Archive for category Writer basics 101
I’m at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s blog today with a post about how to use suspense. I think I first mentioned it on this blog a few weeks ago, but actually I got the date wrong, so you might have been waiting a while for this.
Which is exactly how suspense works, of course. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Bargain! again! – Read my novels FREE and choose from hundreds more titles on subscription service Bookmate – exclusive code at this link.
Now, hie yourself over to the suspense department to read the post. I see you shiver with antici…
Dave has recently been developing a sitcom, which has led to interesting conversations about the characteristics of the form. To get a feel for it, we have been watching Seinfeld – and especially the season where they write a TV show ‘about nothing’.
At the risk of sounding precious, this phrase ‘A show about nothing’ seems to be the key to the entire sitcom form. Not just Seinfeld, but sitcoms generally. And more widely – which is why I’m bothering you with it here – I think some of its principles could be used to make all fictional characters a little more lifelike.
So – in a sitcom we generally watch characters in everyday life, doing their thing. There aren’t any big changes in the status quo (and if there are any coming in Seinfeld, please don’t tell me as we’re only on Season 4). The pleasure and entertainment comes from watching the characters deal with endless small stories and challenges, which are mainly caused by their personalities. (Yes, even in Red Dwarf.) It’s essential that the characters become pretty exasperated with each other, but only up to a point – no matter what happens, they continue to rub along together.
The mad neighbour Kramer isn’t going to move to a different block (or if he is, he’ll be back by the end of the episode). George louses up the TV deal with NBC with some agonisingly inept negotiating, but Jerry continues to work and hang out with him.
Equilibrium of irritation
In Seinfeld, as in most sitcoms, an abiding principle is that life goes on, relationships go on (think of the 1970s BBC sitcoms like The Good Life). Sitcoms are about people being themselves and accommodating each other in an equilibrium of irritation.
Of course, certain characteristics are exaggerated for comedy, but even so, the sitcom is very true to life, and it struck me that we can use the ‘equilibrium of irritation’ to add richness to characters in a story that has a bigger dramatic arc.
Obviously your main characters will go through a big change, but there will be other aspects of life in the story that don’t. These are sometimes underdeveloped – usually because we’ve been looking at the big picture. But instead, they could cause strife that is colourful, charming, exasperating and human. This could give plausible complexity to characters, and depth to the ordinary grift of their lives.
Again, Seinfeld is deliberately amplified for comedy – the neighbour is madder than most neighbours the rest of us have. George is a walking disaster. Seinfeld world isn’t intended to be 100% realistic. But there’s one aspect that I find very realistic – the way the characters rub along day to day.
The magazine episode
Here’s an example. On a magazine I worked on, I had a boss who I’ll call Jim. Jim was often alarmed at my zeal for rewriting articles to make them zap. He warned me gently that if I did that, the reporters might become slapdash because they knew I’d do a final polish.
I’d get in a huff, saying ‘I can’t leave the article in that state – look at all that dull repetition’.
Jim would say: ‘Just skim it to check it’s usable. We have a 120-page issue to get out, we don’t have time for fine editing and we need to leave the writing to the reporters’.
Fuming cloud over Roz’s head.
Jim’s other sub-editor, who I’ll call Wendy, had worked there for 10 years, knew all the routines, and worked according to Jim’s system. She skimmed the copy for obvious bloopers but didn’t wield the scalpel. But Wendy sometimes missed important mistakes and indeed Jim would often be exasperated at this.
And here we have the Sitcom of Jim. Life would never run smoothly. It had these two opposite characters, who created low-level strife on a weekly basis, and who he probably beefed about to his friends – Roz who was going to upset the system and make the well-trained reporters think they could hand in rougher copy. And Wendy who knew all the systems but was slow and unreliable. And Jim just had to get along with us as well as he could.
The Sitcom of Jim had no arc or end. It was a set of personalities and values that aligned in some ways and clashed in others, and was utterly intrinsic to who we were.
The Sitcom of You
Life is full of dynamics like this, with families, friends, colleagues… All these people in our lives need certain amounts of circumvention and handling. There’s the close friend you can’t tell about your work troubles because they’ll simply tell you to get a different job. There are the old friends who can’t be invited to dinner with certain others because they irritate the bejesus out of them, or have politically incompatible views even though you love them dearly, or whose dietary preferences are too bizarrely restrictive to inflict on anyone else. (I note there’s a Seinfeld episode called The Dinner Party but I haven’t seen it yet – no spoilers, please.)
We are all playing the balancing acts of sitcoms in many areas of our lives, and these relationships will keep ticking along in the same constant way. This push-pull accommodation is the stuff of life. And in books, it’s often missing, especially with supporting characters – and so relationships might read as bland and undercooked.
Of course, you have to tailor this kind of material to fit with the tone. I’m not suggesting you add comedy willy-nilly, or deluge the reader with distracting trivialities. You may only need a very small amount of this kind of material. Indeed you might just keep it as developmental notes that let you write the characters with more knowledge, and keep it 90% under cover. Adjust to taste and the needs of your genre.
But this kind of material can create characters that live and breathe on their own, with independent life – instead of plot zombies.
And you never know – as with all developmental work, the sitcom jottings might blossom into something significant.
Thanks for the Seinfeld apartment pic Tony Hoffarth on Flickr
There’s a lot more about character development in the Nail Your Novel characters book.
And you might also like to know that Amazon has chosen the original Nail Your Novel for a special promotion. The Kindle edition is just USD1.99 right now. I’m not sure how long the promotion will last for as it’s controlled by them – so grab a copy now!
I’ve had an interesting question from Jonathan McKenna Moore (who was one of this blog’s earliest readers – quick fanfare 🙂 ).
Jonathan had seen Anthony Horowitz talk about writing new Sherlock Holmes stories, which led him to ask this question:
‘How does misdirection work in prose? Horowitz says that one of the functions of Dr Watson is misdirection, following false trails that Holmes would never entertain, and lulling the reader into considering them. He goes on to describe misdirection as drawing attention to one object in the room so the audience doesn’t notice another. While I can understand how that would work in a film, in prose you have to go out of your way to mention object 2, and spend time describing it. It isn’t just set dressing. How do you show the reader something, without letting them know that it’s important? Is it just a case of losing the significant detail in a haystack of description? If so, then that rules out the sparse writing that often suits mystery stories.
Okay! First a brief definition – misdirection is planting a clue that will become significant, but disguising it so that the reader doesn’t spot how important it is. Then, at the right time, you reveal it in a lovely ‘aha’ moment. It’s one of the fundamentals of plotting. And it goes a lot further than just mysteries. Almost any type of story might need misdirection.
So … how do you do this in prose?
Two keys to effective misdirection
There are two elements to effective misdirection.
2 … in plain sight.
When using misdirection in a novel, the reader must feel you played fair. They mustn’t think you randomly invented a new thing that answers the mystery, solves the case, resolves the characters’ problems. So a key feature of good misdirection is that you draw attention to the clue. If you hide it too well, the reader might not notice it.
To use Jonathan’s good phrase, the last thing you want to do is ‘lose the detail in the haystack of description’.
Devil in the detail
Novels contain heaps of details that hardly any reader will remember. So if you are planting a detail that will be important later, you have to draw attention to it – but in a way that looks like it serves some other purpose. The detail must be memorable, so that it’s noticed, but it must also appear inconsequential. Its final significance must be disguised. You have to be sneaky.
And actually, it’s quite easy to do in prose. You always need incidental details to flesh out characters’ lives or enable parts of the plot. Your character needs somewhere to drive to while he has a conversation with his old friend. Your clandestine lovers need a place to meet. Your spies need an item they can use to hide an SD card full of important photos. A character needs an excuse for why he’s late. These are details we often invent on the spur of the moment because they’re not that important to our scene. But they are excellent places to smuggle in an element you want to hide in plain sight. You can make the reader notice it, but they won’t realise how important it is.
Examples might be
- A location
- an object
- an explanation
- a hobby or talent
- a personality trait, allergy, dislike
- a mutual acquaintance or common background.
How to do it
Make a list of any significant details that you need to plant. When you come to a moment where you have to add an inconsequential element, see if you can sneak in something important. (Don’t overdo it, though, or you’ll alert the reader to your technique.)
The false trail
Jonathan also mentioned the false trail. This is another handy way to misdirect the reader. Again, you work backwards from your story’s final solution. Find a way to interpret your clue in the wrong way, send your characters off to chase it, and then bring it back in as a vital signpost to the real thing.
It’s tricky to give examples from stories without spoiling their punchlines, but it so happens I can illustrate with real life. On Friday I wrote the word ‘pineapple’ on my hand. My hand is my low-tech Evernote, and I needed to remind myself to go home via the supermarket. But it so happened that I was also going to a class at Pineapple dance studios. Naturally, having a storyteller mentality, I started thinking this was an amusing piece of misdirection. If I was found in nefarious circumstances, a detective might see ‘pineapple’ on my hand and think it was connected with the dance class, because they’d find my membership card. So the hunt for clues would start at the dance studio – until someone smart would ask ‘why would she write a note to remind herself to go to class … could it be her shopping list’? Then they might check my credit card use to find my usual supermarket, and find signs of a scuffle in the car park … voila.
So, to answer Jonathan’s final point about the use of misdirection in the sparse style of mystery stories … you don’t have to break style and write a conspicuously lavish description of your item. You slip your detail in naturally, as part of the fabric of the scene.
Thanks for the cards pic Gordon Cowan
If you found this useful, there are lots more tips for slick plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:
Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?
There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.
In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.
First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening.
When to speed up or slow down?
This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.
Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.
More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.
So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along.
How to keep the sense of pace?
This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.
This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)
And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).
The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.
Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?
Yes and no.
Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.
Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.
Why no, again? Because all stories need change.
There’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.
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Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.
If you’re exploring characters for your story, this exercise might help. Triskele Books is holding a creative writing summer school and I’ve contributed this snippet to uncover interesting tensions that make a scene sizzle. And once you’re there, you’ll find several other storybending assignments from seasoned fictioneers. Step this way.
I’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.
I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?
That’s a good question with a lot of answers.
So let’s take it apart.
‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’
I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.
In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.
So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.
But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.
Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.
Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong. And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.
Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.
So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.
And now to part 2 of the question:
First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.
And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.
So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.
Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.
Thanks for the pic KIm Stovring on Flickr
Clear as mud? Let’s discuss. What would you say?
Most of us here probably have a shoal of books about writing craft. Here’s just one of my shelves.
But which was the first writing book you ever read?
For me, it was The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire. It was a gift from Husband Dave when we first met in 1992. It’s a tiny volume; just 87 pages including the index at the end and throat-clearing at the start. But it has everything you need – theme, viewpoint, planning, setting, characterisation, style, revision.
I flick through it now. At random, I can see sensible advice to use ‘he said’ instead of ‘she gushed’ or ‘he averred’. A section on writing description so the reader remains riveted, with examples from Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. A paragraph about keeping a notebook beside the bed, including a torch. An explanation of style as ‘a quality as unique as your fingerprints’. A quote from Alfred Hitchcock that ‘drama is like real life with the dull bits cut out’. A section on first chapters, positioned nearly half-way through, because ‘it’s wise to consider … planning, scene and characterisation before you type ‘Chapter 1’.
Other books may cover all of these in more depth, but as a primer it will get you going with good habits. I’d recommend it still today.
To begin at the beginning…
I’d studied English literature at school and university. Yes, we considered theme, character, resonance, symmetries and counterpoints in character arcs and story structure. And historical and social context, an author’s place in the overall evolution in the artform. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why good was good. Reading Dianne Doubtfire was like meeting someone who thought and felt about books in the way I wanted to.
Studying literature can put it in on a pedestal as a thing to be revered. It can paralyse you with feelings that you could never, yourself, presume to write to a standard that’s even readable, let alone half-creditable.
Dianne Doubtfire’s succinct, wise book made writing seem possible.
Can you remember the first writing craft book you read? How did you come to read it? How did it affect you? Did it open possibilities? Did it make it all seem impossible? If you still have a copy, what do you think of it now?
Here’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…
How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct
One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.
Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.
Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.
Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.
Where the differences really lie
If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.
If you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.
Two characters …. two tenses?
Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.
I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.
But then she said something that was rather interesting.
She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.
The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.
Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.
There are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?