Sunday, 28 August 2011

How to Drive a Story Forward

Every story has to proceed to its logical end. How a writer reaches that end is an important process. 

When we refer to ‘driving the story forward’, we mean that the story must have momentum and structure to engage the reader right to the end, but it must also impart necessary information without everything stalling part way through.

It’s a constant within fiction writing – the story needs to move on without dawdling on unimportant, boring stuff. If that happens, your reader will either fall asleep or give up. As Elmore Leonard once advised, cut out the parts that readers skip. In other words, get rid of the boring stuff to allow the story to move on. Readers don’t want to know what your main character had for breakfast, whether he made tea or coffee and what he decided to do with his day while he watered the plants – they want to get right to the heart of the action.

There are several ways to drive a story forward – Use of dialogue, character motivation, conflict, plot twists and pacing all play a part in providing momentum.

To start with, dialogue is a great way of imparting information for the reader and moving the story forward. The way to do that is to make the dialogue count.

Take this example:

‘The restaurant looks busy tonight,’ John said, looking around. ‘Last time we came here it took ages for the food to arrive and it wasn’t all that good anyway, but now it’s under new management hopefully things have improved because I’m starving, I could eat a whole cow.’

‘I noticed they have your favourite wine on the drinks list, too,’ Jane said. ‘I know it’s expensive but we should treat ourselves, since you’ve now made Chief Executive.’

‘Yeah, why not?’ 

This conversation isn’t actually going anywhere nor doing anything other than filling up white space. It does nothing to move the story forward, a common flaw. Cut the unnecessary chitchat and get right to the point. For instance:

John eyed the restaurant, kept his thoughts to himself.

‘They do your favourite wine,’ Jane said. ‘Splash the cash. You’re Chief Exec, we can afford it.’

His expression darkened...

This reveals far more, and yet uses fewer lines. Why would John keep his thoughts to himself? Perhaps he doesn’t want to share them with his wife. And she seems more interested in spending his money than he does. This is characterisation through dialogue, but more importantly, it doesn’t hang about, it moves the story on.

Concise dialogue not only engages the reader, but it moves the story on in terms of what may happen next, or what might be expected.

Character motivations are often revealed through dialogue, too. In real life, some people let slip what they really think and feel when they are talking – the ‘real’ person behind the persona comes through. Our characters should be no different. What your characters really want and how they’re going to get it provides a catalyst – it moves the story forward.

Motivation drives the action, which in turn drives the story.

Conflict - the backbone of any story - also drives the story because readers will want to know what happens to conflicting characters at the end of the story. All the types of conflict you create act like fuel in an engine – it provides power and thrust. And of course, readers will be desperate to know if the good guy wins over the bad guy by the end of the story.

Plot twists are another strategy to use. A reader will not be expecting it – so a turning point or major revelation should leave the reader wondering what will happen next. You should be constantly revealing information in your scenes to keep the reader engaged – elements of the plot, bit by bit, pieces of a jigsaw that your reader will be mentally solving. This information revelation pushes the story forward.

Pacing is another way for a writer to move things forward. Vary the action and drama scenes with slower, reflective scenes where the characters, through their thoughts and actions and dialogue, can once again impart necessary information and move things along for the reader.

Each scene you write must advance story. Remember that it is a constant within writing – character motivation, internal and external conflicts, building and solving problems within the plot, revealing characters and above all, revealing necessary information all work together to move the story forward.

All these elements must have momentum...if they don’t then the whole thing could bore the reader. Make things move. Keep them moving. And the reader will enjoy what you write.

Next week: How character development can drive conflict.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Making the reader care about your characters and themes

The themes that run through your novel are the drivers that create the emotion behind the plot. 

Themes like love, hate, rebellion, revenge etc, are all emotive; they have the ability to move us on many different levels. This happens because we recognise and understand those themes – we’ve dealt with some of them first hand and we’ve experienced many of those emotions.

You can have many themes running through your story, not just one.

And of course, without the characters to drive those themes, a reader would have nothing to care about.

Getting the reader to care about your characters is important, and empathy is key. A reader needs to recognise qualities in your characters that are inherent within themselves. Without empathy, the characters won’t connect with the reader.

Writers need the reader to care what happens to their characters, to read to the very end of the novel, because doing that will help a reader care about the entire story.

What makes us care?

The situations and obstacles that your characters experience, together with emotive themes like those already mentioned, helps create immediacy with the reader, especially if they’ve gone through similar situations, because then they can empathise with your character, they have experience of it.

Realistic experiences become the foundations of the themes we choose. Things like the loss of a loved one, being bullied, becoming parents, landing in trouble with parents, peers or teachers, losing a job, or perhaps finding love, seeing the world, getting that dream job etc. Most people have felt many of these emotions at some point in their lives. 

Experiences play a significant part in making the reader care about your characters. They see these experiences and understand the difficulties your character faces. You’ve created empathy.

Likable Characters

The people we like are the kind of people just like us. By giving your characters realistic personalities you endear them to the reader - they will be looking for exactly the same qualities as they would choosing a friend.

Complex, emotional and often conflicting characteristics make for the most intriguing characters. Your reader might identify with the extrovert, or the shy and retiring, or the bold and brassy characters.

The likability factor goes a long way in making the reader care about your characters.

Opposites Attract

Of course, it’s not just likable main characters; readers love a good villain, too. The polar opposite of your struggling protagonist - the darker personality of your antagonist - will have the ability to stir the emotions of your reader in a slightly different way; they will dislike the villain by virtue of his or her actions, and by doing so you further bolster their bond with your protagonist.

Readers want to see the main character win the day, to triumph over the villain, or situation, to know that by the end of the novel the main character will have overcome all the troubles and obstacles the writer could throw at him or her. Readers want a satisfying resolution (a happy ending is a bonus), so this alone will keep their vested interest in your main character.

Inflicting the Worst

The one thing that does stir emotions is the theme of pain. This can take the form of emotional pain, physical pain, psychological pain or inferred pain. It’s the one emotion guaranteed to grab your reader’s heartstrings. 

With enough empathy created through a character that is easy to identify with, whose struggles the reader can understand, whose persona the reader likes, they can therefore feel the pain of whatever the writer throws at their characters, the reader becomes immersed in that emotion.

Emotions drive all of us. It’s part of our dynamic make up, so emotions should drive your characters too - their goals, their desires, their needs, their disappointments, their failures.

Give them terrible situations to deal with, almost impossible obstacles to overcome. Their struggle will become a theme in itself, and will hook the reader to find out what happens to your main character by the end of the novel.


  • Create empathy, create immediacy
  • Create characters that readers can identify with
  • Create sympathy for your character’s situation
  • Create emotive themes the reader will understand – the motivation that drives the story forward – love, hate, revenge, death etc.
  • Make characters believable and interesting
  • Create antagonists a reader would love to hate
  • Inflict pain upon your characters, make their lives hell, make the reader feel for them  

Think about the characters that you connected with in films and literature – characters you liked – did you root for them, did you cry for them, did they make you smile or laugh, or did they make you angry, sad or indifferent? 

Did they make you feel for them? Above all, did they make you care

If you can accomplish the same, then you can make the reader care about your characters and create a story they will thoroughly enjoy.

Next week: The importance of driving the story forward, and what this means.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Importance of the Opening Chapter

To continue the theme of the previous article about how to tease your reader, one of the most important devices for luring the reader is the opening chapter of your novel.

Why should you write a compelling opening chapter? Because it is your chance to first grab the editor’s attention, then hopefully it will grab your reader's attention.

Your potential reader is discerning. They take only a few seconds to read the first few lines before they decide to buy your book. Those first few lines will be the difference between getting the reader to carry on reading, or being left on the shelf with other unread novels.

Think of it like fishing. You have to hook the reader first with your bait – the opening chapter. Then you reel them in bit by bit with the rest of the story, until the final chapter, when you can finally let them go.

How can a writer do that?

There are many ways to do it, but you should aim to seize the reader’s attention and curiosity from the very first words. 

There are lots of things to get right in a first chapter. It’s very easy for writers to become carried away and forget about to tell the reader about the obvious things like the setting, the nature of the conflict or even the name of the main character.

Your reader needs to know where and when the story is taking place and who the main character is, right from the outset. Remember, writing is about subtlety, so you don’t necessarily have to overload the reader with details. Instead, hint at these and let the intrigue do the work for you by creating curiosity about your character and his or her situation.

Always start with your protagonist rather than minor characters; otherwise you could confuse your reader as to whose story you are telling. You need to have your character connect immediately with the reader.

Most novels quickly establish what’s going on by having the character active within in the scene, as opposed to writing a long block of description about what the character is doing, where they are going, who they are meeting, what they might have for dinner etc. In other words, open at a turning point in the character’s life; a moment of change, a crisis - get the character involved straight away.

Don’t spend four or five pages writing about the lead up to the turning point of your character’s life, the catalyst that propels the story – jump right in at that important moment. By getting the character involved, it means you also are also getting the reader involved. For example:

John left work just after five and made his way to the train station. He meandered onto his usual platform to wait for his train and thought about his stressful day. He hoped tomorrow would be better, but his thoughts were broken by a loud noise to his left, an explosion

This would bore your reader. Instead, try something like this:

The explosive flash snapped across the train station and ripped John from the platform…

That will instantly spark curiosity and a need to know what happens next.

Don’t make the opening complicated and don’t write pages of boring back story or the character’s life history either, because this will instantly kill any intrigue or curiosity you’ve established. Back story can come later by sprinkling information throughout the novel as it progresses.

You idea is that you need to create a sense of immediacy straight away.

As well as opening a chapter with action, you could start it with dialogue, particularly if it’s a strong, catchy opening line to whet the reader’s appetite. Dialogue helps establish your character’s personality, it will set the scene and it will inform the reader of what is happening at that precise moment in the character’s life and it will also establish POV.

Let the reader share the dilemma your character faces at every opportunity.

The opening chapter can be atmospheric, tense, puzzling, action packed…as long as it grabs the reader and keeps them enthralled as to ‘what happens next’ without giving too much away.

Remember to end your first chapter on a climax – and invite the reader to read on.

What not to do…

  • Don’t use clichéd openings, like the now famous, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ This speaks for itself. 
  • Don’t spend three chapters setting the scene with no hint of your protagonist until page 4.
  • Don’t use boring dialogue to open your novel – be dynamic, get the reader’s attention and stir their curiosity.
  • Don’t start off with the weather. Bring the weather in later, but avoid wherever possible beginning your novel with it, otherwise you may fall into the cliché trap.
  • Don’t start with minor characters 
  • Don’t open your novel with the weather. 

Read the first chapter of famous novels or your favourite authors. What method has the author used to introduce the main character and the conflict of the story? How much description or action and dialogue are there? Is the setting and the tone established straight away?

Don’t worry too much about your opening chapter when you write your first draft because the tweaking and polishing comes from the editing process afterward. You’ll have the time to reflect and think about how you want the chapter to open, how you will hook your reader, entice them and tease them.

It’s not uncommon to move chapters around at the edit stage and replace your opening chapter with another one, or rewrite it completely. How you do it is up to you.

Mickey Spillane summed it up perfectly: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.”

Next week: Making the reader care about your characters and themes

Saturday, 6 August 2011

How to Tease Your Reader

Writing fiction is all about getting the reader to invest their time and interest in your story. Writers do this by constantly teasing the reader, knowing this will entice them to turn each page and jump into their fictional world.

Of course, the whole premise with fiction is that once you’ve hooked your reader, you have to charm them enough to keep reading. There are several narrative devices available to a writer to accomplish this. 

The subtle craft of tease can be simple, slight, or hinted - you don’t have to hit your reader over the head with the obvious and you don’t have to overload them with everything that is likely to happen in the opening chapters.

Less is often more.

There are several ways you can tickle the reader’s fancy and keep their interest nicely oiled:

  • The opening hook
  • Chapter end tease
  • Symbolic overtones – foreshadowing events etc
  • Planting clues 

Hooking the Reader

The opening of any story is important. That means the opening paragraph or sentence has to hook the reader - you have to tease them into reading beyond the first page. You need to grab them and not let them go until the last line of the story.

Make your opening sentences count. Start at the heart of the action; jump right in take your reader along for the ride, make them want to know more about your characters and what might happen to them.

Chapter Cliffhangers

Chapter end teases are those ‘dangle the carrot’ moments at the end of a chapter, a way of luring the reader to turn the page and read on. They don’t have to be overt, they can be quite subtle – your reader is smart enough to understand and interpret them. 

These small ‘cliff hangers’ are there to intrigue your reader, to pique their interest to go straight to the next chapter.

There are no written rules - you don’t have to do it for every single chapter end, but it certainly helps to maintain reader interest wherever possible but hinting at something about to happen or luring with a promise of action to come.

Here’s a chapter end from my second novel, which shows how simple and effective they can be:

The Luger lay in the snow a few feet away.
Drecshler unclipped the holster, drew out his PPK, cocked it.
Dmitry reached for the Luger, grabbed it and spun round, trigger poised. Adrenaline surged, blocked out the cold that clawed his flesh.
Drecshler aimed.
Two men. Two guns. Silence.

Symbols & Foreshadowing

Another way to tease the reader is with the use of symbolic overtones. While the narrative and dialogue must work to drive the story forward, it should also act as a catalyst to spark a reader’s curiosity with use of visual clues. 

In fiction, symbols are often underused, but if handled well, they can easily lure your reader. Again, you don’t have to be overt – subtlety is the key.

For instance, Dmitry, (the character shown above) is a Russian peasant farmer and hunter, like his father. In several scenes early in the story, Dmitry talks of his prowess at hunting, his skill with a rifle.  While this might seem insignificant, it is referred to several times in various chapters – I’ve subliminally planted the seed of intrigue for the events to come; the reader will know his skills with a rifle will become significant later in the novel, and so they are tempted with a promise of something more.

Recurring symbols can be anything you want them to be. Colours, objects, people, animals, the elements, sounds etc, so don’t be afraid to use them in your story.

Another way to entice the reader is through dialogue. I make references to Dmitry’s desire to avenge his young brother’s death at the hands of a sniper, all done through hinting this within dialogue with other characters. This desire is firmly planted in the reader’s psyche – they will know this revenge will happen, but they have to keep reading to find out when and how.

This kind of foreshadowing lights the way for the reader to look forward to events to come, it’s a guessing game, part of the enjoyment of reading a story, of caring and empathising with characters, and to wonder what will happen to them as the story races to its conclusion.

Planting Clues

Planting subtle clues keeps the reader focused by exposing a little information at a time to get your reader salivating. Think of a strip tease; it’s provocative, it reveals a little bit at a time, it plays with you, it makes the mind imagine what’s beneath the clothes. Planting clues in fiction acts the same way by making the reader imagine what will happen.

Objects provide great sources of clue planting, perfect for becoming significant later in a story, like a knife or a gun, a piece of clothing or jewellery, or it might be a car etc. It can be anything.

Of course, if you feel particularly confident, you might also try toying with your reader by planting false clues (red herrings) to keep their interest heightened and to crank up the tension. This is particularly effective in crime novels and thrillers because every reader loves trying to guess ‘who dunnit’.

They also love to guess ‘what will happen next?’

Dialogue clues work well in the same way, too, like one character hinting something to another character, or revealing something in secret.

And of course, clues dropped into the narrative also act as a lure. Hinting at things that may or may not be relevant later in the novel still has the power to draw your reader into turning the page.

Exploit the reader’s curiosity at every opportunity. Provoke them into constantly asking questions – the why, the what, the where, when and how? Dangle a metaphoric carrot, lead them into dead ends, tickle their curiosity, play with their minds...

Above all, make them turn the page to keep reading.

Next week: The importance of the opening chapter