Sunday, 23 December 2012

Giving Your Writing Emotional Impact

Eliciting emotional responses from your readers isn’t as easy as it sounds, because the right emotive reaction from them is what makes novels and stories so appealing.

But to get that kind of response, the writing needs to be emotional, it needs to be arousing or moving etc - without being schmaltzy to the point where your reader might gag on the syrupy, soap-style sweetness of it all.  Conversely, you don’t want the writing to lack that important emotional punch either.  Little or no emotion in the narrative will produce a rather boring, flat read.

Emotion within the story creates a sense of immediacy with the reader, a unique closeness that makes the reader empathise, understand and care about the characters.

How to create emotion

Firstly, you need a character that the reader will identify with, one that is fully realised and rounded, one that the reader will recognise and care about from the outset.  If you have a reader that does that, then it will be much easier to elicit emotional responses from them.

And a fully rounded character is much easier to work with because the character and the reader will share those emotional responses and sentiments.

Secondly, the quality of writing really does count.  If the writing isn’t strong enough, then the narrative won’t be strong enough either and it will therefore lack that emotional punch.  For emotion, the writer must always use the right exposition – in other words ‘show, don’t tell.’  This is so important.  Showing strengthens a story.  Telling weakens it.

If a writer resorts to ‘telling’ his or her way through a scene, then there will be zero immediacy, zero connection with the scene and therefore zero emotion.

Thirdly, if you want to create varied emotional impacts, your characters need to face adversity and danger, they need to face seemingly impossible obstacles, or they should go through physical and emotional trauma, because whatever they go through, the reader also goes through it with them.

The act of overcoming those obstacles, and facing those traumas and the adversity, creates different emotions – thrills, sadness, excitement, sympathy, dislike etc.  And the situations within the story make for powerful emotional moments, the kind that the reader remembers; the kind that satisfies the reader’s need for an emotional connection to the story.  Love and joy, death, pain and loss, deception and dishonesty, thrills and fear…they all thrive on emotion.

The best way to illustrate this concept is to think of soap operas – they always have emotive storylines, and we become involved with our favourite characters’ trials and tribulations, and that’s because we care about what happens to them, we have a connection, there is immediacy.

As writers we should always exploit those moments, for example, what if your main character discovers a secret letter that hints at betrayal? Or the main character’s wife/husband/son/daughter etc. is killed in an ‘accident’, or the main character is in such a dire situation he or she has to make a terrible decision that will affect them for the rest of their lives?

All these are very simple examples, but written well, they will draw out a multitude of emotions to build around the narrative.  And of course, there could be many of these scene set ups within the novel to keep the reader’s emotions on a knife edge.

And of course, no story has emotion without that staple of all stories – conflict, especially when you have characters you love and characters you hate (the dynamic of protagonist and antagonist). Conflict creates an endless list of emotions.

The story themes might also create emotion, whatever the genre.  Some themes in particular are very emotive – war, love or betrayal, for instance.

And no writer can write without looking inward.  The most painful of memories, the joyous ones, the scary ones, the thrilling ones…our own bank of recollections can provide the catalyst of emotion to our writing, and sometimes it makes it easier to write, because we have experienced them.  And because we have experienced them, we can also share them.

Writing is about exploring human nature.  We’re social, emotional creatures, and things make us irritated, or angry, things makes us cry, some things hurt us, some makes us laugh, some fill us with happiness, some things scare us.  Every day we experience them.

The fictional world is no different.
Creating emotion within the narrative:
  • Excellent characterisation is essential – create immediacy and a connection to the reader.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Emotive themes make for emotional writing.
  • Conflict & overcoming obstacles provides emotion.
  • Quality of writing counts.
  • Look inward for own experiences.
Thanks to everybody for stopping by throughout the year to read some of the articles and hopefully become better writers.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.
AllWrite will return in the New Year.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Twist in the Tale Stories

Continuing the theme of constructing short stories, one of the most popular styles of short story telling is the twist in the tale, especially within speculative fiction and horror genres.
Not all stories have to have a surprise or sting at the end – most stories don’t need it, but the thing about the twist is that if done correctly, it makes for a great story; hence they enjoyed by readers.  It also represents a writer’s ability construct the story in quite a clever way.

The premise of the twist in the tale story is very simple – the writer deliberately misleads the reader during the narrative, leading the reader to believe they might expect a certain ending, only then to be wrong-footed at the last possible moment to a shocking or surprising conclusion, one they ‘never saw coming’. 
It sounds easy, but these types of stories are anything but.  And that’s because the twist – that moment you pull the rug from beneath the reader – happens only once and it must happen at exactly the right moment to have the greatest effect.

It’s All About Deceit
It’s the one time the writer sets out to trick the reader.  And the ones that work the best are the ones that fool the reader throughout the story.  At no point should the reader discover the pretence or deceit, despite the subtle clues.  This is where a clever writer excels.

In truth, the writer is creating an illusion within the narrative to fool the reader.
Where to Start?

For once, with this type of story, start at the end.  In other words, have some sort of ending in mind, even if it is roughly sketched out, and then work backwards to fill in the rest of the story. 

Because these stories need to be meticulously constructed, I would advise some planning at least, so that you have an idea of your beginning and your middle section, too, and not just that all important ending.
It sounds crazy to work backwards, but that’s how twists need to be constructed.

For example, in a short story I wrote for the anthology Obsession (Static Movement, 2011) called ‘Watched’, the central character is shown as an obsessive who lives in an apartment opposite a provocative, flirty woman.  The main character has been watching her for some time, and the story is told through first person POV for immediacy. 
The clues in the narrative lead the reader to believe the woman is a prostitute, and she invites the man into her apartment for a good time, knowing he’s been surreptitiously watching her from across the street.  She is shown playing up to him and leading him on – after all, it’s just a job to her, it pays the bills, even though he is not quite her ‘type’.  And he’s shown enjoying her flirtations, and wanting to get intimate with her, just like any red-blooded male would.

She undresses and runs a bath for them to share some fun, and tells her visitor to leave the money – payment for her services - on a table.
But the rising tension in the story is what the mysterious ‘watcher’ wants with this woman, and what he subsequently does to her in the bath, and it’s not until the final moment of the story, when the main character looks in the mirror, that the twist is finally revealed – the attacker isn’t a man. 

It’s a woman.
The story is about sex and obsession, and it fools the reader into believing the main character is a man – without actually revealing this, or even the character’s name – therefore it misleads the reader to envisage an ending and dupes them at the end because they don’t expect the cold, obsessive killer to be a woman.

A real life event inspired the story.  Its construction started with the main character – female rather than male – expressing behaviours more associated with males, so I knew the final reveal would provide an effective sting.  From that I had an idea how the story would end.  And because I’d seen something that had sparked the story to begin with, I also had a beginning. 
So I then had to work backwards from the ending to infill the details and construct the whole story – in other words I had to construct the ‘middle section’, which contained the action and tension and the clues etc.

Lead a Merry Dance
You have a beginning, you have the twist ending, and you’ve got your middle section sketched out.  This middle section is where, proverbially, you lead your reader on a merry dance.  This means you have to guide them into the illusion in order to fool them at the end.

To do this you have to plant subtle clues and hints within the narrative, and not make them so obvious that the reader will guess the outcome. 
For instance, with ‘Watched’, the many clues were delicate and indirect:

She loosened the belt on her bathrobe, gazed at my tall shadow.  “You’re not what I expected.”
That’s what they all say. I shook my head; slow, deliberate, intuitive. “No, I guess I’m not.”

It doesn’t give anything away, but the clue is there.  The guest isn’t what the woman expected, because the ‘guest’ is a woman, not a man. 
This is how hints and clues should be.

The Final Reveal
This is the moment the writer yanks away the fictional rug from the reader.  It has to be right at the end of the story in order to affect the greatest impact.  Reveal too early and the effect of surprise or shock is lost. 

If you make the final reveal, and then go on for another half a page of narrative, again the effect is completely lost.  The final reveal should signal the end of the story.

  • Work backwards from the ending.
  • Plant subtle clues and hints – delicate and indirect.
  • The reveal must happen at the right moment for maximum effect.
  • Happens only once

Next week: Giving your writing emotional impact.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Getting to Grips with Short Stories Part 3

Structure - The ending

Endings are just as important as the openings of stories. That’s because the ending of a story performs more than one function.

A good ending is when the crux of the story reaches its pinnacle; that final moment before the climax. Everything in the story leads up to this moment.

More importantly, the ending of a story is formed from the natural progression of the narrative.  You should never force an ending, otherwise you run the risk of demolishing the fabric of the story and thus ruining it for the reader, but also because they will see that it is contrived and forced.

As with novels, short stories don’t have to have a happy ending.  Depending on the type of story you are writing, you can have a dramatic ending, a sad ending, a happy ending, or you can have the twist in the tail type of ending (these need careful consideration and construction in order to work – more on that next week).

But whatever the genre, the ending needs to be natural and satisfactory.  But what exactly does that mean?

In essence, the ending should leave the reader satiated, that on the whole, they agree with the final outcome you’ve constructed, that they have a sense of ‘oh that was great’, or ‘I didn’t see that coming’ or ‘that was so moving’ etc.

In order to achieve a natural and satisfactory conclusion, firstly the latter half of the story should to tie up any loose ends prior to its finale (e.g. don’t leave the reader guessing what happened to John Doe, last seen dangling from a cliff in the middle of the story, but then completely forgotten at the end).  This does happen with story construction, where writers become so engrossed in writing it that they sometimes forget what some characters were doing, so it’s important that these glitches are sorted.

In addition to that, any questions raised by the story need to be answered, so don’t leave them unanswered, otherwise the reader will become annoyed and frustrated.

Something else to consider is this: why is your character doing what he or she is doing? – remember motivation – and how have they overcome the barriers in their way?  How have they got to this high-point in the story?  What is the likely conclusion? 

The ending evolves through the main character achieving his or her goal.  They have overcome all obstacles to get to the climax (whether it’s a good, bad, sad or an indifferent ending).

The Climax

This is sometimes misunderstood by writers, who assume they must have lots of action and excitement to finish the story, but actually, a short story isn’t like a novel or an action movie.  It doesn’t have to be about explosions and mayhem and non-stop action.  A short story ending can be subtle or gentle; it can be thought provoking or it might even shocking and abrupt. 

In other words, it’s how the writer constructs the ending that gives it the greatest impact.

And of course, it should never drag on. The ending should be swift for maximum effect.

In essence, the conclusion of your short story needs to achieve several things:-

1. It needs to provide a satisfactory ending.
2. It needs to answer questions posed in the narrative.
3. The protagonist/antagonist achieves his/her goal.
4. It is a natural progression of the story and isn’t forced.
5. It is swift and effective.

And just to make sure certain elements are not forgotten, a simple checklist helps with construction.

Short story checklist:

·         Have you planned the story?
·         Whose story is it?
·         What is it about?
·         What is it trying to say?  What is the theme?
·         What kind of action is there?
·         Is there a varied pace?
·         Do you have at least one of the three unities?
·         Is there conflict?
·         What is the character’s motivation for his or her actions and subsequent actions?
·         Is the ending satisfactory?
·         Does it flow naturally?
·         Is the ending swift and effective?

The most important thing, however, is to take the time to think and plan the story, to ask questions, to know the story you want to tell.  It’s better to know where you want to place key scenes, to know what will happen to the main character and to know the kind of conclusion the story needs before you start writing.

Next week: How to write twist in the tale stories

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Getting to Grips with Short Stories Part 2

With your opening and your hook in place, your characters introduced, and the tone and crux of the story set, it’s time to look at the middle section of the short story structure.  This section is where the bulk of the story takes place, where conflict arises and pacing plays a vital role, and where key scenes happen.

Structure – The Middle

On the whole, the main portion of action happens in this section.  And just as you would construct narrative, description and dialogue in a novel, the same is true for short stories, where a balance of these three elements is crucial to the short story composition.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because it’s a short story that you have to scrimp on description and replace it with lots of dialogue, or replace any dialogue with constant action.  You don’t.  You need both in a balanced, equal measure.

Set out the Character’s Motivation

This section is where you show the reader the motivation for the main character’s actions in the story.  In other words, show the problem you character faces, and how the character will overcome that problem, despite the many barriers in his or her way.

The motivation is what drives the story – the very reason for your character’s actions, reactions and subsequent actions.  This is the section where the writers poses the ‘what if?’ and ‘what next?’ kind of questions for the reader.

Without motivation, the character has nowhere to go and nothing to do, and therefore there’s no story.


It’s part of every story.  You must have some sort of conflict happening between your characters, or the characters and their environs or with themselves, because conflict is the catalyst to providing the reader with tension and atmosphere.  Without it, there is no story.   

Think of your favourite TV dramas – there is always conflict of some description to maintain the viewer’s interest and that sense of ‘what will happen next?’ 

Conflict promotes tension in many ways, while added description within the narrative bolsters the atmosphere.

The Three Unities

I’ve touched on these in previous articles, but these are specifically important to short stories because you are working with a limited amount of words, so these unities provide the reader with what they need to know in terms of time, place and action.

Unity of Time – Short stories tend to take place over a short period of time, as opposed to novels that can cover days, months or even decades.  The time frame tells reader when the story is happening.

Unity of Place – This tells the reader where the story is taking place.  Unlike novels, where there may be a multitude of place settings, a short story usually has just one place where all the action takes place.

Unity of Action – This tells the reader whose story it is – so the story is told from one viewpoint throughout.  (It is of course quite acceptable to have several viewpoints in a short story, however they should be carefully considered before starting the story).

There’s no golden rule that says you have to have all three unities, however having more than one helps make the story stronger, so aim to have at least two.

Vary the pace

Peaks and troughs – that’s the best way to describe what you should be aiming for in the narrative.  Small bouts of action/tension balanced with gentler/softer moments so that the pace is balanced.

If nothing happens in the story, the pace will be static, and it’s likely you will bore your reader.  If the narrative races along at breakneck speed without a pause, this too will put the reader off.  There will be moments when you want the reader to slow down and reflect – even in short stories – so always look for balance when pacing the story.

 Aiming for the Crescendo

The middle is also the section where you build the momentum of the story as it heads towards its conclusion.  The character overcomes the barriers you place in the way, and the climax approaches.
It doesn’t have to be action all the way – which some writers wrongly assume they have to provide – but instead it can be a gradual build-up of tension or atmosphere that leads towards a crescendo.

Next week: Getting to grips with short stories Part 3 - Endings