Posts Tagged improve your writing

Too much TV might spoil your… prose writing

I’m aware the title of this blogpost might sound like old-fogey nagging, but it has a serious point. And, to reassure you, the cure is easy.

We learn storytelling from just about anything, and much of it without realising. TV and movies are a huge part of our lives and while they’re great teachers for some aspects, they’re not so good for others.    

There are several common issues I see in novel manuscripts where the writer is thinking with TV/movie brain. So here’s how to reboot your prose brain.

Problem: lack of description

The writer doesn’t set up the scene with description. In a movie or TV show, the scene-setting isn’t dwelt on, so it doesn’t get noticed. It comes alongside the action and dialogue. However, prose needs to take deliberate extra beats to create the environment because the reader can’t see what’s around the characters. If we don’t show this, it creates a peculiar effect, like being blindfolded. I’ve read manuscripts where I thought the character was confined to one room in a kind of blank mind-jail, when actually he was staying in a nice hotel. 

Some writers load the description at the start of the scene, then fail to keep it in the reader’s mind. They concentrate on the characters’ spoken lines and actions, but don’t keep the environment alive. This is disorientating for the reader.

Reboot your prose brain Readers need their inner vision to be fed – and their inner hearing too. Think of a radio play – it’s quite obvious there how the scene is ‘decorated’. If the characters are in a café, there might be a spoon chinking against a mug, a low hum of chatter from other customers. You barely notice it because it’s going on at the same time as the foregrounded action, but it’s been deliberately added to make the scene lifelike. There might be one or two moments where a character interacts with the environment in an aside – in the café they might make a remark about the cake they’re trying to resist.

And that’s how you keep the environment alive in a prose scene. Use it as part of the action. If a character’s sitting at a desk, they could tap their finger on it while thinking about what to say next. Make them react to it too – like the character longing for cake.

Use anything physical to bring the scene alive. What about their clothes? If a character is wearing a ballgown, the skirt material might rustle as they shift position.

Problem: lack of background about the viewpoint characters

I see quite a lot of manuscripts where we aren’t told enough about the viewpoint character. We see them doing things, but we don’t know who they are, where they are, why they are there, how old they are – and this isn’t a deliberate artistic choice. Although we don’t want to overload the reader with the characters’ life stories, there are certain things we simply can’t work out.

In a movie or TV show, we get all this at a glance. In prose, we need to be told.

Reboot your prose brain Make yourself a checklist – ensure you sneak this information in somehow. Have you let us know your character’s life circumstances? How old they are? How successful? How healthy? How happy? What relationships they have? All these details provide important context.

Problem: lack of interiority and reaction

In movies and TV, we usually can’t get inside a viewpoint character’s mind. So if something happens that provokes a reaction, we have to see it expressed – physically or verbally. But if this is how you show reactions in prose, it looks quite empty. But prose has a delightful quality that some writers underuse – it can put us inside the character’s mind and heart.

Reboot your prose brain If your narrative style allows, remember you can let the reader experience the reaction in the character’s mind and heart. Don’t just show it on the outside with facial expressions and dialogue. You have a whole other register for communication – your viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings.

There are many possible ways a character could react to a plot event – you have to specify those reactions! Furthermore, you can show the complexity of the people you’ve created. You can explore mixed feelings and unexpected responses.

But what if you want to be economical and let the reader fill the gaps from their knowledge of the context? Yes, you can do that – but you have to teach the reader about the character first. So in the early part of the story you show the reader that, for instance, a character is secretly in love with another character. Much later, you can show the character being rejected and you might not need to show the devastation this will cause – the reader will know. But if you’ve never taught the reader what emotion a character feels about a thing or another person… the reader won’t know. 

Don’t forget to go inside a viewpoint character’s reaction.

Problem: dialogue lacks an interior dimension

This is similar to the previous point. TV and movie dialogue does a lot with the characters’ actions or tone of voice. A writer might attempt to describe these in a dialogue scene – so we get reactions, gestures and expressions, but they might not mean a lot to the reader.

Reboot your prose brain Gestures and expressions can certainly be useful, but they’re not the most effective way to help the reader understand what the characters are feeling. Use interiority as well, as above.

Problem: dialogue has too many mundanities

TV and movie dialogue often has a lot of warm-up. Hello, how was your journey, sit over there, I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on, I was up at four this morning because the bairn wouldn’t sleep.

This human noise is necessary because we’re following the action in real time, it looks natural, and we’re also settling in for the real meat of the scene – perhaps seeing relationships, an environment (see my first point), getting a sense of anticipation. The actors’ actual words are quite mundane, but we’re not meant to be paying much attention to them.

However, this mundane dialogue doesn’t work so well in prose. I see a lot of scenes in novels that go:

‘Hello, how was your journey?’

‘Fine, thanks.’

‘I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on.’

‘Oh, thank you, I need caffeine, I’ve been up since four because…’

That’s four whole lines of not very much.

Of course, there are situations where this might be valuable – if there is something interesting for the reader to notice. For instance, if you’ve laid the ground for the reader to interpret awkwardness or tension, or to be very curious about every moment of this encounter. But many writers do this just to get a scene under way, because that’s how TV does it.

Reboot your prose brain Although you need some of this, and scene setting is important, you don’t need nearly as much as a TV or movie script would. You certainly don’t need to follow every step in real time – an artful condensing will work just as well. Use it, as I’ve said, if there is something the reader will enjoy noticing. Otherwise, pare down as much as possible.

Final word

Don’t just learn your storytelling from films and TV! Keep reading prose as well, to keep in practice with that medium – so you give the reader the best possible experience.   

There’s a lot more about this in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , ,

22 Comments

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?

 

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

25 Comments

Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose

bookshelvesDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?

If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.

Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.

Today: dialogue

Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.

On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.

They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.

If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:

Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.

Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.

Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.

Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

23 Comments

Five tips for writing good prose – post at Multi-Story

multiWhatever kind of fiction we write, most of us want to give our prose that extra flair and sparkle. How do we learn to do that? How casual can we be while still looking ‘correct’? When is prose powerfully poetic and when is it purple, stodgy and even ridiculous?

Today I’m at Multi-Story.co.uk, exploring what makes an effective prose style – and the knots we can get ourselves into as we try to develop it. Do come over.

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

13 Comments

NaNoWriMo prep: generate your novel from characters – post at Multi-story

mulIt’ll soon be Christmas. No, come back. Even sooner, it will be NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month).

Okay, that’s not until November, but many serious NaNo-ers will be starting to prepare in the next few weeks. So I’m at Multi-Story, with a plan for creating your NaNo novel – by starting with its people.

Why start with the characters? Because if you know who they are, you’ll want to tell their stories. If you like to plan in detail, you’ll understand who must do what and when. If you like to wing it, the characters will take hold and drag you into an adventure. So if you fancy designing a novel this way, come over to Multi-Story.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Comments

‘Roz from the land of Harry Potter’ – an otherwise serious discussion of writing with John Rakestraw

rakestrawWhen Americans interview Brits in sweltering summer heat, their thoughts turn to Harry Potter, the Beatles and the Queen. But we do also get down to serious matters. My host, John Rakestraw, had got his mitts on the characters book and wanted to quiz me about creating fictional people, killing darlings, editing, dialogue and subtext.

John was one of the earliest blogger-podcasters to pick up on Nail Your Novel. He demonstrated this by waving his copy – the primitive rake2edition I made on Lulu when I first published it four years ago! Folks, you may overwrite your early designs and wipe the files, but you can never hide from them. (Watch for the moment when one of the other guests says ‘um, why doesn’t book 2 look like book 1…’)

Anyway, come on over to see us. And if you remember the original coffee-and-blue 6×9 edition of Nail Your Novel, give me a wave here!

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

Why the fuss about characters in fiction? Post at Writers & Artists

w&a4Just why are characters the cornerstone of fiction? I’m discussing this – and tips for creating irresistible story people – in the fourth of my pieces for the Writers & Artists website.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

Why fiction characters matter and how we make them memorable – video and podcast with Joanna Penn

jocharsWhy is all good fiction driven by characters? How can we widen our repertoire so our fictional people aren’t carbon copies of ourselves? What kind of research can give us greater understanding of situations we have no experience of? Should we bother to create our villains with as much empathy and insight as we lavish on our protagonists? If our MC’s enemy is utterly evil, how can we possibly crawl inside their minds – and why would we?

In the yellow corner is Joanna Penn. In the pinkish corner is me, answering her questions. We’re at her blog The Creative Penn, and you can read a text summary,  download a 50-minute audio podcast or watch us grin and and wave our hands while we discuss how to write convincing and compelling fictional people. Do come over.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

Psst… the Characters Book is now available in print!

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052comproz birthday plus NYN2pics 051comp204 pages. Yes, much bigger than the first Nail Your Novel. Fully indexed. Pages to dog-ear, scribble on, receive coffee stains and the sweat of your genius brow. Contains discussions of all the books it’s leaning on in the photos, and many more besides.

Now on sale at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, price £7.99 USD $12.50 (approx). And you can order it from bookshops if you prefer! Which reminds me… I’d better get my copies from CreateSpace…

Back with a proper post tomorrow!

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Comments

When to trust the reader’s intuition – and when to spell out what a character feels: post at KM Weiland’s Wordplay

kmReaders don’t have to be told everything. Sometimes they will intuit how a character feels about a plot development or another character. Or they know what’s unsaid. Or they understand that the quiet character who rarely says anything is vibrating with mysterious depths.

Good storytellers are masters of the reader’s curiosity and emotions. They know what they can plant between the lines and how to make readers fill the blanks. So how do they do this? And how might it go wrong?

Today KM Weiland has invited me to her fabulous blog Wordplay, where I’m discussing this tricky – and exciting – balance. Do come over.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments