Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Greek Unities

There are lots of tools and strategies at a writer’s disposal to create strong, well-structured stories. For those writers not familiar with the Greek Unities, this is a concept where a writer can use three practical elements within fiction writing to help give balance and structure to their short story and to strengthen what might otherwise be weak areas.

The idea of the unities derives from the classical Greek Unities of drama. Based on a passage from Aristotle’s Poetics, they act as benchmarks for use in drama to aid better performances and sage direction, but fiction writers can also use these principles for their stories.

The idea behind the unities is to keep the story ordered, just as they would have done within drama. They are best used when writing short stories, but that is not to say that these cannot be applied to a certain degree to some novels, too, but on the whole, when you are writing a short story these three elements really do help with the composition.

There are three unities to observe:

Unity of Time
Unity of Place

Unity of Action

Unity of Time – Most short stories and novels tend to take place over a short period of time (hours to days or a few weeks). Some novels will have a time span of months and years. The longer the time span, the weaker the unity structure. Short stories, therefore, are best when compressed into a smaller time frame.

Place – Unity of place in fiction (as opposed to drama) means a consistency with where the action takes place. This unity is more commonly observed within short stories because most short stories take place in one location, as opposed to some novels where the action takes places in several locations.

Action – The unity of action relates to the viewpoint of the character, rather than the actual action that takes place. Most short stories tend to have one or two character viewpoints which a writer keeps to throughout the story, with few subplots to confuse the reader. Obviously, this is not observed in novels where there might be multiple viewpoints and multiple subplots, but again, the more characters you have within a short story, the weaker the story becomes.

Why have these in your story?

Every story needs a sense of time, whether that covers a 24 hour period or spans several decades, it’s essential that you set a time frame so that the reader firmly understands the fictional length of time the story takes to unravel. Without it, a story may not be strong enough to support itself as a whole, because it won’t be clear to the reader what the time span might be.

Some stories are set within a one hour period, (or even shorter), or they are set within several hours. That’s because it’s hard to tell a longer story within 1000, 2000 or 5000 words.

The same is true of every story needing a sense of place. This means giving your reader enough information to know where the story takes place. For instance, a short story might take place exclusively in a house by the beach, or a story might take place entirely within a city, e.g. Paris, or within a small town, and it doesn’t deviate from that location throughout the story, therefore keeping the unity concise.

Of course, no story is any good without point of view. A short story is much stronger if there is only one point of view, the story is told through one character, rather than flipping between a group of characters. The more characters you have, the weaker the story becomes and the more confused your reader will become.

There is no written rule when it comes to using unities, there is nothing to say you have to use all of them, but it’s wise to observe at least two of them within your story, because most short stories take place within a short period – as did Greek dramas – therefore they have only one or two characters at most and one or two strong viewpoints.

The unities are designed to aid a writer, especially new writers who may not be familiar with short story structure. It helps writers create better short stories; it’s a way of bringing semblance to the writing. By using them, a writer can create tighter construction and composition and more importantly, write a strong, successful story.

Next week: How writing flash fiction helps improve your writing

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Creating Imagery - Part 2

When we use imagery in creative fiction, it’s not just description, simile or metaphor that makes it work. Writers can employ other imagery skills such as assonance, alliteration and structure in order to make their writing vivid.

Assonance and alliteration are other tools at the writer’s disposal. Assonance is basically the sound of the words you create, the sound of the vowels in the sentences you write, working well together. Think of poetry, the way verses almost sound like music. This is assonance, and it works just as well within prose. 

Here’s an example of simple assonance: ‘He stared at the moon; his thoughts fraught with fear and caught in a swell...’

The words ‘thought’, ‘fraught’ and ‘caught’ give the sentence assonance because they sound similar.  Not only that, but 'fraught with fear' contains assonance, and when strung together with 'caught in a swell', both phrases conjure clear images in the reader's imagination.

Alliteration is the repetition of sounds in words too, for instance, ‘Sing a song of sixpence.’

Assonance and alliteration don’t come naturally to writers because they’re not something we consciously think about when writing, but with practice, both assonance and alliteration can make your prose come alive and it can make your descriptions sparkle. It makes the mundane seem marvellous. 

For example:  ‘The trickle of the stream melted the ice...’
This is mundane and boring, but if you add assonance, then you could have this:

‘The trickle of the stream seemed strained and it softly stressed against the melting ice...’

Stream, seemed, strained, softly, stressed
. They all begin with ‘S’ and they all sound the same when strung together, they are all describing something about the stream. This is assonance and alliteration at work, and when interlaced within ordinary description like this it creates a deeper sense of imagery.

The use of assonance helps the writer produce narrative that is fluid, clear and brings a sense of poetry, but it also engages the reader on a much deeper level because the writer is conveying not just an image, but also a whole concept.

Both assonance and alliteration also rely on the right word order. It you don’t choose the right words or you don’t put them together carefully, then it won’t work. No assonance means little chance of conveying the right image to the reader. The connotations of what you want to say may not always work. This is where practice comes into its own.

If you are going to create assonance, think of the image you want to convey, think of the words that might work to support it, and think how fluid they are within the sentence. 

Like everything else in fiction, tools for creating imagery, like assonance, are there to use every now and then within the narrative. A writer must decide when and how to employ them; too much can make the prose seem over flowery, too little and your narrative might appear flat and boring. This is why structure is important when creating imagery using metaphor, simile and assonance.

Conveying meanings of imagery – this depends how well you write description. The imagery you create depends on the meaning you want to convey. Remember, you don’t have to hit the reader over the head with a mallet to make those meanings known. Subtle works better. Descriptive flourishes like metaphor, simile or assonance enables the writer to garnish descriptions with these little touches. They are designed to lure and tease the reader into the story.
  • What images do you want to emphasise?
  • What message are you trying to convey?
  • Does it create a sense of immediacy?
  • Do the words you have chosen flow fluidly?
  • Assonance - do the words work together?
  • Be imaginative with metaphor and simile – are they fresh and new?
  • Can you make the reader look beyond the words on the page?
By using these simple tools, you as a writer will be able to create a sense of immediacy with the reader because you are involving the reader on several levels within the story. They want to pick up your story and read much deeper than the words on the page. If they can do that, then you have succeeded in your job as a writer.
Next week: The Greek Unities – time, action and place.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Creating Imagery - Part 1

Often we come across people who have read a great novel and comment that it was full of imagery. But what does that man exactly?

Writers use imagery to convey a sense of scenes and characters. It is used as a support tool to enhance description, to engage the reader on a deeper level with their writing, to involve the reader to the kind of level where they imagine themselves right there within the scene.

Imagery is a key aspect of fictional writing, it allows the writer to connect with the reader, but it also connects the reader to the story on many different levels. You are allowing the reader to visualise your fictional world.

In essence, it is about emphasis. So, how do you go about creating the right imagery?

One strategy any writer can use is the use of metaphor and simile intermittently embedded within the narrative. (Don’t overuse them; otherwise, your writing could become cliché). The idea with metaphor and simile is to create new ones to resonate with the reader, rather than use ones that you have read by other writers. 

A metaphor is a figure of speech that transfers a sense of a word or sentence to another, for example, ‘The burgeoning, darkened clouds were shards of burnished steel’. The clouds are being compared to burnished steel, in both colour and texture, and it creates a sense of denseness, since steel is heavy.

A simile, on the other hand, acts the same as a metaphor, but we use the words ‘like’ to make the comparison and add perception, for example, ‘her eyes glistened like diamonds’. These are useful when creating description and imagery, but use them sparingly and don’t fall into the trap of making it sound like a cliché.

Another way to engage the reader with imagery is to incorporate the senses. For example, if you were blind, how would you picture the world around you? You would use your other senses to compensate in order to build that picture. What if you were trying to explain a photograph of a beautiful landscape to your friend, who is on the telephone and can’t see it? You have to create the image for them. Creating imagery works the same way in fictional writing, because the reader has no idea about the world of the character you have created or their surroundings, they cannot see this world. You have to show them.

The idea with creating imagery is to choose specific and clear words to effectively convey an image. That also means you need to clearly understand the meaning and context to what you want to convey in order for the reader to understand, too, because creating imagery isn’t about being flowery with descriptions (which often happens) or trying to impress your reader. It’s not about being overly literary. It’s about creating a sense of realism; it’s about bringing the two dimensional into the realm of three dimensional by keeping a sense of reality. 

You have to make the images as vivid and as clear as possible. That means using colour, texture, sounds, a sense of taste etc.

Here’s an example from one of my own flash fiction pieces, called ‘Sliver’, a micro tale of a serial killer going about his usual business of harvesting flesh from his victim:

He worked quickly so she wouldn’t spoil.

She made patterns on the floor; a misshaped carmine coloured template to his immaculate harvesting. She gleamed in his hands; moist reflections filled his expression as he collected fragile slivers.  

Her pain had spiked; numbness rushed in to mask her miserable odour. She’d made poppy puddles; he was careful not to slip on the mess.

He laid her out, slice after slice. Next to her tongue. He worked better listening to her gurgle in her own blood.

She had young, beautiful, soft skin.
And he was going to collect every inch of it.
©A J Humpage 2011

Let’s look at the piece in more detail. The very first line sets out the context of the piece. The key word here is ‘spoil’. ‘He worked quickly so she wouldn’t spoil’. This lets the reader know the urgency of the killer’s work, and what would happen to a body after death.

She gleamed in his hands’ is a deliberate way of impressing the connotation of blood on the skin. I could have written something like ‘the light made her blood gleam.’ While this is quite acceptable, the idea that the victim’s flesh does this in his hands adds a deeper message to the reader; it makes them visualise it.

Instead of writing something like, ‘She bled on the floor,’ I decided to create something stronger to allow the reader to visualise the scene, so I chose ‘She’d made poppy puddles’, which is a metaphor. I used the poppy colour to symbolise the brightness of fresh blood, and the word puddle creates a descriptive picture of the mess. I focused on the description of the colour to emphasise the point.

This simple example shows how imagery should work. It’s not out to impress, it’s not created to be pretentious, but it is there to elevate description to a level that draws the reader into the fictitious world you have created without evening thinking about it.

Next week Part 2 – Using assonance, structure and conveying meanings etc

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Creating Suspense in Fiction

Many writers ponder what how to create suspense in their fiction and I’ve been asked this question by new writers because they wrongly assume it’s very difficult, when in fact it isn’t. My answer has always remained the same: creating or building suspense, and maintaining it, will only work if the writer understands the very core of the story they are telling within the genre they want to write.

Crime novels, for instance, have a sense of mystery and therefore they keep a lot of the secrets from the reader until the end, in order to keep them guessing, while some novels, like thrillers, set out their stall early on by letting the reader know most of the facts and building tension and conflict around the succeeding events in the story in order to create suspense.

Suspense is the thing that keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next...

Mention the word suspense to most people and they will automatically think of fear, after all, it’s used to great effect in horror movies. Suspense can create fear – fear of the unknown - and because there is an unknown element at play, that uncertainty in turn creates intensity.

Fiction employs the same strategy. The premise of the unknown, what might happen next, what might the character do next...the anticipation created in this way builds intensity and keeps the reader in a constant state of wondering what will happen next. Uncertainty, facing choices, facing fears, raising intensity, creating danger...they all help build suspense within the narrative.

Greek philosopher Aristotle said that suspense is an important element within literature, that there must be a real sense of present danger, but also a glint of hope that all will end well by the end of the story - this in turn creates a fine balance. Danger and relief must always find balance within your story.

That’s all well and good, but how do you go about putting this into practice?

You can create suspense by playing on your character’s fears and anxieties. By giving them fears and making them face those fears, you also allow the reader to face those fears. Or you can make the unexpected happen – for instance, killing off a likeable main character, which may put pressure on the protagonist and which leads the reader to ask...what next?

Force your main character to face impossible choices. How can they possibly choose? This is a dilemma, and thus it creates suspense with the reader, wondering how on earth the main character will choose.

In my second novel, one of the main characters is faced with an impossible choice: He is in a forest, hiding from German soldiers, and is called upon to give himself up. If he does, he will save the women of the town from being brutally murdered by the antagonist. It will mean he will be sacrificing his own life to save them, or he can stay hidden in the woods and watch them all die in order to save himself to face the antagonist in the end game. What should he do?

Dilemmas like this help create lots of suspense because the choice that the character makes – from a lose-lose situation – will keep the reader guessing as to what happens next.

There are many ways to create suspense –like when the reader knows something the character doesn’t. It’s known as Dramatic Irony. Lots of writers employ this method of dropping snippets of information for the reader, leading the reader to will the character cope, what will they do, what will happen next? This foresight allows them to glimpse the perils that might lie ahead; it builds on their anxiety and instills fear.

Another useful strategy is the use of time constraints. Thrillers employ this to great effect – the race against time. The main character needs to achieve his goal before a set time – a bomb set to go off, or a ransom needs to be delivered or the hostages die etc. Every moment the hero is held up creates tension and suspense and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. (And of course this creates conflict, which is the very heart and soul of fiction).

String out the anxiety for a full effect. Think about reality TV shows like American Idol or X Factor. The build up created prior to announcing the winner is down to making the audience wait for as long as it A or it is B? Who’s won? By stringing out that wait, it creates suspense and tension. Fiction works the same way too. Keep your reader guessing; keep them on tenterhooks for as long as possible before the final reveal.

Suspense also comes from being unpredictable. Nothing should be simple for your main character. Make their life difficult, put them in danger, take away some of their most cherished things, be horrible to them, make it look like the antagonist might actually win the day. Remember that action creates reaction. That in turn creates the ‘what happens next’ effect.

Of course, it isn’t just the actual story that provides the suspense. You can dangle a virtual carrot in front of the reader every time you finish a chapter. Try to end each chapter by luring the reader to continue reading.


· Know the genre and know the story you want to tell.
· What’s at stake? Create a sense of danger.
· Impossible choices – make the character face them
· String out the tension for as long as possible
· Time constraints – is your character racing against time?
· End a chapter with a lure to the next one.
· Be unpredictable
· Create the unexpected
· Use dramatic irony – let the reader in on something that the protagonist won’t know.

The unknown = uncertainty = anxiety = fear, what happens next = suspense.

If you become stuck wondering about suspense and how to inject it into your narrative, always ask yourself the following question:

What happens next?
Next week: Creating imagery in fiction