Archive for category How to write a book
7 swift storytelling hacks for back story, description, dialogue, exposition, point of view and plot
I’ve just finished a developmental edit and, as always, I enjoyed how it refreshed my appreciation of storytelling essentials.
I thought I’d share them here in case they’re useful.
Don’t make back story about the past. Let back story tell us about the characters in the present. Their attitudes, aspirations, aversions, aptitudes… Also, remember back story is only half the equation. The other half is how it affected that individual.
Physical description does more than create a visual image of a character – this person is tall, this person has long hair. It also tells us about the experience of being in someone’s presence. For instance, a person might have an unsmiling aura that makes other people feel like they’ve said the wrong thing. Or a worried expression, as if they’re always expecting calamity.
Some writers always tell us about characters’ eyes, or the kind of shoes someone wears. That’s fine if they have one narrator or viewpoint character, but if they have several, it looks weird. Vary your descriptive tics!
Actions can help with description too. If characters are having a conversation and one of them pushes their hands through their hair, what is conveyed by that action? Is it a random fidget, a gesture of thinking? Is it a reaction so something the other person has said?
Which brings me to…
Dialogue is more than information. It is a way for characters to affect each other, and for the reader to witness it. Think beyond speech. Show how the characters maybe make each other uncomfortable, or amuse each other, or infuriate each other. Or how one is comfortable and one is not. So don’t miss out reactions in dialogue – they’re just as important as what characters are saying.
This usually works best if it has an emotional dimension – the character notices something because it illuminates something about their mood or feelings. So they might notice the décor because they are irritated by it, maybe because it reminds them of something they once hated; or they might feel cheered up by it.
There are two narrative steps to giving information (exposition). Step one is the information you want to give the reader. Step two is finding a way to give it that is as natural, interesting and intriguing as possible. Usually, you have to give it in a way that also serves another purpose – such as demonstrating something about the viewpoint character. It might show us they’re good at something, or afraid of something, or traumatised by something – or bad at something! Check you’ve done both steps – create the information (eg character background), then make it serve another narrative purpose as well.
Choosing point of view
When you have an event that could be described from a number of viewpoints, opt for the one that will experience most discomfort. This may not always be the person who is doing the most action – it might be someone who is observing, thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do about this?’
If you’re ever stuck for a plot idea, look for your characters’ interesting difficulties. Write your prose so that it highlights struggle, conflict, hard decisions. That way, you’ll keep the reader gripped.
And on the subject of writing, here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month.
It’s been a long journey. Five years ago, I started my novel Ever Rest. Fifteen drafts, and I now have the manuscript in a state where it’s fit to show to another person.
For the first time ever.
A curious feeling.
Like unveiling a massive secret
I never talk much about a work in progress (I’ve got a post about that here). I have never workshopped this novel or discussed it with a critique group, though I did base it on a short story I workshopped many years ago.
When I began in 2014, I brainstormed the concept with Husband Dave, but the book is now as far from those original thoughts as a wineglass is from sand.
I have shared tiny morsels of the plot with experts for research. Thank you, pathologists, musicians, priests, media lawyers, artists, expeditioners and mountaineers who answered my questions.
But the whole thing, I have kept to myself, done entirely alone.
Words in, words out
To begin with, I worried it would never get big enough. I had to change from short-form to long-form thinking (here’s a post about that).
For a while, I was pleased any time the wordcount went up. In the late drafts, once I knew what it was, I was relieved to see it drop again.
Under a crazy spell
In these finishing months, I have been a diligent writer and a negligent author-publisher. I’ve kept up with news about ways to stay visible and leads to pursue. I’ve made to-do lists. And I have not done them. The book needed my undivided attention and I could not imagine doing that other stuff, or how I had ever done it before.
But now it’s like a craze is passing. A sense of other priorities is returning.
It’s been like beginner dating
In the beginning, I was eager for comparison titles. Who were the readers who might get it? I looked for comparisons, according to themes, locations, inciting incidents. They were most unsuitable. Very well, it would be a misfit, so I wrote in a state of defiance, like a bolshy teenager. Now it’s become a recognisable shape after all, different from my expectations. I know where it might find friends.
I can break my reading diet
A developing book is fly paper. Any idea, style, mood might stick to it, and particularly from other books. See here for my detailed post about what I read while I’m writing.
Now, I can choose books for pure interest.
More to come
It’s not finished. There will be much to refine. but compared with what I’ve already done, the remaining work will be small. Details will change. Technicalities, repetitions. unclarities. plot goofs, realities I need to make more real. Layers that need more sparkle – or less. emphases that need to be adjusted. But it is now what it is. All changes will help it do that better.
Making new humans
There are people who compare the writing of a book to motherhood. I’m not a mother so I won’t appropriate that comparison, but I find I relate to the singleminded purpose that develops through a pregnancy. In this way, making a novel seems like making a new human. except I have made at least seven with hearts to inhabit, and several more who will test them. No wonder it’s been intense.
I am missing those characters. They are not completely lost to me, of course. I may have to adjust them. Later, the production phases will require that I read and reread anyway. But I miss that I might have no more to discover about them, no more to give or take away from them, because that was one of the pleasures of knowing them. Perhaps it’s good that I am not a parent. (There’s more about how to parent your characters here.)
Heart in mouth
Now it’s ready to be tested. A tightrope moment. Best not to look down.
It’s not over yet.
But it feels like it is.
Thanks for the pic Gusaap on Pixabay
PS There’s loads about organising a rewrite (or several) in my workbook
PPS More on editing fast, editing slow… here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month
It’s hard to see the flaws in our own work, and the ending is especially a problem. We know ourselves how it’s supposed to pack its punch, or we hope we do, but will the reader?
Here’s a handy test.
You’ve seen arrests in movies. And you know, don’t you, that a person may harm their defence if they don’t mention any evidence they later rely on in court.
This is like story endings.
A good ending
First of all, what’s a good ending? It has a feeling of ‘rightness’, even if it has surprises, leaves questions or unresolved issues. It must be fair (to the reader, not necessarily to the characters). It mustn’t look arbitrary.
When an ending fails, it’s usually because it wasn’t sufficiently set up.
It fails the arrest test.
Which is this:
It may harm your story’s effectiveness if you fail to mention any evidence (about events and character issues) that you later rely on …. at the end.
How do you spot this epic fail?
You may already be good at it.
We are in an era of long-running TV shows, which get cancelled or renewed at the last minute. Some writing teams can weather this with aplomb. Others collapse in a pickle of chaos. We’ve all seen a smart, richly written show that falls apart in a late episode and becomes unsatisfying, or ridiculous, or changes direction jarringly.
Behind this story implosion, there’s usually a script crisis. The showrunners might have planned a one-off series with an arc that finished nicely. Then late on, they’re told they’re being renewed and mustn’t wrap up after all. They can’t rewrite. The first episodes might even have been shown. So hasty rearrangements are needed at the end.
It happens the other way round too. The show is cancelled unexpectedly, so the writers must tidy up in a tearing hurry.
What the viewer sees is this.
- Heaps of new stuff is tipped in at the last minute.
- Things happen that haven’t been properly set up.
- Characters behave in ways that are hard to understand and don’t fit with what we know about them.
- There may be a lot more expositional scenes than before, which usually look contrived.
Don’t put anything in your ending that you haven’t seeded much earlier.
Back to evidence
Let’s stay with the arrest scenario and think about evidence.
Evidence is audience knowledge. And it must be revealed at the proper time.
Because a good, satisfying ending is built from knowledge and emotions the reader has gained throughout the entire book.
A health check for your ending
So here, in more detail, is the ‘under arrest’ test. Look for the following in your manuscript.
Any new characters or plotline that appear suddenly. After a certain point in the story, you shouldn’t introduce anything new. However, you can if you’ve paved the way for them (which means they’re not, actually, new). And you must be specific. If you add a long-lost cousin who becomes pivotal, we must know they might exist in the specific world of this story and that they might be drawn out of hiding. If you don’t make these preparations, it won’t look fair – even though most humans on the planet might have a long-lost cousin. (Though they might not all have had a long-lost Dalek.)
A new relationship or set of character feelings is revealed. He was adopted! She was always jealous of them! If you want to introduce a relationship surprise, make sure you’ve laid oblique and indirect clues. If a character does a thing that is surprising because they have a change of heart, does it make deep sense without lots of explanation? Or should you prepare more earlier?
Expositional scenes – how much are you having to explain? If you are giving long explanations, have you already got the reader insanely curious about these facts? Are they the subject of an ongoing mystery? If you’ve already primed the reader to want the answer, they’ll pay close attention to your explanation. If you haven’t, they’ll see it as an info-dump and you need to set it up much earlier so that they care about it all.
And if you need a long sequence of exposition, how do you handle it? Are you delivering it in the most interesting way? The most straightforward way is long speeches, which can look uneven – one person talks a lot, the other sits quietly, maybe drinking tea. Or you might convey it through thoughts and sudden realisations – which might also look dull and static. Instead, could you make these discoveries more dynamic? If a person is hearing the explanation, could it matter directly to them? Could some of the information be acquired by action rather than a long explanation?
Watch out for off-screen action you’ve introduced to fill logic holes. ‘I found this out because I phoned that guy you used to work with who I’ve never met before, I must admit, so a phone call is out of character for me…’ Yes, you should have written a scene shouldn’t you? Evidence, innit.
So… list everything the reader must understand to really ‘get’ your ending. A thread to be resolved, a thread to hang in a tantalising way, a note to sound your theme, a comedy twinkle or a note of sinister continuation. You could even write the ending you most want, then interrogate it with these questions to find out what to expand. Then you’ll have an ending that does your book justice.
Thanks for the justice pic Jessica45 on Pixabay
Endings are on my mind as I’m currently being fussy about the denouement of my current novel, Ever Rest. If you’d like to know more about that, here’s my newsletter.
I’ve had this interesting question:
My novel has plenty of story and character development but certain parts depend on the brilliance of the ideas the characters discuss. Some readers have said they could do without those parts, but others have told me they love the ideas.
Are you an editor who worships storytelling above all else and can’t stand portions of a book that slow things down? Or one who likes thought-provoking portions of a book even if they detract from the action?
What a provocative, chewy – and useful – question.
Every editor has a different idea of storytelling, pace, tolerance for philosophical materials that aren’t plot etc. So does every writer; so does every reader. This is my personal take.
Having said that, I’ve edited a lot of novels that do this, where the action seems to stop so that the reader can be given a lecture, where the characters appear to be mouthpieces for a philosophical or moral argument. I don’t think it works. I find it pushes me out of the characters’ world and makes me disengage.
You ask an interesting question about storytelling. Storytelling is much more than plot actions. It’s also your voice, the things you direct the reader to be interested in. Usually this is by sleight of hand, and by involving the reader in the hearts of the characters.
You speak of slowing a novel down, as if slow is bad. But not all parts of a novel have to move fast. Sometimes a slow passage is very welcome. Sometimes an entire book should be mostly slow, because that suits the material – especially for very interior books where we savour the detail.
Pace is not necessarily about being fast, although a well-paced book will hold your attention so well that hours will pass without you realising.
Pace is about balancing faster and slower, about judging what will keep your reader’s attention. It’s about judging what’s right for the tone and mood of the book. it’s also about balancing light and shade – humour and optimism versus darkness and peril or tragedy.
Passages that ‘detract’…
You mention passages that ‘detract’… I don’t like anything that ‘detracts’. Who does?
Personally, I see it as a failure of artistry. If a passage looks like it shouldn’t be in the book, it shouldn’t be in the book. I feel it’s your job as spellweaver to make everything belong. But we all have different tolerances. You might enjoy books that stop the action for long passages of philosophising in which the characters seem to have abandoned their own agendas. I find it looks preachy.
How not to preach
My preference is to knead this material into the story, to dramatise it – so that it doesn’t hit the reader as a lecture. I prefer to make it part of the texture of the characters’ worlds. The philosophical ideas become the rules of the story world – creating their moral dilemmas, their difficult choices, their obligations, their personality clashes, their lasting enmities, the things they aim for or fight for or want to break away from.
Certainly a great story can provoke thoughts, but the most skilful stories achieve this by provoking emotion too – a sense of right, wrong, difficulty, impossibility. The reader learns the ideas effortlessly, plays with them in their mind afterwards, and greatly admires the writer who planted these thoughts.
But you may not like that. We’re all different.
PS There’s a lot more about this in my plot book
Thanks for the pic Smackfu on Flickr
Guys, what’s your take on this? My way or Simon’s way? And if you have a question you’d like to put to me, I’d love to tackle it.
Meanwhile, If you’re curious about my most recent writerly toils, here’s my latest newsletter
Questions…. they’re the reason a reader gets intrigued by a story. And, at the author’s end, the writing process is an entire cycle of questions, big and small, some arising out of other questions. Some of the process is figuring out the right answers. Some of it is figuring out what to ask in the first place.
If that sounds like a conundrum, some of the most important questions are conundrums in themselves. Confused?
PS If you’re curious about the latest doings of my own creative pen, here’s my latest newsletter
The publishing world is moving faster than ever. Have creative writing courses kept pace? That’s the angle I’m considering this time in my series of interviews with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell.
If you want a career in mainstream publishing, will a course equip you for that?
If you want a traditional deal, will a creative writing qualification make that more likely?
What about the indie world – does a creative writing degree confer any benefit, advantage or prestige?
If you decide to be master of your own work, will a degree help you do it more wisely and effectively?
Now that authors have to do so much platform-building for themselves – whether indie or traditional – have the academic departments kept up with these new demands?
As usual, Garry is patient and thoroughly candid and the discussion can be found at Late Last Night Books. It’s part of a longer conversation:
Grab coffee and come over. As always, the comments system at Late Last Night Books is tricky to negotiate, but if you’d like to add to the discussion or ask a question, type it here!
How do we develop a sensitivity to language? Words are more than tools. They beguile, mystify, change hearts, fill the mind with shapes, colours, music.
I’ve written before about honing your prose, according to your genre. The full piece is here, but in brief:
- Strive to be understood
- Develop an ear
- Suit the genre
- Find books whose writing you want to study and savour
- Try many styles
Today I’m going to explore another tip. Read poetry.
My guest today is well qualified to talk about this. Joe Nutt has spent his career teaching English in schools, and is now one of the leading educationalists in the UK. He has written study books on Shakespeare, John Donne and Milton. He writes for the Times Educational Supplement, The Spectator, Spiked and Areo.
He’s now on a mission to open poetry to everyone, not just academic students, and is about to release The Point of Poetry, published by Unbound.
And since he’s raised the question with his title, I’ll ask that first – Joe, what is the point of poetry?
Joe There is something honest and pure about poetry. It’s as though there is almost nothing between you and the poet’s mind, just this thin piece of paper. They let you into their thoughts and their thoughts make you think for yourself.
Roz You certainly don’t have to convince me; I never think I’m writing well enough, so I have a row of poetry books beside my desk that I dip into when I’m working.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve figured out a list of qualities for good prose and I’m going to ask Joe to prescribe a poet or poem for each.
First of all, the visual shape of words… A word that is perfectly shaped for its context
Joe There are some poets who seem to care deeply about the look of a poem on the page and that visual awareness can sometimes be seen on a much smaller scale, within individual lines or even just phrases. When you look at a poem by Thomas Hardy the neatness and order of its visual pattern is often striking. But ironically, perhaps the easiest poet where you can see the visual shape of words playing a part is Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Part of the reason is his extraordinary appreciation of the sounds words make when they combine. In his poem Inversnaid, for example, you have the line
Dagged with dew, dappled with dew’
where the letters themselves, the way they look, seem to demand your attention.
Roz The letters demand your attention… the shape of a letter, or the combination of letters.
One of my favourite examples is the word ‘feral’, which jumps into your eye as ‘fear’ and ‘snarl’. Words contain emotional shapes.
I’m especially aware of this when I’m editing another writer’s manuscript. A writer might choose a word that’s correct in literal meaning, but inappropriate in that other, visceral register, and usually in a comic way – they might describe a loud and sudden sound in a way that ruins the mood of their piece.
Joe That’s so true of such a lot of mediocre writing I see. One of the great advantages of teaching English, as I did for 20 years, and to many remarkably intelligent children, is you get to see the most common mistakes. You become extraordinarily familiar with people who are naturally struggling to express themselves. I think literary agents could learn a lot from experienced English teachers.
Roz Well that’s a discussion I’d like to have some day! For now, though, let’s discuss my next poetic essential: the fall of a line, word positioning for emphasis.
Joe Hopkins again offers a great window into this meticulous use of structure in a poem. He often repeats words in close proximity or uses words that are just one vowel change off. In the final verse of Inversnaid, which is only four lines long, he uses wet and let twice each, but ends the verse and poem with yet. Small shifts in sound but complete shifts in sense.
Roz Repetition: it’s a powerful device because it’s so noticeable.
Here’s another careful kind of structuring – the sentence that is oddly, but perfectly worded. Look at the delicacy of these lines in Philip Larkin’s poem Broadcast:
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.’
Now to my third point. What about metaphor? Nominate an example of an arresting metaphor?
Joe It’s difficult to think any poem beautiful without discussing metaphor and poets like John Milton erect monumental metaphors that can waylay an inattentive reader. But a much simpler one from The Point of Poetry would be from George Mackay Brown’s poem The Hawk. The poem is a little diary of one hawk’s eating habits and one of its victims is a chicken which dies,
Lost in its own little snowstorm’.
I once saw a sparrowhawk strike a pigeon in full flight, only a few feet in front of my windscreen, so I know exactly how that metaphor works.
Roz This leads me, so neatly, to my fourth point… The particular moment that seems to illuminate a truth about the bigger human experience…
Joe Lots of poets start with the natural world. Poets like Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, and when you become familiar with their work they frequently start with the local and specific, but move towards the universal.
Heaney’s poem Blackberry-Picking, which is in the book, takes what was certainly a common feature of my childhood, scavenging hedgerows for blackberries, and turns it into a powerful observation about how we yearn for things to stay as they are, but learn to appreciate the transience of pretty much everything.
William Blake also searches for significant truths in his verse, even when he starts with just a single rose or a tiger.
Roz For my fifth point, I want to talk about economy. I love this poem by Simon Armitage, which plunges you into the middle of a conversation with the writer’s thoughts…
Before you cut loose, put dogs on the list of difficult things to lose….’
It’s so bold, so colloquial, so conversationally crafted. It’s also so macroscopically true, but that’s not what I want to discuss in this point. I want to talk about how swiftly it gets to the point. Do you have a favourite example of a poem that hits the ground running?
Joe Economy is the perfect word for poetry. The cost is low but the return is just huge. That’s really what distinguishes it from all other types of writing. Poets pare everything down to the absolute essentials.
I’m a great fan of John Donne and his love poem, The Feaver, is an absolute gem. You can’t read Donne’s poetry without feeling he was a man who lived a life of extremes. A brilliant apostate whose career and financial security were destroyed after he was imprisoned for falling in love with his boss’s young daughter. Who then married and brought up a large family with her, before losing her to death in childbirth and finally joining the Anglican priesthood, more or less at the command of his king. The Feaver begins with this dramatic plea
O ! Do not die, for I shall hate
All women so, when thou art gone.’
Roz Tell me what I’ve missed.
Joe I think one of the often undervalued joys of poetry is how much we gain from rereading it. I love rereading favourite novels but only after I’ve let years pass between readings. Poetry you can return to the next day and feel differently about it, still find something new.
Roz Your book is obviously a personal crusade. Tell me what made you write it?
Joe It came about as a result of my changing career. After almost 20 years teaching English I moved into business and was struck by how limited conversations are in that world. People often ask me if I miss teaching and I always say no, but there is one thing I really do miss, the quality of the conversation. The people were just as varied and interesting as those I had found as a teacher, but conversations in the hotel bar after a day’s work stuck to a few, narrow subjects. Work, occasionally politics, sport, films and TV – and if you were really lucky the odd book, but mentioning poetry was almost social suicide.
I realised then that the world was full of perfectly well-educated adults, who bought books and even read them, but who would never even think to glance at the poetry shelf in Waterstones. Somehow, even though their schooling had included verse, it had completely passed them by as something to read later in life. If they remembered anything at all from their school experience it was probably with regret or confusion. That seemed such a waste to me, so I set about writing a book specifically for metrophobes, to show them what they’ve been missing.
Roz I wonder why that is? I have a theory, though I can’t know if it applies to anyone but me. Here goes. I might be about to make an idiot of myself.
At school I studied TS Eliot and although I found his work haunting, it was more because of its linguistic novelty than its meaning. It was like breathing an unusual kind of air, but not something that spoke deeply to me. Now I’m much older, I feel I understand more of it – and I’m probably closer to the life experiences that brought it out of Eliot in the first place. At the age of 15, though, I couldn’t possibly be.
I think there’s a lot of poetry that comes from an older place that we maybe need to catch up to. Perhaps that’s also a case for giving poetry a second try when we’ve lived a little.
Joe As I was writing the book, I realised that it was also culturally very timely. I think we’re still barely coming to terms with the devastating impact technology has had on the way we now use language, in every area of cultural life. If I was teaching English today I would be very concerned to study the way technology has changed language use. It’s a bit like a binary weapon. The screen or the phone by itself is perfectly harmless, but combine it with a bit of social media software and all hell breaks loose. When you know a lot about poetry, at least you know how to defend yourself.
Roz Some examples?
Joe I think the entire concept of a ‘hate’ crime has come about this way. People have learned that technology allows them to weaponise individual words and that’s much more powerful than debate and argument which takes time, effort and intelligence. Politicians have weaponised that word ‘hate’. One of the things I was surprised by when I first left teaching for business (and a lot of my work was with technology) was the way some people genuinely thought less always means more. I’d find myself quietly thinking, ‘But some ideas actually require quite a lot of words, in quite complex structures’. I’ve done a lot of commercial bid writing for businesses and it’s funny how few realise it’s all about the quality of the writing. I once scored 7 marks for a question with a maximum possible score of 6. A US business employed me as ‘lead writer’ a few months ago because they actually got that.
It would be easy to embark on a list of examples from the murky world of identity and gender politics, but politics has never interested me; words do. Not only are they our only internal means of understanding anything, apart from touch and maybe music, they are our only external form of human currency. Everything we exchange with others, our closest family members and our fiercest public opponents, is priced in words.
Examples aren’t difficult to find. Choose the wrong word as an academic and you may find yourself denied both your right to free speech and a speaking engagement. Tweet or post one wrong word on Instagram or Facebook, even if you’re a teenager just getting to grips with the world and with words, and you may find yourself being interviewed by the police and banned from a platform, accused, tried and found guilty in not much longer than it took to type the offending word. Never mind that you sincerely thought you knew what the word means, or that the employee of the social media business who has to make the decision to ban you, will themselves have the reading age of a 12-year-old and be working from a checklist. Use a wrong word about your latest young adult novel and it will never see the light of day and fans will be demanding your apology. Reading poetry prepares and protects you from this. You know all the tricks, or at least many of them, because great poets are also great inventors.
Roz Final question. Do you write poetry yourself?
Joe Definitely not. I experimented a little when I was a lot younger but quickly recognised this was a skill I simply didn’t possess. I did once successfully write a few poems which you could read left to right or right to left, thinking that was really original and clever. A few years ago I came across a small modern volume of verse by a little-known poet, in which every poem could be read in either direction. They weren’t much good.
PS If you’re curious about what I’ve been up to, while furrowing my brow over volumes of poetry, here’s the latest edition of my newsletter.
Also… my Nail Your Novel Workbook is now available as an ebook! Meanwhile, do you have any questions you’d like to ask Joe or favourite poems to share? Let’s discuss.