Archive for category Writer basics 101
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…)
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.
Here are some terms we must stop using. ‘Grammar Nazi.’ ‘Punctuation police.’ ‘Spelling snob.’
When did we start forgiving sloppiness and sneering at correctness? If you have a genuine love of the writing craft, isn’t it a point of pride to get these things right?
We are writers. Our prose is our instrument. These are not stuffy, irrelevant rules. They are essential technical skills for communication.
When we get them wrong, we trip up the reader. Or we mislead, or undermine ourselves (and here let me metaphorically wave a copy of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves).
Yes, the reader might be able to guess what we really mean, or mentally correct it for themselves. But we shouldn’t do that to them. And for every reader who shrugs off a wrong apostrophe, there’s another who sees it as slovenly ignorance. (That’s me, by the way. Unnecessary apostrophes make me apoplectic.)
But good grammar, spelling and punctuation go unnoticed. They aid invisibly and discreetly, like an exquisitely trained butler. They let your content speak and breathe for itself. They give your writing poise and control. Doesn’t every writer want that?
I appreciate that if you don’t know about it, it’s daunting. But make it part of your job to find out. If schoolish tomes put you off, there are plenty of more palatable books. If you really struggle, find a beta reader who can salvage your language for you.
To turn to publishing, let’s look at what happens when we don’t take enough care. You may already have seen this post by British writer Anthony Horowitz in the books blog of the Guardian newspaper. Look at the comments. Look at the bile heaped on books with bad grammar, spelling and punctuation (and particularly how the commenters feel this defines self-published books). If you needed proof that writers are judged on these things, look no further.
So please – no more of the N word, the P word or the S word.
Its and it’s are confused
Its means ‘belonging to it’.
It’s is short for ‘it is’.
If you’re still confused, ask yourself if you mean ‘it is’. If you don’t, it’s probably the other one. See how easy it’s?
There and their
If what you mean is ‘where’, the word you want is ‘there’. You may also use it without any meaning of its own in a sentence such as ‘if I see this mistake again there will be blood’.
If you mean ‘belonging to them’, you need ‘their’.
Reigns and reins
A horse has reins.
A monarch reigns.
You can have a reign of terror, but on a daily basis I see: ‘so-and-so took over the reigns of power’. This is wrong. They are speaking figuratively of leather straps that steer – and so the correct word is ‘reins’.
I also see ‘we had to reign in our spending’. That refers to an act of braking – which is done with a rein.
Nay, nay, nay.
I’m planning a newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.