Posts Tagged writing
This is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.
Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.
Is it a premise or a plot?
So what might that mean?
A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)
Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.
So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.
Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.
Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.
And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.
So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.
The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.
So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.
More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ll already have seen this picture. Years ago I held a fancy dress party with the theme ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. My costume was The Masque of the Red Death, after the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Well this week, I was the guest of The Literary Roadhouse podcast, an online discussion group for short stories. Each week they choose a literary short story and gnaw over it for a good hour. If you want a conversation that cares about a story’s language, themes, resonances and whether it works, this is for you.
Even better, you can take part. Read the story before you listen, and you can tell them afterwards in the comments what you agree and disagree about. Indeed, they’d love it if you did.
So, to explain the splendid party picture you see here. Literary Roadhouse pick the stories by a random and bizarre game. I have only once in my life dressed up as a short story, and the hand of fate took it to Literary Roadhouse for my guest spot. Spooky. Hop over there now. If you dare.
Extremely serious question. If you had to dress as a short story, or ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, what would your costume be? You don’t do that sort of thing? Just me, then.
I was editing a manuscript and came across a confrontation scene. It was well set up so that we understood the stakes, the context and why this encounter would sizzle. We were about to watch a protagonist face a mischief-maker and warn them off.
Except the dialogue was painfully obvious. Realistically, the characters should have been tiptoeing about, laying hints, oblique warnings and making concealed excuses. Instead, they came baldly out and said what was what, in a way that was unrealistic for their situation and personalities. Indeed, one of the characters said things that would have been professional suicide – when they were usually much smarter.
Although it was unconvincing, it certainly wasn’t bad work. Indeed it was a very useful way to mark out what must go in a scene where there’s a lot simmering under the characters’ words.
What I advised my writer to do was this. Make a copy of the plain-speaking on-the-nose version, and highlight the dialogue in a colour. This is what the characters really mean. Then rewrite so that they try to get this across without saying it. If one of them originally had the line ‘I know you started that malicious rumour’ or ‘I’m in love with your husband’, make them try to convey it in another way, by steering the conversation, making hints and watching the other person pick up the cue.
It’s not all speech
Non-verbal reactions are very useful in oblique dialogue. After all, a conversation with a heavily shaded meaning is a highly emotional situation. Characters might panic, develop a visceral sense of wrong or injustice. They might insist more strongly that they were right, or back pedal shamelessly. Even, a character might not know what they’re trying to say and surprise themselves with how much they reveal in an indirect way.
Their spoken lines may sound innocuous to an eavesdropper, but you can demonstrate their inner state with gestures, expressions, pauses, and nervous abuse of the cafe teaspoons.
Readers love to spot what’s between the lines and a scene that is undershot with subtext can be immensely satisfying. But until you know what your people mustn’t say, it’s hard to write it well. Indeed I see a lot of scenes that suffer from the opposite problem. I’ve seen many a scene drown in opaque, vague fluff because the writer wasn’t clear what was going on.
So if you’re having trouble with a nuanced, subtle dialogue, write the clumsy version. Splurge everything out. Describe the elephant in the room, its every wrinkle, eyelash and toenail. Then go back on another day, rub it out and leave just the hints and shadows.
Your clodhopping dialogue could be the mission statement to a fine scene.
There’s a lot more about dialogue and subtext in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Do you have problems with writing oblique dialogue? Have you any tips to share? Let’s discuss!
My guest this week brings a real blast of the 1980s, with a bright red emphasis on romance (I guess it’s that time of year). She drew on the soundtrack of her adolescent years to create the love-torn characters in her novel, and the heart of the story beats to George Michael, Berlin and Patrick Swayze. She is Audrina Lane and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
In a recent episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, my co-host, bookseller Peter Snell, asked a great question. What makes dialogue sound awkward, unnatural or ‘wrong’?
In the manuscripts I see, there are four main reasons.
1 Trying to say everything in dialogue
Sometimes we get so focused on making characters talk that we forget to let them perform non-verbally, especially if they are shocked or surprised.
Speech is only one part of dialogue. Writers often don’t realise they can use silence, pauses, thoughtful expressions, gulps, gasps of laughter. Instead, they try to put the character’s reaction into words, but this can sound false because many people don’t verbalise if they are reacting strongly. Indeed, they might be robbed of their words.
If a character has been highly amused, don’t make them say how funny something was; let them laugh. If they’re horribly upset, don’t force them to translate that into speech unless this is one of their personality quirks. I’ve seen many an awkward dialogue moment when writers have made their character say ‘No, please no’, when a gesture or a facial expression would be the natural response. Pauses and reactions can be just as eloquent as speech, especially to demonstrate when a remark has had an impact.
2 Including too many banalities
Sometimes, writers stuff their scenes with inconsequential dialogue. Encounters with postmen, neighbours, waiters, flight attendants and others are narrated in their entirety:
You all right?
Yes, thank you, how are you?
Did you come a long way?
Yes, but the motorway was clear so it only took me a couple of hours….
Oh snore. An exchange like this would be normal in real life, and probably in a TV or film script. Indeed it might go on for much longer. But on the page, even the briefest amount of chit-chat soon racks up a lot of lines and draws attention to itself.
If you’ve got a sequence like this, consider why you’re showing it. Is it to make the scene more lifelike? Does the content of it matter? Could you condense it and show just enough to establish that the characters greeted each other, then get on with stuff that will keep the reader’s attention?
Although it would be strange if characters never said anything inconsequential, we need to strike a balance. A few lines go a long way:
Your Chablis, sir.’
Do sit down.’
This same problem arises when major characters have downtime. For instance, they meet for a casual day out. Because they are major characters the writer feels they have to record every sentence. Was the train ride all right, is the fish good, where shall we have coffee, isn’t the weather awful. Let’s go into the cheese shop, and nod as the owner recommends the Brie. Crikey, will anything happen that’s worth talking about?
As always, writers need to examine what the reader should take away. Is it closer knowledge of the people and their relationship? Is it a change or a deepening bond? Pointless chat won’t show this, so delve deeper. Use subtext to explore the boundaries being pushed and adjusted. Maybe your scene is not as edgy as that and the characters are simply enjoying their day. In that case, lose the dull details and bring out the enjoyment. A little trivia is authentic, of course. But use inconsequential dialogue sparingly – and keep your focus on the real purpose of a scene.
This is the easiest dialogue problem to spot. Obviously characters have to explain stuff to each other from time to time. And exposition isn’t always bad – indeed, a novel with none might be incomprehensible. But often it’s mishandled and the number one way is in scenes where characters explain something they don’t need to talk about.
As you know, when you and I arrived on this planet three weeks ago and found there was no one at the base…’
So how do you give the reader background information? Simple: find a reason why the characters discuss it. Or write it in the narration, just as you might handle back story or description. But don’t contrive a scene where the characters explain it to each other.
4 Trying to be too idiosyncratic with accents and other speech characteristics
We want our characters to sound distinct and to speak with their own voices. But sometimes writers attempt to replicate accents and dialects, using odd spellings and dropped syllables. Phonetic and mutilated language slows the reader and might throw them out of the story. It can be comic, of course, and more so if other characters also struggle to understand. But it’s just as likely the reader will skip those bits, especially if the rest of the prose is conventional and easy.
If you need to draw attention to a character’s distinctive speech and you want us to read it, tics are best kept to a minimum. You can remind us of it indirectly:
He heard the Scots burr in her voice.
Of course, a novel is its own special world. Your quirks might enrich the speech of the people you invent. It might make glorious sense if your gangsters posture in iambic pentameter, your infants sound inscrutably academic and schoolteachers mumble in monosyllables. But these effects are the result of a conscious style choice.
Certainly we should make our characters distinct, but this should come from their personalities and personal styles. This can come through vocabulary, word choice and sentence rhythms. University-educated characters might think in elegant sub-clauses. Streetwise bruisers might have one plain idea per sentence. With all those devices, you hardly need phonetics.
There’s an entire section on dialogue tips in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have problems making dialogue sound authentic and natural? Do you have any tips for overcoming them, or have you had to learn some unexpected tricks when working with an editor? Are there any writers whose dialogue you particularly admire – or can’t abide, and why? Let’s, er, talk about it…
A conversation on Twitter about online writing groups made me remember I had this post, written nearly 4 years ago. I tweeted it and got so many messages about it I thought it might be worth an official rerun. So – if you’ve been with this blog since 2011 you might have a sense of deja vu. If not …. I hope this is useful.
I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.
During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?
Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.
A brainstorming draft
If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.
A learning draft
It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.
Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.
As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.
Get back to your vision of your book
First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?
Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.
When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.
Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.
Now to your manuscript
Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.
Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:
- 1 initial gems with rough edges
- 2 gems from the reworked version
- 3 don’t-minds
- 4 rejects.
File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.
If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.
Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.
Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments
Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr
More about handling critiques and drastic edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence