Saturday, 23 July 2016

Why Plot Flaws Happen – It’s About Problem Solving Part 1


Plot flaws happen for a variety of reasons, and the result can leave writers scratching their heads, trying to figure out a way around some of the huge problems they create, however, it’s how they’re solved that makes the difference.
Plot holes are a by-product of any writing; they appear as inconsistencies or contradictions within the story, as gaps within the narrative, or huge holes that you can’t account for. You can’t avoid them – they happen either because we are not thorough enough, or they happen because of the way the story gradually unravels.
The thing about plot flaws is that they don’t become plot flaws until you actually read the work through in its entirety, because up until then, the obvious won’t become apparent while you’re working on the story. Only when it’s finished and you’ve left it or a reasonable time to come back and do your read through will these problems manifest.
Plot flaws can be gaping chasms or they can be subtle punctures in the fabric of the story. It’s about recognising them, understanding the problem they create and how you deal with them successfully that helps make the finished product flawless.
Dealing with them successfully, of course, depends on how well you spot them and what kind of problems they pose. The best way to spot them is read the work as though you are the reader.
Most plot flaws revolve around the following areas:
Continuity of facts – It’s easy to contradict facts in your writing, like putting the date of a famous event in the wrong time frame, or not getting names right. That means any gaps in your research will show up as plot flaws. Make sure your facts are correct.
Continuity of characters – These are common. For example, your character wears glasses at the beginning of the story but half way through, the glasses have vanished as though he never wore them in the first place. Other instances are when a character appears early in the story and goes off to do something and is never heard from again. What’s the point of that character in the first place?
Continuity of time/setting – For example, the hero goes to his friend’s house in one scene, which is in the middle of the day, but a few paragraphs later, the daytime has inexplicably turned to night. (Movies do this a lot). Or there is the common one of transporting a character from one country to another in the matter of hours, without taking into account the time it takes to arrange the trip, arrange a visa, buy airlines tickets, pack for the trip and so on. It takes more than a few hours.
The other error is that characters in novels that end up in a foreign country without a passport, money or anything else. Did they travel by magic?
Contradictions – These types of flaws arise when the writer simply forgets about things.  For example, you have a character who loves animals, and this is shown, but then somewhere else in the story is seen killing an animal without batting an eye, with no further explanation. Or perhaps you have a character that is a vegetarian, but four chapters later, he is seen eating meat.
Contradictions happen, but you have to keep an eye on your narrative.
Inconsistency – For example, the bad guy, who is very clever and wily, does something explicably stupid to help the hero defeat him. Another one often seen in books is the tough hero, trained in martial arts and used to be in the armed forces suddenly being defeated by a couple of bad guys who are not even half as skilled. (Movies also do this).
Another similar inconsistency is to have a strong female in your story, someone who can stand up for herself, someone fiercely independent, and yet she is suddenly reduced to a dithering heap in the face of danger or when confronted by the bad guy, because of stereotyping and a contrived plot demands it.
Another one is where the hero possesses amazing martial arts skills and can kill with his bare hands, yet seems to forget his has these skills when he’s confronted with the bad guys all through the story. But then at the end, when fighting the villain, he decides to use the very skill he’d not bothered with all through the story.
All these are silly inconsistencies, yet writers continue to fall into this trap. If you don’t spot them, your reader will.
Sometimes plot flaws are not always apparent straight away and are generated whilst writing the story. For instance, you have an important scene that takes place early morning in the winter, with several key characters. You describe the bright yet hazy, wintry sun, the cold air and hint of frost. You write a great the scene, happy with the way it unfolds.
But can you spot the obvious plot flaw?
You cannot possibly have a bright hazy sun so early in the winter. Early mornings are dark. And it gets dark early too, especially if there is daylight saving time in operation. It means you would have to re-write the scene to reflect accuracy and realism and avoid a continuity of setting problem.
Here’s another plot flaw example. Your hero and villain are in a fight as the climax mounts. There’s a struggle as each tries to get the upper hand, but then, from nowhere, your hero pulls out a knife to defeat the villain, but unless you have mentioned the knife in previous scenes, so that the reader picks up on this, then the knife from nowhere will be a contrivance and thus becomes an obvious inconsistency.
Contradictions, flaws and inconsistencies are unavoidable during the writing process, but it’s how we find and fix them that matters, so in Part 2 we’ll look at how to solve the problem of plot flaws.
Next week:  Why Plot Flaws Happen – It’s About Problem Solving Part 2

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Creating Dilemmas and Why They're Necessary in Fiction


When you read a good book, the one recurring thing you find is that, aside from plenty of conflict, the protagonist is always getting into some kind of trouble and yet somehow he or she manages to get out of these close situations.
What you’re reading is the natural escalation of a character’s dilemma. It’s a stable ingredient of any good fiction. In other words, dilemmas, or problems, get worse as the story goes on, up until the action packed or explosive conclusion. As writers, we get to make life pretty bad for our main characters. We do that by setting them up with hard choices. This heightens conflict and tension and keeps the reader turning the page.
We’ve all faced hard choices at some point. If we make one choice, it will create an outcome (which may or may not be desired). If we make the other choice, things could be vastly different. That’s why we’re often damned if we do and damned if we don’t. But that pressure we sometimes feel in real life is also the kind of pressure the characters should feel.
For the very reason we don’t like dilemmas, your characters should experience the confusion and burden that their choices will make. Does the hero save the girl from the clutches of the villain, or does he save the family trapped inside a house that the villain has just set fire to? Whatever the choice, each one has a different outcome.
Almost always, when you make your character faces such decisions, there is a sacrifice, whether that is a personal one, an emotional one, a physical one, an object or a person, a pet or even a principle...whatever it is, it’s something that means a great deal to the protagonist. This produces an undercurrent of conflict and drives the story forward.
Dilemmas come in various guises, but the mains ones you see in fiction tend to be three types – moral dilemmas, personal (or internal) dilemmas and external dilemmas.
Moral Dilemmas
Just like in real life, your characters will hold certain views, beliefs and morals. The kind of people they are will dictate the kind of decisions they make throughout their lives. They will have been taught values and morals by parents and teachers and will have formed their own ideas and principles into adulthood. So when they’re faced with a moral dilemma, the more values a person has, the more the moral dilemma will affect them, for example:
A young teen finds out that her father is having an affair. Does she immediately tell her mother what she knows and risk breaking her mother’s heart, knowing that she might also fall out with her father? Or does she remain silent to protect her mother from the truth and pain and keep the bond with her father?
This is a very common moral dilemma, and when personal dilemmas like this occur – who knows what her decision could be, since it might not be so clear cut – it strengthens the connection from story to reader, because the reader can identify with this. It gives the story a whole new perspective.
Personal Dilemmas
Unlike moral dilemmas that test a character’s values and the way they view the world, personal dilemmas are just that – very personal to the character. For example, does the protagonist reveal he is gay to his devout Christian parents? Or does he stay silent, gripped by fear and inner turmoil because he won’t be able to come to terms with anything?
What if your character’s wife is in terrible pain, bedridden and trapped in her own body? Does the husband give in to pity and place a cushion over her face to end her torment? Or does he carry on nursing her, prolonging her suffering because he thinks it’s the right thing to do?
These are extremely difficult decisions, which give rise to all manner of conflict and tension; just what the reader loves. They will try to guess what your character will do, what decision he or she might make, and that’s why creating dilemmas is so captivating to them.
External Dilemmas
External dilemmas come from external influences that characters can’t control, usually thrown at them by nature. While they may not involve a sense of value or morality, they are still centred on conviction, whatever the choice your character makes.
For instance, your character is hiking in the mountains and bad weather closes in. Your character loses his backpack full of equipment and food. Now he faces a dilemma – does he stay put in the cold and await rescue, which might take hours or days, or does he keep moving to stave off the cold and try to reach safety?
As the writer, you will be able to force the character to make a decision. It might be the right decision or the wrong one, and because it’s not clear just what choice the character might make, it keeps the reader guessing.
By forcing your characters into a corner, they are required to make choices which they won’t want to make, but have to, and that means there will be repercussions because of that choice. That reflects real life – when we make a choice, there is always a consequence, good or bad.
The thing to remember with dilemmas is not to create contrivance, for example, if your hero has very strong belief in justice and high moral values, and he catches his wife committing a crime, he is then faced with a moral dilemma. He will naturally think emotionally with his heart by wanting to protect her from the consequences of her actions. But at the same time he knows she has broken the law and his sense of justice is strong enough to know she must be punished.  The true dilemma here actually belongs to the writer because when a character is defined and characterised by his beliefs and values throughout a story, he cannot then be expected to switch personality to facilitate a favourable outcome. That’s a contrivance.
Choices that are inconsistent with the character’s values, morals and beliefs simply don’t work. The reader won’t fall for it.  Any choices your character makes must be representative of his or her moral values for it to be believable for the reader, without it undermining who they really are. Dilemmas are not easy to get out of, and shouldn’t be. But the behaviours and reactions of your characters must be consistent.
The solution you come up with in order to get your character out of the seemingly impossible must be logical, but not implausible. The reader needs to identify with the problem, understand it and expect the unexpected. Dilemmas start small for your characters and should escalate as the story unfolds. Don’t make their lives easy. They have to confront their problems, their own beliefs and assumptions and they must deal with those choices. They deepen the tension and move the story forward.
To create satisfactory dilemmas, create characters with conviction and a strong sense of moral values, because if they don’t care what happens in the story, then why should the reader?

Next week: Why plot flaws happen.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Active v. Passive Fiction


What do we mean by the terms passive and active? How important are they for writing fiction and should we only use one and not the other?
Some people argue that there is nothing wrong with using passive fiction - they tend to think of those writers who disagree with this are purists, but there is a huge difference between using passive fiction deliberately within your writing, for effect, to using it all the while in the misconstrued belief that it actually helps the writing, when in reality, it actually does the opposite.
Any worthy editor will always advise against passive writing for a very good reason, and that’s because passive sentence structures weaken the writing considerably. It just doesn’t connect with the ear when you read a passive sentence, nor does it look right. And that’s because it isn’t.
In truth, passive writing is frowned upon, but it can sometimes have its place, and is most often used in academic writing and teaching, however, your creative should always be active.
What is meant by active voice?
‘Active’ refers to the subject of the sentence doing the action, so in an active sentence, the subject is doing the action to the object, and almost always relies on a strong verb to do so, for example:
‘Jane loved the flowers.’
In this case, Jane is the subject doing the action to the object: she loves the flowers and the verb 'loved' is the correct form (used with an object). It’s a perfectly clear sentence.
What is passive voice?
Passive voice refers to the subject receiving the action instead of doing it, so if we take the example above, the passive sentence would look like this:
The flowers were loved by Jane.
This doesn’t just look wrong, it reads incorrectly, too. The object of the sentence (flowers) is made into the subject and the real subject (Jane) is relegated within the sentence so that it’s is rendered clunky by the passive voice. The appearance of ‘were’ is a giveaway to passive writing, as is the use of ‘was’.
Take a look at these samples to see the difference between active and passive; the strong and weak sentences and how they change the way they are read and understood:
The girl was startled by the noise - Passive.
The noise started the girl – Active
The cheese was grated by the chef - Passive
The chef grated the cheese – Active
The man was walked by the Alsatian - Passive
The man walked his Alsatian - active
The use of ‘was’ clearly weakens the sentences, forcing them to become passive when they are much better as strong, active sentences. That’s because the subject is being forced to receive the action rather than to give it.
When writing, try to avoid the use of ‘was’ or sentence structures with ‘by’, as shown in the example above of the man being walked by the Alsatian, as these almost always make the writing passive.
But why is it so important to avoid passive fiction writing?
Firstly, readers prefer their fiction to be active, not passive. In other words, passive sentences don’t allow any immediacy. Also, they don’t create tight sentence structures, either, which are more desirable than long passive sentences. Look at this example and you’ll see why:
The car was brought to a halt outside the library and Jane got out with her books. The cookery books were enjoyed by Jane and she appreciated improving her knowledge, especially as the moussaka was attempted for the first time and a complete success with the family.
The entire paragraph is written passively, so there is little connection or immediacy and the sentences just look so clunky, which means they are not pleasing to the eye, nor are they clear to the reader. Now read the same paragraph, with an active voice:
Jane brought the car to a halt outside the library got out with her books. She had enjoyed the cookery books and knew they had improved her knowledge, especially when she attempted moussaka for the first time and it proved a complete success with the family.
The sentences are different, more concise. They look different and read differently and because they are active, there is no unwieldy feel to them. Active verbs are stronger and more efficient. Active voice always creates immediacy. Passive writing kills it.
For these reasons, active writing is very important and should always be the aim for any writer. If you see too much use of ‘was’ or ‘were’, go over the work and see where it can be improved. Root out instances of passive writing. Keep it strong, active and clear.
Next week: Creating dilemmas in fiction

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Getting to Grips with Subtext


Subtext is a clever literary device that isn’t often thought about by writers, but it’s quite effective when used properly. The wonderful thing about subtext is that it’s something that isn’t seen, but the reader knows it’s there and, hopefully, they understand it.

Knowing what subtext is and what it does is different to getting to grips with it, but subtext isn’t difficult to achieve; often it happens subconsciously by the writer. But subtext comes down to having a complete awareness of the characters and the story; it’s the very undercurrent beneath the words. It’s hidden from view, to become visible at the right moment. It has the power to create mood and atmosphere, emotion and conflict in very subtle and unobtrusive ways.

Subtext is about how it’s done- the art of revelation. But why use it? Why go to all that trouble of suggestion when the writer could simply just say it in the narrative?

The answer lies in how fiction is constructed. Remember, every novel is written for the reader, not the writer. So it’s not just about writing a good story with affable characters that overcome a few dilemmas and live happily ever after. It’s much more than that. The reading experience is all inclusive – your reader wants a good story, likable characters, nail biting situations, action/thrills/romance, emotion and atmosphere and everything in between. And subtext is just one of those things that make reading a novel so enjoyable and encompassing.

But how do you achieve it?

Effectiveness in anything comes with experience, so the more you write, the more you develop your writing skills and the more intuitive you’ll become with things like metaphor and subtext.

Read any book and there will be always be layers beneath the narrative, such as a certain look between characters, a snippet of description, certain behaviour or something a character says – all elements that make up subtext. Here’s an example, from one of my short stories called Passing Judgement, where the main character is wrongly accused of terrible crime:

The cold cloud that hovered above the hill seemed close and oppressive and constricted, like a thick rope around the larynx, pressing tight against the skin. A lasting winter lilt gilded the brow of the hill and formed thin, introspective shadows which slithered along the frosted mounds and worked their way up to the elongated silhouette that shaded the trunk of the barren oak tree. The shadow remained still, except when mocked now and then by a curious cool breeze.

Narrative subtext relies on hints within the description that reader can detect. These are the visual clues the reader will notice, and in the opening sentence, the words ‘close and oppressive and constricted, like a thick rope around the larynx’ is a subtle visual clue to what is really happening. Without stating the obvious, the description allows the reader to understand the moment, yet read between the lines and the unseen becomes seen. The theme of the story is there to see. It’s actually describing someone hanging from a tree.

Subtext in dialogue is the most common way of allowing the reader to understand the characters. A simple example is from To Kill a Mockingbird. At the end of the story, Boo, who is portrayed as someone to be feared, finally comes out of hiding and stands on Scout's porch.

‘Hey Boo’.

That’s all Scout says to him. But underneath this delivery we can sense the warmness of her greeting; she is not scared of him - unlike the adults - and does not see Boo as someone to fear. She is comfortable in his presence. It’s simple, yet it works, because we know Scout’s true sentiment.

Here’s another simple example, where the main character is talking to a prisoner in a train:

‘Why do you wear a star on your clothes?’ Dmitry asked.

‘It’s the star of St David. The sign of a Jew.’

Dmitry’s face furrowed. ‘Perhaps when you get to safety they will give you food, new clothes and things. This train stops at Treblinka.’

‘Treblinka?’

‘That’s where the train is heading,’ Dmitry said. ‘Lots of trains, every day, full with people. You’ll be safe there.’

Dialogue subtext is a way of hinting at something without directly saying it, so in this example, the real emotion and meaning lies beneath the surface of the main character’s optimism. It’s obvious to the reader, without saying it directly, what will happen to the man with star on his clothes.

Characterisation subtext is about behaviour. In real life, people display different behaviours and reactions, and fiction is no different. Subtext is a great way for writers to show these behaviours in such a way that the reader sees more within the story than is actually being shown, for example this scene between these two characters – one a crack addict and the other, her dealer:

Tiffany stared at the silver packet, mesmerised by the way it glimmered beneath the light, the way it drew her in beyond the gleam, beyond the superficial nature of it. It plunged her headlong into a grubby darkness of want and need.

Smoke coiled around his weathered face as he watched her. His eyes narrowed.

She glanced at him, her voice throaty, absent. ‘You had everything yesterday. I’m sore...’

Movement in the corner caught his eye; a smaller shadow, a vulnerable one, staring at him from the cot. He went over to the child, fingered her hair. ‘I don’t care. I want my money, so you better get out there and earn it or else.’ 

Here, the unseen is a way to highlight emotion and sentiment and these reactions speak to the reader, without actually stating the obvious. Beneath the narrative, something dark and unpleasant lurks. By standing next to the child and playing with her hair, his real intentions are clear, while Tiffany’s addictive needs are apparent by the way the cocaine packet mesmerises her.

There are many ways to show subtext. It can be within narrative, dialogue or characterisation. Think of it this way: everyone loves a treasure hunt. To uncover the clues and find something hidden is always exciting. And that’s why writers use subtext. Because readers secretly love a treasure hunt.
Next week: Active versus passive fiction.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Creating Plot Twists


Creating a plot twist isn’t too hard if you understand how they work and why they’re used. Many writers fail to grasp the importance of a plot twist or indeed just how they affect the story arc. If you don’t understand what a plot twist does, then there’s every chance you’ll find it hard to get right.
Why use them?
Writers use a plot twist as a way to change the direction of the story, to ‘twist’ in another direction, usually one that is a complete surprise to the reader. In other words, the reader doesn’t see it coming. You can have one twist, perhaps at the end of the story, or you can have more, throughout the story, as a way to keep the reader enthralled.
The beauty of the plot twist is that it can be like a sonic boom – wham, a shock revelation. Or it can be foreshadowed and revealed at the right moment. Either way, it’s a surprise twist for the reader. So whether you foreshadow them or whether it really is a bolt from the blue, they have to be executed cleverly and perfectly for them to work.
That’s why many writers plan through the story plot carefully before they even write anything. This gives them the chance to plan their plot twists. Of course, some do happen spontaneously, too, they happen naturally via story progression. If you want to study plot twists and how they’re accomplished, read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. These examples have great plot twists that not only surprise, but also keep us hooked to every page.
So how do you create them?
An effective plot twist should always be part of the central story and not some deux ex machina contrivance forced into existence to plug your plot holes. It has to grow from the main plot and involve the main character in a dramatic way. There has to be an important point why it’s happening, but that ‘twist’ element is something you keep back from the reader for a while, until the right moment in the story. Then it’s delivered like a punch to the stomach. Think of the ‘twist’ as a narrative bomb which has to be timed perfectly.
The twist should, to use a cliché, pull the rug from beneath the reader’s feet. That’s the feeling it should evoke. If done correctly, the reader won’t see it and so it will have maximum impact. If, however, they guess what’s going to happen, then the element of surprise is lost and the twist won’t be as effective.
The way around this is not to make the plot twist so obvious that everyone can see it. Be subtle with clues. Drop hints in the narrative; foreshadow with a soft touch. But above all, make the surprise count.
The other thing to consider with a plot twist is expectation. This is what every reader will have in abundance. They will expect action, thrills, romance, shocks and surprises...and as the writer, you have to deliver some of these expectations. But because the reader expects so much, we as writers have the liberty of turning into a grinning villains because we can tease and lure them, we can wrong-foot them, we can jump scare them, we can plant red herrings and best thing of all, we can throw our hero into absolute peril every chance we get. That’s what we do in order to build up tension and play dirty with that reader expectation for as long as we can.
Then we can let them have that twist with both barrels. That makes it even more satisfying.
Plot twists don’t just shift in unexpected directions to keep the reader on their toes; they are used throughout the story to advance the main plot. Of course, all these elements depend on the story you’re writing, since plot twists are unique to that story and characters. You might, for example, have a story about a young family – a mother and father and their children – a boy and girl, who move into a new house. 
All is well until the pet cat vanishes. And other pets in the neighbourhood. And things get worse when the girl disappears. The little boy becomes cold and uncommunicative, which gives the appearance of grief. Neighbours start to talk.
Except the plot twist is that the boy is not grieving at all. He’s just a cold hearted child who killed his sister, ate her flesh and buried her with the cat in the back garden.
That’s a really simple example of a plot twist set up. Characters – situation – tension – expectation – red herrings, and finally the revelation.
Plot Twists Summary:

  • They can change the direction of the story with the element of surprise.
  • They take advantage of reader expectation.
  • They must be central to the story and characters.
  • They reveal something that both reader and characters won’t know.
  • They can advance the main plot.
  • There can be more than one twist in the story.
With a cleverly executed plot twist, you want to give the reader what they expect, but in a way that is completely unexpected.

Next week: Getting to grips with subtext.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Better Writing - Dealing with Exposition


Exposition is a word writers use all the time, but what do we mean when we talk about exposition?
It’s a term used to provide the reader with certain information about characters, events, actions, settings or the background. It’s a necessary component of any story, but it’s how exposition is delivered that makes the difference. It can be done correctly or incorrectly.
Despite the amount of information on the internet telling you there are umpteen different types of exposition, for creative writing there are only two types of exposition that matter: Direct and indirect exposition.
Direct Exposition
The title tells you all you need to know. The information being provided is direct. It’s telling the reader all the important stuff, but it tends to end up as info dumps because the writer hasn’t handled it very well, for example:
John had lived in the town all his life and still lived in the house that his grandparents owned. He felt a strong bond with the place and couldn’t entertain the thought of leaving, like his brother had done. He couldn’t leave behind the grand history of the house or the land upon which it stood, especially after the upheaval of the war. He had been a small child when war broke out and his life was turned upside down, particularly when the first wave of bombers destroyed much of the town and had killed his grandfather.
This is example is direct exposition. It’s directly telling the reader John’s background information via narration. Lots of novels do this, but they should be handled carefully to avoid ‘info dumping’, which this example does.
Direct exposition is necessary in every story, but it is how it’s executed that makes it effective and less like a chore to read. The best way to tackle direct exposition is to fold snippets of it into the story at appropriate moments, when the story demands it, rather than throwing huge narrative chunks at the reader from the outset.
In other words, the example above could be dissected into more relevant snippets that can be slipped into the narrative as the story unfolds, while other bits are just not necessary.  Remember, every story must move forward, so large chunks of narrative-laden exposition have the opposite effect.
Drip feed relevant information. Don’t force-feed your reader.
The other way to deliver direct exposition is to use dialogue, but that, too, needs to be done correctly, because there is nothing more annoying than two characters talking about stuff they already know, just to provide information to the reader. This is seen in almost every movie known to man – they assume the audience is stupid and end up explaining stuff we already know. As a writer, don’t make that assumption.
To deliver direct exposition in dialogue, make sure that the information you want to make known is not just a disclosure for the reader’s benefit, but also a revelation to one or more characters within the scene. For instance, in the example below, let’s assume that Frank and Amy are talking about the past and that Amy (and the reader) don’t know the full truth:
He handed Amy her coffee. ‘Did your mother ever talk about me?’
She eyed him with suspicion. ‘We don’t talk much. We’ve never been close.’
‘Let’s cut to the chase, Frank. Why did you rescue me out there on the mountain?’
He seemed reluctant. ‘I have a vested interest.’
Her eyes narrowed. What do you mean?’
‘Your father...he didn’t create that vaccine...’
This example sets up the expository revelation that the main character, Amy, isn’t aware of. But neither is the reader, so the direct exposition is necessary and relevant for that scene and that moment. It wouldn’t work if both the reader and Amy already knew all this from earlier in the story, but the reader just repeats it to make sure the reader gets the idea. This is common among new writers. You don’t have to hit your reader over the head with it.
Indirect Exposition
Good old fashioned ‘show, don’t tell’ description. It’s indirect because it is subtly woven into the narrative in a seamless way, but adds to the overall effect of the story without it becoming a burden for the reader, or a way of smacking them in the face with the obvious.
In other words, the writer shows the reader through vivid description and or careful dialogue pertinent facts about the story, for example, we’ll use John’s story from earlier:
John peered at the far wall; the picture of his grandparents shrouded in shadows. He felt the burden swell in his chest; that he teetered on the edge of financial ruin and the one thing he had left in the world – the house that his grandfather had built – might be wrenched from him. He looked away and found solace in the rain-lashed trees outside, sad that something so beautiful and ornate had survived years of German bombing, yet could vanish beneath the force of bulldozers because of a bad decision.
Rather than directly telling the reader, this shows the reader John’s predicament. It shows his sentiment, what the house means to him, how he feels about losing it, and what his grandparents mean to him. It’s subtle, effective and doesn’t need to be repeated further into the story. That’s because the reader will get it first time.
Indirect exposition works because it’s brief but subtle and moves the story forward. Direct exposition doesn’t.
If you feel the need to go into expository mode, stop and remember that the story should always be presented on a ‘need to know’ basis to the reader. So, instead of bombarding them with information from the outset, simply let them in only when they need to know.

Next week: Better writing – Creating Plot Twists

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Better Writing – How to Start and End Chapters


We use chapters as a way of neatly sectioning the writing into manageable portions for both the reader and the writer. Chapters have many functions, but understanding them and knowing how to use them effectively is an important aspect to getting the most out of your chapters.
Chapters are useful in different ways. They can help build tension, create mood and atmosphere, and they can allow the narrative to breathe by slowing down the pace of the story or causing a short pause. This is effective if the writer wants to move from lots of action and shift to a slower pace to give the reader time to digest everything that is happening. Readers need the chance to take in everything that is happening without rushing along at breakneck speed.
Chapters are also effective for shifting perspectives and for changing POVs. They also allow the transition of time and are great for introducing flashbacks. And of course, they allow the writer to move scenes and settings without interrupting the narrative.
So with the different ways writers can use chapters, they can be used efficiently. Think of each chapter the same way as the very beginning of the novel – you have to intrigue, tease and lure the reader into continuing reading. And keep them reading. 
Every chapter should act as a hook to keep the reader reeled in.
Beginning of Chapters
The beginning of a chapter should not differ too much to your opening paragraph to Chapter One. In other words, it should entice the reader and lead them smoothly and seamlessly into the continuing story without them even noticing the chapter break. They just want to turn the page and read on.
Beginnings should lead on from the previous chapter in a logical manner – it’s a continuation of the story, after all. The exceptions are that if you want a discernible or deliberate shift in the time span – i.e. the transition of days, months or years or you want to use a flashback.
The other thing to remember is that the proceeding chapter should resolve story threads from the preceding chapter, or at least continue with them. That’s the purpose of a story arc.
You don’t have to start every chapter with a bang or an explosive action scene. But it should start with a hint of what’s gone before, as a reference. It should also have momentum and it should have enough in the opening paragraphs to keep the reader enticed.
Ending of Chapters
The ending of chapter is also a great opportunity to lure the reader. Writers use them to not only build some tension, but also to entice the reader to find out what might happen next.
Read any novel and you’ll see how writers approach this.
Create Mystery
Often writers create a sense of mystery and ambiguity at the end of a chapter to ensure that it entices the reader to keep reading, for example:
John’s expression creased, perhaps because he knew he would break her trust. ‘There’s something I have to tell you…something about me…’
Mini-foreshadowing
This is another way to dangle the carrot for your reader at the end of a chapter. Mini foreshadowing is a way of hinting at a revelation or a future event that might occur in further into the story. It’s the same principle of normal foreshadowing in any novel – the idea is to scatter the narrative with hints of what may come, so ending your chapter with a mini-foreshadow is a good way to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, for example:
‘Don’t be too late.’
Julie grabbed her bag and coat and kissed her mother on the cheek. ‘Stop worrying, mom, I’ll be fine...’
Or you can use narrative to foreshadow, for example:
Joe stared into his whiskey glass. He knew it was only a matter of time. There was no escaping what he had done.
Cliffhanger
Writers like to escalate their chapters to end on a cliffhanger, which ensures the reader will want to turn the page to find out what happens next. After all, that’s what a cliffhanger does; it leaves the reader ‘hanging’ and anxious to find out what happens in the very next instant.
Again, you don’t have to have huge explosions and lots of action to create a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger can be very subtle; it’s the ‘not knowing’ element of what comes next that makes it effective, for example:
Billy scrambled in the snow for his gun, just as the soldier pulled back the bolt on his rifle.
The sound of the bullet echoed loud across the snowy vista, before the silence fell once more.
The story halts abruptly, leaving the reader wondering whether Billy is alive or dead, so they are lured into keep reading. It’s a typical cliffhanger.
Generally, use chapter endings to enhance tension or conflict or reveal something new about the plot or a character (or their immediate situation). Use them to lure, to intrigue or hint and things to come.
Another way to look at it is to use the ending of important chapters to promise answers to story and character questions in the preceding chapters. You don’t have to address all of them, but some elements will unfold, and so it keeps the story arc going. It’s a fundamental way to keep the reader interested.
It’s worth noting that not every chapter has to end with a tease and start with a hook. As with all writing, it’s all about balance. Those chapters that do have key events, important turning points, plot revelations or important scene changes and so on are the ones to focus on. 
Where necessary, use anticipation, tension, fear and emotion to keep your reader glued to the story. Think carefully about the start and the end of your chapters, think about what effect you want to achieve and what you want to convey.

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