Saturday, 18 October 2014

Should You Write About Taboo subjects?

I often get asked a lot about this by writers, worried that some subjects are off limits and should never be broached at the risk of offending people or upsetting their own families.

Also, there is a fear that controversial subjects might limit readership or, worse still, publication, however, the thing to consider with writing is that it is not just a form of expression or an art form; it is the basis of our social comment on humanity.  Finding answers to what makes people tick, what makes them do the things they do, is what writing really is all about. To that end, no subject is truly off limits.

But like any medium, it is how we handle the subject that really matters.

Just as artists are free to express what they want in their work, writing is no different. Writers are free to explore the forbidden or usually unavoidable subjects, however unsavoury they may be, particularly so if there is a moral behind the story and it raises the kinds of questions we as society should be asking and trying to answer. And those questions come about because taboos fascinate us and repel us in equal measure.

Should we all walk around with blinkers on, ignoring the darker elements of our world, or should we show the reality of what’s out there? After all, life isn’t all fluffy white clouds and bright blue skies. Writers like to tap into those murkier areas, to dig beneath the social and cultural values that veil the dark underbelly, to reveal truths that sometimes society doesn’t want to hear. But sometimes the greatest fiction comes from hard truth.

Fiction allows writers to push readers to question such taboos, why they exist, what makes them so forbidden and unacceptable, and to help them understand what they are in context to the story the writer creates.

But what subjects would be considered taboo?

There are social taboos and cultural taboos. Subjects that might involve children and young adults – themes of paedophilia and sexual abuse or torture – tend to make most people frown, but many high profile cases in the news should make us realise how common these are,  so as writers, we should want to explore and understand the complexities and emotions that make people commit these acts. These are social taboos.

The same goes for rape or incest. Other themes might centre on the dead, so subjects with death and sexual fantasy/necrophilia are also considered very taboo. Themes involving drugs are also considered taboo, simply because of their effects and destructiveness.

But that’s not to say you can’t write about them.

Subjects that involve traditional belief systems, ethnic beliefs or religion (and associated radical) behaviours are considered cultural taboos.  In the West, we’re not really bothered about flashing our flesh or using profanity or having wild drinking parties and so on. But in a Muslim country, modesty is important and profanity and nudity is very taboo, so if we write about them we need to be considered and respectful to different ways of life.

As writers, we should not be afraid of tackling the more unpleasant issues, whether it’s about violent sex, sexual fantasies, death, children, torture, incest, terrorism etc, but such stories should be written with great respect and care and not written for gratification, titillation or cheap insults, particularly to those have been victims of such.

Writers have a moral responsibility to show the impact and emotion and reality of the issue without mocking or demeaning the subject. So if you do write about something considered taboo, you need to consider it carefully and ask yourself how important it is to your story, the themes that are associated with it, the reasons behind it and the impact it has on the characters, and, ultimately, how the main character reaches his or her goal by the end of the story. Lastly, the story must end in a satisfactory, responsible and truthful manner.

Why should we write about them?

It’s a way of exploring such dark issues, to open up about them and to try to find the reasons behind it. Writing is all about finding out why people do the things they do, to uncover universal truths.

Through fiction, stories can help others that may have been through similar ordeals that your main character does, it shows that we shouldn’t hide away from such issues, but rather confront them.

Sometimes fiction can highlight the things that must be highlighted, rather than remain hidden away from society. Sometimes ignorance means we don’t have to confront the terrible things that are taking place in the world. If we don’t know about it, we don’t have to care.

I have covered many taboo subjects in my writing, such as child abuse, drug use, rape, genocide, terrorism and self-harm. I’ve done so because they are subjects that I, as a writer, feel should be explored and not swept under the carpet.  

The more we learn, the better our understanding.

Remember, writing about controversial issues should never be for a reaction or shock value. Instead it should be because we need to know the truth.

Next week: How to write scary scenes


Monday, 29 September 2014

How Do You Create Character Motives?

Motivation is a fundamental part of writing. It’s what makes us all tick; therefore, it also makes all your characters tick.  What they do and why they do it is what drives the story forward to its conclusion.  And the driver is always motivation.
Motives push us to act in certain ways, to get what we want, to achieve certain goals. Your characters are no different. 
But how does a writer create the motives that make their characters behave in ways that help push the story forward?  How do you create those character motives? How do they come to be?
Character motives come from various sources within the scope of the story. It isn’t just about the character wanting something and doing it. It depends on several other factors, too, but they all create character motives:-
  • The main character’s goal.
  • The storyline – primarily what the story is about
  • The characters involved
  • The obstacles created to thwart the main character
  • The main character’s  backstory
The story line will have a bearing on motivation because the thrust of the story is always an ultimate goal (to save the save the world, save the girl/boy, find the truth, uncover the murderer etc.), so the main story always provides that main motivation. This goal is what the story is all about, so anything or anyone that gets in the way of achieving that goal has the potential to produce many different character motives.
Another factor to consider is the other characters within and pertinent to the story. They all revolve around the main character, so their interactions will have a direct bearing on what the main character does. How other characters act and react to certain things can shape what your main character does next.
For instance, you may have the antagonist behave in such a way that provokes a reaction from your main character which provides motivation to do something out of the ordinary or something surprising. Where there was no motivation before, there is one now.
Your characters are constantly judged and scrutinised by other characters, just like real life, so there is plenty of character motivation to be had with their interactions, because there is always a reason behind why people act the way they do. It’s important that the reader understands such motives behind your character’s behaviour.
Obstacles are fun to throw into the path of your characters. Just when things are going so well, you put up a concrete wall to thwart them. They have to find ways to overcome that obstacle and, therefore, find other motives – perhaps the motive to face a particular fear, or do something they wouldn’t normally do or the action it goes against their principles.
Perhaps they are motivated to deviate from their current goal and find themselves caught up in a sub plot.
The more obstacles you create, the more motivational strands you can generate.
One thing that writers tend to forget is the main character’s backstory. It may not seem important, but what happened to your character in their early life has a bearing on who they are in your story – emotionally, physically and mentally.
Maybe you have a character that was abused as a child, so the motives for his or her behaviours are carried through to the present story and drives the story forward in the present.  Or perhaps a significant event happened or a trauma that still affects the main character. They provide motivations in the main story.
Elements that happen the past can become character motives in the future.
Remember that motivation is all about making the reader understand what makes your characters tick.
If we look deep enough at our own lives, we’ll see that there is a multitude of motives just waiting to be discovered.
AllWrite will be taking a well-earned break and will return 18th October.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

How to Use Interior Thoughts – Part 2

In part 1, we looked at how writers could engage the reader by using interior thoughts and how they help the reader to connect with your characters on a deeper level.
But how should a writer convey those internal thoughts?
It’s a question every writer asks, and there seems to be a lot of conflicting advice. And because it’s fiction writing, there is nothing really set in stone, other than common sense and guidelines.
Should you use Italics or underlines? What about capitals? What about quotation marks? There are no hard and fast rules – just accepted conventions and guidelines.
The idea with interior monologue is that it is not actual dialogue, so let’s discount the use of quotations straight away. It’s important to remember that interior thoughts have to stand out against the rest of the dialogue and narrative, so that the reader is immediately aware of the difference and recognises that your character is thinking to him or herself.  It is a visual signal.
If you use quotations marks, the reader will not notice the difference between actual dialogue and interior dialogue, so don’t use them. Internal thoughts can be conveyed in the present tense, even when within a past tense story, because thoughts, like dialogue, are present tense.
Avoid using capital letters, too, because they can appear loud and intrusive, as though you are shouting at your reader. Capitals are a bit much.
There are two main accepted ways to present internal thoughts - Italics with dialogue tags and first person narrative:
Italics and Dialogue Tags
By far the most popular choice for writers is italics. (You will notice that traditionally published makes use of italics to convey internal thoughts, too, especially for third-person POV). It’s also less intrusive than using capitals.
Italics are a good visual signal to the reader once you have identified whose thoughts they are, and can be used on their own, but they can be used with dialogue, or thought, tags (he said/she said etc.), which tells the reader who is speaking, for example:-
1. Joel knew there just wasn’t enough cash. Dammit…
2. Dammit, Joel thought, there aint enough cash
In example No. 1 it is clear from the narrative that Joel is thinking to himself, and the use of ‘dammit’ in italics signifies this and clearly shows the reader what he is feeling.
In example No. 2, the dialogue/thought tag ‘he thought’ is used within the internal thoughts, to show the reader Joel’s inner feelings.
When you’ve made it clear whose thoughts they are, you don’t need to use he thought/she thought again, because it will be quite clear to the reader that the italics signify that character’s thoughts.
First Person Narrative
The other way to show internal thought is the use of first person POV. By virtue of your story being first person, there is no real need for italics to show your character’s thoughts, for example:-
I checked my pockets for the money and immediately my stomach sank to my feet. Dammit, don’t tell me I lost it…
It’s clear from the example that the reader can tell the difference between the narrative and the internal thought.
Internal thoughts should always be from your point of view character in any chapter or scene. Don’t go from one character to another during scenes otherwise the narrative will become unreadable, and don’t show every little inconsequential thought. Only the important stuff counts.
To summarise, internal thoughts can do the following:

  • Immediacy & connection with the reader
  • Help the reader become privy to character’s thoughts
  • Help divulge information & move the story forward
  • Helps to advance the plot or build character
  • Reveals deeper emotions and feelings
  • Helps reveal motivations and conflicts
  • Helps slow the pace

However you choose to show your internal character thoughts, always be consistent. The reader will appreciate it.

Next week: How do you create character motives?

Saturday, 13 September 2014

How to Use Interior Thoughts – Part 1

Whenever a character has any thoughts, whenever they think to themselves, or they talk to themselves during the story, it’s generally known as interior thought or monologue, or interior dialogue.
What it really means is that the reader is allowed into the character’s feelings to directly share his or her point of view, by using the character’s direct thoughts.
This device allows the writer to show what the main character is thinking or feeling, without the need to engage in conversation with other characters. It’s a good way to show what the character’s emotions and mood, strictly from their point of view. It allows the reader to become party to those thoughts, while other characters will be completely unaware of the main character’s inner feelings.
The benefits of Using Interior Thoughts
There are great advantages to including interior thoughts in your narrative. One of the main reasons is that it helps the reader gain an understanding of what the main character is feeling, it brings a sense of immediacy and connection and helps your reader identify with the character.
Moreover, it allows the reader to be privy to what is happening, just by sharing those thoughts.
It also makes it possible to learn about the main character’s true emotions, his or her fears, motivations and goals. It allows the readers to understand the character’s reactions to others, or particular events and situations etc.
It’s also another way for the writer to divulge snippets of information to the reader without resorting to large chunks of exposition and thus is helps to move the story forward.
How are they presented?
There are two ways to show the reader interior thought. You can tell them by simply stating who is doing the thinking, for instance:
‘Go right ahead, see if I care,’ she said.
Just watch me, Jason thought.
This example clearly shows Jason’s personal thoughts because ‘Jason thought’ is tagged directly onto the thought.
In this instance, however, once it is established whose thoughts we are privy there is no need then to keep putting ‘he thought’ after every instance of interior thought.
The other way is to show the reader who is doing the thinking by using narrative, for example:
In all this time, Jason had never seen his wife – soon to be ex-wife – act so selfishly when it came to their children.
His brows sagged. Selfish cow
The way the narrative is written in this example shows the reader whose thoughts they are; therefore any subsequent thoughts within the scene will belong to Jason.
When should they be used?
They form part of your character, so writers have to choose the best time to show internal thoughts and take advantage of key scenes in order to enhance them.
Think about the dynamics of the scene – the kind of scene you’ve written sometimes makes it easier with the kind of thoughts the character has. For instance, does the reader need to see the character’s emotional weaknesses, or conversely, their emotional strength?  Every character has fears, every character is vulnerable, depending on any given situation, and every character is susceptible to a range of emotions such as fear, grief, sadness, anger etc.
There may be an instance where you have action and drama and atmosphere. Interior thoughts from your main character can emphasize those dramatic moments and add to the overall tone and atmosphere.
There will also be moments within the narrative where it is advantageous to reveal more of your character to the reader, and interior thoughts are a good way to do this throughout your novel. It may be something as simple as revealing what your character really feels about another character, or what they think of the situation they are in. Readers love snippets of information like this, revealed from time to time like tiny gifts to unwrap.
Such character revelations also disclose your main character’s motivations. Readers need to know why your main character is doing what he or she is doing. What is driving your character forward?  What is behind their actions? This is what is at the heart of any story – motivation. And motivation always drives a story forward.
Like dialogue, interior thoughts also help to slow the pace of the narrative, particularly in between fast paced narrative and action scenes. This is effective if you want both your character and reader to take a pause and reflect momentarily on preceding events, before stepping up the pace again.
In Part 2 we’ll look at how interior thoughts can be written – should you use italics, should you underline, use capitals, or just use normal sentence case? We’ll also look at some general guidelines on what not to do.

Next week: How to use interior thoughts – Part 2

Saturday, 6 September 2014

How many characters in a story are too many?

I get asked about this a lot, in fact all the time. The answer to the question depends on what kind of story you are writing, whether it’s a short story or a novel.
Short stories have fewer characters because in a 1000 – 10,000 word story there isn’t room to have that many characters; it simply doesn’t work. And short stories always work very well with as few characters as possible.
Novels – being full length – have the scope to cope with a larger cast. There is room to explore them properly, with main characters getting full characterisation and backstory, therefore giving them complexity and depth.
So how many characters do you really need?
In essence, there are only two characters that any story needs – the Protagonist and the Antagonist. All other characters are secondary or peripheral. They will either be relatable or connected to the protagonist or the antagonist in some way. They are there to enhance the plot and the main characters and to help drive the story forward. If they don’t do any of these things, they’re redundant and should be cut.
The fact is that any novel needs a certain number of secondary and peripheral characters who have a function within the story. That amount can be anything from 20 or 30 characters. That seems a lot when seen in those terms, but spread over an 80,000 – 90,000 word novel, it’s a fairly average number.
Too Many Characters
What happens if there are too many characters?
Every writer will make the mistake of having too many characters at one point or another, thinking that these characters are vital to telling the story, when in fact they’re of no use to the story or the writer.
Are they important to the plot or main character? If they are not important, or don’t drive the story forward in some way, they are not necessary. Having too many characters could confuse your readers. Not only do they have to keep up with the plot twists and sub plots, they also have to remember who is who.
Writers need to remember that most of the characters should be memorable in some way, so that the reader remembers them, recognises them and relates to them. That won’t happen with a case of hundreds.
Writers often create characters that might have a walk-on part, are seen briefly, may not say anything, and are then gone, never to be seen again.  Sometimes these ‘walk-on’ characters serve no purpose to the story and should not be there. That’s not to say that peripheral characters should not be present, because they can be, as long as they have a purpose. If they serve no purpose, get rid of them.
One major problem with too many characters is that the higher the number, the less chance of having fully rounded and realised characters. Characterisation will suffer.
Another problem is that secondary characters may be left in the shadows, neglected. That’s simply because the writer has too many characters to focus on and he or she doesn’t realise that some characters have been left out. And some of those characters may be involved in subplots, so they need that attention.
At the other end of the scale, there is the common problem of having too many secondary characters slowly taking over the primary characters. Never allow secondary characters to overshadow your main character.
Writers also have a habit of inventing a handful of unimportant characters simply to serve a plot point or dish out some exposition, characters that have no purpose other than being there at the right moment, just to get the story and the writer out of a hole - deus ex falsis characteribus.
In other words, don’t use false characters to prop up a foundering story.
Too few Characters
Having too few characters can mean that the story won’t move forward. In a short story this isn’t a problem, but in a full length novel, it would be a difficult task indeed to actually tell the entire story through just a handful of people (unless you are an especially gifted writer).
Not only that, but sub plots cannot be explored with too few characters. That means the story cannot be expended to its full potential.
The story could end up being quite empty without the right amount of characters to support it, so it is all about balance. Any novel needs a decent amount of characters to tell a good story. Getting that balance right just takes practice.
They key to getting the balance right is to always explore your developing story and characters:-

1. Who are the most important characters?

2. What role will they play at the climax of the story?

3. Who are the secondary characters, why are they there?

4. Do each of the characters relate to the plot?

5. Do each of the characters drive the story forward in any way?

6. Who are the peripheral characters, what purpose do they serve?

Every story needs to be manageable. Can you manage with a cast of 20 characters? Perhaps 50 Characters? You’re in charge – in the end, you have to keep a close eye on all of them.

Next week: How to use interior thoughts/dialogue

Sunday, 24 August 2014

How to Make Readers Care About Your Story

It’s an age-old question. How do you make your readers care about your story?
It’s the ultimate goal for writers, to make their readers care enough about the story and characters, because that is what makes them read your book and continue reading right until the end.
There isn’t a straight forward answer for this one simply because there is so much involved in the process and lots for a writer to consider.
It’s not really about the story, per se, because the story can be about anything, and so it becomes a secondary thing, but it’s how the writer uses the characters within the story that makes us care about what happens and therefore it makes us care about the overall story. We want the characters to reach their goal, we want them to win the day, we want them to succeed, and that’s because we care about what happens to them.
How do we care?
Firstly, you should write the story for the reader, not yourself. This is vitally important. It is not your story. So many writers still write with the attitude of ‘why should I care about what the readers think?’
They should care, because the story belongs to your main character, and ultimately, to your reader. If you write without the reader in mind, you will fail to engage them and your story will fail. You are writing for them.
So what else can writers do to make readers care?
Writers need to create something known as immediacy, right from the opening chapter, in order to persuade the reader to invest emotionally with the story, so jumping straight into a life changing moment for the main character, or creating a terrible dilemma to introduce the basis of the story always works well.
Immediacy is what connects the story and characters to the reader. In other words, readers want a main character they can sympathise with, feel emotion towards; ordinary people who are thrust into extraordinary situations. They are not special; they are just like you and me.
But the difference lies in the journey they take, the overall story, and what happens to them. And to achieve that we have conflict.  All writers should understand the fundamental principle of conflict and how it works.
Characters + conflict = tension and drama.
Without conflict, there is no tension or drama or action. That means there is no story to tell. And readers love drama.
Conflict creates all sorts of tensions and atmosphere, it creates dramatic situations and that means the reader will want to know what happens to the main character, so conflict in the form of an antagonist and plenty of dilemmas help to draw emotion from your reader, it makes them sympathise and empathise with the character’s struggles. They become emotionally attached to your characters. And that means they care.
The other thing to consider is: what is at stake for the main character?  What will they lose? How would it affect them and the story? Will the protagonist lose someone they love? Will they lose a fortune? Will they lose their house? Their job?
The higher the stakes, the more chance your reader will care about what happens and these issues will lure the reader into the story because they will read on to see what happens. They have to know what happens.
How will your characters overcome such high stakes? Will they compromise, will they sacrifice something, will they do something momentous? Will they change as a person?
Think about it – we all have something to lose. So should your characters. And that’s what makes us care – because the characters, too, care about what happens.
Another important thing that makes the reader care about the story is the characters you create. They have to be likeable, almost real, people. As already mentioned, they should be people we can connect with because they are ordinary; they have faults and flaws, and they make mistakes, just like us, but they have been forced into a situation and how they tackle it and overcome it becomes theirs and our story.
A hero doesn’t have to be heroic to make the reader like them. They are human, and that makes them vulnerable. Such vulnerabilities make us connect to the character. What those vulnerabilities are is down to you as a writer.
One thing to remember: characters should never be perfect, because people in real life are not. There is no such thing as perfect.
Lastly, relatable themes help make the reader care, too. And that’s because readers face the same things in real life. We can relate to love or hate. We can relate to forgiveness, or lack of it. We can relate to death and life. We can relate to pain and loss. We can relate to justice and retribution. All these themes have touched the lives of pretty much everyone in some way or another, so the themes in your novel will help the reader connect to the story.
With all these aspects in place, you should have no problem is making the reader will care about your character’s story.
To summarise:

  • The story is for the reader, not the writer.
  • Create immediacy – connect with the reader.
  • Create conflict = tension and drama.
  • Make sure there are high stakes for your main character.
  • Create believable, likeable characters, people we can relate to, people who are not perfect, but people who have their own vulnerabilities.
  • Relatable themes help your reader connect with the story.

In essence, why should the reader care about your story? Because they’re the ones who will read in and enjoy it and come back for more, time after time.

Next week: How many characters in a story is too many?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

What Makes a Bad Writer?

We’ve all been bad writers at some point.  Being a bad writer is all part of the ritual of becoming a good writer. Everyone starts out a bad writer and becomes a good writer over time. (Good writers will also know that good writing isn’t formed instantly – it takes years of practice).
But how can you tell a bad writer from a good one? How do you know if you are a bad writer?
The main difference with good writers and bad writers is that good writers are always learning, always developing and are always open to feedback. Good writers know their limitations and their skill levels, and they’re always striving to become better; the best they can be.
Bad writers, however, are a different beast altogether.
Bad writers have no real grasp of their limitations, they presume to know everything there is to know about writing, without the experience to back it up. But even if they have three self-published books on Amazon, it doesn’t make them an expert on fiction writing. It just means they have a long way to go, because being a good writer can take years, even decades to achieve.
Only bad writers assume they have a superior level of writing excellence. Good writers never assume it, they earn it.
Also, bad writers don’t understand the concept of constantly editing and rewriting and the need to polish to (almost) perfection, something that’s required before it enters the public domain.  Most simply don’t have the patience for such things.
Good writers, on the other hand, will read through and edit their work several times to eliminate errors and plot flaws and they will have the patience to do so until the work is truly ready, until they have a quality piece of work.
Bad writers don’t need to go through all this, they’re already excellent.
This is turn leads to the arrogance factor. There is nothing more unbecoming in fiction writing that a writer who is arrogant and has an attitude to go with it. More often than not, those who are haughty and overconfident are simply not as good as they think. And more often than not, this notion is proven with what they actually write, simply because their ego has overshadowed any existing raw talent.
Good writers know that perfection is not attainable, but the next best thing is, so they always try to achieve this. At the same time they will acknowledge that no one is perfect. That’s why they are always learning, because writing is a constantly evolving process. They know that to be better writers, they have to learn and evolve. That’s how we all become not just good writers, but great writers.
A bad writer, however, will dismiss the need to learn. They already know all there is to know. They don’t realise that to be a better writer they have to learn.
Have you ever received negative feedback that made you get angry and defensive? The answer is that we all have.
What we write and how we write it won’t be liked by everyone. Good writers accept and understand this concept.  But bad writers don’t understand this at all. Negative feedback is met with even more negativity and sometimes these writers will become involved in online arguments with other writers or engage in emails with those who may have offered the negative feedback. It’s extremely unprofessional.
This leads to that other big negative for writers – the dreaded rejection. Good writers accept that they are not perfect and that rejections are a part of the writing process. They will also take on board the feedback and comments in a constructive way and they will examine where they can improve their work and develop their writing skill accordingly.
Bad writers won’t. They won’t see rejection as an opportunity to improve. They won’t see the positive in it. They will think it’s a personal attack on them and a rejection of their genius. They will become angry and defensive, even petulant, and that arrogance will just grow.
If you cannot cope with rejection or criticism of your writing, then unfortunately that makes you a bad writer.
Another thing is that bad writers don’t understand the concept of professionalism.
And that brings me to the subject of submitting work to agents and publishers. The good writers amongst us will pay vital attention to the guidelines of the publishing house or the agent’s requirements, because guidelines are there for a reason.
A bad writer will ignore these guidelines. The “nobody can tell me what I should and shouldn’t do” attitude won’t wash with potential publishers. If you can’t be bothered to follow instructions, then don’t bother being a writer.
Lastly, the new phenomenon of shameless self-promotion has become a nuisance. The pester power of self-published writers isn’t endearing, it’s annoying. And the “look at me and my fantastic novel” constant promotion on every available medium won’t win readers.
Good writers promote, but they also engage with potential readers, they ask questions, they answer questions, they have open discussions about their writing, they use the likes of Twitter or Facebook, Goodreads or writing forums to network and socialise and generate interest in a productive way.
What they don’t do is selfishly spam the hell out of everyone. And that’s precisely what a bad writer will do. Bad writers are not bothered about networking or socialising or engaging in discussions about their writing or indeed any constructive feedback. They just want the sales.
Ultimately, a bad writer is one that doesn’t listen and therefore never learns. So, are you one of them?
Next week: How to make your readers care about your story.