Saturday, 26 October 2013

Why you should back your characters into corners

As writers and creators, we love to see our characters win the day (well, most of the time), and it is very satisfying seeing the end result after weeks or months or even years of writing a novel.
That’s because we start our characters on a path, we push them into an unknown journey and we play God with their lives – that’s the power at our fingertips. But writers shouldn’t be too kind to their characters. In fact, they should be mean to them.

Why?  Because it makes for a better story. 
Think about real life. It’s not all flowers, rose-tinted clouds and pretty rainbows. We face upheaval all the time; we face dilemmas, we have to make difficult decisions, we have to meet problems head on and solve them somehow. Ordinary life can be tough sometimes, and so it is true of your main characters.  In a sense, what happens in real life can merge with fictional life in order to create a sense of reality.

Problems, dilemmas, stress and all manner of difficulties should form the pathway for your characters, because if you don’t, then you will create a very weak story that just won’t work. Your main character has to work hard to reach his or her goal; it should never be an easy ride.
Every story you read has many similar situations written for the main character – it’s a fundamental ingredient that forms the basis of fiction writing.

As a writer, your job is to back your characters into a corner and make the situation as difficult as possible. One of the results of this is that the plot must evolve, and therefore a plot twist is born to keep the momentum of the story moving forward (and to keep the reader hooked.)  That’s how many plot twists naturally come about.
In other words, you have to be inventive and creative to help get the character out of that corner, to overcome the problem, to continue the story and move onto the next dilemma (and the next plot twist).  It’s yet another way of moving the story forward.

Of course, such difficult situations create tension in the narrative because then the main character must somehow – against the odds sometimes – find a way out of that terrible situation.  What will happen? How will the main character achieve it? How will this affect the story arc? 
Such terrible, difficult situations also create conflict with other characters with whom the main character interacts, which is a good thing, because fiction needs conflict.  It can also create conflict internally for the main character, especially if they are alone to face a dilemma. These elements in turn help render action scenes, since getting out of such situations necessitates action, and therefore, drama.  And readers just love drama.

So, by backing your character into a corner at a difficult moment, and with all these components available to expand and exploit the plot, it leads to one thing – it keeps the reader interested with the lure of ‘What happens next?’
However you write your story, and whatever dramas you create for your characters, don’t be afraid to make life unbearable or difficult for them. Fiction writing can sometimes be a complex undertaking, but making life awful for your main characters is so simple to do and yet it accomplishes so much by doing so.

To summarise:
Backing your characters into corners achieves the following:-

·        It moves the story forward
·        It creates conflict & tension
·        It evolves the plot
·        It keeps the reader interested and vested in the main character
·        It creates drama
·        It produces action scenes

Remember; don’t be nice to your main characters, be mean!  And wherever possible, back them into a corner and see where it takes you.

Next week: Getting to grips with simple punctuation.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Suspending Disbelief for Readers – Part 2

After a much needed vacation in sunnier surrounds, it’s now back to business. 
We’ll continue our look at how ways to suspend a reader’s disbelief and get them believing in your story and characters.  Writers can do this by focusing on several elements, so we’ll focus on the remaining pointers noted in Part 1 - Believable Character Goals, Immediacy, Eliminating Uncertainty, Subplots and the Right Setting.

Believable Character Goals
This is pretty self-explanatory. If your characters don’t have much to strive for and achieve by the end of the story, then why should a reader be bothered about what your characters do? 

Your main character’s goal forms an important crux to the story arc. Their struggle to achieve that goal, and all the obstacles they face in doing so, is what keeps the reader invested in the outcome, so give the characters believable goals rather than outlandish ones, such as saving the world from imminent disaster (one of the worst clich├ęs).
Readers will readily identify better with probable goals because they will be able to imagine themselves in that role.
So, even if you have an outlandish plot, you can still make the reader suspend disbelief by creating the kind of believable character goals that they can recognise and understand.


Of all the tools available to a writer, immediacy is one of the most underused and yet most effective ways to bring your reader as close to the subject and the characters as humanly possible.
Immediacy is the intimate connection between the story and the reader – if a writer lacks immediacy within the writing, then the reader might not be able to emotionally connect with the characters or the narrative, and if that happens, the reader is unlikely to enjoy the story.

Writers must establish an emotional connection between the reader and the characters to do this.  This is why fully developed characterisation is so important and why character goals make the reader want to invest in what is going on.

Readers love characters who are very much like themselves in a way; they recognise something of themselves in your characters, and that’s why immediacy is such a key element to fiction writing.
By creating immediacy with the reader, you instantly eliminate any disbelief they may have with your story because they will care about the characters too much to worry about a crazy plot.

Eliminating uncertainty – make things plausible
It’s down to the ability of the writer to make the implausible plausible. 

But what does that mean exactly?  It means eliminating any hint of uncertainty within the writing, because the reader will immediately pick up on writing that is weak or lacks confidence. 
Readers are smart and they will know when things don’t add up or the facts aren’t right. They will spot poor plot construction and poor characterisation even if you don’t.  This is where uncertainty can creep in.

Remember, details, details, details.  That way, even those elements that seem quite implausible can become diluted by the quality and minutiae you add to the narrative.  You eliminate uncertainty, and thus make things plausible, by adding as much detail for the reader as you can.
Interesting Subplots

Subplots are a great way of focusing attention away from the main thread of a story for a short while. They create an extra dimension (or two) to the story, and while they are smaller stories in their own way, they are still inexorably linked to the main plot.
So even with a rather implausible story, you may still be able to make some elements believable with the help of strong subplots to keep the reader engaged and invested with your story. 

The Right Setting
The right setting may not seem an obvious way to get a reader to suspend their disbelief, but a well-rendered setting does help.  As the writer, you have to give the illusion that even where the story takes place is entirely fictitious, it needs to be real for the reader, or that it closely resembles a real life place. 

The reason for this is to create an emotional attachment of sorts between the fictional world and the reader.  The more connections you can make, the better the chances for the reader to suspend their disbelief, regardless of how strong or weak the main story might be. 
As already pointed out, the more detail you can provide, the better chance of them believing totally in your story.

All these elements together help thin the strangeness or absurdities that sometimes make up implausible plots or outlandish or unbelievable stories. You’re not just suspending disbelief; you’re creating belief where it would otherwise not materialise.
Remember, detail, detail, detail.

One last important note.  Never let the story sit still.  Always move the story forward.

Next week: Why you should back your characters into corners.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Suspending Disbelief for Readers – Part 1

We’ve all heard about suspending belief, but where stories are concerned, what if you’ve written something that defies belief?  What if you have an outlandish plot and characters that can do amazing things or have brilliant skills (all without experience or the right training)?
The truth is, every story requires the reader to suspend their disbelief and start believing totally in the story, whether that is a thriller story, a romance, a horror or a science fiction story.  A writer somehow has to make the unbelievable believable.

But is it as easy as it sounds?

One of the most common rejections from editors and publishers is that a story isn’t credible or plausible. The plot is ‘too far-fetched’, or the characters are simply not believable. This can be hard to digest, particularly when you see so many books on the shelves with ridiculous plot lines.
It can be done, but this is all down to the ability of the writer to make the reader eventually suspend their disbelief and become involved both with the story and the characters.

So, even if you have a fairly preposterous plot, or a character with a range of skills that no ordinary Joe would possess, there are ways to manipulate the reader and convince them otherwise with the use of the following:-
·        Details – Background and correct facts
·        Believable and realistic characters
·        Believable dialogue
·        Description
·        Believable character goals
·        Immediacy
·        Eliminating uncertainty – make things plausible
·        Interesting sub plots
·        The right setting

We’ll look at these individually:

The more colour in your background, the better. Every character has a background, so the story itself must also have a background – after all, it started somehow, somewhere. That means there must have been a catalyst to start your character on his or her path. The more you can give the reader, the more likely it is they will invest in your story.
Also, having the correct facts helps.  Research thoroughly and know the subject you are writing about. The more detail you can give the reader, the easier it will be to convince them of the reality of the story. That way you have a chance of convincing the reader that the unfolding events in the story are real.

Make it plausible yet credible for the reader (even though in reality it might not be), and they will suspend their initial disbelief.
Believable and realistic characters

This is an absolute. Your characters must be fully rounded and three dimensional to the point they could be real people. That means that attitudes, emotions and motivations should build and shape your characters as they would real people. The more dimensions they have, the more believable and physically real they are in the reader’s mind.
Part of the goal for the writer is to help the reader form a bond with the characters, to make them care about them. They might even have something in common with them (betrayal, lost love, happiness etc.).  Again, get the reader on side with great characters, and they will probably overlook the slightly preposterous plot, e.g. main character saves world from a bomb by diffusing it himself, despite no training or experience…that kind of thing.

Believable dialogue
The other part of the goal for any writer is to make dialogue as realistic as possible.  Readers want to know what characters have to say, because once they form that bond with them, they have to know more about them, so tight, snappy dialogue that moves the story forward once again helps them suspend that disbelief.

Besides, characters are only as believable as the words you give them to speak.

It goes without saying that good, solid description is a must.  Whether you hate it or not, the right description is a magical ingredient for the reader to fall helplessly in love with your story. It can make a story.
Even if you have a strange plot and slightly unbelievable characters, great description can help balance those negatives. It’s there for every writer to use to their advantage, so don’t waste it.

That’s four of the main points covered. In part 2 we’ll continue our look at ways to make a reader suspend their disbelief and start believing in your story by looking at the remaining points: Believable character goals, immediacy, eliminating uncertainty, interesting sub plots and using the right setting.

Next time: Suspending Disbelief for Readers – Part 2