Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Art of Creating Plot Twists

Having a great story idea is one thing, but no story is complete without a plot twist or two to give it that extra gravitas and intrigue.

But what exactly is a plot twist?  And what do they achieve?

A plot twist is basically an unexpected direction that the narrative takes.  They are designed to keep the reader guessing, to maintain a level of interest and atmosphere, and to move the story in a new direction – in other words it helps maintain the momentum of the story and helps to move it forward. 
Plot twists are also useful for wrong footing the reader by making them think something might happen in a certain way, when in fact the complete opposite takes place and thus it surprises them.  The idea is to make the reader comfortable with the story, and then change direction.  This ploy keeps them turning the page. 
Some writers foreshadow these plot twists, through subtle hints and symbolism, so the reader may become aware that something might happen. 

They are all about creating the unexpected.
Are they necessary?

Read any novel and there will be a plot twist of some description.  They don’t have to overt or on a grand scale.  They can be small and subtle or gentle, but it is rare in fiction to not have at least one plot twist to carry the story forward, so in essence, they are necessary.

Every writer should learn to embrace them because they are in incredible, invaluable writing tool.  They help flesh out a story by providing depth on many different levels, they keep the reader guessing as to what might happen next, they provide a level of intensity and atmosphere and they help the story change direction.  And of course, they also act as a lure to keep the reader turning the page.

Can I have more than one?

Some novels only have one major plot twist, while others have a series of them.  The number of plot twists might depend on your genre.  Crime novels tend to have a higher rate of plot twists, whereas romances, by comparison, might only have one important central twist.

The number of plot turns depends entirely on the kind of story you are writing and what your characters are doing.  Sometimes it transpires that you need only one major plot twist to support the story, but on other occasions you might need two or three.

There are no written laws on this subject, so it is entirely up to the writer, however it is wise not to have too many plot twists otherwise you risk confusing your reader - it will be difficult for them to keep up with so much going on.  This might inadvertently put them off reading your entire novel.

How do I create one?

The art of a good plot twist needs the full understanding of the story direction and the characters involved, but the twist should always be pertinent to the story.  Don’t make the mistake of dropping something into the narrative that has no bearing on the story whatsoever.  Plot twists have to be logical; they have to make sense to the reader and they must be connected to the main story.

If possible, try to map out likely plot twists at the planning stage, see where you could surprise your reader, but don’t force them to fit the narrative, because it won’t work.  It should be a logical, natural progression of the story, thus allowing a logical conclusion.

They can be anything, such as an amazing revelation (or two), the surprise unveiling of a character’s true intentions, the killing off of a main character which the reader would not expect, reversing the character roles, such as developing the hero into a villain etc., or revealing a secret or exposing something important.  There are endless opportunities to surprise the reader.

The placement of plot turns is also important.  This might sound obvious, but try not to place a great plot twist too near the beginning of a story because it will soon lose impact by the second half of the book. 

Most plot turns occur in the last half of the book, towards the end, and in some cases, the ending itself provides a twist. 

There is no harm in studying other writers and how they create and evolve their plots.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci code employs many effective plot twists to keep the reader guessing throughout the story.

Robert Ludlum is also a very good exponent of plot turns, particularly with the Bourne series of books.  Chuck Palahniuk is another writer versatile at creating plot twists.  Fight Club is an excellent example.

Executing a good plot twist takes some thought and planning, especially if you want that element of surprise, and as with most things in life, practice makes perfect.

Next week: Flashforwards – are there such things?

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Major Stumbling Blocks to Writing

Every writer meets a stumbling block where writing is concerned, no matter how experienced.  Some are easy to overcome, while others are more persistent and tricky to deal with. 

So what is a stumbling block, what does it mean?

Firstly, it’s not to be confused with outright writer’s block – the inability to write.  Stumbling blocks happen during writing, where the writer realises that things are not going to plan, or they don’t ‘feel’ the story and therefore believe they’re disconnected from it.  The story seems to come to a halt.

There are multiple reasons for this.  It might mean the plot has fallen through, the characters are not working, the story isn’t moving in any direction or doesn’t feel right, or the writer simply cannot make it work, no matter how hard he or she tries.  Sometimes stories simply do not work. 

Or perhaps the writer is attempting something that is out of their comfort zone, something they’re not used to writing and they haven’t settled into it.

A writer needs to recognise this as a stumbling block and then look to a solution to correct it and move forward.

Another reason why they hit stumbling blocks is a direct result of a writer trying to force an idea into a story, when in an ideal situation, ideas should come naturally and therefore form part of the backbone of the story. 

Writers shouldn’t force ideas because the result (if the writer hasn’t already ground to a miserable halt with their efforts) is a contrived and unnatural piece of writing. No editor or reader will enjoy reading it, and more than likely, the writer didn’t enjoy writing it.

This ‘forced’ writing tends to happen when a writer is on a tight deadline and needs to produce a story quickly, a competition for instance, but the writer doesn’t allow for natural inspiration or ideas to form and instead makes an idea fit the story criteria. 

There are ways, however, to avoid common stumbling blocks:

a) Let ideas form naturally.  Don’t push them to fit stories.  Stories must fit the idea – if a deadline seems too tight to get inspiration in time to write the story to a quality level and then edit it, then don’t do it.

b) Plan, plan, plan.  Fail to plan and inevitably you plan to fail.  Even the rudimentary sketching of an idea is better than flying by the seat of your pants.  This also reduces the risk of the writer giving up halfway through because he or she has run out of ideas and the story isn’t working.

This is also why the bottom of a plot might fall out – it simply isn’t strong to enough to support a flimsy story idea.  A little planning goes a long way.

c) Characters haven’t been carefully thought out.  Having characters that don’t work can be a stumbling block.  That could be anything from the character having the wrong name, the wrong personality, not enough depth, or they have turned into a cliché etc.  Get your characters right, and the story will be much easier to write.

d) The story is the wrong genre.  Trying to write a lusty romance when you are a fully blown horror writer might trip you up, especially if you are not that comfortable with that particular field.  Stick to what you know and love.

If you’ve ever started writing a story with the distinct feeling it doesn’t ‘feel’ right or it isn’t heading in any particular direction, or it’s a struggle to write any more than the odd sentence, then it is likely that one or more of these elements aren’t right. 

Compare this with a story that is effortless to write and really does spill onto the page – the story fits the idea perfectly, the characters gel, the plot is good.  It means there is a symbiosis of the idea and the story.  They work together in such a way that makes writing easy and enjoyable.

It’s rare when all the characters, ideas and plot click into place first time.  Sometimes we have to do some tweaking before it does.  But if they don’t ‘click’ or fit, then fundamentally it means something isn’t quite right.  If that happens, don’t give up and start something else, simply go back and analyse those elements, change them, tweak them, and start again.

 Next week: The art of creating plot twists.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Principles of Storytelling

Why do we write?  We write because we have a tale to tell, a story to entertain people or we have something to say.  And because writing is a form of expression, a manifestation of creativity, mankind has used this medium to communicate for thousands of years. 

But the fundamental reason storytelling has been that way is because of our need to understand the world around us.

Writing isn’t just about writing a blockbusting story.  It’s about the need to make sense of things; it’s about understanding the human condition.  After all, why do people do the things they do?  What makes ordinary people become extraordinary?  What drives them to act the way they do?  What is it that makes us different to the next person?  What makes them who they are?

We have always tried to make sense of things by weaving stories around what knowledge we have of the world.  This was common in antiquity, it’s how ancient myths developed.  What couldn’t be explained with knowledge could be explained by the divine, and thus many civilisations evolved their own myths full with gods, monsters and heroes in order to make sense of nature and humanity.  Epic stories – the likes of Homer’s Odyssey – evolved to teach and inform, as well as to entertain.

From ancient times to the modern era, fictional writing still contains some basic principles that form the backbone of storytelling.  They are:

·         The understanding human nature
·         Providing motivation
·         Imparting knowledge or wisdom
·         Entertaining the reader

Each of these principles or values, when used together, forms an invisible framework of every story. 

A story always revolves around a main character, so it’s about their journey, and what lies behind the decisions they make.  It’s about why they are embarking on that journey in the first place, and the outcome they achieve. 

Fundamentally, it’s the primitive need to understand how and why.  It’s the need to know and understand human nature.

Motivation plays an important role in writing.  You might be writing an epic romance story, but the reader still needs to understand why your character does something and how they are affecting the outcome of the story in such a way – what is it about love that affects us so? 

The same is true if it’s a horror or crime story.  Why is your character acting the way he or she is?  What motivates them?  How will their decisions affect the outcome?  What is it about the dark side of humanity that reviles us?  What makes us do bad things?  Can we change?

Motivation forms the basic mechanics of how and why.  It’s what drives your main character.

When creating a story, we’re not just providing motivation for our characters, we’re also providing answers.  We are imparting some form of knowledge or wisdom to the reader. 

Knowledge comes in many forms – it could be information about a place, or it might be a period in time, an historic event perhaps, or even an object – they’re all opportunities for the writer to educate or inform the reader of things they may not be aware of (because as a writer you will have done thorough research). 

As a storyteller, you are also broadening your reader’s horizons. 

There are many stories that endure today because writers aren’t just telling a good story, they are teaching us about human nature and making a social comment.  Think Aesop’s fables, think Orwell’s Animal Farm, Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

All these stories have a common thread.  They’re allegorical in nature; which means they are teaching us something about humanity. 

Orwell wasn’t just spinning a yarn about a bunch of farm animals in Animal Farm, but rather he was teaching us about the greed, self indulgence and the destructive nature of humans, cleverly told from the view of farm animals thinking they have the freedom of the farm, except they’re not actually free; they never were.

Dickens captured the dark underbelly of Victorian England, the awful conditions suffered by the poor at that time.  He particularly disliked the treatment of children in workhouses – from that we have classics such as Oliver Twist. He was not afraid to show us the darker side of human nature.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is also allegorical.  The story of shipwrecked children descending into barbarians highlights what happens when the frail threads of society breaks down.  Golding showed us that given the right ingredients and circumstance, we all revert to primitives in the end – it was and still is an important social criticism of the fragility of human nature.

But of course, writers create great stories because they can.  They write to entertain the reader, to take them on a journey, to transport them from the normality of life for a short while before releasing them back to reality.  We evoke their emotions and make them think.  We entertain them.

The fundamental principles of storytelling are aeons old – created to explore and explain humanity, to provide motivation and answers, to teach and inform, and of course, to entertain.

Writers don’t have to make their stories allegorical or overly clever or overcomplicated.  They don't have to use these principles, but a good story is a good story, however it is written.  
These basic storytelling values are simply there to help writers create better fiction.  It's up to the writer to use them.

Next week: Major stumbling blocks to writing

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Character's Journey

The character’s personal story is a fundamental part of writing, and yet is often overlooked.  Their journey is as important as plot, dialogue or characterisation.  And it’s not the beginning or the end of the story that counts in this case, but rather what happens during the story.

Every main character goes on a journey, whether it is an emotional, spiritual, physical, moral or a mental one.  He or she will be a different character by the end of the story; they will have changed somehow because of what they have experienced or what they have done during that time.  You character must always evolve.

In real life, certain experiences change us – we may change how we think or act, our personalities might change, it may be that some incidents never leave us and have a profound impact on our lives – whether those are good, bad or indifferent.  Life constantly changes and shapes us.

The same is true of your characters.  Their lives inevitably change; they are directly impacted by what happens around them and therefore they must adapt to their situation and surroundings accordingly. 

There are a number of different ways that your character can change by the end of the novel:

Realisation – a recognition or understanding.  This could be any number of things.  It could be spiritual awakening, a new found belief in God perhaps.   It might be recognition of personal flaws - perhaps your character comes to realise that hating someone with a different skin colour only brings turmoil.  Or maybe it’s the realisation that those less fortunate sometimes have more to offer us than we realise.

An example of this is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Beneath the obvious theme of racism within the story, the main character, Scout, also faces her own prejudices of others, in the form of the mysterious Boo Radley.  Ultimately she learns from these prejudices; it changes her outlook for the better.

Physical – receiving an injury or impairment during the story might change the character’s perspective, or they way they do things to affect their outcome.  An example of this is Stephen King’s Misery.  Paulie, trapped by the demented Annie, suffers physically (as well as mentally), when she hobbles him with a lump hammer, but it is this torture that drives him to find a way out of his imprisonment and resolve his situation

Mental – Psychological impacts cause trauma of varying depth.  Perhaps your character has endured terrible mental or emotional pain and distress.  This will undoubtedly change them and cause untold problems beneath the surface.  The changes might be for the good, or they might be the opposite. 

A fantastic example of this journey is told in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Randle Murphy’s institutionalised journey is retrograde – he starts off pretty sane and clever, but then ends up insane because of what happens to him.

Moral – Honesty and goodness might play a part in your character’s changing psyche.  Perhaps your character starts out rather horrible towards people, but eventually finds his or her inner morality because of what happens during the story.  Personality, behaviour and character qualities might change by the end of the story.  They might come out the other end a much better, nicer person.  Or, conversely, they might not!

An excellent, simple example of character morality is Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.  He turns from miserable miser to a charitable and joyful man, thanks to his dark journey with the three spirits who show him the error of his irascible ways.

His journey is very much part of the story arc, however the changes that your character goes through do not have to be so apparent; they can be subtle or slight, as long as the reader understands that by the end of the story that your character has changed for the better, or learned something, or become a better person etc.

You are the writer; therefore you decide how the characters change.  But it’s important they change somehow.   If they don’t, then their story arc won’t succeed.  Their journey forms part of the story, and if you think about real life, we always react to what happens around us, even when we think we don’t. We change.

Study other writers to gain an understanding how their character’s change over the course a novel.  Sometimes it’s subtle; sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s hidden, but each one undergoes some change.

Next week: The principles of storytelling.