train might hug the wrong woman, fooled by her coat. Or two characters might talk about a situation where a friend got in the wrong car. You think the scene’s about something else – perhaps their friendship – but it plants the seed that mistaken identity could happen to anyone. So when later it does, it’s easier to swallow.

2 Foreshadowing the killer trance

The assassin in Derren’s experiment was activated when he saw polka dots. This was demonstrated in action a few times. But before all that, we were primed too.

While Derren was describing what witnesses saw when Kennedy was shot, he mentioned a woman in a polka-dot dress. It seemed like one of those details to make the story more vivid, as insignificant as what time it was or whether canapes were served. Until he introduced his visual trigger later in the show – polka dots. On a handkerchief. As a surprise picture on the inside of a restaurant menu.

Now we remembered they were associated with something sinister. And in the climax, they appeared on a dress…

And the sore thumb?

In Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven, a blacksmith remarks that if you whack your thumb in cold weather it hurts a lot more. Not long afterwards, on an icy cold day, Little Bill gets in a fight with English Bob. But this is more than Little Bill playing football with English Bob, we’re primed to feel the pain of the blows. Unforgiven is a world where everything is a struggle, where people are fragile. And a sore thumb tells us a kicking is really nasty.

*Derren Brown’s show was testing one theory of the assassination. The true circumstances are of course more complex than summarised by him or here in this post. This isn’t a post about that, it’s about storytelling. To check out more thorough examinations of the assassination, see this piece.

Skilled storytellers don’t leave your reaction to chance. More often than you think, they’re planting clues to finely control the way you feel.

As always, give me examples you’ve noticed! Or used in your own fiction

Starts November 14: How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, starting November.  Find more details and sign up here.

Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon.

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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Here be no dragons – fantasy stories in a non-fantasy world

We’ve been away for a few days and one of my holiday reads was David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (appropriately enough, as we stayed at an eighteenth-century hunting lodge by the name of Fox Hall). Written in the 1920s, Lady Into Fox is about a man whose wife transforms into a fox shortly after their wedding. They are devotedly in love and determined that this strange change does not matter. He dismisses the servants and shoots the over-excited dogs. She wears clothes, bathes fastidiously and continues to eat her favourite well-bred breakfast of ham and eggs. But her feral nature grows stronger. She forgets to walk on her hind legs and starts to chase ducks – and his struggles to keep her civilised grow more desperate.

Mention fantasy and most of us assume a story set in a world of mythical beings, dragons, elves, unicorns, vampires, magic-doers and medieval technology. But the fable, fantasy’s discreet cousin, is another breed entirely.

In Lady Into Fox, the world and its trappings are normal. There is a hint that the lady’s transformation may be a long-buried family trait; her maiden name is Fox and she has russet hair. That’s the only attempt at explanation; this happening is what it is. Nothing similar befalls anyone else, either. It seems the act of marriage has put this lady in a peculiar state of animal rebellion.

It reminds me (very obliquely) of Dean Spanley, the film based on Lord Dunsany’s novella, in which a clergyman may be the reincarnation of a spaniel. The mood is somewhat lighter and in Dean Spanley, the fabulous happening may be all in the minds of the characters. However, the author is teasing the audience to believe too. There’s a whiff of sorcery when a swami gives a lecture on the transmigration of souls. The Dean remarks that cats don’t like him. He has a weakness for Tokay, which gives him licence for almost hallucinatory flights of fancy as a young, gambolling spaniel. And finally we go along with the fantasy – because of what it will mean to the characters.

Fantasy doesn’t have to take place in a fantasy world.

Thanks for the pic, liz_com1981

While I unpack and catch up on emails chaos, tell me – do you have any favourite unusual fantasy or fable-type stories? Share in the comments!

 

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