Archive for category Writer basics 101
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?
I’m taking a short blogging break to finish a big project before Easter, but in the meantime I can leave you with some slightly unusual bloggery.
Look at the question in the header. When I received it in my email, I thought I’d quietly pass. I don’t really see my fiction as a cudgel for issues. But I followed the link and found Howlarium, a thoughtful discussion blog by short story writer Jason Howell. And by then, I was itching to answer. So today I find myself on his blog, with a few other thoughtful types who have plenty to say about what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ write.
If you’ve got an opinion about that too, argue it here in the comments. Back soon!
There are. They’re my secret.
Actually, they’re not a secret at all. The 4 Cs of a great plot is one of the questions I discuss with Lorna Faith on her writing podcast (which also has a visual, handwaving, grinning version, see right).
Lorna quizzes me about the ins and outs of a good plot and we grapple with many storytelling essentials, including structure, turning points and where plots come from. Step this way.
We’ve probably all had a note in a critique that tells us we’ve failed to include an important scene. Eg – ‘We know these characters well and have seen their lives in close detail. When the cousins died in that boating accident, where was the funeral scene? What about the period where the family adjusts to the tragedy?’ (Indeed, that’s not just a missing scene; it’s an entire story thread.)
Sometimes this happens because, well, we were concentrating on a million other plot developments. We do a lot of dumb, impulsive things when we can’t see the wood for the trees. The omission only becomes apparent when we give the book to a reader who isn’t lost in the forest of book decisions. And the easiest remedy is:
Replace it with something less drastic
Well of course it is. Ask yourself: why did you include the event? Was it only to bring some characters together? To show passage of time? Brainstorm some other solutions that will be less disruptive.
The second option is to embrace the disruption, drop the bomb and enjoy mopping up.
So far, so obvious. But sometimes, the workings of the writer’s heart are more complicated – especially first-time authors who aren’t yet confident with story-wrangling. They might have the gut instinct that it’s ‘right’ for the cousins to die. But something stops them writing the scenes that explore the aftermath. When I’ve seen this, I’ve found there are two main reasons. (And here are the remedies.)
They feel unequal to the challenge
We all worry from time to time that we won’t do justice to a tricky scene or issue, especially if it’s beyond our own personal experience. But that isn’t an excuse to dodge our duty to the reader.
If we don’t feel we can tackle a situation authoritatively, it shouldn’t be in the book. Friends, we are fictioneers. We can use our empathy and curiosity to invent with truth. I’ve never (yet) been in a room with a dying cancer patient but I can find the resources to write about it convincingly and with respect (My Memories of a Future Life). Crime writers manage to find out how murderers think. If lack of life experience is stopping you using a plot idea, take a break to research it. Most of human experience has been set down in other novels or real-life accounts. Find them. Live your events in the imaginations of others until you feel armed to write them.
Here’s a separate reason why writers might avoid that funeral episode.
They assume the characters won’t do anything surprising. It’s just a funeral, right?
Many of us are reluctant to write a scene if we fear it will be predictable. That’s often good, but equally there are events that can’t be avoided without leaving an obvious hole. So we think we know what will happen at the funeral? We think the reader has seen it a dozen times before?
No they haven’t. Not with your characters.
You just set yourself a high-stakes challenge. So rock that funeral. Set up character developments the reader didn’t expect. Heal rifts. Or create them. Set your story on fire. Brainstorm the way to present the funeral, wake, mourning and fallout in a way that is not predictable.
An alternative suggestion: if you want the funeral to be fairly routine, you can show the impact with a light touch – perhaps a montage of details that are vivid enough to remain in the reader’s memory so that the event is marked. A character will put on a seldom-worn smart suit, which tells us there’s a formal occasion. The extended family reprioritise their diaries, all clearing the same date. Perhaps possessions are redistributed. Someone is dismayed to be bequeathed an ugly lamp but doesn’t feel they can refuse it because it belonged to the departed cousin. The mixed feelings this generates will be an interesting way to log the gravity of the event. Get creative. Have fun.
There’s a lot more advice on plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
Have you ever had feedback that told you you’d skimped on an important plot development? Do you remember your reasons for doing so – whether active avoidance or absent-mindedness?
If there’s one major issue I find writers struggle with, it’s the difference between showing and telling. In every developmental report I write for a debut author, I find numerous instances where they would improve drastically by grasping this principle. This week I found myself explaining it again, and as I’ve been watching How To Get Away With Murder, I found myself reaching for courtroom terminology to explain …
It’s all about evidence versus verdicts. Simple, huh?
First, what is ‘show not tell’?
Show not tell is a technique that makes writing more vivid.
• It makes us feel as though we’ve been present as story events happen.
• It’s persuasive when you need to teach us something about a character, an event or even an object. (Was the car dangerous? Don’t tell us. Show it.)
• Show not tell is a great way to explain information or back story in a way the reader will remember – effortlessly.
Showing gets more oomph out of your story events. It lets you pull the reader into the characters’ lives and make them share their hopes, happinesses and disappointments.
So yes: showing is a good thing indeed.
Telling is like this: ‘it was frightening’.
Here’s the showing version: ‘she walked along the dark street. Were those her own footsteps echoing or was somebody following? She reached into her pocket and felt the reassuring bulk of her door keys. Her hand tightened around them; spikes she could use as a weapon just in case.’
Can you see the difference in vividness? ‘It was frightening’ is easy to skim over. We hardly notice it. But the showing version shows you what it was like.
And here’s where I found myself thinking of the courtroom: telling is a verdict; showing is presenting the evidence.
A big difference.
Evidence convinces, persuades. It lets the reader draw conclusions. It gives them a deeper level of understanding. They own the knowledge.
Telling instead of showing
Writers who haven’t grasped ‘show not tell’ try to tell the reader what to think. They present a series of statements or summaries. Here are some typical examples. ‘She was difficult to love.’ ‘He had to be the centre of attention.’ ‘He had a peculiar way of sabotaging his own happiness.’ ‘He was intimidating.’
Certainly these observations are striking, full of nuance and complexity, but they seem abstract. We hardly notice them. But if you present the evidence for those claims, the reader draws the conclusions… and your book starts to come alive.
Showing is about evidence. Telling is about the verdict.
Other things to consider about show not tell
Sometimes you can add the verdict as well, depending on your style. A character might tell an anecdote (showing) and conclude ‘she never wanted me to have a chance of happiness’, or ‘she was more generous than I deserved’ or ‘it scarred me for life’. Equally, you might leave that unsaid.
Showing requires more effort than telling, and a different mindset, which is one of the reasons writers find it difficult. Most of the time when we’re planning our books, we think in terms of telling. We decide ‘this confrontation will be upsetting’. But when we write the incident at full length we want to inhabit it so that the reader feels the impact. Short version: outlines tend to tell; drafts need to show.
There are times, though, when telling is entirely appropriate. We have to be selective with what we present to the reader. It’s not necessary to show every observation; only those that we want to emphasise. You might say ‘John didn’t like getting up early’ and it’s not something you want the reader to dwell on or digest. In that case, telling will do just fine.
Your reader is a witness
We can add another courtroom word to this discussion: witnesses. Witnesses were first-hand sources. They had an experience. Mostly when we write stories, we want to create them so vividly that the reader forgets they’re looking at prose. There are many elements to this, of course, but a significant part is good use of showing. If an event, a scene or an observation in your outline is important, make the reader a witness to it.
Thanks for the dark street pic, Henry Hyde
Do you find it tricky to show instead of tell? If you’ve mastered the difference, how did you do it? Did you notice you got better feedback from readers? Do you have any tips to help?