Posts Tagged Description

How to write emotions and feelings

2489998092_a7374b8f7c_zI’ve had a request from EJ Runyon (who you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor). She’s asked me, quite simply, to talk about writing emotions and feelings.

Emotions and feelings are the nucleus of a story. The whizziest plot events will have nil impact unless they matter to a character – and to us.

Put the other way round, a character’s feelings about an event are as important as what happens. And this emotional tide is the force that sweeps the reader out of their own world and binds them into the story.

So how do we communicate these emotions?

Here’s a big hint: don’t be guided by movies.

I say this because many writers unconsciously learn from movie storytelling. That’s good in many ways – a lot of us get an innate sense for structure and pace from movies. But movies are not a good model for involving a reader in emotions and feelings – because the mechanics are totally different in prose. Movies show emotions from the outside – with faces and performances and actors’ personas, plus atmospheric enhancements like lighting and music. If you try to do that in prose – which I see a lot of writers do – that’s not very effective.

But prose has a great strength of its own. It can go inside. Into the characters’ heads, motivations and thoughts. This is the real core of emotion and feeling – and prose can put us right there.

Emotion in descriptions

Let’s examine a common maxim –  write descriptions that ‘use the senses’. This is usually interpreted as sensory input – sights, sounds, tastes, smells. But this misses a more fundamental sense, the one that governs it all – the inner sense, the consciousness. Consciousness is how we experience the world – through our evaluating and emotional faculties, our thoughts and gut reactions.

Film can only approximate this. But prose can transplant us into the character’s heart. Into moments of anxiety, elation, fear, dread, boredom, amusement, the tingle of hope. Prose can stretch time so that it emphasises an important experience – slow the seconds down so we relish an experience – or receive it in agonising detail. It can speed time up so that years pass in a paragraph.

To return to EJ’s challenge, if we connect with emotions and feelings, we can transform mere words into the illusion of real experience.

2804301013_857119e0fa_bInternal dialogue

How do we convey this experience? By far the most powerful tool is internal dialogue.

Internal dialogue can give us context. Suppose your character does something apparently random, like ripping a poster off a wall. Why did she do it? The internal voice fills the gaps. Perhaps the poster is for a political party she disagrees with. Or perhaps it is connected with someone she has fallen out with, and they have posted it on her garden gate. (‘It was Peter’s silly little residents’ group. Well I wasn’t having that on my property.’) Without these details, the act looks random. With them, it is understandable. We know what it’s like to be her. (Of course you might want the act to be puzzling. If so, do that as a deliberate choice.)

This sounds obvious, but I see a lot of writers present such scenes as though they were imagining them in a movie. They intend the moment to express something about the character, but they fail to give us the character’s narrative – so the action just looks baffling. Or they try to convey it with external, visible signs, as though describing an actor’s face – wide eyes and a tightening of the mouth. This is even more baffling. In any case, a facial expression is much more polyphonic than an eye-pop and a scowl – it’s very difficult to describe them precisely enough for them to make sense. Nevertheless, I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots with gurning and grimaces, as they try to demonstrate their characters are emoting. And still, we might not grasp what that emotion is.

But internal dialogue is much easier – put the reaction into the character’s thoughts. ‘Crikey, I’m not having that abomination on my gate. Not after what he did to me.’

Stronger doses – handle with care

A final point. Emotion and feeling are cornerstones of storytelling. But beware. Strong doses can leave us cold or even be off putting if not handled carefully.

Quite a few writers begin a story with characters in a strong negative emotional state – a character who’s angry with the world. This can work very well to get us on the character’s side, but only if there’s something less hostile to catch hold of. Otherwise, it’s like watching a stranger rant – we’d run away as smartly as possible. So if you’re going to open with a character ranting and raging, add another dimension – a flash of humour, or vulnerability, or maybe regret. Or write it so beautifully that the prose keeps us enthralled.

So … to sum up

1 Context is everything – the ‘why’ makes sense of the ‘what’

2 When writing description, don’t forget the consciousness ‘sense’

3 Use internal dialogue

4 Soften angry protagonists with something less hostile

Woody’s scream pic by Aldoaldoz. Neon scream pic by Cathy Cole.

NYN2 2ndThere’s more on writing internal dialogue – and angry characters – in my characters book.

I could go on for longer. But I want to hear what you guys think – or even feel – about this. And thanks, EJ, for a great assignment.

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10 eye-opening tips to add impact to your storytelling

2013-04-29-eye2When I work with a writer on their first serious novel manuscript, there are certain aspects they usually get right on instinct alone. There’s the content – a believable story world, characters with solid backgrounds and stuff to do. They usually write fluently too. But there are other, more hidden levels of craft that they usually haven’t noticed in good books, but will make an immense difference to the quality of their work. So here are a few.

1 Keeping the reader’s curiosity

When we’re kids we’re taught we must finish any book we start. Like eating every morsel on the plate, even the detested Brussels sprouts. But a reader will not persevere with a book out of politeness. So writers have to be relentless showmen (within the expectations of their particular genre, of course). Curiosity is the name of the game. Compelling writers will prime the reader to be curious about everything they show – a character, story development, back story or historical context. How do you learn this? Read with awareness. Analyse what keeps you gripped in books you enjoy. (Often when I point this out, the reply is: ‘I get so swept up that I don’t give it a thought’. QED. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment, but learn to read with primed antennae.)

2 The beginning has to grab attention …. But it also makes a promise to the reader

Don’t start with a thrilling piece of action if the rest of the book doesn’t contain that kind of action. lf you do, you’re wooing the reader under false pretences. Instead, find an intriguing scene that is representational of the entire tone of the story, its themes and concerns. That’s quite tricky and you might try out many beginnings. Indeed, you often don’t get the beginning just right until you’ve written the end.

3 Descriptions come to life if you add humans

You might describe a tidal wave by saying it was the height of a house. Or the earthquake split the town hall in two. These specifics are good, but they’re lifeless. For real impact, try showing how it affected the people in its midst. Just as photographers or painters might use a figure of a person to show scale, you can convey the power of disasters by including humans – cowering, trying to run away with a cat under their arm, filming it on their phone while a friend yells at them to flee.

 4 Show not tell

Show not tell is one of the trickiest storytelling techniques to learn. In a nutshell, it’s about creating the experience for the reader. Instead of writing ‘fear was on everyone’s faces’, show us what the characters did that would make you conclude they were afraid. Here’s a post that explains more and you’ll also find lots more discussion of this concept in the Nail Your Novel books.

5 Decide what you want to emphasise

Sometimes you can tell, not show. If you want the reader to feel the impact of the experience, write it in a way that ‘shows’. If the experience doesn’t really matter, you can ‘tell’. Sometimes you can write ‘She had a terrible voyage’ and that might be enough for the purposes of the story. At other times, you want the reader to share the terrible voyage.

6 Don’t wait too long before telling us your main character’s rough age

You don’t have to state it explicitly or numerically, just give us enough to figure out whether we’re looking at a pre-teen, a teenager, a person in their 20s, 30s, 60s. I read a lot of manuscripts where I can’t fathom that out and it interferes with my ability to interpret the action. A person in their 20s who yearns for adventure or love is very different from a person in their 40s or 70s.

7  Home isn’t just a geographical location

It’s a place that owns us – we want to return to it, escape from it, inherit or disown it. If your characters talk about home, what does it mean to them? Take time to let us know.

8 Don’t accidentally create a passive main character

A lot of writers fall into this trap. They create a central character who is thrown into trouble by the actions of other people. They are pushed from one crisis to the next. The pressures mount, they get a bit anguished, but do they do anything about it? No, they wait for the next piece of trouble. That might be lifelike – many of us would prefer to avoid difficult situations. But it makes for a frustrating read (unless the passiveness is a deliberate choice). Otherwise, readers prefer a character who in some ways creates their difficulties and adventures – perhaps because they are restless, or a control freak, or because they succumb to temptation or yearn for something new.

9 Don’t forget to conjure the set-up at the start of each scene

Many writers forget these essential orientating details at the start of a scene – where we are, who is there. Indeed, they often don’t realise an author is doing it every time they load a new location. Even if it’s an ordinary room or an ordinary street – although once you’ve made an environment very familiar to the reader you can use shorthand such as ‘I sat at Mary’s battered piano’.

10 You can’t set the scene through dialogue alone

Although dialogue can help establish the scene, it can’t do it all. Often writers try to, and end up with artificial-sounding lines such as ‘Hand me that glass from the mahogany table’. But prose is a medium of description as well as dialogue (unless you’re aiming for a deliberately abbreviated style). It’s an environment and you want the reader to experience your scenes with all their reading senses. Include the last rays of sun slanting over the roofs. The family unloading children and picnic hampers into a cluttered hallway. The tinkling of crockery as a meal is prepared.

3 nynsPsst…. all these points are discussed at greater length in the Nail Your Novel books.

Would you add any? What eye-opening tips have you been given by editors or beta readers?

 

 

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Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose

nail your novel passage of timeDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles translate well between the two story media, others don’t.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters and shifting point of view  , dialogue   and description. Today I’m going to look at passage of time (modelled here by Dave).

When is it?

One of the key questions when we come into any scene is this: when is it happening?

Movies and prose handle this in different ways.

Suppose your story features a man who’s refurbishing a derelict bar. In a movie, it’s shown with a sequence of scenes. In one, he is getting to work, pulling old cupboards off the walls and uprooting obsolete appliances. In the next scene, it’s clean, the floorboards are sanded and he’s opening for business.

Because film is an external storytelling medium (we watch it from the outside) we accept that this cut is telling us several days or weeks have passed. We know we don’t stay with the characters for every second of their experience.

But in prose, a cut like this might feel too abrupt. Because prose is internal, and we walk in the characters’ shoes, a sudden jump in time can feel like too much of a lurch. We need a linking sentence or two to ease the way, drawing attention to what’s changed. Many writers who are weaned on movies leave these details out.

A sense of time

As well as evidence that time has passed, we also need a sense of it passing. If you have other characters or storylines, you can cut away to them, then return to your bar, which is now finished. This might create the gap you need.

But if your story follows just one character, you need to create the passage of time in your narration.

If we watch a movie we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll assume the character spent a week or a month working on the bar non stop. In prose, we need you to add this element, even if it’s only two lines, saying ‘I had no time to worry about anything. I was sanding, sawing, painting, ordering crockery. I flopped into bed at night and rose with the dawn.’ Indeed this is the prose version of the movie technique of condensing a sequence of events into a montage. (See, there are some techniques that translate well!)

Filling gaps

Prose fiction has to fill more gaps than a movie does. In prose, we need to keep the connection with the reader’s mind, rather than chopping the experience into pieces.

What examples of passage of time have you liked – both in movies and in prose? Let’s discuss!

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Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose

5825834776_163ed4881c_bDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles can be learned well from both media, others can’t.
I’ve already discussed a few points in previous posts – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view and dialogue. Today I’m going to look at description.

Description in prose aims to give the reader an experience. It fills in the specifics. Description in scripts or screenplays – and novels by writers who don’t read a lot of prose – is often labels or generics. Let me show you what I mean.

Objects
The writer who is more tuned to movies might describe ‘1970s furniture’, or ‘a battered car’. But a great description in prose will talk about the chair shaped like a giant egg, the Toyota with a mismatched door and an unlevel fender.

People
The movie-fan’s description of a person might be ‘a man in his 60s’, or ‘a well-preserved lady’.

But what does that look like? In prose, it’s the writer’s job to show us – and not just the physical basics of blue eyes, age or a dapper dress sense.

A great piece of prose description will put the person in the room with you, with expressions and impressions that give them life.
Here’s John le Carre from A Small Town in Germany:
Bradfield was a hard-built, self-denying man, thin-boned and well preserved, of that age and generation which can do with very little sleep. *

Places
A writer who doesn’t get a steady diet of prose tends to describe a street as ‘rough’ or ‘average-looking’ or ‘smart’. They might use place names, such as ‘Fenchurch Street’ or ‘Friedrichstrasse’. These names do add a certain atmosphere, but they are little more than labels. They don’t create the experience for the reader.

You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street – and supply the specific details that will let them conclude it. The rough street might have overturned dustbins or litter on a balding patch of grass. The smart one might have front doors painted in expensive shades of sludge. If you want an ‘average’ street, decide what makes the street average and describe that.

That doesn’t mean you can’t also observe that it is ‘average’ – indeed, it might suit the personality of the narrative to add a judgement. But you have to qualify what ‘average’ is. My idea of average won’t be the same as yours – and might not suit your narrative at all.

Versatility of prose
And indeed, prose description can do more than just tell us what’s there. If you’re showing the weather, you can use it to add atmosphere – it can be like music to underline a mood. If you’re writing a description of a person from a character’s point of view, show what jumps out at them, and use it to illuminate their personality or situation. Perhaps he is meeting his girlfriend again after spending time away. Is it like seeing a tunnel back to their old life? Is she less glamorous than he imagined because he’s now moved on? Is she a poignant blast of comfort, showing how lost he now feels?

What’s in your head? Put that on the page
Many writers who make this mistake usually have an impression in their mind’s eye. So you have to make sure to put it into the reader’s imagination. Examine what you want them to see, and write it.

nyn2 2014 sml*There’s a longer discussion of this point in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the pic Daniela Vladimirova

Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good description? Do you have any tips that helped you?

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Bring on the empty horses: handle synonyms with care

5232325286_09d118be15_zI have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.

In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.

This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.

In times of trouble

This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.

In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.

9780340839959Accuracy and gusto

This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.

In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.

Ear and eye

To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.

But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’

In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.

Choose synonyms with care.

Thanks for the thesaurus pic, Julie Jordan Scott

Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!

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‘This album makes me feel that anything is possible’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Chele Cooke

for logoMy writing post this week has a science fiction flavour. And my Undercover Soundtrack guest will continue the theme with the music that helped her write her debut, also sci-fi. She says she uses music to create a consistent space to sink into a book, and for this is must be music she knows by heart. She draws on tracks that have been favourites since she was a teenager because they still make her believe anything is possible – which is a rather excellent way to start the creative day. She is Chele Cooke and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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3 tips for writing watertight fantasy, science fiction and time travel stories

The Hills Are AliveYou could argue that fantasy and science fiction are the genres where we can be most imaginative and inventive. But this very freedom brings responsibility. I see a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors who confuse the reader because they don’t cover a few very important bases. And I’ve had to address a few of these issues myself in my sci-fi fable Lifeform Three.

1 The logic of the world must be established – and stuck to

You need to establish, early on, what can be done and what can’t. If you have robots, for instance, what can and can’t they do? Are they benevolent? Of course, you don’t have to explain this if your story is a mystery, where the characters have to puzzle out the logic of the world, but otherwise you need to cover those bases as part of the setting description.

This particularly applies with stories of time travel and doppelgangers. One of the reasons readers enjoy them is that they must be cleverly plotted. To do this, you have to set limits and rules, and play within them. If, late in the story, you suddenly make up a new thing that the heroes can do, that annoys the reader. The very thing they wanted was to see how you would use your particular time travel physics in an ingenious way.

Staying with time travel, you must be time-travel savvy. Certain issues are always tackled – meeting yourself, duplicating yourself, leaving messages for yourself, saving your parents, changing history, fixing the lottery and so on. Do what you like with them, but readers need to see you’ve thought through these paradoxes.

You might not reveal all your world rules to the reader, but you still need to know them.

2 Consider the consequences of magic powers or devices

I see a lot of novels where characters have magic powers or gizmos that look far too potent. I was editing a manuscript where a character gets out of a scrape with a device that allows him to melt stone. But it never appeared again – which seems unlikely as it was so useful. Furthermore, the reader expects to see such things used more than once.

Also, the writer hadn’t thought about other consequences if such a device existed. Certainly, it wouldn’t be possible to keep someone a prisoner. Not only that, there would be other consequences in the society. Just to take one example, how would people make their homes secure? The writer hadn’t thought about this; she’d invented the gizmo on the spur of the moment to solve an immediate problem.

Star Trek used to do this all the time. They had a holodeck, yet the scanner on the flight deck was 2D. If you had 3D imaging technology, wouldn’t you use it on all your visualising devices? (No doubt someone will explain this to me in the comments…)

So make your technology (or magic faculties) consistent. And beware of inventing devices or magical powers that are too potent and far-reaching. (Unless you mean to do that deliberately, or want to invent Kryptonite.)

3 Be precise with description

I fell foul of this myself with Lifeform Three. In an invented world, you have to be more careful than usual with description. The reader will scrutinise every word to build the setting in their mind – and it’s easy to mislead them. With Lifeform Three, I had a statue in a dancing pose, and my editor got confused because I described the statue as ‘twirling’. ‘Can she move?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just the statue’s pose.’ ‘Write a description that doesn’t suggest movement,’ he said. I changed it to ‘posed as if about to pirouette’.

Thanks for the pic The Hills Are Alive on Flickr 

Those are my three top rules for writing science fiction, fantasy and time travel stories. Do you have any to add? Or gripes about films, TV shows or novels that have transgressed these rules? Let’s discuss

nyn2 2014 smlI’ve tweaked the title of the characters book. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?

Now back to comments. Time travel, fantasy and science fiction, writing rules thereof. Over to you…

 

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Final edits – what do you look for?

When your novel is as familiar as the sight of your two hands typing, what do you miss?

I always find that when I’ve got the plot watertight, the physical consistencies sorted, there’s another pass I need to do to make sure I don’t lose the reader. I’m now making final tweaks to my second novel, Life Form 3, after an extensive rewrite and I thought I’d share the kinds of change I’m making before it goes back to my agent.

Making sure we stay with the main character #1

There are points where I haven’t allowed the reader a beat to catch up with the main character’s reaction to something important. While I don’t want to slow the pace down or overstate, there are moments when the reader expects a beat before the next line of dialogue or action. So every time there’s a significant revelation, I’m asking myself have we got a reaction?

Making sure we stay with the main character #2

The novel is third person, although the main character is in every scene. But sometimes when the action is centred on other characters we need to be reminded of his presence or he can seem like a passive observer. Or it might dislocate the reader by looking like I’ve drifted to a different point of view. So if, for instance, several characters are talking and my main character doesn’t have a line of dialogue or needs to listen to them, I add a beat of reaction from him.

Making dialogue bookish, not filmic

When I write dialogue, I envisage it as a scene in a movie. For some dramatic scenes, I had the pauses and reactions in my head. On the page, the reader doesn’t have my head movie, so this can look sparse and the eye slides off it too easily. Also, this can be quite a distanced way to see a scene. Where I had sparse dialogue, I included the reader more by fleshing out some details.

Culling the fancy stuff

Can you hear that screaming? That’s me, drowning my darlings. I’m wailing at least as loud as they are. I am removing metaphors and similes that, although lovely, interfere with the reader’s immersion in the scene.

For instance, the main character finds an abandoned underwater room. On the floor are dead, dried fish – ‘like’ (I wrote) ‘soles that have dropped off shoes’. Yes it’s lovely, but the scene has so much sensory detail already that this stops the flow, like a record jumping a groove (I hope you’ll allow me that one). Out it goes (with me weeping a tear). This is what ruthless revision means.

Adapting my style for the demands of the book

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t even realise I’d written two novels with the word Life in the title. And no, I’m not planning a whole series of them. In fact, Life Form 3 has given me quite a different set of challenges from those in My Memories of a Future Life – and one of the biggest was writing style.

The main reason is the setting. Life Form 3 is set in a strange, unusual place, so I have had to curb my natural love for the flamboyant and weird. It’s all very well to describe the familiar in an unfamiliar way – that’s fresh and poetic. In My Memories of a Future Life I revelled in it. But in Life Form 3, the story is already flamboyant and extravagant. To add more weirdness, in terms of descriptions and comparisons, gets confusing. The moral? If you’re already describing the unfamiliar, don’t gild the lily by adding more oddness. Keep something simple.

We all do our last passes differently – what do you look for? Share in the comments!

For more tips on novel-writing, from first twinkling idea to final fix, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence or my multimedia course with Joanna Penn aka The Creative Penn

Thanks for the pic BryanKennedy

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The empty world – is your novel eerily deserted?

This is me, passing before your eyes as an extra in Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter . (Here’s my post about it, since you ask. Back now? On we go.) Blink and you’d miss me because your eye would quite rightly be on Matt Damon and the other characters who mean something to you.

And look at all the other folk in the scene. Extras, nameless, not even in the script. All of us, there to be ignored.

But if we weren’t there you’d miss us even more.

Too quiet

Something I see so often in first novels is that scenes look unpopulated. The main characters and the setting may be well drawn, but there is no sense that there is anyone else in the world of the story. School gates are deserted; the shopping mall is empty; there is never another car on the road. It makes the reader feel something is wrong. Background people are a crucial detail for making us feel a scene is real.

I know why this happens. When you envisage a scene, it’s hard enough to put in all the stuff that is relevant. But the background?

Directors on big movies have the same problem. They concentrate on the principals. The job of making a background come to life belongs to the assistant director and team. You almost have to do a similar thing yourself when writing – make one of your jobs populating the background.

Not too much

Of course, you don’t want too much of it. It mustn’t get in the way. When you’re opening a scene and letting the reader know who’s where and what they’re doing, add a person or two – perhaps a woman with her chin snuggled in her yellow scarf, walking fast to her car. The postman in a fluorescent vest swinging his leg over his bicycle.

You can use details of movement or life to punctuate pauses in dialogue or to underline tensions. Perhaps one of your characters hears a clack of bricks being thrown from the scaffolded house into a skip. He thinks that throwing something was exactly what he felt like – and instead he’s having a conversation that’s going nowhere. Or someone sitting in a cafe sees someone at an adjacent table waving to a passing friend and it reinforces their sense of being alone.

Imagination wrung out like a rag?

Of course, we’ve all got enough to think about inventing our significant stuff. It used to frustrate me too until I discovered Flickr. Now I search for a street scene or a bar and grab one that has the right look and feel. Instant background people – and I can get back to the characters I know and what they’re doing.

When you’re setting your scene, don’t forget the unimportant people.

Do you have any tips for populating a scene? Share in the comments!

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Don’t tell us she’s special. Show us

You know one of the best ways to irritate someone? Keep telling them how wonderful a person is who they don’t know – and never say why. ‘She’s so lovely.’ ‘She’s great.’ ‘She’s terrific.’ Result? After a while, you think ‘she’ is anything but.

I’ve been reading a novel where the author has been doing exactly this. The main character has been separated from a girl he has fallen in love with, and for long periods is wondering if he’ll ever see her again. The author did a grand job of setting up the romance earlier. The problem was when he was separated from her and the yearning began.

Tell me again, I can’t bear it

We have endless screeds of ‘he loved her so much’. ‘She had a certain something.’ (What did she have? Three ears?) ‘He felt a pain whenever he thought of her.’ (In what way was he thinking of her?’) It was unsatisfying, empty – and pretty soon very irritating.

Why? Readers (in general, not just heartless old me) don’t like being told what to feel. We want to feel it too. Or we actually react the other way. (Which is fine if that’s what you want. In this book it wasn’t the case.)

Besides, it’s not truthful. Perhaps that’s why we resent it, because it seems empty and insincere. When someone’s really missing their dear one, they don’t remember their summary of the emotion. They’d get an exquisite flashback of the time they got lost together walking back from the bus stop in the pitch dark. They’d find themselves snagged by faces in a crowd, because their foolish brain was saying ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if she was there’.

Show not tell

This is, of course, showing, not telling. And it’s so powerful. Showing makes the reader feel what the character feels. It casts a spell of experience. It is not analytical. It is not a summing-up. It presents the truth and lets the reader make up their mind.

Show not tell is one of the hardest things for a writer to remember. The example that provoked this post is actually from a published novelist of otherwise impeccable accomplishments. Show not tell requires the most imaginative effort and all the writers I know slip unintentionally from time to time.

Why is it so hard?

I’ve often wondered why this is. Maybe it’s because our analytical brain is saying ‘in this scene he missed her’ and it’s easy to write that. Showing it means we have to submerge into the character’s experience – which isn’t always easy. But showing intimately what a character feels is one of the most gripping things a writer does. Good writing isn’t words. It’s an experience. And experience is not analytical.

Don’t write the analysis. Write the experience.

Let’s play a game. Find an example you like and leave it in the comments – and afterwards show how you’d squash it flat by telling instead of showing. I’ll kick off.

‘Once he had been strong enough to lift a carousel horse in each arm. That was a long time ago.’ Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Telling version: ‘He used to be so strong’.

Take it away, guys

Thanks for the pic Philip Morton

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