Sunday, 30 September 2012

How to write the climax to a novel

Two of the most difficult things to get right for a novel are the beginning and the ending.

The right beginning is important, which should jump in at a significant moment or start with action, but the ending – something that seems far off when we’re writing the story – is just as important. 

An ending has to accomplish several things: it has to complete the story, it must offer resolution, it should tie up all loose ends and, finally, it should provide an ending that is logical and satisfactory.

It’s worth noting that not all stories need to end in one explosive, violent event - and there is nothing wrong with that – because many novels don’t.  Some novels – literary ones in particular – have more of a gentle ‘unveiling’ at the end, whether that’s the unravelling life-journey of a character, or the answer to a particular plot twist or a simple revelation etc – as long as the story is resolved.

And, of course, not all stories have happy endings.  But how do you go about formulating the climax of a novel?

Firstly, think of the story as having three sections – the beginning, the middle and the end.  Secondly, know where your story is heading because writers often approach the end of the story with no clear thoughts to how it might end.  Writers might come unstuck by using contrived or forced endings (because the writer hasn’t taken the time to plan), which tend to weaken the story considerably.   The beginning and the middle might be exciting and fast paced, but the ending might turn into a bit of a whimper. 

If you don’t know where you are heading, how can you find your way?   A little planning goes a long way.  Know roughly where your story is heading and how it should end.  It doesn’t have to be precise, it might only be an idea, but it’s wise to have something to work to because you have a better chance of finding the right ending, rather than creating the wrong one.

Your ending section should have four main components:
·         The build up
·         The set up
·         The Endgame
·         The Resolution

The Build Up

This is where the pace of the story changes – it tends to move faster, the tension builds and the action increases, and it usually does so after a significant event or when the main character has discovered some sort of information or truth that will put them on the path towards a showdown with the antagonist. 

Think of a pressure cooker slowly building up the pressure – that’s how your story should unfold.  Pressure, pace, excitement and tension should take a front seat as you race towards the climax.

The idea of the build up is to create momentum and anticipation for the reader.

The Set Up

This means your character takes measured action prior to the endgame and the final moment of the story.  For instance, your hero might get his hands on a gun, ready to confront the villain.  Or maybe he or she gets into the car and races towards the final confrontation – perhaps the car is part of the conflict, part of a chase scene.  The main character might board a train, or a plane, heading directly into trouble.  Or it might simply be a character appears at a particular, significant location.

The set up places your character in a final situation and pulls together all the strands of the story, so all the twists and turns you’ve created since the start of the story lead up to that moment when your protagonist finally confronts the antagonist – what he or she decides to do next affects how they will behave in the endgame.

The Endgame

The moment your character faces the antagonist, the culmination of the story and it is, in effect, that final confrontation that forms the denouement. 

How your character deals with this moment will directly impact on the ending, and the story itself.  At this moment, the inner journey of your character and the journey they have undertaken to get to that moment are unified.

If it’s a thriller, will your character win the day and defeat the villain?  If you’re writing a crime novel, will the truth come out, will the killer be found?  If it’s romance, will the hero finally get his girl (or vice versa)?  You get the idea.

The ending should always be appropriate for the story, too – try not to fall into the movie trap, i.e. the climactic ending always takes place in a large factory or warehouse which, for some strange reason lacks any other people working there. Or the action takes place in a quarry.  Or a construction site – again with no people.  Movies do this all the time.  It’s boring, predictable and contrived, so avoid clichéd locations wherever possible.

The endgame allows the writer to ramp up the excitement, tension and action.  That might mean explosions and fights, gunfire or chases, or it might not.  Whatever the character does, he or she will be in a state of heightened desperation, anxiety or fear perhaps, or maybe facing the odds, and whatever obstacles the character has overcome throughout the story, this moment might be the worst moment of the story – a culmination of the pressure and excitement and pace into one defining moment.

The Resolution

The idea of the resolution is to give the reader closure.  It’s optional – some novels don’t have one and simply end with a bang, but the first moments after the final conflict is when writers tie up those subplots and loose ends with a brief scene or chapter just to explain things.

The thing to remember with the resolution, however, is not to let it drag on.  Keep it brief and to the point.  If a writer spends another seven pages explaining things to the reader, the impact and excitement of the endgame will be lost.

Make your ending count, make the words effective and don’t make the reader feel cheated out of a good ending.  They‘re not easy, but the more you write, the easier it becomes.

Next week: The Main Character’s Journey

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Basic Narrative Structure

Fictional writing doesn’t have hard and fast rules, other than the use of grammar, but it does require an understanding of the fundamental principles of fiction writing.  Writers can choose to follow those principles and become better writers, or they can ignore them at their own peril and languish on the slush pile.

Basic narrative structure is one of those principles that writers should follow and it takes part in three defined sections – beginning, middle and the end (resolution).  It’s how these are stitched together to make a story, and the order of the events that happen in the story.

The beginning of a novel is the setup, where main characters are introduced and the basic premise of the plot and theme is revealed – the main problem or obstacle(s) that the main character has to overcome.  This where the writer sets the scene and hints at what might come.

The middle contains the substance of the story – characters come into conflict, the main character overcomes his or her problems and undergoes major life changes as it builds up to the resolution.

The ending is the denouement – where the narrative grows to an exciting climax and allows the characters to confront and overcome the ultimate obstacle through several turning points i.e. defining moments in the story or your characters.  The story should reach a satisfactory conclusion and world order should be restored.  It also allows the writer to pull together all the loose ties from subplots etc. 

Read any mainstream novel and they all follow the same structure – there’s a balance of narrative, dialogue and description. We can further break them down into their working parts:-

Narrative – the storyline arc.

Dialogue – characters’ conversations that keep the story moving.

Description – The depiction of key scenes.

Narrative works on many different levels. The job of the narrator is to make the reader respond to the story in a particular way. Clever narrative evokes the right emotions - sad, funny, scary or exciting etc.  Stories are written to entertain and inform us, but on a deeper level they also help us understand aspects of human nature and the world around us. 

Narrative should have the following basic order:-

The Opening Set the scene Introduction of character A series of events Conflicts and obstacles Turning Points Characters change Climax Resolution
Narrative should also contain other basic tools – POV, flashback, indirect exposition,
Character motivation, tension and atmosphere created through conflict.

10 Things you should include in narrative structure

  1. Plot and theme
  2. Characterisation revealed through dialogue.
  3. Description, including the range of senses.
  4. Flashback summary and emphasis.
  5. Clear POV.
  6. Obstacles and conflicts.
  7. Indirect Exposition (Show, Don’t Tell)
  8. Motivation, atmosphere, tension and emotion.
  9. Turning points – key moments that define the story or your characters.
  10. Satisfactory conclusion and resolution.

Dialogue if often overlooked by writers because they think it doesn’t matter so much, but what your characters say is just as important as what they do.  Basic narrative structure needs dialogue because it helps with characterisation, it moves the story forward and it helps the reader make sense of what is going on in the story.  All this is done through your characters.

Description – self explanatory.  No story is worth reading if it doesn’t contain description of some sort.  Description is best for key scenes because it can then add to the overall atmosphere rather than detract from it.

Evocative description bridges the gap between the real world and the fictional one.  Well-written description adds to the richness of your reader’s landscape, it adds atmosphere or tension and other emotions; it gives a deeper insight into the fictional world and makes them feel as though they are there. 

Basic story structure should contain all these basic elements – a defined beginning, a packed middle and an exciting end, and all three will contain narrative, dialogue and description.

Follow this structure and it will help you construct better stories.

Next week:  Writing the climax to a novel

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Creating Character Goals

Every character needs a goal.

In real life, we spend our lives striving towards goals – some achievable, some not so, but most of the goals we set ourselves are attainable, whether that’s saving to buy a new car, planning a dream house, getting married, saving for the future, planning a dream holiday or a family...or perhaps learning a new language, or gaining a degree.  They are all goals.

Just as in real life, your characters also need affirming goals.  And once they have those goals, it’s then down to how you get your character to reach them that actually makes the narrative captivating.

But what exactly are goals?

Your character needs objectives in order to proceed to the story’s denouement, the climax, because without these objectives there will be no obstacles, and without obstacles there will be no conflict or tension, and without conflict or tension you don’t really have a story.

This is shown in the following simple method:

Character Goal/objective → a purpose → the obstacle → overcoming obstacle = fulfilment of goal

Try to set your character’s goals early on – they may change during story writing, so you need to allow for those changes, because if a character’s goal does change then so will the outcome.

Goals don’t have to be overcomplicated either.  They can be small or they can be on a grand scale, as long as there are enough of them to create enough tension and atmosphere.  They can be nail biting, terrifying, sad, or even happy.  But it’s how the character fulfils the goal that’s important.

By giving your character a goal or two to reach, you are giving them a purpose.  It’s their whole raison d’être.  It’s the reason why your characters put themselves through the story in the first place.

Every goal needs obstacles.  There must be a barrier for your character to overcome, and again this forms the tense thread that you weave through your story. 
Let's take a simple example.  One of your characters (character B) falls overboard from a yacht and needs rescuing, but your protagonist (character A) is terrified of the water and is frozen with fear at the thought of diving into the deep.  The question is, can he or she overcome the fear to rescue their loved one?  Or will character B drown needlessly?

Here, the goal of character A is to rescue character B, the purpose is to save the character and sail off into the sunset together, but the obstacle is character A’s deep-set fear of water.  This creates tension and atmosphere for the reader.  It also creates conflict - inner conflict.

Character A must overcome that irrational fear and dive in to save character B – a heroic and selfless feat – and thus fulfil his or her goal.

Perhaps the goal of a character is to find a missing person, but there are several obstacles in the way – lack of evidence, uncooperative witnesses, a bothersome, nosey journalist...all these can form barriers for your protagonist to overcome, one way or another. 

Character motivation will determine what they do to try to solve the particular problems you set them.  They will have a goal, a purpose, and they will need to reach that goal, whatever happens. 
How they reach their goals is entirely down to the writer, and how well they write their twists and turns. 

There are no set rules, so a writer can be as gentle or as callous as they like with their characters. Don’t be afraid to give your characters a hard time – this makes the conflict and tension all the more enjoyable for the reader. 

One important note - your characters should not sail through your story without a care or a problem in the world.  Real life is tough.  The same is true for your characters.  They must face problems during their journey and they must always reach their goal.

Next week: Basic narrative structure.