AllWrite will be taking a break for the next few weeks and will return 26th August
Sunday, 29 July 2018
If there is such a thing as a true magical ingredient for fiction writing, then emotion is one of them. Like conflict, it’s the one thing a story absolutely needs. Emotion doesn’t just make a story; it feeds it, sustains it and heightens it.
Emotion is essential. A story without emotion isn’t much of a story. That’s because every story relies on emotions we all feel, the kind we all understand and can all identify with. It may not seem like it, but everything in a story revolves around emotion and there are two distinct ways to work with emotion in fiction writing – showing it and eliciting it.
Show the Reader
Our characters convey all manner of emotions as the story unfolds. Scenes are often charged with emotion, be it anger, love, betrayal, pain or fear etc. Characters act and react constantly to other characters, to different situations and to personal conflicts. We put our characters in danger, we’re mean to them, we give them dilemmas, we kill off their loved ones, we raise the stakes and we force them into making all manner of decisions. We throw everything at them. Each one of these creates not just conflict, but it also creates emotion, and plenty of it.
These are the emotions we show to the reader, so that the reader can understand exactly what the characters are feeling and can therefore identify with those sentiments. And they will identify because the range of emotions we’ve all felt are a shared human condition. So take every opportunity to exploit this by showing the reader, rather than telling them.
Provoke the Reader
Showing the reader emotions through your characters and situations is one thing, but eliciting emotion from the reader isn’t as hard as it sounds, because if you create very real situations within the story, the kind that the reader will recognise, sympathise or empathise with, you’ll also be able to draw out deeper emotional responses from them. What person wouldn’t be moved by a main character losing a loved one, or a child? We feel for the character that is in danger. We’re swept along when a character falls in love. We’re angry when our protagonist is betrayed or ill-treated. We’re sad when something bad happens to them.
Realistic problems and dilemmas create real responses. If you show the reader the characters as they react to all these problems and dilemmas and show their vulnerability and their weakened sensibilities, then you’ll be able to tap into the reader’s feelings and change them, because to be a writer, you need to be a master manipulator. Not only do we show the reader emotions, but we also draw emotional reactions from them. We provoke such reactions. This is exactly how we manipulate them.
As writers, we don’t just stop there. We escalate these emotions as the story progresses. We want them to feel what the main character feels, we want them completely immersed in the story and we want the reader to be right there for the whole journey, right up until the climax. And we do that through emotion.
A good story should leave the reader wanting to read it again, because you’ve not just showed them emotion, you’ve provoked a range of emotional responses that will leave them wanting more.
Next time: Avoid mistakes when editing your own work
AllWrite will be taking a break for the next few weeks and will return 26th August
AllWrite will be taking a break for the next few weeks and will return 26th August
Sunday, 22 July 2018
We all want to create characters that are so well developed that they seem real to the reader. Complex characterisation not only makes the character believable, or realistic, it shows them as they should be – fallible, flawed and anything but a hero.
Complex characterisation isn’t just about knowing what they look like, sound like, how old they are, how they dress or what their favourite colour is. Complexity within characters starts with the background. Every character has a backstory and a past. It’s these details that help the reader identify with that character. We’ve all done stupid things. We’ve all felt pain. We’ve all endured hard times and amazing moments. We all have inner demons. We’ve all accomplished things. These things define us, and so we understand when we see a fictional character going through the same moments and emotions. That’s how we connect with the characters; we feel for them and we empathise, because we’ve been through similar events. We can relate.
Writers then use this backstory and weave it into the present story, thereby ‘layering’ the character. Different layers add different depths and dimension to the character. Remember that the past defines who your character is, but the present story will define who your character will become, because a character must always develop and change during the story, otherwise there won’t be much story to tell.
Character development is continual throughout the story – what he or she experiences will directly affect actions and reactions. So page by page, these layers build up, and your character becomes more complex, and almost real.
It’s important to mention one of the most important aspects of complex character building – emotion. It’s the one thing we all identify with. Emotions make a character. Conflicts build the character. Strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and humanity. These are the ingredients that create character’s complexity. People in real life who are complex can be very intense; they can be highly strung, prone to emotional outbursts, they can be exceptionally creative, intelligent, and above all, they can be very conflicting (and frustrating).
So, are your main characters conflicted, emotional, intense or even unpredictable and difficult? Do they have flaws and weaknesses? How do they react and cope with stress, dilemmas and seemingly impossible problems? How bad are their inner demons? How does it affect their emotional attachments to others? What conflicts are going on in their heads? What really drives them?
In a bid to create complex characters, writers often fall into the trap of creating obvious character types such as the loner, the muscle-bound hero, the optimist, the romantic, or the damsel in distress. By doing so, any chance of creating a complex character that lifts the story from the page is thrown out of the window.
Avoid obvious character types. There is no such thing as ‘character types’. That’s because every character is unique. If something is unique, then ‘type’ cannot exist. Each character must be as distinctive as real people and as unique as a fingerprint.
You’ll notice that there are lots of things mentioned here – emotions, flaws, contradictions, conflicts, backstory/the past, actions and reactions...these are the multitude of facets that made a multifaceted character. Something that is complex means it has numerous parts. The more parts it has, the more complex it becomes.
To build a complex character means you have to understand all these working ‘parts’, and why they exist. For every characteristic we all possess, there is a reason behind it. It may have developed in childhood, or it could be because of something in the present. Everything we have done, and continue to do, shape us. We are constantly evolving; shedding and gaining those layers; nothing is constant.
Your main characters are no different. And it’s these very things that define simplicity from complexity.
Next week: Dealing with emotion.
Sunday, 15 July 2018
For those writers who like to plan their stories, story outlines are a great foundation to ensuring the story moves in the right direction and doesn’t stutter.
Outlines don’t have to be complicated. They can be as simple or as detailed as you want. The most important thing is that you capture the main points of your story so you avoid writer’s block, stumbling blocks, ‘saggy middles’, trouble with plot twists, lack of direction and other writing problems.
Every writer is different in their approach, and they will construct their outlines that best suit them. But whichever way you do it, it will still provide a road map from beginning of the story to the conclusion and it won’t leave you frustrated or stuck.
For an outline to work, there has to be a well thought out, well developed plot from which to suspend the outline. The plot is the important framework around which the story is woven. The plot will tell you what the story is about, whose story it is, why it’s happening, and the likely conclusion.
With a tight plot in place, every outline must list the main characters, so you need to have your protagonist, antagonist and secondary characters in place. Don’t worry about peripheral characters or ‘walk on’ characters. The outline needs only those characters that will affect t the story line.
The Synopsis Style Outline
The story outline is similar to a synopsis in that it summarises what will happen. It introduces the main character and his or her objective and it will tell the reader who the antagonist is and what could stand in the way of the main character’s goal.
Thereafter, important scenes or moments are summarised, detailing the conflict, the obstacles the protagonist might face, the likely plot twists and revelations, including all the important characters involved. It should also provide a few ideas for sub plots and it must detail how the story might end.
The List Outline
Many writers are more comfortable making lists because they find them easier to work with and they often help with formulating ideas.
These can list the important story points, characters, plot points, themes, conflicts, sub plots and an ending...just about anything the writer feels necessary. Simple lists help the writer stay organised and on track, so even if you aren’t really sure where the story will go, simple lists will help with the structure.
The Chapter Outline
For those writers who are ‘plotters’, the chapter outline is one for them. It’s a linear process - it starts with chapter one and briefly outlines who the main character is, what the main goal is, who the opponent is and what is at stake. Then it continues with chapter two and three and so on, summarising what will happen in each chapter to form a chronological story and a solid structure to work from.
Each chapter summery should identify key moments, plot twists, likely sub plots, conflicts, dilemmas and obstacles.
Story Maps/Diagrams Outlines
Some people like to use story maps; their minds work better than, say lists or summaries. A mind/bubble map or sketched diagrams help to collate lots of ideas and bring them together into one place. Some writers use the main character as the main point; others use the plot as the main point from which to add lots of ideas around it and work from there.
Some writers prefer to draw or sketch important scenes and work around them to formulate the story. There is no right or wrong way when it comes to outlining a story.
The thing to remember with your outline is that is not set in stone. The thing about outlines is that we don’t have to follow them religiously. Sometimes we follow it loosely, deviate or change the story, sometimes we get better ideas, but the outlines are there to guide us on the road map to story completion, but moreover, it’s a structure from which to work. Outlines prevent writer’s block, the ‘saggy middle’ syndrome, and all manner of problems because there is always some sort of path to follow.
They don’t have to be strategically plotted, methodical or complicated. Sometimes keeping it simple works best. What they do is provide a route from beginning to end, they provide structure and you’ll find they the usual stumbles, stutters and blocks vanish for good.
Next week: Complex Characterisation
Saturday, 30 June 2018
Most writers can contend with both short stories and novels. They’re able to switch between the two with relative ease, but for some writers, it’s not so straight forward.
There are writers who struggle to write novels and instead prefer short stories. Conversely, there are those who find it hard to write a story confined to a short amount of words, so novels work better for them. That’s why many writers are drawn to either one or the other.
Short Story Writers
Short stories can be more complex in the way they are constructed – because a well told story with almost the same elements as a novel still needs to be crammed into 10,000 words or so – and some writers become very skilled at this.
Are you a short story writer? Do you find plotting is too complicated, that you have to try to make the story make sense and avoid large plot holes and mistakes? Are things easier with one central story?
Do you balk at the thought of creating loads of characters and creating in-depth characterisation? What about making all your character believable and likeable? Is it easier to stick with one or two main characters instead?
Does weaving all those themes together fill you with dread? Themes are an integral part of any story, so you need at least one. So is it easier working with just one main theme?
Unlike novels, short stories don’t demand intricate subplots to stitch into the main story. Many short stories don’t bother with any subplots – there just isn’t enough room.
Do you find it easier writing something that takes place in a short amount of time, maybe a few hours or days? With a novel, a story might span weeks, months or years and would need considerable plotting.
Does it put you off that writing a full length novel will take months, even years to complete? The planning involved can be very precise and time consuming. Short stories, however, allows the writer to complete a story in weeks or months.
Is it more important for you to tell an interesting, concise yet enjoyable story based on one central theme? If so, you are probably more adept at spinning a short tale with a twist at the end, and you find it easier to work with just a few characters and a main theme.
Short stories could suit you better.
Novel writers love the planning and research involved in putting together and then writing a novel.
Are you a novel writer? Do you struggle to tell a story in so few words? Instead you want to expand on backstory and flashback and history. You would much rather make the story multidimensional and richly layered, with lots of depth, and make it as believable as possible?
Rather than one small theme, does your novel have many overlapping themes to help tell the story and get the message across to your reader?
Do you prefer a large cast of characters to help you tell the story, to help weave those extra plot strands? Do you enjoy mixing them all together so that they create intelligent and complicated plots twists? Do you love dropping hints and clues and wrong-footing the reader?
Do you enjoy the challenge that comes with writing something so involved and so intricate that it could take several months to write and even longer to edit?
Is it more important for you to tell a deep, complex tale that contains many characters, related themes, a dramatic plot and lots of deep layers? If so, then the novel writing process will probably suit you better.
So which storyteller are you? Novels can be very challenging and time consuming, but for some of us, it’s a challenge we love. For others, short stories – which can be more difficult to tackle – offer writers a challenge. Whichever one suits your skills, stay with it. Don’t write a novel if you’re not confident or comfortable doing so, and the same is true of the short story. Let your skills decide what is best for you as a writer.
In time, it may be you can become one of those writers who can write both shorts and novels.
Next week: Constructing Story Outlines
Sunday, 17 June 2018
Some people are naturally good a short story telling. Others find novels much easier to write, because it’s not confined to a condensed amount of words. This is perhaps why people find short stories more difficult to get to grips with.
But are they really difficult?
Let’s consider the differences first. The short story and the novel may share some similarities – a main story, a main character and a theme or two – but their overall structure and length make them very different. The common mistake most beginners make is to write the short story as though it was a novel and the result is that the story doesn’t work, and often doesn’t feel like a complete story because they haven’t taken into account these differences.
Short stories vary in length, from 1000 words to around 20,000 words. Average novels tend to range from 80,000 to 100,000 words. So with a short story, the plot needs to be told and wrapped up in a shorter length, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Number of Characters
The big difference between short stories and novels is that a short story is told with one main character and maybe one or two secondary characters, whereas a novel can have a cast of dozens. This means there is no room for deep characterisation, backstories or character subplots in short a story.
The short story can’t expand on multiple themes, characters, subplots and dozens of different settings in the same way a novel can. There is just no room. Not only that, the short story mainly focuses on a brief moment in time – a few hours or a day or two, but a novel can expand across decades or more and flip back and forth in time many times via flashbacks.
It all boils down to the limited amount of words. What normally fits in a novel won’t fit into a short story, so it’s important that the writer pays careful attention to the structure of a short story. That means there isn’t room to create multiple obstacles, or an escalating story arc that heightens towards the denouement with varied levels of drama, conflict and tension. Nor is there room for lots of twists and turns, which is why many short stories have the twist at the end.
A short story only has room for one main story thread, one main theme, one main thread of conflict, a couple of main characters, a set amount of description, narrative and dialogue and a good ending. It needs to set out the problem from the first paragraph, it needs to show who the main character is, tell the story concisely and reach the climax, all without the fluffy extras a novel affords.
The length, number of characters and the condensed structure makes short story writing more difficult than novel writing. It’s hard to fit a good story into 10,000 words with so few writing elements to work with, because the writer still has to create a likeable character, a believable story, a recognisable problem to overcome, some conflict, some emotion, some description and dialogue and provide a satisfactory ending – a story that grips the reader just as much as a novel would.
This is why planning a short story is just as important as planning a novel. The elements are the same, in that there are essential components every story needs:
- What is the story about?
- Whose story is it?
- What problem must the main character overcome?
- Who is the antagonist, or what is the main obstacle?
- How is this goal achieved?
- How does the story end?
- Does it all make sense?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking a short story is a scaled down version of a novel. A short story is a snapshot of a brief moment in the main character’s life. It is not anything like a novel.
Some writers write short stories to gain experience before moving towards novel writing. There is nothing wrong with this – it helps the writer understand how to be clear and concise, it helps the writer to find their voice, it helps with their overall writing.
Short stories are more difficult to write than novels. It takes practice to get those limited elements right. As with everything, the more you write, the better you become, so it’s worth gaining some experience with short story planning and writing. It will help improve your writing skills overall.
Next week: Are you a short story writer or a novel writer?
Saturday, 9 June 2018
Some people are excellent short story writers. Others are novel writers, and write only novels. There are times, however, we look upon a short story and realise there’s more. There’s more to say, more to explore, more to write. In other words, the short story demands to be something else – it wants to be a novel.
One thing to note is that not every short story can be a novel. Sometimes they just don’t work on a larger scale. And you don’t choose short stories to make them into novels – that’s like forcing an idea into being; it doesn’t work.
Most short stories work as short stories and nothing more. If there is more beyond the ending of a short story, that story will tell you. You will instinctively know that the story could be extended because the characters and the plot almost strain to reveal more. Sometimes the subplots need further expansion, beyond the boundaries of 5000 or 10,000 words, sometimes the characters push for more attention, or the plot is so deep that you know that it needs more than just a short story. There is unfinished business that simply demands you write something bigger and better.
Short stories only have a limited number of words in which to deliver a satisfactory story. They have to be concise and brief, yet they must still convey all the elements found in a novel to make the story enjoyable – plot, conflict, tension, atmosphere, characterisation, mood etc. In a novel, there are around 95,000+ words at your disposal to create a novel. That means there is room to spread out subplots, more room to explore your characters in detail and to add layers to the story and to draw out as much conflict, tension, atmosphere and mood as is needed.
So if you realise your short story needs to turn into a novel, what do you do?
If you feel you have a short story that needs that room, then the most important thing to focus on is the plot. Can it be developed and expanded? No longer confined to 10,000 words or so, it will need deeper development in order to sustain 90,000 words or more. But that expanded plot must form an intrinsic part of the story without it feeling forced. That means taking the crux of the story – whether it’s a tale of revenge, a romance or a coming of age story etc. – and creating something deeper and more complex and building more story around it.
The only way to do this is rework the story and the plot to tell a much greater story.
Addition of Subplots and Characters
A plot that’s expanded and further developed will, in turn, allow you to add more subplots. This will help you explore the story on different levels (something a short story can’t do), and further develop your characters. There’s room for extra layers to the story, which subplots do perfectly. But be aware that they must happen organically and relate to the main plot. Be sure they work for the story, not against it.
With a stronger, deeper plot, there’s room to add more problems and dilemmas for your characters, more themes to explore and yet more characterisation. It also allows you to add many more characters, which is something short stories just can’t do. But the characters must be an essential part of your expanded plot. They support the story, so don’t add characters just to make up the numbers, otherwise it won’t work.
What Might Happen?
With the plot constructed to sustain a novel length, you need to pay attention to what might happen within the story to help make this happen. In other words, what events take place to push the story forward? Short stories don’t have to worry too much about all sorts of events and incidents, because there is usually one major event that can be covered. But novels need more meat on the bones.
The structure of a novel needs an ever increasing amount of incidents and events to escalate towards the conclusion. That usually means adding more obstacles in the path of your main characters, or pushing them into corners and ever more increasing dangerous situations. This also increases conflict and emotion, just what readers want. With new events and incidents, there are also actions, reactions and consequences, which are rarely covered in short stories.
Develop the Ending
If you rework the plot to fit a novel length, then the ending will also need work, because all those new subplots need satisfactory conclusions, as will any other story threads you create.
Also, will the ending bear any resemblance to the short story ending? If not, how will it differ? Will it be a totally new ending? Just like the plot expansion, pay close attention to how the story unfolds and leads up to the end of the novel – don’t forget that it must be logical and satisfactory and never forced.
- Examine the plot – can it be expanded and developed?
- Add subplots to add new layers to the story, but make sure they relate to the main plot.
- Use additional characters to tell the story.
- Add more problems and obstacles for your characters. Create the tension and drama with dangerous situations, which means there is always more emotion.
- Develop the ending so that it works with your new expanded plot, but make sure it works well and will leave the reader satisfied that it’s the right ending.
If you think a short story has more to give, think about how you can develop it and how you can tell the story on a deeper level; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Not all short stories are destined to be novels.
Next week: Are short stories more difficult to write?
Sunday, 3 June 2018
‘Write what you know’ is an adage that most writers will have heard of, and while it’s certainly true that what a writers knows makes a solid foundation for their writing, it’s not an entirely accurate, because much of what is written is all about what we don’t actually know.
That’s why it requires great creativity and imagination.
Writing from experience isn’t about a writer being autobiographical – fiction isn’t about that and should never be about the writer, nor should it project the writer’s feelings or opinions. Instead it’s about the stuff the writer knows, which could be used in their work.
That’s why writing from experience does have an advantage. A lot of our writing is generated from stuff we remember or things we’ve done. That means our writing is a balance between what we imagine and snippets of things we know or we have experienced. That could be anything from having knowledge of a certain skill, an expertise in a certain field, experience from a particular job, memories from a certain time in life – good or bad – memories of things we’ve seen or heard and observations of the world around us.
Readers won’t know that the main character is able to rewire a house because the writer used to be an electrician. Or that a writer can write knowledgeably about certain medical procedures because he or she works as a nurse. The reader won’t know that the writer may have experienced something traumatic in childhood, and so is able to put all those emotions behind their writing and the characters.
Emotions are probably the one thing we all share, which is why readers are drawn to them. The honesty that comes with raw emotion is something the reader will understand and empathise with, because they may have shared the same thing. Emotion will always connect the author to the reader.
Writing from experience should also help the author provide effective descriptions. For example, one of the most violent thunderstorms recently occurred in the UK. As a well-travelled writer, I’ve seen my fair share of amazing storms from around the world, but this one was like no other. It lasted 24 hours, the lightning was non-stop and local areas became flooded.
I love thunderstorms, so I stood in my back doorway and listened to a crack of thunder that didn’t actually stop. Not for a second. It just continued - a constant rumble for several hours. In my imagination, however, the sound, accompanied by the churning grey-pink sky, seemed apocalyptic. But it created a memory; the sounds and images fused in my mind. Now I can use the memory of those amazing elements in my writing to help give descriptions perspective and a hint of realism.
In a nutshell, what we see and hear plays an important role in our writing – observation often gives depth and meaning to descriptions. Personal experience establishes an emotional connection with the reader. The ability to translate what we know or what we have felt, to the reader – rather than preaching to them – is the difference between a great story and a mediocre one.
Real life is often more interesting than the fictional stories we create, and that’s because we have to make the stories interesting with all manner of made up stuff, embellished with a dollop of real life experiences and emotions thrown in for good measure.
Our job as writers is to make our stories as real as possible and we do that by writing about things we know; just as much as the things we don’t.
Next week: Turning Short Stories into Novels.