Posts Tagged how to write a better novel
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.
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.
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 this interesting question from Kathryn Lane Ware Berkowitz on Facebook.
Does it ever work to have a parallel, allegorical, fantasy-type plot going along with your story? If so, when and how should they be woven together?
Aha – the perils and joys of combining genres. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the rest of your novel is contemporary fiction. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts where writers try this – with variable success.
Here’s the problem: the book ends up as two genres. And readers of contemporary fiction don’t necessarily enjoy fantasy. The same applies if you’re mixing historical fiction with your fantasy strand.
Location, location, location
Setting is important to readers – and not just in terms of place, but time period as well. It’s one of the factors that makes us choose to read a particular book – perhaps because it’s set in a place we personally know, or a time in history that interests us. Some readers are drawn to stories simply because they are set in ancient Rome, or King Henry VIII’s court, or outer space.
And this is the peril of introducing a story strand in a different setting. You introduce an element they perhaps hadn’t bargained for. And fantasy or science fiction are just about the most difficult kind of world to blend with another kind of setting.
Here be dragons…
Fantasy and SF readers relish an invented world. Part of the pleasure is getting to know the customs, social order, laws of physics, magic systems, races, what people eat…. absolutely anything might be unfamiliar. But readers of contemporary or historical fiction don’t necessarily appreciate that.
How to sneak your fantasy/allegorical thread in anyway
However, some books get away with crossing the divide. How do they do it? Here are some guidelines.
1 Establish the first genre thoroughly before you introduce the second world.
2 Get the reader so insanely curious about the second world that they’ll be dying to go there. A good way to do this is with mysteries in the master story – will the second world explain who somebody is, give clues about a murder?
3 Write the second world in a way that will appeal to readers of the first. If your first genre is contemporary, remember that’s what your readers want. The familiar. So don’t present the fantasy/allegorical events as though it’s for fans of fantasy, with plenty of rich details about the world etc. Instead, be very sparing with those details – as though you were telling them to somebody who might easily be bored by them. (They might!)
Would you add anything? What annoys you when writers introduce an allegorical or fantasy thread to a story? What do you enjoy about it? Do you want to namecheck any books that do this well? (Psst… there’s more about this in Nail Your Novel: Plot. And may I be so bold as to mention My Memories of a Future Life?)
The year was 1992ish, and it was my first time at the critique class. A member read some uncertain opening chapters and asked the group for guidance on where to develop it next. One of the other members began to play the role of analyst and asked what statements he wanted to make with the story, and what answers and conclusions he wished to present.
I hadn’t been writing long, so I kept quiet. Even so, this line of questioning struck me as mistaken. Weren’t questions more potent in stories than answers and statements? And if you were going to present conclusions, or lead the reader to deduce them, didn’t you have to write the story to discover them?
Questions are everything for a creative writer, aren’t they? They are open doors. Possibilities. A beckoning finger; a calling voice. Questions are the very essence of mystery, which is the current of wonder that keeps most stories afloat. What will happen? Come and see.
By the way, I’m not supposed to be writing this. I should be finishing a piece on why I write, but it’s much easier to noodle around with something else. In considering ‘whys’, I’ve been diverted back to that college room, and questions about answers that should have been about questions. Especially the question ‘why’.
Some questions are better than others
Why ‘why’? Because there’s a hierarchy of questions. ‘What’, where’ and ‘how’ are important, because we must have events and cause and effect, but ‘why’ is the golden ticket. ‘What’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ are facts. ‘Why’ is emotions; the personal and individual urges that make us do interesting stuff; the forces that bend our judgement or make us take risks. ‘Why’ does not have a simple answer. It needs a story or a lifetime. It shows us the human condition; that one person is kind while another is vengeful, or one is fearful while another is forgiving. Indeed, the whodunit was perhaps misnamed; the real appeal is in whydunit.
Find your plot holes
‘Why’ is a magic bullet for the writing process too. Most plot holes can be diagnosed by conscientiously and relentlessly asking ‘why’. Why did the character do it? Why does this event matter? Why do the characters persist on their path if it’s causing such strife? If a plot event looks shaky or improbable but your gut says it fits, keep nibbling at why. (BTW, my characters book gives these concepts a thorough workout.)
I think that first session in the critique group taught me something valuable, even though it wasn’t my own work being discussed and I probably didn’t contribute a thing except super-concentrated facial expressions. For a storyteller, questions are more useful than answers.
Thanks for the pic Graeme Maclean
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a piece to finish. But do you have a particular lesson you remember from a critique group?
I’m writing an adventure story that takes place over a journey, and we meet many characters. I’ve been told my novel has too many, but when I look at comparison titles, big casts are de rigeur. Kidnapped has 15 named characters, though some are very minor. Treasure Island has six main characters and 15 or more minor named characters. The Silver Sword has six main characters and the same number of minor. The Hobbit has even more. How many should I have?
It’s true that journey stories tend to have large casts. In that respect they’re like the family saga, which begins with a core of characters and gathers and loses key players along the way. The constant flux of personnel is one of the pleasures of the genre. Who’s going to join? Who might leave – or even, die?
But it ain’t what you do. It’s the way you do it. Some of us can handle big casts; some can’t. So what are the signs that you’re spreading your story between too many people?
Here are the key symptoms I’ve noticed in manuscripts I’ve edited or advised on.
1 The characters don’t have enough to do. The writer knows we need to visit the main characters regularly, but when we do the scenes are dull. The characters will often be sitting around having inconsequential conversations, doing something uninteresting, or repeating a previous emotional beat. (Repetition can be good, of course, but it can also make the story seem stuck.) What should the characters be doing instead? They should be having experiences that make us curious or tug our emotions – and, importantly, we should have a sense of progress. What happens should seem new, or if it repeats, it should seem to confirm that the story situation is getting more extreme (which is progress). Of course the characters are allowed some opportunities for reflection and relaxation, but most of the time they should be increasing our interest in them.
2 Characters disappear. Sometimes writers handle this problem in the opposite way – the characters vanish for long periods because there’s nothing for them to do. But there’s a danger we may forget them.
3 The characters are too similar. The writer hasn’t developed them distinctively enough – they have similar outlooks, tastes, backgrounds, dialogue styles. Even their dilemmas might be the same. Of course, you might be making a deliberate feature of this similarity, and that’s fine. Perhaps you want to show compatibility, or that two rivals are the same even though they wear uniforms of opposing sides. But when a writer is finding their cast unmanageable they tend to create clones unintentionally.
Well it’s obvious – combine some of your characters.
Here’s where you can get creative. List them all and look for the most interesting splices. If a character is marking time before their interesting bit happens, merge them with someone who has a more active role. Revel in the possibilities to generate more story, and especially look for personal dilemmas – if you have a forensic pathologist and a murder suspect, could they be the same person? Could the lady’s maid also be the young girl who was raped in the dark lane? Could the gentle aunt who dispenses cake and sympathy also be the wartime spy?
And consider their internal landscape. Two sketchy characters could be merged into one three-dimensional, flawed, conflicted, internally contradictory character. Again, look for the unexpected – especially in their desires and story goals. (You might like this piece from the Telegraph about Pete Docter, writer of Pixar’s Inside Out, where he talks about whittling his cast down to manageable numbers)
There’s no hard and fast rule about how many main characters you can manage. It’s as many as you, with your particular story circumstances, can handle. If you can give 10 people proper significant roles and arcs, you can have 10 main characters. If you can find only 3 significant roles and arcs, you have 3 main characters.
There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Let’s discuss! Have you discovered you had too many characters in a novel? What made you realise? How did you tackle it, and did it strengthen the story? Have you found you have a personal limit for the number of characters you can handle?