Saturday, 27 July 2013

How to keep MC viewpoint within scenes

Following on from last week about keeping your main character at the forefront of your story, we’ll look at the more technical side of character scenes, and how difficult it can be to keep the emphasis with your main character whenever possible. 
The thing for writers to remember is that the only time the emphasis should not be with your protagonist is when the scene is from another character’s point of view, otherwise, the viewpoint and emphasis should be on your main character.
When there are several characters within a scene, it’s very easy to let the secondary characters inadvertently steal a scene from your main character.  Writers do this without even realising.

Here’s a simple example – the scene below is between John, who is the main character, and secondary character, Juliet:-

John peered out across the city and gathered his thoughts. He felt Juliet’s presence behind him, shifting with the shadows.  But at least they’d be safe for tonight, although he knew he couldn’t keep her safe forever, no matter how hard he tried.
‘We need to find a hotel,’ he said, as the darkness approached.  ‘At least for tonight.’
‘They can’t track us, can they?’
‘No, they won’t find us, not here, not so far away from the city.  Not unless we make stupid mistakes,’ he said.
Juliet hoped not.  She couldn’t spend her whole life running, looking over her shoulder, forever looking at everyone with suspicion and dread, and she knew that she couldn’t rely on John’s protection for the rest of her life, but with so many gang members after her, she had no choice but to run.

Can you spot where the emphasis has shifted?
The scene is about the main character, John, so it starts off with his viewpoint and his thoughts, but it soon shifts towards the second character, Juliet, whose viewpoint and thoughts creep into the scene unnoticed. 
The balance in the scene has shifted from one character to the other, so when this happens it creates an imbalance within scenes, especially when the focus really should be about your main character.  
Here’s the scene again, but written correctly:
John peered out across the city and gathered his thoughts. He felt Juliet’s presence behind him, shifting with the shadows.  But at least they’d be safe for tonight, although he knew he couldn’t keep her safe forever, no matter how hard he tried.
‘We need to find a hotel,’ he said, as the darkness approached.  ‘At least for tonight.’
‘They can’t track us, can they?’
‘No, they won’t find us, not here, not so far away from the city.  Not unless we make stupid mistakes,’ he said.

Juliet hoped not. 
John knew that Juliet couldn’t spend her whole life running, looking over her shoulder, forever looking at everyone with suspicion and dread, but with so many gang members after her, she had no choice but to run, and he felt he needed to protect her from them.
It’s pretty much the same scene, but the emphasis remains on John.  It’s his thoughts and emotions that are important, not so much Juliet’s, because it’s his viewpoint within that scene.

If there was a new scene or chapter, but from Juliet’s viewpoint, then the emphasis would likewise move entirely to her.
It’s very easy for these kinds of things to happen, and the reason it is difficult to spot is because there is nothing obvious, like a spelling mistake for instance, that jumps out for the writer.  It’s so subtle sometimes that these things can slip by unnoticed, which is why writers should become attuned to spotting it within the narrative.
While stories might have multiple viewpoints, one character at a time should dominate.  It should be obvious to the reader whose viewpoint is being used.
This example is a start of a chapter, but whose viewpoint is it?
Amy opened the door to the man on her doorstep.  He was the last person she expected to see, and her expression soured.

‘Can I come in?’ Chris asked, clutching a bunch of flowers.
Amy let her brother in, but didn’t say anything.  She followed him into the front room, her silence almost forcing him down into the sofa to sit.  She stood by her comfy armchair, arms folded like a defensive barrier.

‘You have no idea how much I hate you right now,’ she said.
Chris placed the flowers on the table and attuned to the cold atmosphere.  But he didn’t blame Amy.  The flowers were a way of apology, for acting like an overprotective idiot the day before, launching himself at the young man Amy had been lunching with, who turned out to be her gay best friend, Peter.  In an innocent meal with a friend, Chris had instead seen a guy after only one thing with his little sister and jealousy overcame him.

‘I just wanted to say sorry,’ he said. ‘For spoiling your lunch and acting like a moron and showing myself up like that…’
There seems nothing untoward about the scene between these characters, but another read through reveals what is really happening between with character dynamics.  One character is overshadowing the other: Chris is overtaking Amy’s scene.

And again, it’s easily done, without writers knowing they’ve done it.
The thing to remember is to always have a clear idea of whose POV you’re working with, then stick to it.  If secondary characters start to dominate, or the viewpoint shifts, or there is more emphasis on their thoughts and emotions rather than your main character, clearly it’s gone wrong and needs correcting.

Secondary characters are just that. They provide the supporting roles to your main character.  That’s not to say they can’t have dominance in their own scenes, because they can, as long as writers keep to the same rule and ensure the emphasis stays with them until the next scene or chapter.
This is one of the reasons why editing is so important, because that’s when these kind of errors and imbalances can be corrected.

But most of all, you are telling your main character’s story, so the focus should always be about them.

Next week: How to create scene breaks

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Keeping Your MC at the Forefront of Your Story

It sounds like an easy enough thing to do because a writer works with their main character continually through most of your story, but there are moments when some writers lose focus, or they veer off the main plot path, and then the protagonist becomes overshadowed by other characters.
This is quite a common occurrence, and is most prevalent in new writers who have not yet mastered writing strategies and techniques, but I’ve also seen established and experienced writers fall prey to it, too.
It happens to most of us at some point because it’s very easy to zoom through the story while it’s fresh in our minds.  Writers love to ‘go with the flow’, to follow different plot twists and so on, and meander from the main path, and sometimes they become too engrossed in their characters to notice that the main character has slipped into the background.  It’s not until they read through the story that they become aware that something isn’t quite right.

Of course, much of what is written in the first draft will be edited anyway, but there are several ways to maintain the focus on your main character during this process in order to keep them at the forefront of your story.
Ways to keep focused on your MC
Remember that your main character is the focus of the story.  It is their story and should always remain so.

While every story has a villain in some form or another – the antagonist – you should never let this character eclipse your main character in any way. This is quite common, and happens without the reader realising it. They don’t realise that many of the scenes concentrate too much on that character rather than the hero.
Similarly, never allow secondary characters to grow enough to overshadow your main character. This could result in the story shifting emphasis and thus becoming unbalanced.  Make sure your main character has the most scenes – he or she is the star of the show, so to speak.

Keep a careful eye on the balance of scenes that are shared by your characters.  If your secondary characters have more scenes, then there is a problem.  The main character always has the most scenes; they are the most important person in the story.
Is the story plot driven or character driven?  If it’s plot driven, make sure there is enough emphasis on your main character so that they don’t become swallowed by too many themes, plot twists and sub plots.  Characterisation can often fall victim to plot driven stories, and the same is true for weak main characters in character driven stories.

Ensure that the events in the story are seen from your main character’s point of view wherever possible. (More on this next week). It’s easy to let secondary characters steal a scene from your main character without you realising, and too many writers do this simply because it can be difficult to spot within the narrative.
Are there too many irrelevant scenes within the narrative?  These kinds of scenes are what we might call ‘fillers’ or ‘padding’ scenes.  They have no real importance, they don’t really tell us much, and they don’t move the story forward. 

Writers use them to fill white space and plump up the story, but too many of these scenes have a tendency to strangle the main plot and therefore overshadow the main character.  Eventually the main character becomes lost in way too many insignificant, peripheral scenes.  This means the importance of your protagonist within the story arc is lost.
Every scene should move the story forward, it should be significant to the story arc and it should impart necessary information.

Lastly, try using more inner thoughts and insights from your main character.  This tends to bring the focus back to the protagonist and also creates immediacy with the reader.
No writer is perfect, of course.  We all slip up from time to time and sometimes we lose focus of the things that matter in a story. 

Your main character is the driving force within your story, so it’s important to make sure that they remain the key focus, that they are always telling their story.

Next week:  How to keep MC viewpoint within scenes.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Watching out for Repetition

Although I’ve covered this before, this subject it’s worth a second look because it’s one of the most common things a writer does, albeit without even thinking.
How often during a read through of your manuscript do you think about words within the narrative that crop up time and again?  Probably not that often, and that’s because writers tend not to think too far in advance when in the throes of writing during such creative processes.

If you read through any story you’ve written, however, you’ll find inadvertent repetition of certain words. The repeated word really can be anything – someone’s name, a descriptive word, a noun, an adjective, a place name etc.  Sometimes it takes more than one read through to spot them – they blend in quite well with the rest of the narrative, which is why they are sometimes hard to spot.

The following is a simple example:

John walked across the room and peered through a grimy window to the grey mist outside.
Lynn loitered behind him. ‘This is a bargain, we shouldn’t refuse it.’
But John wasn’t so sure.  ‘I don’t like it. It’s dilapidated.’
‘I think it’s perfect,’ she said. ‘Just needs TLC.’
John peered at her.  ‘You would say that. That’s why it’s so cheap.’
She rubbed her swollen tummy.  ‘But it will make a perfect family home, once it’s done up.’

The instance of ‘John’ occurs too many times.  Some of these can be replaced with ‘he said/he did’ etc.  Also, the word ‘peered’ occurs twice in this scene. Sometimes this kind of word repetition isn’t noticeable until the editing stage.

Repetition might occur most noticeably during certain scenes, such as action scenes, when the pacing is quicker and tighter, and certain action words are unintentionally repeated, for example:

He grabbed the body and dragged it outside, just as the sun was sinking.  But there was no one about; he was alone on the hilltop.  The farmhouse was empty.  He grabbed the gun and put it in the car.  Now all he needed to do was get the body down to the quarry where he could dump it. 

He grabbed the corpse under the arms and hoisted it…  

As you can see, descriptive words such as hit/smashed/ grabbed etc, are easily repeated, and are common words to duplicate. 

Of course, repetition can be any word, so this is something the writer has to look out for and become attuned to finding within the narrative when editing.  Weeding out repeated words may take several edits, but it’s worth the effort and close attention.

In a recent writing project of mine, a forest featured heavily in the story, and during the editing stages I discovered I had repeated the word ‘forest’ countless times, without realising, sometimes more than twice in the same paragraph.

I knew that it would also appear countless times throughout the novel, so I used the ‘Find and Replace’ facility in Word to find all instances of the word ‘forest’ to either cut them, edit or replace the word.  This made it much easier to find a recurring repetitive word easily and effectively.

If you have a word that you know will feature heavily and recur within the narrative, then employ the ‘Find and Replace’ tool.

Here’s another example of repetition:

The car slowed as it approached the building, but there were no lights on, and the street seemed darker than usual, but as the car drifted past, a light flickered in the corner window.

He slowed the car and brought it to a stop further down the street, where there was no light.  He got out of the car, looked up at the apartment…

From this example, both ‘car’ and ‘light’ are repeated. Whilst ‘car’ stands out more because it’s repeated more often, the word ‘light’ almost slips by unnoticed.  You might think that a appearing just twice doesn’t warrant such a concentrated effort – but a writer should be thinking about every word he or she writes, because the quality of narrative is paramount. All it takes is a little imagination.

Re-written, the above example is much better:

The car slowed as it approached the building, but there were no lights on, and the street seemed darker than usual, but as the vehicle drifted past, a light flickered in the corner window.

He slowed the motor and brought it to a stop further down the street, where the darkness veiled him.  He got out and looked up at the apartment…

There will be times when some words just cannot be cut or changed, so it’s a matter of exercising common sense.  The good thing about writing is always the editing stage where errors and ‘rough’ bits are cut, snipped and trimmed and the narrative made presentable. This is why we edit.

As writers, when we’re ‘in the zone’ or so focused on getting the story written, we’re not concerned with the editing part, we just want to get the bare bones of the story out, so repetition will always be present in the narrative, along with all the other mistakes and flaws. 

The editing process is designed to correct those errors, so writers need not worry too much about these mistakes in the early stages.  Besides, we all do it.  Seasoned writers still do it. 

It’s all part of the writing process.

Next week: Keeping your MC at the forefront of your story

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Character Basics – Part 2

In Part 2 of Character Basics, we continue our look at the rest of the 10 essentials to follow for characters in fiction writing which should help a writer’s chances of making publication.
Numbers 6 – 10:-
6. Something that is set in stone where fiction writing is concerned is to make sure that your characters don’t ever share the same first names.  This will lead to all manner of problems. This is common sense and one rule all writers should adhere to, yet some writers do still make this mistake.
7. It’s also wise to stick to character names throughout the story.  It is not unknown for writers to get surnames wrong halfway through a novel and not even realise it, especially when dealing with multiple characters. For example a Hampton could accidentally turn into Huntington. Is Mr Johnston from chapter three the same as Mr Johnson in chapter nine? Ensure name consistency.  If you don’t spot it, the editor will.
8. Never have a perfect character. They don’t exist. Just because your protagonist is the star of the show, it doesn’t make him or her:-
a) Immortal
b) More intelligent than any other character in the story
c) The most beautiful/most handsome character
d) Suddenly able acquire skills from nowhere, such as hot wiring a car or breaking into a house with nothing more than a hair pin etc.
e) Infallible
f)  Resistant to emotional turmoil

Unlike the movies, where characters emerge from car crashes and explosions with their hair in place and barely a scratch, or they have the obligatory fight scene yet never seem to get hurt or show any pain when punched around the head and guts a few times, real life and life-changing events do have an impact.  So show it. 

Hair will be a mess, clothes end up torn. Make up will run. Wounds will hurt, and they will bleed, too.  Muscles will ache, bruises will show and emotions will run wild.

The more real your characters are, the more easily they are accessible to the reader.

9. Make sure your character’s names fit their personalities. This might sound strange, but names need to feel comfortable both for the writer and the reader.

New writers tend to opt for weird, ‘trendy’ names thinking, wrongly, that it will impress editors. But often it does the opposite and irritates them instead.

For example, names like Ormsby Justinian or Selexxian Rivette might sound cool and on trend to the writer, but might not necessarily impress the editor or the reader. (The only time names should sound far out or strange is when writing sci-fi/fantasy, which is an accepted norm).

Conversely, a character called Ripper McCane sounds exciting, but it also sounds like a schoolboy creation that belongs in a 1940’s cartoon serial, and may not fit a character in present day surroundings.

Of course, that’s not to say your characters should be your boring John Smith or Mary Jones types. It’s a matter of choosing the kind of name that fits with the character.

Also bear in mind that non-English names should also be carefully considered for non-English characters. Research the names and make sure they are real and not ‘made up’.

10. That brings us to the final point. More often than not, weird names or ill-thought monikers happen because the writer has forgotten that readers must relate to the characters. 

If readers don’t relate to your characters, they won’t relate to the story, and subsequently the story will fail.  Your reader has more chance of identifying with Maxi Hudson than Charterrisse DuBurbonne. Or they will love Tony Leoni rather than Webster Trudant-Tasker III.
All it takes is common sense and a little thought.

But why bother?  I don’t need help with my characters
Advice can be taken two ways: it can be accepted or rejected.
Writers who choose to follow advice stand a better chance of being published.  Writers who carry on regardless might find out the hard way why they’re being rejected by agents and publishers.
The thing to remember is that fiction isn’t like the movies. You can make your characters perform superhuman feats and do extraordinary things, you can make them as perfect and as wonderful as you want, and you can have as many as you want in your story, but the simple cold truth is that editors will see right through basic errors and your manuscript will be rejected.
In truth, characters are not superhuman, they can’t do extraordinary things, they’re not wonderful and they are certainly not perfect.  They’re ordinary people thrust in extraordinary circumstances.

It’s up to the writer to pay attention to the basics of character construction.  Sometimes it can make a difference between acceptance or rejection.

Next week: Watching out for word repetition