Posts Tagged introducing characters

Studying Ray Bradbury: a beat sheet of Fahrenheit 451

learning from ray bradburyI get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.

Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)

First of all, what’s a beat sheet?

It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.

Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.

 

  • Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
  • Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
    natural world & how people are isolated
  • M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
  • Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
    true feelings, everyone’s doing this
  • Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
  • M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
  • Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
  • Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
  • taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
  • M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
  • Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
  • M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
  • B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
  • M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
  • M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…

 

So that’s how it’s done.

Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?

learning from fahrenheit 451Introduce the world and keep the pace moving – variety and contrast

Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.

First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)

We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.

Connecting us with the character

In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.

Change

In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.

Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life

Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.

Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.

I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfreslf3likeThe beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here

And more about Lifeform Three here

Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire

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The opening act – what the reader needs to understand (with help from KM Weiland)

for lf3 023It’s planning time on The Mountains Novel. I have the scenes spread out on cards and the dining table is out of bounds (see Two authors in the house).

At the moment I’m taking a hard look at the set-up chapters. Of course I’ve got my own spider sense, but it’s rather fun to have a guide to remind me of what I might not be seeing. (And what I might be ignoring because, well, to change it would be inconvenient.) So I’m sharing the fun with KM Weiland’s rather useful new book Structuring Your Novel.

Today,  she is reminding me what I need by the first plot point, roughly a quarter of the way through my story.

Introduce the setting and world

I need to establish where the story takes place, what era, what special things might be interesting or significant about the world. A setting isn’t just any old backdrop. It’s the perfect resonant environment for themes and the characters’ plights. I’m making sure my beginning gives inklings of this, while still seeming entirely natural.

Introduce the main characters

By the end of act one, I need to have the major characters established. The reader must know who they are, what makes them individuals (and distinct from each other), what their beliefs and dilemmas are, where the instabilities and disturbances might be in their lives. Even if I’m going to reveal more later, I have to give the reader enough to provoke their curiosity.

Make the reader care

Curiosity isn’t enough. The reader must feel emotionally bonded to my protagonists. Whether they’re Mr Average or someone extraordinary, I need to show their humanity. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes; Winston Smith feels an urge to write a diary even though it’s against the rules. (In Winston’s case, his streak of humanity is going to draw him into danger. If I can combine any of these set-up steps, that will look very smart.)

Establish the need and the stakes

By the end of act one, the reader needs to understand what the main characters want. Perhaps they want to solve a crime or murder their uncle. Perhaps they want to stop their family finding out about their secret life. The reader must also understand why this is so personally important – and what failure will cost them. This is the other half of making the story matter.

Back story on a need-to-know basis

There’s quite a lot of background to establish, but it must be done – as much as possible – with scenes that advance the plot, rather than pages of explanation. Back story is important, of course, but we need to earn the space for it. Deploy back story only when the reader is hungry to know.

Add an element that makes sense of the ending

The story’s ending must resonate with the beginning. Perhaps it answers a question, solves a problem, resolves an imbalance. But if the seeds of the end aren’t in the opening, it will not be so satisfying.

The first big change at the quarter mark

Just as I have all that bubbling, I have to push the story over a point of no return. The characters make a choice, cross a Rubicon. Perhaps disaster strikes – and that dreaded event becomes reality. Why is this a quarter of the way through? As Katie points out, readers – and moviegoers – have an innate story clock. No matter how interested and enthralled they are, if you don’t shift the goalposts at a quarter through, they’ll feel the story is slow.

And now to work

strRight. I’ve got some fine-tuning to do on the beginning of The Mountains Novel. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that KM Weiland is one of my favourite writing bloggers. Her book is as clear and wise as her blog posts and I recommend it – whether you’re writing beginnings, middles or ends.

In the meantime, tell me: what stage are you at with your WIP?

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Alan Titchmarsh is the Prime Minister of Canada – using pictures to bring characters alive

It’s often a struggle to bring a character alive the first time they appear in a book. Here’s one of the things I do

I once made Alan Titchmarsh the Prime Minister of Canada.

I hope he’d be amused to know that, and let me make it clear that it was only in the privacy of my study and the pages I was writing. I was ghosting a novel and needed to drum up a distinguished-looking presence for a few scenes. I didn’t have an internet connection to look up the real PM so I flicked through a magazine, happened on a picture of gardening broadcaster and novelist Mr Titchmarsh – and the vibe from it was exactly what I needed. The Prime Minister of Canada came alive on the page.

One of the things that can trip us up when we’re writing a scene is when we need to describe something we haven’t yet given any thought to. It’s easy enough to get visual prompts for physical places. But characters – who don’t really exist except in our heads – can be tougher.

 

Stephanie Ebbert of the blog Beyond The Margins wrote a short while ago about finding a picture of someone who looks like the character in your WIP. I’ve been doing this for years. I hoard faces for future use, a mugshot gallery of people I want to cast in novels. It’s rarely about such literal characteristics as eye colour and nose shape. I choose them for their expression – something that suggests the way they talk, what they care about and who they will be friends with.

Mr Titchmarsh is an unusual addition to my mugshot library. Most of them are not famous folk, as they come with obvious associations. What I’m looking for is someone into whom my character can descend, like a spirit, or someone who already carries an essence of them. I’m probably the only person who is fascinated by magazine pictures of people I do not know at all, wondering if they could inhabit one of my worlds. Flickr’s another great resource too.

The pictures with this post are some of the characters from my literary novel, My Memories of a Future Life. I’ve long forgotten who they really are or where I found them. Now they are a pianist, a hypnotist and an artist and their destinies are intricately connected.

Do you have pictures of your main characters? If you do, let’s try an experiment – post them on your blog, if copyright or confidentiality allows – and post a link in the comments.

In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the Prime Minister of Canada.

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Should you use real life in your novels?

How do you make good stories out of real life?from Peter Richardson and David Orme's Cloud 109
S
hould you change things?

 This week, a picture popped into my inbox. It’s a frame from the manga graphic novel Cloud 109, the latest WIP by artist Peter Richardson and writer David Orme. Peter sent it because he’s put me and Dave into the background as a cameo.

This is something arty folk do regularly, of course; we’re forever using each other as cameos and walk-ons in our stories.

But this is only for cameos. Not main characters.

In fact, this topic has been hot all week. Mysteries writer Elizabeth Craig started it when she asked, should you write about people you know? Non-writers assume that everything we write is recycled from our own lives – but they don’t realise how much invention is added. The debate carried on on Twitter, where the consensus from writers was this: sometimes real people go into novels, but if they are to play major parts, they require a lot of tweaking. What comes out is not necessarily that similar to the raw materials that went in.

No character from real life, however remarkable, is going to be completely suitable just as they are.

And that’s just when they start off in the story. If characters are to be explored in any great depth they will probably – and should – evolve as the story goes. They may surprise you, develop a will of their own – that oft-repeated phrase ‘the characters took over’. Not only do they do what they want, they go through their own changes which you can’t necessarily predict when you start.

To use real life well in a novel, you have to allow everything to go its own way.

This doesn’t just apply to characters, but also to events.

I used to go to a critique group, and one week a lady read from her novel about a couple divorcing. There were many scenes featuring bitter arguments. Everyone agreed the characters’ distress was plain to see but following it all was difficult. We started to make suggestions that would help us find a way in – so that we could engage with the characters and why they were so upset with each other. There were suggestions to amalgamate two characters, show some of the other person’s point of view, tone down the villainous behaviour. Every comment was answered with ‘but I can’t change that, it’s what really happened’.

Really, she was writing the novel as therapy, so telling it exactly as she saw it was the point. Inviting the reader to become involved was not her purpose.

But if inviting the reader in is your purpose, you have to be prepared to change things.

You have to know the difference between real truth and dramatic truth. Dramatic truth is universal, in some ways it is about us all. Real truth is messy, overblown, particular to one situation. For instance, coincidences – in real life they happen all the time. In novels coincidences usually look like lazy storytelling. In real life, people behave in ways we will probably never understand. Real life is a terrible template for a story – it only gets away with it because we can’t turn it off.

Truth is stranger than fiction – or, if you’re a storyteller, fiction cannot be as messy and strange as truth. In a novel, the reader knows you have made up the events – therefore the events themselves are not as important as what they signify, or their part in a coherent whole. This is an absolute rule, no matter what kind of material you are basing your novel on – and I’ve helped clients make novels out of truly horrific childhoods, which you might think gave the writer a free pass for the reader’s indulgence.

If you’re basing a story or characters on real life, don’t get hung up on what really happened. You are not giving evidence for the police. When you write fiction, no matter what you are making it out of, you cross a line. Telling the real truth isn’t your job. Telling the dramatic truth is. 

If you’re going to write about real life, be prepared to let it change to make a better story.

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The first moment I saw your face… I didn’t really notice you

When Robin Hood met Little John, they had a fight. There’s a good reason for us to want to know more. But how do you write the first meeting in a relationship that is much slower off the blocks?

 If your book is about a relationship (and most are in some way), you often like to explain how it started. But if the characters’ first encounter was average and unremarkable, how do you write it? The kind where there are no bells and whistles, fights or thunderbolts – where the two people don’t take any special notice of each other?

 In real life, many of our friendships may have started with encounters that are unmemorable. I was reading a friend’s novel the other day and she had just this problem. A meeting that isn’t notable in any way, except for being the first time two characters meet. There was some dull chit-chat and it was dead on the page.

 So how do you make it interesting? Here are two possibilities.

 Maybe you don’t have to make a scene of it. You could do a montage of snapshots to build up a sense of these people being in each other’s lives. ‘They met often at the same parties; coinciding at the fridge for another beer, squashing down the crowded corridor at the same time to get their coats. One rainy evening in November he found her browsing the film books at Foyles.’ A few little encounters, compressed artfully, can add up to a growing connection – while leaving out the dull bits.

 Many of us learn our storytelling, consciously or unconsciously, from films – which generally show everything blow by blow. But in prose, the narrator is a versatile lens that can telescope out or zoom in with far more agility. You can describe time in the way it feels internally, capturing how the experience is more accurately than if it was shown literally: ‘There she was in the corner, as she usually was at this time of year. I wondered whether to talk to her, then I thought, no I’ll do it next year.’

 Of course, summarizing a scene can be distancing – unless there’s a good reason to. Here, though, it makes the material far more engaging.   

 Or don’t show the first meeting at all. Yes, if it’s that unremarkable, perhaps you should start with the third meeting: ‘It’s you. I can never remember your name.’ And there you have the beginnings of a fun conversation.

 If nothing particularly memorable happens when your characters first meet, then don’t show it. Break out of the step-by-step unfolding and get creative with what you show and the way you show it.

 Have you had to solve the ‘unremarkable first meeting’ scenario?

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