Saturday, 22 November 2014

Symbolism - Part 2


With some understanding of what symbolism is and the important part it can play in your fiction, how does a writer use it to his or her advantage, and more importantly, when should it be used?
Symbolism is about representation and interpretation, so the inclusion of it should be carefully considered. It’s not one of those things a writer can make up on the spot. And more often than not, these elements don’t make themselves known until the second or third draft, when the narrative has been edited and the story arc becomes clear. By then, themes and motifs will have emerged to strengthen the story, and any symbolism you have in mind will be closely related to the themes running through the story.
In short, symbols need to mean something within the story; they have to have a purpose and they should link to the themes within the narrative.
You may find that some symbols become apparent while writing, while others emerge during the editing process.
Placing symbolism first requires the writer to fully understand the depth of their story, to instinctively know when to place any symbols. For instance, you may have a character that keeps seeing certain things – perhaps a bird keeps appearing at heightened emotional moments. Or maybe a certain colour triggers a memory it time he or she sees it, and the colour represents something in the character’s past.
Certain moments within the story undoubtedly benefit from symbolism, a key moment perhaps, a revelation or a subtle undercurrent of hints in more atmospheric moments.
They don’t need to be overt or obvious. Sometimes the best examples of symbolism are the subtle ones. You can be as specific or as vague as you want, it is entirely up to you, but as long as the reader is able to notice them and reference them.
The ring in the Lord of the Rings could be interpreted as a symbol of power. In the Harry Potter books, the snake that reoccurs throughout the story could be seen as a symbol of evil. Animal Farm is packed with symbolism, but the most evident is that of the power of the pigs and the ruling class that symbolise the growth and emergence of Communism is Russia.
In a recent short story, I used a clock to symbolise not just the passage of time, but the importance of an impending event by having the main character constantly check the time as it ticked towards the inevitable outcome. The clock an inanimate object, yet it plays a significant role within the story.
The way to use any symbol effectively is to have it appear in the story several times at key moments (any more than three or four times over the space of an average 80,000 word novel would be overkill). So in an important moment you could reference the symbol, then further into the story you could place it again to add a little depth, and then towards the end where its meaning gains the most momentum and strength.
Of course, where you place them is entirely down to you, but they should never be placed randomly, otherwise their meaning is lost on the reader. All symbolism should relate directly to the key moment you want to reference.
As with many literary devices, writers should never overuse them, because if the narrative becomes littered with symbolic references, they simply lose their impact with the reader. Less is always more.
Also remember that you should never force symbolism into the narrative to try to create an impact, because the result is always trite and somewhat mechanical (or ‘machina’, as per deus ex machina). Let the symbols emerge naturally from the narrative.
But what if they don’t emerge? Don’t worry too much. Symbolism isn’t always apparent on the first or even the second draft. Sometimes they become clear after several edits. There may even be occasions when symbolism just doesn’t happen for the writer. Sometimes that happens. If does and those symbols remain elusive, then don’t worry, there are plenty of other literary narrative devices to help boost and strengthen your story.
So, whether you use a sunrise to show a sense of hope, withered flowers to show something in decline or a ticking clock – whatever the symbol – make sure it’s relatable to the themes and story and that it’s repeated in the narrative, but above all, make it mean something.
Next week: How to Improve Your Writing Skills

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Symbolism


How much symbolism do you use in your fiction? Some? Not much? None at all?
In truth, many writers don’t bother with symbolism, it’s absent from their fiction, simply because they don’t really understand much about it or why it should be there in the first place. 
Literary devices such as symbolism aren’t a must. Writers don’t have to have to use it in their writing. There is no rule to say you should. But like most literary devices, it adds those ‘brush strokes’ or layers of depth to the finished story, those subtle nuances that readers really like, but don’t always realise are there.
But what is it? What does it do for fiction?
Symbolism is an extremely useful device that contains hidden, deeper meaning to the narrative, but represents many aspects of the story.  In the context of any story there is the literal meaning to the narrative, but also a symbolic meaning, if the writer chooses. This is done using objects, people, colours, shapes, words, actions and even the senses…practically anything can be used for symbolism.
Symbolism works because it gives readers the chance to peel back the layers of a story and take a sneak peak below the surface, to find the stuff that isn’t so overt.
The Power of Suggestion
Symbolism is a powerful tool if used correctly. It’s a great way to hint at things beyond the surface level. We all know what ‘read between the lines’ means, and adding symbolism helps the reader understand much more than is being said in the narrative. It helps them to read between the lines and discover the hidden meanings in the story.
In simple terms, the writer has the power of suggestion, so all good novels/stories should contain at least some symbolism.
Different Symbols
Colours are often used to great effect in novels. Think of the association we have with the colour red – it can symbolise love but it can also symbolise blood, life or death, depending how the author uses it. Black has many different connotations, particularly with death or foreboding. It’s an effective colour to show impending doom or depression. Blue is said to be a relaxing colour and green evokes a sense of nature or renewal etc.
Writers often use nature and the elements to symbolise different things, be it rain or water, which is generally associated with cleansing, fire, which has many cultural and social connotations such as regeneration or renewal and the weather is used by many writers, for example a faraway storm to symbolise a rough road ahead for your main character or an ice cold frost which may mean a place is unfriendly or uninviting. And how many of us have read about ravens?  They are usually a symbol of death and foreboding whenever they appear.
Of course, the most obvious ones are used on a regular basis – daylight symbolises rebirth, goodness. Night symbolises death or evil.
Metaphor is also used as symbolism. For instance, caged birds could be used as a metaphor for repression or captivity, of feeling imprisoned.
Motifs are another way of creating symbolism.  A motif is a repeated element throughout the story and is more obvious than more subtle, hidden symbols.  I use the colour red – symbolising blood – throughout one of my stories, especially when it’s starkly contrasted against pristine snow. The motif is the colour itself and the blood symbolises the struggle of life and death for the main character.
Does Symbolism Matter?
It should matter if you want your fiction to stand out. Symbols allow a writer to show the reader so much more beneath the narrative, that there is more to the story than meets the eye. It should matter if you want your fiction to stand out. Symbols allow a writer to show the reader so much more beneath the narrative, that there is more to the story than meets the eye.
The whole story is something that the reader can scratch or peel away to reveal more. They are part of the process – as writers we want them not only to read what we have written, but to interpret what we have said. That way, reading a good yarn takes on a whole new meaning.
Next week we’ll look at when to use symbolism in fiction writing and how to use it effectively.

Next week: Symbolism – Part 2

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Creating Believable Plots


It’s at the forefront of every writer’s mind to create a story that is believable or realistic, to ensure the story doesn’t lose its credibility by the end of the story. The plot is a fundamental necessity.
So what exactly is a plot?
A plot is the sequence of events within the story that are all related in some way – The bare bones of the story which will follow a main character who has a specific goal, but he or she is unable to reach it and has to do what is necessary to achieve that goal.
The plot is the framework for which all events are built around.
For instance, a simple plot would be that a boy really likes a girl, but she’s going out with the handsome kid who is good at everything, and because of that he’s arrogant, cocky and not a nice person. Our hero is a quiet underachiever, who thinks he won’t amount to much, but a series of events helps him to get closer to the girl and eventually she sees beyond his nerdy persona to the real person within and eventually she falls in love with him…
The plot is simple, but the events that happen must be believable and plausible for the reader to fully accept the story.
Problems with Plots
Quite a few writers still make the mistake of letting the characters and the action take over the plot (you only have to see Hollywood films to see how this happens). The plot – the guts of any story – becomes lost. The reader won’t get what the story is truly about.
Also, if you have really ridiculous things happen in the story – beyond the realms of realism – the reader will spot it.
For example, halfway through the novel your protagonist has to do something that his or her character wouldn’t actually be able to do in real life, such as build a make-shift bomb or tap into an encrypted computer to retrieve important files…unless of course that character is a bomb expert to begin with or he or she is an IT expert with computers, and you have made these facts known from the very beginning.
In the realistic sense, these just wouldn’t be possible otherwise; therefore they render the plot unbelievable.
Not only that, but the reader won’t believe in the characters as a result. You will lose any credibility.
Waving a magic wand over your character so he suddenly knows how to fly a plane out of danger or work a complex piece of machinery he’s never seen before is known as deus ex machina. Avoid it.
That said, if your character possesses a certain skill, make it known early in the story, otherwise if they do something really out of the ordinary, the reader will think “What? No way, that’s ridiculous!”
Coincidences, like hot-wiring a car or knowing how to pick a lock are one thing, but there are only so many coincidences the reader will put up with. A plot should be probable and possible and should stick to the realms of average realism.
Readers Need to Relate to the Plot
It’s quite self-explanatory. With a sense of realism and the ordinary, readers can relate to the situations you create for the characters.
Would you be able to construct a weapon from a few bits of metal pipe and a spring? Would you be able to bypass a secure computer network and get your hands on sensitive information? Would you know what to do with a raging fire all around you? Would you be able to escape a secure prison cell?
In reality, not many of us could answer those questions affirmatively. Because in reality, we wouldn’t know what to do, we wouldn’t have the means.
The reality is very different from the imagination. As writers we have to bring that sense of reality into focus.
So perhaps we can show a character, through flashback or early narrative, that he or she has seen something on the internet or TV, or has had some training in a certain skill, or has friends who are experts from their field, or they have read something in an instructional manual.
By showing the reader how your characters can do things and why, the reader can then relate to it. We can relate to training or experience, we can relate to using initiative and enlisting help, we can all relate to seeing lots of stuff on TV and internet and books; information that might come in handy one day. We all relate to that.
The events you create must therefore become relatable and plausible. Situations have to be believable, not contrived.
The way to create a believable plot is to create a story and its events that are not over the top, but are plausible and within reason, and the key is to let the reader know early on in the story the kind of person the main character is and what they can do. So if they have a special skill, make it known. If they have experience of something, make it known.
Not only that, but the character has to be believable. Your main character is not James Bond or Superman. They are ordinary people like you and me, with ordinary skills and ordinary flaws.
Want your plot to be believable? Then be reasonable with the events and the characters, don’t go over the top and make sure you let the reader know early on what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Make your plot:

  • Plausible and probable
  • Realistic
  • Acceptable
  • Relatable
  • Credible
  • Sensible
Next week: Symbolism

Sunday, 2 November 2014

How to Write Scary Scenes – Part 2


Last week we looked at the different elements writers can use when writing scary scenes.
Part 2 is about bringing those elements together into believable, cohesive scenes that should build upon the mood and atmosphere, with a sense of impending doom, danger or hidden anticipation for the main character.
Usually the reader is privy to this approaching danger, but the main character is not.  Writers use this ploy very successfully. That means that the reader is aware that something bad will happen any minute, so there is a build up of expectation. The reader will know something is about to happen.
The trick with this kind of atmospheric scenes is to keep the focus on the main character – their actions and thoughts and reactions - and not allow POVs to shift around. That will instantly kill any tension and atmosphere you have already established.
Description is also key to a successful scary scene – the reader is relying on the writer to deliver such imagery that they feel as though they’re right there in the action. You can choose to be visceral or gory or you can be the opposite and let the reader’s imagination fill in all the details.
With those elements in place scary or atmospheric scenes should be easier to write. Here’s some example from my own published stories:
‘Her bedroom door slowly opened to the shadows in the hallway; they sucked out the warmth and left a slicing chill, but Kate remained in slumber, despite the room growing colder.  A teasing stream of vapour coiled into the air as she breathed.
The door wavered as though a soft breeze had swept past.  The shadow in the corridor lurched, grew black…’
Here the emphasis is on the mood and tone which helps to create the build-up of atmosphere and expectation within the story. Shadows creeping in the dark, the cold air, the girl asleep in bed, unaware there is something lurking in the corridor outside her bedroom…these simple elements help the reader imagine the worst.
Excerpt from ‘Nocturne’ © 2011 published by Static Movement
The following excerpt is about an evil clown who manifests from an old oil painting of a clown – it comes to life with murderous intent. It preys on our fear of clowns, on our perceptions of inanimate objects moving in the corners of our eyes and then it creates foreboding for what is about to happen.
Something slithered beneath the canvas and large flakes of paint peeled away as the material flexed. Slowly, a shape appeared, as though drowning beneath silken sheets. First the shape of a mouth, open as though screaming, then a large forehead, then tips of fingers, pulsing and pushing beneath the canvas...pushing until a tearing sound spliced the silence and the painting split open to reveal a darkness which spilled out like innards into the cumulative silence, before retreating and spreading into the shadowy corners of the study…
Excerpt from ‘Augustine’ © 2014 published by Thirteen O’clock Press
The excerpt below uses foreshadowing to tease the reader of what lies in wait. It’s very simple, but it uses visual cues to set the scene for which the rest of the story is built upon:
The demon in his eyes unfurled.
Darkness descended quickly. Orange-tinted clouds rolled and billowed forward, low in the sky. Grey layers began to form above the forest like a bank of fog.
The rain was coming.
Excerpt from ‘Deceit’ © 2013 published by Static Movement
Being able to scare or horrify your readers isn’t easy – what may seem creepy or scary to one reader may not be to another – that’s all down to perception. It’s how the reader perceives what is being described – and that’s where the setting, the atmosphere, the tone, the mood, the focus, the sense of impending danger and the character focus really works.
And of course, it’s about how you describe it all.
The best way to understand it is to read the likes of Edgar Allen Poe or HP Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Graham Masterton, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and James Herbert, to name but a few.
General Tips:
1. Don’t overdo the scene or take too long over it, otherwise you risk losing the mood, atmosphere and tension.
2. Try not to fall into cliché, such as setting your story in a dark house in the middle of nowhere, a haunted mansion or the over-used cabin in the woods. Also avoid characters that do really dumb things, such as creep around in the dark when it’s plain they could just switch a light on. If they have to creep around in the dark, give them good reason to.
Don’t have your character(s) in the ‘car won’t start at the worst moment’ cliché or the running from the monster and tripping over their own feet cliché, (especially when they’ve managed the whole story to stay upright without incident).
3. Play around with reader’s expectation. In other words, the reader may expect what will happen next, but then something happens that they don’t expect at all.
4. Torture your reader – raise the tension, make them think something is going to happen, then ease off. Then raise then tension again. And so on until they can’t take anymore.
5. Practice, practice, practice.
Summary:

  • Tease the reader; hold back on some the details to create a sense of tension and foreboding.
  • Raise the stakes for your main character – hint at or show conflict
  • Increase the sense of danger
  • Make use of the setting
  • Make use of the sense 

Next week: How to write believable plots


Saturday, 25 October 2014

How to Write Scary Scenes – Part 1


It’s an age old question. How do you scare your reader out of their wits?
Whether you are writing a horror story or a ghost/supernatural story or indeed any story that you want to illicit plenty of emotions – especially the scary ones – the ability to scare the reader or invoke fear, helps to makes the story all the more realistic.
But scaring people isn’t easy.
The art of scaring your reader is all about what you DON’T reveal, as opposed to what you do reveal. And that’s because fear – psychologically speaking – is a primitive emotion that manifests when we don’t understand what we are confronted with. It’s easy to fear something we don’t know about, and that’s because we feel like we have no control over the situation. Not being in control scares many people.
In fiction, it’s about creating that sense of no control, not knowing, not seeing the whole thing, of being helpless.  It’s about creating a heightened sense of tension and atmosphere. It’s about manipulating how and what the reader feels, making them imagine all sorts of things.
Good monster movies don’t always show the monster straight away. Instead we’re teased with glimpses, because that makes our minds imagine what the monster is and what it looks like, until the final reveal. The same principle of dangling the carrot also applies to story writing.
The idea is to tease and influence your reader, to make them imagine what evil lurks in dark corners and what lies in wait for your main character when they least expect.
Scary scenes depend on our common fears such as the fear of the dark, dear of rats or snakes, fear of spiders and other creepy crawlies, fear of the water, fear of thunder or lightning, the fear of clowns, the fear of losing something or someone, the fear of being alone, or conversely, the fear of being in crowds, just to name a few.
For every fear that humanity has, a writer can exploit it.
So what are the main ingredients for a good scary story or scenes? There are number of factors – being scary relies on exploiting our primitive fears, having the right spooky or creepy setting, a gradual build-up of tension, lots of atmosphere, the right mood and heightened emotions and/or conflict.
It’s about feeding the reader bit by bit, playing on those primal fears as the story progresses, letting the reader imagine all sorts, then feeding them a little bit more, but never allowing them to consume everything in one go. Remember, people fear the unknown, it makes them uneasy.
And something isn’t scary if you know what is coming.
Another thing to consider is that the higher the stakes for your main character to deal with, the more tension and atmosphere you create. This keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, so to speak, wondering what the hero will do to get out of the situation.
And don’t stop at raising the stakes. Increase the danger. With danger comes the unexpected – will the hero escape the evil house? Will he or she escape the clutches of the monster or ghost or whatever supernatural creature you’ve conjured.
Scary scenes also depend heavily on emotions and the focus of the action on the main character. Readers want to see the panic, the dread, the fear or worry. They want to feel the claustrophobia of the situation, they want to feel the taut atmosphere and they want to feel the tone.
That means description plays a huge part in how the story is delivered. The right word choices, the right amount of showing rather than telling and using visual imagery and the five senses and to convey the mood and atmosphere, to show the emotions, conflict and fears.
There is quite a lot to consider, but it’s worth noting that there are also different types of ‘scares’ that writers use:
a) The psychological scare – This where you hints at things that may or may not be there, you tease the reader, you pull at their emotions and play on their fears, creating mood and an uneasy atmosphere, yet revealing little.
b) Visual scare – this is what horror writers love to use. Gory and visceral imagery is used to shock and terrify the reader, with gruesome descriptions and a brooding atmosphere that helps complete the scene.
c) Shock scares – something that the reader simply doesn’t expect, like jump-scares in movies; the sudden revelation or a twist. This can also apply to twist endings.
The best way to scare the reader is not by telling them everything they need to know, but rather letting their minds and imagination do the work for you.  And by coercing all of these ingredients together, you can create a convincing scary scene to fill your scary story. Next week we’ll look at how all this is accomplished.
Next week: How to write scary scenes – Part 2.

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.