Posts Tagged Theme

Dialogue special part 3: subtext

8290528771_4ab84a0303_hIn part 1, I discussed how to get into the mental zone for writing dialogue. In part 2, I talked about the non-talking and action elements that also make a dialogue scene come alive. Which brings me to the natural conclusion of this trilogy of posts on dialogue – subtext.

What is subtext?

Put simply, subtext in dialogue is what’s between the lines.

I find it easiest to split it into two aspects – subtext for the characters and subtext for the author.

The former is the hidden agendas or feelings of the characters; these may be deliberate, unconscious or a mixture of the two. The latter is the author’s themes; the universe of the story influencing the language and tone.

Subtext and characters

Novel dialogue has to be more condensed and purposeful than real-life chattering. As writers, we need to pick the encounters that will show something significant about the characters, the way they interact, the way they view the story events.

Subtext is useful when we don’t want to show this significance plainly. Indeed, it might be jarring if a character says ‘I don’t think you love me any more’ or ‘I know you meant to kill Jane’. It’s more human if characters say things indirectly, or the reader can intuit that they are grasping at a thought – perhaps one they haven’t fully acknowledged.

Another use of subtext is to demonstrate that characters know each other well. They might make assumptions about what is said, answer what they think the other person meant, rather than the literal words. Perhaps they’re in a situation where plain speaking isn’t possible. This gives a layer of depth under the superficial conversation, like a kind of code.

So if the characters are having an argument about a washing machine, they might also be displaying what’s wrong with their relationship. Perhaps one of them is always leaving all the household tasks to the other, or is much fussier than the other. Maybe the characters are flirting but not wanting to admit it. If you explore what might be left unsaid, it’s a terrific way to build tension.

When subtext works well, we can feel these agendas vibrating – but it doesn’t look obtrusive.

Subtext and the author’s thematic intentions

Subtext can also be wider than just the characters’ little world. It can resonate with the whole conceptual problem your story is tackling. So in My Memories of a Future Life the narrator remarks that she feels as though she’s in a dream where she’s been thrown out into a hostile world with nothing to protect her. This states one of the themes of the story – the difficulty and pain of a major life-change. (It also arises naturally from the action.)

How to do it

Subtext has to look natural (unless you’re aiming for an artificial effect). You’re building it from a scene where characters need to talk to each other, so that’s where you start. Don’t do it the other way round or the reader will feel jarred out of the spell of the story. Figure out what the characters will say on the superficial level, then make it stand for more than that. As with all aspects of dialogue, you might need a few passes to really hone it. I find this kind of editing very creative and rewarding (but then, I do like editing…).

For character subtext, play with Freudian slips, misunderstandings, questions that one character might be avoiding, coded dialogue, tensions that can’t be expressed. Look for underlying harmony and agreement too; it’s not all negative or sinister.

For thematic subtext, pay attention to your authorly portrayal of the scene. Look for suggestive synonyms, imagery, a dark bird sitting on the skyline that makes an ominous shape, church bells that suggest a celebration. The characters probably won’t demonstrate they are aware of this kind of subtext – unless they’re a first-person narrator.

Does every conversation in a novel need subtext?

By no means. Although subtext is very satisfying, not every line – or scene – has to have a hidden meaning. Sometimes characters just chat. :)

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

Thanks for the iceberg pic NOAA’s National Ocean Service

 

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3 ways your novel might carry unwanted junk

junkIt’s a writer’s prerogative to change their mind. All the time. It’s called revision. We’re steering the story one way, then a stronger idea comes along, or a development proves impossible, or an editor or beta reader persuades us to do something else instead.

As we cut, add and rearrange, our drafts build up unwanted junk. Here are three ways this might be tripping the reader up.

Plot and character

So we’ve changed our mind about where we’re pushing a character or a plot strand. We may have tidying to do.

When movies do this – particularly if they have to recut after shooting is finished – they have to patch the scenes they’ve already got. Inevitably we’ll see characters worrying about stuff that looks important but goes nowhere – often to irritating effect. But writers can edit in infinite detail. Are your characters making an issue of things that now don’t matter?

Theme

Quite often a theme won’t become apparent until we’ve wrangled the book through many drafts, but that doesn’t stop us stabbing in the dark to find it. Language, imagery, dialogue and setting will all reflect what we think the themes are. If we’ve had a few reorientations we might end up with theme schizophrenia. Although that can add up to a rich book, it could also make unholy muddle. Look for echoes of earlier themes when you revise – and decide if you still need them.

Structure

A town’s streets show the traces of its history. A road might be crescent-shaped because of a building that disappeared centuries ago. The town is stuck with that – but does your novel have story structures that are more fiddly than they need to be? Do your characters serpentine through the plot because they’re navigating vanished landmarks?

clutter2

Clutter or art?

BUT…

Novel-writing isn’t a science. Our story’s evolutionary dead ends might be like junk DNA – a sequence of instructions that seems to say: ‘grow wings, no don’t grow wings, it’s not a bird any more’. Once thought to be useless to a modern human being, junk DNA is now believed to be important – though what it does is still opaque and mysterious.

By serendipity, your novel’s junk DNA might enrich the themes, or provide quirky, unexpected contrast and relief. (Readers are generous and tend to think you have placed every word deliberately. They don’t know how much irrelevant rubbish passes through a book as well.)

Clutter and clarity

So maybe junk isn’t all bad. Sometimes it’s treasure. Other times, though, it can confuse the reader and clutter the story. Your manuscript will be leaner, more elegant, better honed if you strip it out.

Is your novel carrying the baggage of previous lives? Do you de-clutter your stories?

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Stuck on your novel? Write yourself a five-star review

No, I’m not telling you to go on Amazon or Goodreads and cheat. This is an exercise for the novel you haven’t finished yet. Especially if it’s giving you trouble.

I first suggested it in my purple writing book Nail Your Novel, as part of the section on revision, and it must have struck a chord because time and again it gets picked up by other writers around the blogosphere. Here’s KM Weiland and here it is most recently being passed on by Larry Brooks, at all stations from Jenna Bayley-Burke to Porter Anderson.

Since it’s proving so useful, I thought I’d take a more in-depth look at why we might do this.

But first, here’s what you do (from Nail Your Novel)

Imagine you are writing a blurb or a review and that you have understood everything the writer was trying to do. Be specific about the story, the themes and the mood…

When might you do this?

You could do it when you embark on major revisions, to firm up your ideas before you hack and slay. Or any time you’ve got in a muddle and lost faith. What you do is step back and write how you would like the book to work if all problems were solved. If you step away from the details and look at the big picture, you often find you are not as lost as you think. Whether you knew it or not, you have strong, specific ideas about what the book would be.

What should you put in it? Everything distinctive and exciting about your novel. This might be any or all of:

  • how the themes will work
  • the influence of the setting and what it brings to the story
  • the functions the characters might perform; perhaps whether they will be likable or not – and why that will be enjoyable
  • what the set-pieces are
  • why the big reveals will pack such a punch
  • the literary traditions the novel might fit into, if that’s your bag
  • the kind of readers who might enjoy it
  • if you’re planning a non-linear structure or something tricksy like two narrators, why that was a clever move.

You can probably see you have to do a bit of head-scratching, so this exercise is good for making you justify – and understand – your creative decisions.

The other times you might do this

The title of this post suggests you do it when stuck, but it’s also a very useful exercise to do it at the start, as a mission statement for what you hope the book will be. Especially in that first flush of enthusiasm when the idea is seductive and brilliant. When you’re courageous and undaunted – you simply know it will be good. It’s good to harness that for later when the honeymoon’s over.

Novels take so darn long to write that there usually comes a time when we’ve lost perspective. We confuse ourselves with infinite possibilities. We may even suspect we’ve ruined everything. If you wrote your ideal version review to start with, you have something to pull you back together. Even if the novel changes substantially in the writing, it’s useful to have a record of this early, optimistic vision. (It might have got richer, more sophisticated. Or you may find that fundamentally you’re still on course.)

Confidence

Most of all, this exercise gives us confidence. By confidence I don’t just mean feeling better; I mean clarity and boldness in the way we handle our material. We can pitch the mood, decide what themes to highlight, what word choices fit, what’s superflous. We can strengthen character motivations and plot. Novels that work well know where they’re going.

So if you’re feeling lost, write yourself a rave review. Spoil yourself and strengthen your novel.

Thanks for the pic Bidrohi >H!ROK<

Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence is available on Kindle and in print. Sign up for my newsletter!  Add your name to the mailing list here.

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Should you tie up all the ends when you type ‘The End’?

In the Norwegian version of the film Insomnia, one of the characters tells an anecdote that is never finished. It appears inconsequential, perhaps a throwaway line to illuminate character. But good scripts never contain spare remarks, and this interrupted fragment quivers through the rest of the story like a deep note from a cathedral organ.

It is like the job the characters are doing – investigating a murder and having to create the ending for themselves. It  returns later when parts of the story become dreamlike and the main character is tormented by guilt. It is like the everlasting arctic sunlight that won’t allow the day to end.

So leaving this anecdote hanging is a rather clever move by the writers.

 

Closure

Stories need closure – of course they do. We need to feel they ended in the right place. In most genres this does mean tying up all the ends and solving the mysteries. (We’ve all been infuriated by novels that are deliberately teasing us towards their sequels – The Hunger Games and Twilight. They don’t seem to be playing fair.)

In most genres, the fun for the punters is wondering how the murderer will get caught, how the romantic twosome will get together, how the battle was won, how the world was saved (or lost). That’s what they’re there for.

But if you are writing a story that aims to go deeper than the events, perhaps you don’t want to tie everything up or explain everything.

Resonance

Insomnia ties up most of its physical threads – it ends when the case ends. But morally it is anything but neat. The characters leave the story with unfinished business and nagging burdens – and this is its true power. It is the toll paid by those who have to deal with murder. The viewer carries it too, as sharer of this experience in all its ambiguity. (Did ever a post try so hard not to give spoilers?) It plays fair, but it deepens the mystery.

Stories don’t always have to give us answers. Sometimes the questions they give us are as important.

Have you got a favourite story that doesn’t answer all its questions? Or do you hate it when writers do that? Share examples, good and bad, in the comments!

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. Not too late to nab a Kindle copy if you’re aiming to be a Wrimo!

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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Three curmudgeons from my school days: guest post at For Books’ Sake

I’m glad I wore my hat to meet these folks. They host live literary events around the UK, one of which was the recent Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Manchester, which featured on BBC Radio. Other writerly shindigs have made it to Channel 4′s TV Book Club, the pages of Company, Woman & Home and The Bookseller. One reviewer has described them as ‘blowing the cobwebs away from the literary world and infusing it with colour and life’. If you want to clasp them to your bosom already, skip the rest of this spiel and go there now.

They are For Books’ Sake, an online community that showcases classic and contemporary writing by women writers past and present. They rather like the look of My Memories of a Future Life and have asked me over to write about three characters who blew my own literary cobwebs away. So I whirled time back to my school days and picked out three fellas I’m glad I met between the pages and not in real life. Don a mad hat and come on over.

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Plot is linear, story doesn’t have to be

I put a tweet up this morning that’s been causing trouble. I was summarising a point from Ingrid Sundberg’s series on plots.

In my tweet I summarised a paragraph I thought made a great point: ‘Plot is always linear, but story doesn’t have to be.’ And so the tweet-storm began, showing that such a point can’t be adequately explored in a space the size of a bird’s chirrup.

Eh?

First a few definitions. In the nature of a self-taught craft, we all mean slightly different things by our writing terminology. Indeed sometimes I’ve used ‘linear’ to mean a predictable plot with no twists and surprises (as in Nail Your Novel). Here, I’m using linear to mean, as Ingrid did, A, then B, then C… and so on – possibly (hopefully) with surprises, reversals etc. In other words, the timeline of the characters’ lives in chronological order. What they saw as the clock ticked through each day and night. That’s linear.

Spice it up

But storytellers don’t have to stick to that order.

We cut away to another story – a sub-plot, a parallel plot. Maybe slip in some back story. And if we have a scene that ends on tenterhooks, we shuffle a few cards in from a different pack to keep the reader tingling a little longer. That’s the storytelling part of the job – what you do with the material.

You could cut the deck and put it together in a different order, like Pulp Fiction. You could tell it backwards like Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, or Daniel Wallace’s Ray In Reverse.

Use the shuffling as an integral part of the story and you end up with the time-hops of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – although that novel has both because the main character’s life unfolds chronologically and everyone else’s timeline jumps around.

On Twitter, Marc vun Kannon leaped on my tweet to point out: ‘Plot is not always linear. It’s easier to synopsize if it is, though.’

Good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this at greater length is that I see manuscripts where the writer has attempted something daring with structure, but has got themselves confused. I know it not just from the text, but from the shiver of horror when I ask ‘just tell me, chronologically, this character’s life in the book’. It’s incredibly easy to confuse a reader, especially if you’re making it up as you go along.

Do it in order first

If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is. In some cases, it might be better to write it like that first, then mix it up later. If you do it that way, you can also experiment with the best possible order.

Be deliberate

Good storytelling is about doing only what’s necessary. Some novice writers seem to do it without any clear artistic reason. You shouldn’t do it just because you can. Check that your fiddling and shuffling does actually add something. Again, taking Memento as an example, on the DVD you can watch it in chronological order and you can see that version is not nearly as interesting.

In my novel Life Form 3 I decided my most interesting hook came a quarter of the way through. So I lopped off the first section – but instead of consigning it to back story I made it into a mystery, which the character had to unlock. This gave the story far more tension and momentum.

If your novel is exploring themes, you might find you can reinforce these by the way you cut between different sets of characters. Shakespeare is fond of this – in King Lear he has the scene where Lear splits his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to play ball, then shortly afterwards we see the sub-plot characters talking about legitimate and illegitimate offspring. This creates the sense of a universe where the usual laws of family are going to be bent and upset.

Okay, I’ve run out of examples for now. Give me yours in the comments!

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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Music as a form of spiritual possession… and other matters

Over at the red home of My Memories of a Future Life I’ve been a bit more active than I anticipated. I’ve been writing material to put up nearer to my novel’s release, but  people have already been asking me questions – which can only be answered in posts. In case you’re curious, here are the first three posts:

The blood-red piano – music as spiritual possession

I don’t believe in reincarnation

Glimpses – my first paragraph

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It’s a cover! My Memories Of A Future Life – and how to find your novel’s theme

A crucial part of introducing your novel to agents or directly to readers is identifying your novel’s central theme. But that can be mighty hard to do. Here’s how I did it

Final tweaks are being twaught. Kindle hell beckons. Blurb hell too. But cover hell is over, at least the front.

And what theme is this pretty book scratching away at, you may ask? What questions are burning out of the red piano and the blue sky?

Answering that has caused me considerable grief. The journey in the book takes 100,000 words. How do I find one sentence – just one – that captures the heart of it?

It took me a while. Much pacing up and down.

My first thought was, it feels like it’s about the whole of life itself. Everything. The universe.

As a theme, ‘everything’ was a bit, well, vague. And it’s the very least you’d expect of a self-respecting well-rounded novel.

Then I made lists of common themes in fiction, as if I was doing an essay for A-level English. It was no help at all.

Everything seemed to fit. Love, loss, friendship, fate. Cheating, lying, haunting, being haunted. Nature, confinement, superstition, the weather. It was easier to find themes that weren’t in the book than themes that were.

I had to pull away from ‘subjects’, because every multi-layered novel will have plenty of them. So I asked myself: what are people doing in this book that gives it its distinctive flavour?

It had to come down to the MC. Her relationships. Her central problem. The patterns that repeat again and again with everyone she meets. The things she reacts to that show what she’s searching for. Her peculiar situation and what she needs to understand.

After quarrying down that seam, I had it. This is what My Memories of a Future Life is about.

How do you find where you belong?

Red piano: Bonnie Schupp Photography at iStockPhoto

Have you found your novel’s theme yet? If so, how did you do it? And if you have, share it in the comments

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Pretty, precious, purple – talking prose with Victoria

What makes good writing? Victoria Mixon and I are fearlessly grappling with this question in this week’s editor chat, over at her wood-panelled lacy writing nest. Highlight? Victoria threatens to shave her head and move to Tibet Om your way over and see if you can stop her…

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How I know when I’ve got the right ending for my novel

There are often a number of ways to end a story. Many options might be logical or surprising. How do you pick the right one?

What makes a good ending? Three words: surprising, inevitable and right.

The first two categories are linked – and come down to what events you choose and how you seed them.

For me, thinking of events isn’t the biggest problem. I can think of many ways to tie up a tale. What I want is the one that will be right.

What is the right ending?

A story is more than a series of stepping stones. It is an emotional journey. There is a reason why it finishes where it does. The end comes when there is a natural feeling of resolution, that the problem, whatever it was, is solved and will never need to be revisited (unless you’re brewing a sequel). So a good ending is more than the knotting of loose threads. It has a quality that psychologists call closure. It is a feeling that there is nothing more to deal with.

How I find the right ending

To find my true ending, I go to the beginning. I look at the core question that is asked, and all the underlying subcurrents. What does the character need, today, next week, in the long-term future? Why are these such big issues? What about the questions they don’t even know about yet, which will be uncorked as they go through the story?

I ask myself what it will feel like when all those are answered. For My Memories of A Future Life, my adult novel which is currently on submission, the answer came on one of my running sprees. Exhaustion plus endorphins often lead me to interesting insights, particularly when a story is keeping itself obscure. I pounded along with, of all things, the George Michael album Older in my headphones. You may smirk but at the end was a short wistful track with one lyric: ‘feels so good to be free’. Sure it’s cheesy, but My Memories of A Future Life would not be done until the MC was able to say that.

I also realise it’s the song for the end of Life Form 3, the MG novel I am now finishing, and it could well be for the next adult novel I am incubating… hey maybe I’m developing an authorly theme here. But when I first drafted Life Form 3 I had a different ending. It had logic and surprise, but not closure. So I took my running shoes for a spin (with Boards of Canada and Peter Gabriel, since you ask), and examined all the questions in the character’s life. That guided me to ditch the final third of the novel and feel my way to the ending that brings true resolution.

Last words first

The children’s writer Alan Garner, author of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, would think of the last line of his novel before any of the others. That’s when he knew he was ready to start writing.

I don’t necessarily plan the last line, but I do plan the last feeling, or the vibe of the shot if it was a movie. When I have brought the story there, I know I have the right ending. (Thank you, Moriartys, for the pic)

How do you find the right ending for your story?

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