Saturday, 19 March 2011

Tips to strengthen your novel or story

There are many things a writer can do to make a story stronger and more effective. This isn’t just down to the correct use of grammar or spelling, or about having the right theme and plot of story, but often it’s those overlooked little things that really count.

There is so much to remember when it comes to writing that it can be daunting trying to create that ‘perfect’ masterpiece. There are ways, however, to help tighten your prose and strengthen your stories, a general checklist that should prove useful whatever your story.

Realism – Fiction is about imaginary people, it’s make-believe, but within that imaginary world you have to create a sense of realism for it to be any good. It needs to feel real for the reader, whether or not the town or city in your story really exists or not. Characters, setting and events need to feel real, something that makes the reader think they are there, right at the heart of your story.

Make sure you have a strong plot – a weak plot invariably means you have created a weak story. The stronger the plot, the stronger your story. Don’t rush the development if a plot – take the time to think about it, how it will progress in your story, how it will evolve and how it might affect your characters. Don’t take it for granted that the plot is watertight, because sometimes writers can come undone halfway through a novel when they realise the plot isn’t working. They realise it’s too weak or ill thought out or it simply doesn’t feel right.

Strong characterisation is one of the most important elements in your story. Get the characterisation wrong and the whole story will suffer, but you can get it right with well-balanced, believable and often flawed characters; the kind of people that your reader can empathise with and understand and want to know more about.

Always think about how you will reach the conclusion of tour story and why. Writers often plough along with their stories and don’t realise until the end, or during editing, that they have quite literally ‘lost the plot’. This means the meaning behind the story, the theme, and of course the original plot premise, has been lost somewhere. The end result doesn’t bear any relation to the reason to the story. The best way to counteract problems like this is to always keep an eye on how the plot is evolving by having a clear indication of how the story might end. A little planning can go a long way.

There must always be tension and conflict in your stories. Never ignore the need for these. As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, they are the building blocks of a good story. Think of daily life - nothing ever runs that smoothly, each day brings a challenge, whether it’s problems with the car, you’re late taking the kids to school, the washing machine breaks down, rows with your kids or partner, a fall out with the boss, traffic jams, the cat keeps clawing your leather sofa and so on…all these things happen in our lives on a regular basis and they cause stress and tension, often when we least expect, but it’s how we overcome those stresses and problems that count, and that’s exactly what your protagonist must do in your story.

Life is a continual cycle of problems and resolution, therefore your character’s actions must generate problems or obstacles and then they must overcome them. Just like real life. Think of your story as an elastic band. Stretch it and release it at regular intervals. This is the best way to create and vary tension.

Move the story forward at every opportunity. Whether that is through dialogue, action or description, make sure you keep the momentum of your story moving towards its conclusion. If you don’t, you risk the story coming to a halt.

Point of view - Once you are clear on a point of view, don’t deviate. Don’t start off in first person and switch to third person halfway through (not unless it is a clever addition to the story and you are an experienced writer.) Deviating from the chosen POV will weaken your story considerably and confuse your reader.

Make your dialogue count. Clear and strong dialogue helps to move the story forward and impart pertinent information, thereby involving the reader. Too much mundane waffle between characters will kill the story and bore your reader. Clever dialogue will not only imbue hints and clues to what lies ahead in the story, it also cleverly reveals character.

Symbolism is an often overlooked element in fiction, but careful use of this can help strengthen a story because it has the power to hint at things to come, embedded symbols within the narrative can foreshadow events. It also subtly reinforces the theme of the story or novel and involves your reader on a deeper level. The symbols can be anything you want them to be, as long as your reader will understand them.

Sentence rhythms and pacing play an important role within your story, because without varying the length of sentences and paragraphs, you risk boring your reader with a kind of monotone drone that could irritate or bore them. Sentences should ebb and flow with fluidity. Paragraphs should vary. You need a balance for the right about of descriptions, the right amount of dialogue and the right amount of narrative. The idea is not to have huge chunks of text – not without really engaging the reader – or massive amounts of white space that would make the reader think you can’t be bothered to write any description.

Make sure your character undergoes a change by the end of the novel. That can take on any number of meanings, but on the whole, it usually means your character has learned something about themselves, or they’ve perhaps learned an important lesson on their journey - they have overcome something to achieve their goal. If you don’t let the character blossom this way, then what point would there be to the overall story?

Avoid too many adverbs and adjectives etc. They are sometimes unavoidable, but your novel or short story will be so much stronger without too many of them. Let your nouns and verbs do the work.  Also, avoid using ‘was’ and ‘there’ too much. ‘There was a chair’ or ‘it was a dark night’ or ‘she was hungry’ etc. Try also to limit the use of modifiers, things like 'she bubbled' or 'he gushed' or 'she cooed.' etc.

When it comes to modifiers used as gesture tags, again try to limit the amount you use because very often it means you write the modifier and then you reinforce its message through dialogue, so you actually repeat yourself to the reader, e.g. He shrugged heavily. "I don't know” or She shook her head at him. “No.” As with all writing, they are sometimes unavoidable, but these are easily spotted by publishers/agents and they will think it a sign of an amateur if there are too many gesture tags.

Show, don’t tell – every writer’s mantra. Show something is happening rather than simply telling the reader about it. ‘Showing’ helps the reader become involved in the narrative; it creates a sense of immediacy with use of active description. Don’t just say ‘John was tall’. Show it.

Remember to use active sentences as much as possible, not passive ones. This still catches a lot of writers out. ‘He watered the plant’ is better than ‘the plant was watered.’ ‘He threw the ball’ is better than ‘the ball was thrown...’

One very effective way of strengthening your story is to edit and cut what you don’t really need. You will be surprised just how much that is. Boring scenes that don’t move the story forward, dreary and mundane dialogue that doesn’t actually show the reader anything and slows the story down, scenes that go on a little too long…you get the picture.

One other tip…try not to use silly or overly complicated names for characters and places (unless you are explicitly writing fantasy or sci-fi). Names like Glokirthrath or Mortgavarg will, within a page or two, irritate the reader. There is also a trend with new writers to make their characters sound interesting by giving them obscure names. Ripperton Jameson or Galitea O’Rocksville might sound interesting or cool, but it’s the characteristics of a character that make them interesting, not their name. Most people in the real world have oridnary names.  Your characters are not extraoridnary; they're ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.

Lastly, try to finish your chapters on a great sentence. One that invites the reader to turn the page and continue reading...

Next week: The room to write – does this make a difference?

3 comments:

  1. Another great post full of excellent advice. I already know everything in there yet still manage to tick off every mistake when writing somehow. So it's always good to be reminded of these things and revisit before starting a new piece or entering into the editing process.

    I'm happy you mentioned the last line of chapters. I even try to insert mini cliff hangers, not too overboard or crowbarred in though. Nothing makes me keep reading a book more than reaching the end of a chapter and not being able to resist seeing where that mini saga at the end is leading. 'Unputdownable' I think they call it.

    Thanks for another brilliant post and some useful reminders.

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  2. Thanks Tony. I think we all have to double check ourselves when writing; we're so engrossed that sometimes they slip our minds, but thankfully we pick up these errors at the editing stage.

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  3. wow!

    very nice

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