Saturday, 31 March 2012

Use of Prepositions

A preposition is a word which demonstrates a logical relationship with other words within a sentence, by highlighting time, place and direction. They usually precede nouns or pronouns, and they’re the kind of words we don’t think too much about. 

Take this example, ‘The envelope is on the table, just under the alcove.’ The sentence shows us where the envelope is. Another simple example is, ‘He went out to the car and got in.’ Most prepositions usually fall at the end of a sentence.

But the thing with prepositions is that there are too many of them (150), so half the time, most are usually unnecessary.

It’s how the writer positions prepositions that make them more effective. Look again at the sentence above. It starts with the proposition, ‘But’. I chose this because it brought the sentence into effect - it directly made the point.

Most of us have probably been taught that starting and ending sentences with prepositions is frowned upon, especially by grammarians who eschew that words like ‘But’ should only be used within the sentence, and not to start one.

But think about it.

A well-placed preposition can actually be a positive and constructive thing. That’s because it’s a very simple tool that helps create a little bit of dramatic effect or sense of atmosphere, or when a writer wants to emphasise a point succinctly.

Without them, narrative might seem a little boring.

In fact, it’s sometimes more favourable to start a sentence with a ‘But’ or an ‘At’ or ‘On’. Their effect can bring gravity, brevity or directness to the narrative, but that doesn’t mean that the writer can drop them wherever he or she wants. Careful placement counts. It’s the cumulative effect of the overall scene that you need, rather than just placing them for the sake of it and thinking it works. 

If you place prepositions incorrectly, it will just make the writing look amateurish. In other words, don’t start a sentence with a preposition for the sake of it, and certainly don’t overload the narrative with them. Think about how effective they might be first. For example:

On the face of it, he was happy.

But Jill frowned at his expression.

With a derisive snort, he turned from her and made his way out...

You get the picture. Sometimes, less is more.

Here’s an example of brevity and direct effect:

He wasn’t sure who they were or where they were going; the human misery cooped up in the foul, stained wooden train.

But he was determined to find out.

The placement of the preposition of ‘But’ creates directness, a blunt atmosphere for the scene, and it also becomes an effective way to finish the scene within a determined statement of intent, thus informing the reader of what is yet to come.

Here’s another example of effective placement:

He stepped back from her, unwilling to engage.

She couldn’t find the words...

Since when did John start carrying a knife?

This can be useful when asking the reader a rhetorical a question, as above, leaving them to ponder the answer.

Other examples:

From somewhere deep in his mind, his conscience stirred...

By the time the sun poked over the ocean, three of them lay dead.

Before sundown, she’d be rid of him.

All three create brevity, all three are direct, and all three help foster the atmosphere.

The idea is to think about the effect of the sentence you want, and then choose the best preposition to give you that effect; ones that help make the scene, accentuate it, but not spoil it.

Correctly placed prepositions do the following:

  • Create dramatic effect or flourish.
  • Enable the writer to finish scenes/chapters by making a statement of intent.
  • Help heighten atmosphere with a sense of immediacy.
  • Make a direct point.
  • Ask rhetorical questions.

Commonly used Prepositions at the beginning of sentences

  • But
  • By
  • Until
  • On
  • Before
  • After
  • At
  • Since
  • From
The key here is to use them sparingly to add the right effect for when it matters and to not over use them. So, chuck out the old pedantic advice from your schoolteachers, and start using prepositions to your advantage. 
Next week: Cleverly placed conjunctions.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Writing isn't just about imagery...

Every writer knows how important imagery is. It’s what connects the writer to the reader and allows them to imagine more than mere words. But imagery isn’t just about stimulating the reader by building up words and sentences to create scenes. There is much more to it. 

Don’t just write, but feel the words that you write. This might sound a little crazy, but essentially writing is all about ‘feeling’ – not just the emotions and the tensions within a story, but it’s about feeling the depth and richness of the words you are writing, the sound they make, the colours they evoke.

Effective writing is also about being able to ‘listen’ to the words, to be able to hear how they sound within a scene and therefore help you visualise everything. Writing is undoubtedly a sensory experience, if done correctly. Listen to anyone reading aloud and you will understand what it is to ‘listen’ to the flow, the speed, the inflection and richness of words. This is how we ‘feel’ those words.

Intuitive, attentive writers take a great deal of care about the words they write, to create the right effect and the right emotion. It isn’t just about telling your reader what’s happening; it’s about involving them on as many levels as possible. They have to be part of the story, to feel it, taste it, touch it and sense it. It needs to be as real as it could ever be.

And writing isn’t just about creating words, either. It’s about creating a perfect relationship between the writer and the words created, and the importance of creating and structuring those words and sentences for the reader to truly understand.

The relationship is such that sometimes we know instinctively when we’ve chosen the right words, and moments that we realise that we’ve written the wrong words. They don’t feel right. It’s only when they feel right that we’re happy.

The words you choose make it possible for the reader to listen to the words, to feel the narrative, not just read about it, and to become part of the story. How often do you ‘listen’ to the words you write – does the narrative sing to you with vivid, rhythmic fluidity or does it clomp awkwardly and lack any sense of tempo?

Are your senses evoked or heightened by what you’ve written? If not, then try harder until it does. Feel the magic of your own words.

The more you engage the reader and make them ‘feel’ the scenes, the better your ability to illicit empathy and understanding, as well as enjoyment and satisfaction.

Something already touched upon in previous articles is sibilance. This plays a huge part in creating sounds, and helps the reader ‘feel’ the writing; it helps support the imagery you create. Using the senses wherever possible also helps.

I wrote the flash story below, Song of Silence, last year. It contains sibilance and rhythm, it creates imagery, and it allows the reader to feel the whole scene.

A thousand hollow, alabaster faces stared out from beyond the wire. Sunken eyes and lost expressions filled the heavy atmosphere. The sullen patter of rain spiralled from a slate laden sky.

Ribs pushed through taut, parched skin. Fingers clung to the fence like broken claws. Desperation bled from grey cadaver skin; men, woman and children, stripped of clothes and dignity, stood crushed together, holding each other up. 

The air stank of misery. Fear stalked the muddy fields and stifled the birds.

In just under an hour, they would all be dead; life stolen by poisonous gas.

The ovens burned, ready.

©AJ Humpage

Some people ‘hear’ music in various colours – Synethesia. Some writers hear words in colours, be them deep reds, velvety mauves or striking pastels. The association with colour and words is not farfetched – the ability to create multidimensional imagery through colours is not always explored by writers.

Another of my flash fiction pieces, A Bad Colour, gives you an idea about the use of colour in narrative:

Amber slices projected through the trees, the haze of the fire began to swell. The hint of burnt sienna wafted close, scorched a path beneath their noses.

Rope fibres moaned as they became taut, to temper the weight.

Shadows appeared through the smoke, circled him. Milk coloured robes flapped in the breeze, bathed by the fire glow, their faces hidden by hoods.

Red over black; the colour of life slinked down his skin, snaked down the channels they had gouged through his flesh. Open viscera gleamed.

He swung from the tree as the cross burned; the price for being different.

©AJ Humpage

So when you set out to write your next masterpiece, think carefully about the words you want, the words you think evoke the right emotion, the right atmosphere, the right sound, the right image, the right feeling, or the right colours.

Writing isn’t just about imagery; it encompasses so much more.

Next week: Use of prepositions

Saturday, 17 March 2012

How to use Subtext

Few writers take the time to understand subtext and the part it plays in a story, and yet ironically most use subtext without really thinking about it. It is one of those things that may sometimes naturally manifest itself during writing, while other writers take the time to pour over what they want to subliminally say with their subtext.

So what exactly is subtext?

We can best describe subtext as a subtle undercurrent running through your story, just below the surface. It’s what remains hidden from obvious notice, but it simmers just enough to catch the attention of the reader. It’s an understated thread that becomes apparent to the reader as the story unfolds.

Basically, it sums up what lies beneath the story, those hidden meanings so subtle that it may not always be apparent on the first reading. It’s the undertone to your story; however that is not to say every story should have subtext, because that is not the case. Not all stories do. 

Subtext is simply a way of enriching your story or creating extra depth to it. It could be something implied or hidden, something to do with the theme of the story, it could be based the characters or their dialogue, or maybe their thoughts and actions, or it could be something to do with the plot – a political or sexual subtext, a subversive one, and so on. Perhaps you want to make a social comment about injustice, inequality or conflict etc.

It’s the implied nature of it that attracts the reader, those hidden elements which give us deeper meanings within a story. 

For example, a simple subtext to a love story would be the boy’s attraction to the girl, but it’s hidden by his negative behaviour towards her, which is harsh and unfair. The reader will instinctively see through his horrible behaviour and know it’s really down to the fact that he fancies her but is too shy to approach her that way, so he hides behind a bad boy facade.

What if you have a character that, on the face of it, seems so nice and friendly to all your other characters, but hides something altogether darker beneath his surface? What if you alluded to the kind of person he really is, but did so without giving too much away? 

What if your main character is an alcoholic in denial, and those around him don’t realise? And as the writer, you never reveal it, but by referencing alcohol within the narrative at certain points, you are laying the foundations of subtext, and the reader will be astute enough to notice the clues and make their own conclusions about the character.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is, on the surface, about a vampire, but the subtext bubbles with sexual desire and imagery. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was basically about a bunch of animals running their own farm, free from humans, but the narrative brims with political and social subtext – the animals were a metaphor to show how badly humans actually behaved towards one another, keenly observed by Orwell.

If you’ve ever read DH Lawrence, you’ll know there is a strong homosexual subtext that flows throughout his stories, even though he is commentating on the general social order – middle and upper classes - of that time.

But how do you achieve subtext?

Subtext is about hinting at something at certain points, or by weaving deep-set imagery and symbolism within the narrative, all without actually revealing anything. You are showing the reader, but not telling them.

Readers will notice this kind of thing. You might use metaphors to create clues for the reader in order to get them to read between the lines.

Subtext compliments and enriches your story, but doesn’t steal the limelight. It brings dimension and complexity and hidden meaning, without being overt.

Subtext is another way a writer can add extra layers of understanding to their stories. A story is about many things, some of them obvious, some of them less so. Subtext is about finding those deeper levels and hidden meanings and layering your story with them, whether it’s a 5000 word short story or a blockbusting 100,000 novel. 

Whichever one, the reader will enjoy your story all the more.

Next week: Why writing isn’t just about imagery.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Do characters need goals?

New writers often ask me about whether characters really need goals, and my answer is – yes, always.

Your main character must have a goal; otherwise there is no backbone to your story. Their goal(s) form the heart of the entire story, they form part of the reason your character embarks on their journey in the first place. This could be anything from saving someone’s life, averting a disaster, solving a crime, uncovering the truth about something or someone, rescuing the girl (or boy), finding love, getting revenge or even saving the world etc. All of these are goals for which characters strive.

There is one thing that must always happen in a story, whatever the goal - the character must achieve his or her goal by the end of the story. If they don’t, you will leave your reader feeling short-changed, and your character will have achieved little or nothing at all, because by achieving their goals – what they set out to do at the beginning of a story – is their personal journey which will ultimately change them by the end of the story.

Characters with goals make for an interesting story. Characters without goals, however, make little or no story. If we think of real life, we all have goals in one form or another, whether they are the small day-to-day goals, or the grand life-changing goals. The only difference is that we don’t have 85,000 words in which to accomplish them.

One of the main reasons for giving your characters goals is that you are giving them motivation, and without motivation, there is no movement within your story, and ultimately, no conflict.

Goal = motivation = conflict = overcoming problems = resolution, goal achievement and character change.

This shows that your character has to change in some way by the end of their journey, so upon achieving his or her goal - whether they have learned something about themselves, learned about other people, their environs, or whether they have fundamentally changed because of what has happened to them – they must be seen by the reader to have changed in some way.

As the writer, you have to show the reader how and why your character has changed as they have strived to achieve their goals. This is their personal development – just like ours in real life.

And just like real life, they can have more than one goal within the story, large or small, as long as they are realistic and relate to the story (avoid wildly unrealistic ones).

But why must a character have a goal in the first place?

  • It gives the character something to strive for – the story has to be about something. Having an ultimate goal forms the backbone of the story.
  • It provides motivation – to achieve the goal the character must embark on his or her journey forward and forms part of the story. Without motivation, there isn’t much point to the story.
  • It’s a driving factor to move the story forward – the fact that your character has to reach the goal – be it to save the girl or find the serial killer etc – it moves the story forward to its conclusion.
  • It acts as a catalyst for subplot development – the character’s journey towards his or her goal(s) might provide subplot opportunities and further goals and subsequent barrier/conflicts to overcome.
  • It gives the characters and story purpose – just as in real life, without goals to strive for, then there is no personal development taking place, and the same is true of your characters.

So, the answer to the question - does a character really need goals? Yes, always. They need purpose, they need to strive to achieve something, they need to personally develop and they need motivation, because without all these you won’t achieve a satisfactory resolution or conclusion to the story.

Next week: How to use subtext.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Turning Points in Novels

We often hear about ‘turning points’ in novels, but what exactly are they and how do they work?

A turning point is a defining moment within the story, and often involves the main character. Invariably it involves a high moment of tension and action and may be followed by some sort of resolution. This doesn’t have to happen at the end of the novel – that’s the climax, the denouement, and it is very different from a turning point.

Turning points can happen at those moments your character has an epiphany, they learn something significant, or something very important is revealed. Perhaps the story goes in another direction. Sometimes a turning point comes with a change of dynamics – such as serious events that happen to characters, their darkest moments through something terrible, or it might involve a change of momentum, i.e. stepping up a gear with fast-paced action, thus taking the character in a completely new direction.

Turning points are about the experiences and dramatic events that happen in the story as your character works his or her way towards the end of the novel.

Not only that, but turning points act as a way to move your story forward. They are highly visual ways to show the reader the changes that your characters undertake on their journey and how those experiences change them as they work towards the final outcome.

The best way to look at it is this - your character begins a journey in your novel, walking a long road and not knowing where it might end, but that road is never straight. It’s full of twists and turns and highs and lows, and sometimes it reaches forks in the road – this is where the story turns and your character’s actions form part of a series of events that will eventually culminate in the final scenes of the novel.

These kind of significant events don’t have to be on a grand scale either – like big action scenes – but instead they can be subtle emotional events, they can be small thought-provoking events, they can be quiet moments of revelation – however small or large, they let the reader see how your main character is evolving within the story. 

By planting these turning points throughout the story, you can keep the reader’s interest, you can heighten tension and vary the pace and you can move the story forward. They enable you to take the story in a new direction; you can reveal information and change your character’s lives and so on.

Eventually, all these dramatic events build up to finally culminate in the climax of the story.

What those turning points may be or where they appear will depend on the kind of story you are telling. Maybe your character finds out that the man who kidnapped his wife is really his brother...or the car he’s been driving around in forms the clue to a murder investigation...perhaps your character discovers adoption papers stashed away in an attic...or maybe your character simply has do decide to fight for what he or she believes in...

Whatever they are, they should come naturally with the progression of your story and should never be forced to illicit dramatic effect – this will prove counter-productive and stifle the creativity of the whole piece.

Study any novel and you will see that by the end of the story the character has changed in some way, they have discovered something about themselves, they have realised or learned something. That’s because all the turning points along that journey have shaped the character’s view, and their final outcome at the end of the novel.

Every story needs turning points, because without them, the main character won’t evolve, the reader won’t learn about the story and the story won’t actually move forward in a seamless, natural way.

Turning points:

  • Decisive change
  • Revelations
  • Character’s epiphany
  • Action or emotional scenes
  • Darkest moments
  • Change of pace
  • Defining moments
  • Allows the character to evolve

Next week: Does a character really need goals?