Saturday, 18 August 2012

Create & Captivate

The whole purpose of any piece of writing is to grab your reader’s attention and maintain that attention all through the story.  It sounds easy, but it’s not always easy to accomplish, and that’s because the writer has to somehow make the reader want to keep reading.

Maintaining interest for a reader is a fluid, continual process.  In order to captivate, a writer must continually create to avoid the story and the characters from becoming stale, boring and lacklustre.

First and foremost, make sure the story starts at its most necessary point in order to grab their attention from the very start. Once you have done that, then you can build around it and maintain that momentum and attention. There are several ways to create, and therefore, captivate:

·         Create conflict
·         Create obstacles
·         Create tension
·         Create emotion
·         Create action

The golden rule of any fiction writing is to create conflict with and around your characters.  Think of conflict as the cogs that drive your entire story.  Without conflict, there isn’t much of a story and if there isn’t much of a story then it doesn’t really move forward. 

Real life is full of conflict.  Your character’s experiences should be no different.

The other golden rule of fiction writing is to always have obstacles in your character’s path.  These obstacles act as tension buffers – the need to overcome an obstacle heightens the tension and atmosphere and keeps your reader gripped as to what might happen, or how the character might achieve this.

Again, real life is full of constant, ordinary obstacles, for instance:-

1.    You need to buy a house, but don’t have much money...
2.    You won a holiday abroad, but you’re scared of flying...
3.    Your wife is about to give birth, but you’re stuck in the worst traffic jam...

Ordinary obstacles require extraordinary ways of getting over them.  And that’s what keeps a reader gripped.

Place plenty of barriers in your character’s way – make their lives hard, it will be worth it, because by doing so, you create tension just by having your characters trying to overcome those obstacles in order to reach their goal.

Create tension whenever possible.  Similar to conflict, this is a necessary ingredient of fiction writing.  There could be tension between characters, or it could be an inner tension within your main character.  There should always be tension in one form or another within the story because they are prevalent in real life, and therefore your fictional world should be no different.

Create emotion with your characters and their situation.  If you don’t, then how will your reader empathise with them?  How will they warm to them or care about them?  And, conversely, how will they hate and dislike your villainous characters with passion? 

Emotions allow the reader to identify and connect with your characters – if a writer can emotionally reach out and touch the reader in some way, then they have done their job.

Create action – this always grips the reader.  Whatever the scene, balanced narrative should always have a splash of action to keep the reader’s juices flowing.  This works especially well if the action places the characters in mortal danger – it makes it all the more gripping.

Creating and captivating a reader is not an easy task – it’s a fine balance of maintaining and sustaining atmosphere and tension, the various conflicts, barriers, heightened emotions and scintillating action, all to drive the story forward to its conclusion and captivate your reader.

Next week: Creating effective character goals

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Dealing with Single Character Scenes

There are many things that make a writer stumble during writing, whether that’s plot development, characterisation, viewpoints etc, but a common stumbling block is how to deal with single character scenes.

Most scenes in a story will involve two or more characters, which doesn’t present a problem because there will always be action, dialogue and description for these characters to fill your pages.  But what if you have a scene, an entire chapter, or an entire story with just one character and no dialogue?

How do you write such scenes without being boring or repetitive?  How can you write them and still stimulate your reader?

It sounds daunting, but with practise it comes easily, and isn’t as much as a stumbling block as perceived.  In order for single character scenes to be effective and interesting, you must have a fully developed character that you know extremely well.  If you don’t, the premise of single character scenes becomes problematic, because you won’t be able to write with them so thoroughly and effectively.

You need this relationship with your character because a scene that is purely your character and his or her thoughts (no dialogue, remember), needs that symbiosis – it is someone whose thoughts and actions are ingrained with you and should, therefore, come easily. 

If your character isn’t well developed and you hardly know the character, those single character scenes won’t really work.

Most stories and novels will have some single character scenes at some point.  It may be the protagonist alone somewhere with only his or her own thoughts for company.  Perhaps they are trapped, or they are simply musing on what has happened.  Maybe the character is stuck in a traffic jam or you he or she is aboard a plane and you want to focus the scene solely on the character and nothing else.  Perhaps the character is remembering something – a memory or significant event in the past. 

The idea with these scenes is ideally to slow the pace of story and allow both the character and the reader to digest the story, and to impart necessary information.

There are many writers who have done this to great effect – David Morrell’s First Blood or Stephen King’s Misery, for example.

There are a number of devices writers can use for interesting, effective single character scenes:

·         Interior monologue
·         Action
·         Description
·         Flashback

Interior monologue is useful from time to time.  It allows the writer to enter their character’s mind to reveal information to the reader that other characters in the story won’t be privy.  It also allows the reader to get into the character’s mind to share their thoughts.  You can show how your character is really feeling about something, what they really think of something or someone.  You can also enhance the character’s internal conflict using interior thoughts.

Of course, the art of interior monologue to this is to keep it fairly short, but also to make it interesting for the reader so they don’t become bored, because in reality they don’t want to be confronted with great chunks of narrative without a hint of dialogue in sight.

Action, on the other hand, is the one thing every character will do.  A character is always doing something, even if they are simply sitting still, because they will rub their eyes, fiddle with their hair, massage their temples, wipe sweat from their brow, play with a piece of jewellery...the list is endless.  

If the character is alone and trying to escape from somewhere, then the potential for action is elevated, plus it gives the writer the chance to extend some conflict with the character – inner conflict and perhaps external conflict such as the surrounds or nature.

The except below is from a short story ‘The Old Man Slumbers’, and is almost entirely one character and has very little dialogue, so it makes use of action to keep the reader’s interest and move the story forward:

His shallow breaths echoed around the cavern.  He lay there listening to his life breezing in and out of his lungs, chest fizzling, constricted by the cold.

He pulled off his gloves, reached into his jacket pocket and drew out a half squashed chocolate bar.  Trembling, discoloured fingertips struggled with the wrapper – scrambled brain signals stuttered to fingers; fingers stuttered to wrapper – he couldn’t open it.  Frustration simmered close and he cursed loudly, tried again.  Then again.  And again.  Finally, he managed to split the packet on the sixth attempt and he ate greedily, the satisfying noise of mastication filling the hollow chamber, somehow comforting to hear.  He rested back, the taste and texture of the mulched chocolate sweet on his lips; the velvety sensation felt like the post-coital descent from euphoria. 

Stephen King is an effective exponent at this, as are the likes of Tom Clancy and Robert    Ludlam.

Besides action, a writer can always rely on description between action scenes to help bolster single character scenarios, as long as there isn’t too much description in large chunks, but rather smaller, digestible amounts, and the description is well written so that it carries the story forward.

The other way to write single character scenes effectively is to use the flashback technique.  This allows the character to revisit past events and also allows a writer to explore the character’s motivations – the kind of things that influence the character in the present.  Flashbacks also act to slow the pace and allow the reader (and character) to reflect.

And of course, there is no rule to say you can’t use all four devices in your single character scene, depending how long the scene or chapter or story is, and how well you write it.  Many writers do just that, but the most important thing is to know your character inside out.

Writing single character scenes aren’t the ball ache that writers presume them to be, and certainly not so when there are interior thoughts, action, description and flashbacks to help.

Next week: Create and Captivate

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Maintaining Viewpoint Balance

One of the questions writers often ask is how much of their character's point of view should be apparent within the narrative.  After all, the story should be from the protagonist’s viewpoint, and the majority of the scenes should concentrate on your main character.

Of course there will be scenes or chapters from other character’ viewpoints, and these are absolutely fine, but one of the problems that can occur is that a secondary character gradually overshadows the main character.  This sometimes happens naturally through the writing process because first and second drafts are usually the ‘bare bones’ of a novel and the writer is, therefore, finding their way with it.

The other problem is that viewpoints are not always clear during a chapter.  Is it the lead character’s chapter, or the secondary character’s chapter?  Or, as sometimes happens, is it a mix of all the characters?
The other problem is that sometimes this imbalance isn’t always picked up by writers, which means the manuscript then lands in front of an editor who immediately picks up on it when they read it because it is clear that the writer hasn’t made clear whose story it is.

The story always belongs to the main character.
The easiest way to find out if there is an imbalance between character viewpoints is to read through the finished MSS and then apply some basic maths.  Read through each chapter and male a note whose chapter it is. 

From this information you can ask the following questions:
1.    How many chapters are led by the protagonist?
2.    How many chapters are led by secondary characters?
3.    How many chapters have no clear viewpoint?
Take the results of how many chapters belong to which characters and convert them into percentages.  It should be obvious from these results just how the chapters balance.

The main character should always have the most dedicated chapters.  The rest of the chapters should be shared between the remaining characters.

A 60% / 40% balance is not too bad, i.e. 60% of the chapters are led by the main character and 40% of the chapters focus on the secondary characters.
A 70% / 30% is much better.  It means the writer has focused most of the chapters and scenes on what the main character is doing.  The remaining chapters are spread between secondary and peripheral characters.

For a simple example, a novel has 30 chapters and four important characters - Protagonist, Antagonist, Secondary Character and Peripheral Character.
The book has the following chapter breakdown:

14 chapters are about the Protagonist
9 chapters are about the Antagonist
5 chapters involve the Secondary character

2 chapters involve the Peripheral character

This kind of breakdown offers a simple visual so you can actually see which chapters are devoted to which characters and how much of the story shifts from one character to another. 
When converted to a percentage, it is clear that almost 47% of the book is focused on the main character.  30% concentrates on the antagonist, while just over 16% is about the secondary character and just over 6% is about the peripheral character.

This example, while fairly balanced, would benefit from some improvement to increase the chapter coverage so that more than half is about the main character. Remember, the story must always belong to the character; therefore most of the story should be about him or her.
This breakdown method is a simple, easy and valuable way to figure out just how balanced your character viewpoints are.  Read any popular fiction books and the vast majority will have a main character percentage that hits around 65% - 70%.

Your main character should always be at the forefront of the story, so by using this measurement you can check the proportion of character viewpoints to see if your main character is the focus, or whether he or she is wallowing beneath other characters who have taken over most of the chapters, or whether minor characters appear too frequently than is necessary etc.  You can then correct them and bring back a sense of balance prior to submitting your masterpiece to competitions, agents and editors.

 Next week: Dealing with single character scenes.