- 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?
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:
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.
Sunday, 27 May 2018
Compelling – or effective – dialogue is an essential ingredient in every story because it not only helps to tell the story, it moved it along, it imparts necessary information for the reader, it reveals characterisation and it’s a great way to create conflict and drama.
There are a number of ways writers can do this.
A Sense of Realism
One of the best ways to involve the reader is to give the dialogue a sense of realism. But what does that mean, exactly?
By ‘realism’, there is an expectation from the reader that dialogue will reflect real speech to a degree. So writers can use dialect or accented words, they can use ‘ums’ or ‘ers’, or even hesitations, stutters, or when dialogue is abruptly cut off by interruptions etc., as per these examples:
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I...I tried not to...’
‘Er, I don’t honestly know,’ he replied.
‘He ‘bin around these parts, ya’ll.’
‘And to think I ever wan--’
The rule of thumb is simple - don’t overuse them to the point that they become a distraction and therefore have the opposite effect of what you’re trying to create. Use them when the situation requires it.
By observing and listening to real conversations, writers will gain a better understanding of their structure, dialect and the dynamic between speakers which will help provide a realistic sounding dialogue that will blend perfectly with the story.
In addition to this, a sense of realism comes by way of who your characters are. People have different ways of talking, whether it’s a generational thing, a cultural thing, a certain social demographic - so an old man in his eighties will speak very differently to a know-it-all teenager. Jamaicans, for instance, have their own way of talking, their own speech patterns, compared to a native English speaker. Someone from the upper class will speak more eruditely than someone from a local council estate, and so on.
Again, don’t overdo it, but writers can show these cultural, social and generational differences in dialogue to make it more realistic.
Dialogue Must Move the Story Forward
In order for dialogue to move the story forward, it must serve a purpose. If two characters are having a chit-chat over the garden fence about flowers and the weather, there is no purpose to the conversation and it isn’t moving the story forward. It will bore the reader.
Dialogue creates tension and conflict, it can help escalate action, it can tease with revelation and it can inform the reader by dropping hints or providing context. In other words, every bit of the dialogue serves a purpose; don’t create conversation without purpose or reasoning behind it. Make it count – make it interesting.
If dialogue doesn’t reveal something new or interesting to the reader, then get rid of it.
Action Before Dialogue
This mantra is very effective because it tells the writer to attribute action prior to the dialogue, something that new writers don’t always observe. Instead they tell the reader the action after the character has said it, for instance:
‘Hello?’ she said, picking up the phone.
This is a common mistake. No one says hello before they pick up their phone. This is why action before dialogue makes it clear to the reader and avoids these confusions and ambiguities, for example:
John eyes became speculative. ‘Are you sure about that?’
Amy picked up the envelope. ‘I suppose I am afraid of what it says...’
This doesn’t and won’t apply to every snippet of dialogue, but it does apply to the sequence of actions of your characters. So think about what they’re doing. Would their actions come before or after the dialogue?
Getting that right makes all the difference.
Dialogue beats refer to the action that writers insert between dialogue, which is another reflection of how real speech works. It’s another way to break up long sections of dialogue to make it interesting to the reader, and is another way to reveal characteristics and hints, for example:
‘You said you couldn’t make the meeting,’ John said. He eyed her over the rim of his coffee cup, careful not to let his expression show. ‘That’s why I presented it...’
The example shows how John really feels as he surreptitiously eyes the other character over his coffee cup. This is a hint to the character’s true emotions. Here’s another example of dialogue beats:
‘Look, if he wants to come and do it, I’m not gonna stop him,’ she said. She pushed her salad around her plate, but didn’t eat. ‘It’s not like I can prevent him anyway...’
This beat between the dialogue reveals how the character feels about the situation – she plays with her food but doesn’t eat it, show her anxiety is apparent. And all it needed was a line of narrative to provide the reader with more than line after line of dialogue.
Dialogue is far more compelling when written this way.
Keep it Concise
The most interesting dialogue is delivered in small amounts. There’s nothing more off-putting for readers than being confronted by huge chunks of dialogue, which is generally the moment they skip it and move on.
In real life day to day conversations we speak no more than a few seconds at a time, which would equate to a line of dialogue. There might be an occasion where one person speaks for a minute of two if they’re explaining something, but generally, conversations are short and to the point.
Character dialogue should be no different. Just get to the point, keep it brief and move the story forward.
Resist the Urge to Explain
New writers do this sometimes. They force information into the dialogue to have characters tell one another things they would normally know or understand, but it’s done for the benefit of the reader, who isn’t as stupid as the writer thinks, for instance:
‘But if you don’t disarm the device, it will take out this entire block...’
‘It’s no good, without the crystals, the door won’t open and we won’t be able to retrieve the scrolls that will prevent worldwide disaster...’
Dialogue doesn’t need obvious exposition. Readers are smart enough to understand the story without being beaten over the head with heavy-handed exposition that serves no purpose.
The best way to test your dialogue and how compelling it is – read it aloud. Does it sound fake and contrived? Does it patronise the reader with stuff they are smart enough to know? Is it short and concise? Does it reveal character and hints? Does it feel real
Effective dialogue takes a while to master, but eventually it comes naturally to writers. It just needs time and attention.
Next week: Writing from Experience
Sunday, 20 May 2018
It’s every writer’s wish to create compelling and realistic dialogue. It adds to the enjoyment of a story; great dialogue gives it depth and structure, and more importantly for the writer, it accomplishes more than showing the reader conversations.
Dialogue doesn’t just tell half of the story – or further the plot – it can move the story forward, it develops relationships, it can create tension, conflict an atmosphere and it can reveal character. It’s one of those things that can show the reader how skilled you are – it’s the difference between great dialogue and bad dialogue, and the latter is a sign that the writer hasn’t yet got to grips with how dialogue works.
So, how can you make your dialogue compelling? Well, thankfully, there are multiple ways a writer can do this.
He Said/She Said
Let’s start with probably the most contentious element – dialogue tags and how they should be used. A dialogue tag is the ‘he said’ or ‘she replied’ etc., tagged on the end of the dialogue.
There is a lot of advice on the use of tags, but most writers agree that balanced use of ‘he said/she said’ is perfectly fine. That’s because the reader is conditioned to see ‘said’ and so it almost becomes invisible. They hardly notice it.
The idea is not to rely on it so that every single tag is a ‘he said/she said’. There is nothing wrong with using a different tag from time to time. ‘Replied/answered’ or the odd ‘muttered’ won’t hurt. Just don’t overuse them, otherwise they can become distracting.
Well-crafted dialogue doesn’t always need the dialogue tags, because we often use narrative to break up the dialogue or we use action before dialogue, so the reader already knows who’s talking, for example:
Amy turned from the colourless scene outside and looked at David. ‘What if we can’t sell this house?’
Here, there is no need to put ‘she said’, since it’s clear from the action before the dialogue that Amy is speaking.
To create interesting dialogue, it’s best to get rid of redundancies. This is where the writer repeats what he or she has already told the reader, by adding actions after a line of dialogue, for example:
‘Ouch!’ he yelped.
‘Ouch’ already tells the reader that the person is in pain or discomfort, so ‘yelped’ makes the dialogue redundant, as it’s simply telling the reader the same thing twice. Many writers make this mistake. It could, therefore, be left simply as ‘Ouch!’, or action can be placed before the dialogue:
Jimmy sucked in a breath. ‘Ouch!’
Writers can’t help themselves sometimes. They feel the need to explain everything, just so the reader understands, for example:
‘At last we can sell the house!’ Amy whooped happily.
This example is telling the reader about the character’s feelings twice. It’s clear from what Amy says that she’s excited, so there is no need to use the adverb ‘happily’. This is another mistake writers make – they go overboard with the adverbial dialogue tags, such as:
...‘he said excitedly’, ‘she said shyly’, ‘John replied bashfully’...
Adverbs weaken sentence structures, so instead of telling the reader, it’s much better to show. That way, there is no need for any adverbs, for instance:
‘At last we can sell the house!’ Amy said, and her eyes glimmered.
Make it Effective
Dialogue is effective when it is delivered in small amounts, especially during fast paced scenes. Dialogue tends to be short and snappy, interspersed with snippets of narrative and description. So unless absolutely necessary, don’t have your characters talk for too long, otherwise it will bore the reader and become distracting.
Longer conversations/speeches are generally a way of slowing the pace and make the narrative more reflective and should be used sparingly.
In Part 2 we’ll look at more ways to achieve compelling dialogue, including the use of narrative beats, action before dialogue, punctuation and more.
Next week: He said/she said - How do you make dialogue compelling – Part 2
Sunday, 13 May 2018
In this second part we’ll continue our look at some of the elements that make a first chapter work. They are considered ‘key’ essentials to grab the reader, agent/publisher’s interest and lure them into reading your book and keep them reading.
Conflict is the driving force for fiction; it’s at the very heart of every story and so it must be present in your opening chapter, but since conflict comes in all manner of guises, the conflict in question is the character’s main conflict and not the bullets and explosions and all out action kind.
In a nutshell, what’s at the heart of the story? What’s the main problem, what must the character do to achieve this and who is standing in their way? That’s the type conflict the reader needs to know, rather than large, full scale conflict that might appear later in the story, because it allows the reader to become involved – they will recognise and understand such conflicts and empathise with your character.
And once they do, well, they’re already hooked.
Set the Tone
The tone...writers tend to ignore this one, because they’re not sure what the ‘tone’ actually is. The tone depends on whether your book is dark, romantic, gothic, humorous, noir action-packed etc. It’s the nature of the story. So if it’s set in an eerie village, set the tone. If it takes place on a star ship in the year 3000, then make sure you show the reader. If it’s set in a bleak wintry landscape in 1940, set the tone and create some atmosphere. It’s all geared to lure the reader.
By setting the tone at the beginning, you set the tone for the entire novel.
What’s at Risk?
In other words, how high are the stakes? What has to happen to for the main character to avoid dire consequences? What might the main character lose if he or she fails?
It’s wise to show the reader early on what is at stake, so that they can identify with the main character and create an immediate bond.
You don’t have to hit the reader over the head with it, but hint at what the risks are, mention them, let the reader in on what could happen if things don’t work out, and what it means to the main character. Do this and you establish immediacy and empathy, because readers do love to be emotionally attached to characters.
Make It Short
There’s a good reason why. Once you’ve grabbed the reader and you’ve interested them with all these juicy hooks, don’t overcook it – don’t let the chapter drag on and on. Keep it short, but tease the reader with enough information and hints that they’ll just have to read on.
The first chapter is the lure. The rest of the book will give them the story.
Create a Gateway to the Second Chapter
Grabbing the reader with chapter one is one thing, but keeping them is another. Your first chapter is the gateway to the next. And the next. And so on, right up until the last chapter.
Hint, tease and hook. First chapters don’t need backstory, pages of info dumps or lavish descriptions of the setting. It only requires relevant detail. That’s it.
These key essentials help establish the first chapter in your reader’s mind. It should tap into their consciousness and compel them to read on.
The more elements you give in the first chapter, the better your foundation for the rest of the story. There are no rules - but the first chapter is always the gateway to the rest of the book.
Next week: ‘He said/she said’ – How to make dialogue more compelling.
Sunday, 6 May 2018
That’s a question we often ask ourselves. Does my first chapter work? Is it interesting or intriguing enough? Would it make the reader want to read the entire book?
The first chapter – indeed the opening sentence – needs to work if you want to grab the reader’s interest. It needs to make a statement. It needs to stand out in a huge crowd of other books. In fact, the first chapter needs to establish a number of things before you can consider whether it works or not.
So you’ve done a story/chapter outline, you have a solid plot, you have your characters sketched out, you’ve chosen the POV and know the genre and who the target audience is. So now you have to make that first chapter work – regardless of whether you write your story chronologically (in order) or whether you write out of sync. You still need to make an impact and you need to keep the reader interested from the moment of the opening sentence of the first chapter.
There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s wise to include an essential list of key things to ensure the first chapter works:
Grab the Reader
The first and last chapters are the most important chapters in a novel. The first chapter is vital and instrumental in grabbing the reader and the last shows a satisfactory conclusion. So that first chapter makes the difference between the reader instantly becoming immersed in the story or turning their nose up and moving on to another book.
The first few lines tell the reader – or the agent or publisher – the kind of writer you are and the quality of your writing. Sometimes we read the first paragraph and think ‘wow, that’s pretty amazing’ and it stimulates our interest and curiosity. We need to know more. We want to read on. And that means the writer has accomplished what he or she set out to do – they’ve grabbed the reader with their narrative style and voice and the unique way the chapter begins.
Openings can be notoriously difficult to get right and that’s because there is so much pressure to do so. You have to hook the reader, show them the main character, don’t forget the theme, and don’t use too much exposition...and on and on. No wonder writers have a meltdown before they’ve even written anything.
Of course, there are certain things to include that help make the first chapter stand out, but it doesn’t mean you have to include absolutely every single thing. Include the things that are relevant, which is why it’s better to write down these elements first and plan the first chapter. It takes away that unnecessary pressure. And don’t overthink it, otherwise it will feel forced.
Read the openings of lots of novels to get a feel of how they work.
The opener is as individual as the writer. And it can be written and rewritten in any order, for however long the writer wants, which is why writers spend a lot more time rewriting and tweaking the first chapter than any other part of the book.
Don’t Start at the Beginning
In other words, bring the reader to the story at the last possible, pivotal moment.
Most stories start at a beginning and take a couple of chapters of boring exposition and backstory before anything interesting happens, so it could be chapter three before the story actually means something. So don’t start at the beginning. Start at the moment of crisis, at the moment the main character’s life changes, at that moment when it all goes wrong for him or her – a moment that acts as a catalyst to kick the story off.
That’s the start of the opening chapter.
Introduce the Main Character
It’s the protagonist’s story, so it’s a priority to introduce them to the reader at the earliest possible moment, because if they don’t get that opportunity, they won’t know whose story it is, what’s happening or why and they won’t really care one way or the other when you do finally introduce the character in chapter two.
Other characters can follow any time, but make sure the star of the story appears in chapter one. That way the reader can meet the main character and they can get to know him or her and care about them, right from the start. They can follow their journey right to the end. That’s how you create immediacy.
If you create that from the start, the reader will want to keep reading to find out what happens to that character.
In the next part, we’ll look at some other elements that help make the first chapter interesting enough for the reader to want to read your book.
Next week: Part 2 - Does Your First Chapter Work?