Saturday, 27 April 2013

Teasing the Reader – Part 2

Continuing the theme of teasing the reader, we’ll look at a couple more of those elements which are at a writer’s disposal.  The last two common essentials to look at are foreshadowing and dialogue.
Foreshadowing is a really effective tool if used correctly.  While it is very similar to the information and revelation hints that we’ve already touched upon, there are subtle differences between the two and they should be treated separately. 
The act of foreshadowing is a deliberate path that the writer takes in order to fulfill an integral part of the plot.  It foresees events that will happen, rather than what might happen, which s what information hints might do. Foreshadowing is usually interpreted as something foreboding yet to happen within the story.
Clever foreshadowing is achieved by using metaphor rather than the obvious info dump or by “this will happen in chapter 30” kind of thing.  
Foreshowing can be represented by anything, as long as the metaphor works within the narrative and is generally understood by your reader.  Metaphors can be spoilt by over complication, so simplicity works.
The example below uses a physical metaphor to foreshadow an incident that will take place later in a story.
John looked up and noticed the rolling clouds in the distance, heaving with a strange kind of dread. They billowed forward, as though to smother.  Light flashed through its underbelly; a storm of a different kind was approaching, one that he couldn’t avoid or prevent.
You can see how the metaphor acts as a signpost to the future event:
Heaving with a strange kind of dread – this sets the tone of the future event.
They billowed forward, as though to smother – this could hint at the manner of likely events.
A storm of a different kind – this clearly tells the reader that things will not go well for John.  Something bad will happen.  The reader will have to continue reading to find out what that it is.
Dialogue, on the other hand, is also a perfect way to hint at things. Characters love to talk about stuff; they can’t help themselves, just as people do in real life.  And just as people gossip in real life – a way of teasing information from each other – characters will offer clues on future events.
You can lure the reader by having your characters discuss things that might occur further into a story.  The following simple example uses dialogue between two characters to plant information hints for the reader so that they will become aware of events that will occur further into the story.
“Are you clear on what you need to do?’ John asked.
Dan looked at him.  “Yeah.  How long again before the security goes down?’
“Eight minutes,’ John replied.  “That’s all we got.  So you need to make sure you’re in place when it does, got it? No one will hear anything above the New Year celebrations.”
“Not a problem.”
“Good, ‘cos we only got three months to plan this thing…”
It is clear from the dialogue between the characters that something is in the offing, and because they are discussing it, they are also allowing the reader to be privy to it. The reader is an observer in any story.
Dialogue isn’t just there to show characters speaking, either.  It serves many purposes, such as moving the story forward or introducing vital information.  And, of course, teasing the reader is just one of the ways dialogue is important.
However you do it, whatever method you choose, a writer should dangle as many carrot s as possible whenever the opportunity arises.  The unforeseen within a story is a great lure to the reader. 
Curiosity serves a great purpose; it is human nature to want to know about something.  This need to know basis is what propels our interest in any story, and the writer’s ability to continually tease will, hopefully, keep your reader hooked.

Next week: Ways to avoid wooden characters

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Teasing the Reader – Part 1

The great thing about writing is that is has a variety of tools available to the writer in order to render the best story possible. 
We know about the right kind of characterisation, the right balance of basic elements such as description, narrative and dialogue, the amount of emotion and pace to use. We know about plots and sub plots, atmosphere and tension, and we’re aware of more complicated elements such as symbolism, metaphor and assonance and so on.
But the one thing that readers seem to thrive on is the writer’s ability to tease – this is one of the reasons why they keep turning the page. Reading a story is based on a ‘need to know’ basis – the reader constantly needs to know.
The deliberate tease has been used by storytellers for thousands of years.  It is designed to lure the reader, to keep them guessing, wrong foot them deliberately, or it allows them to make correct or incorrect assumptions.
The opportunity to tease can occur throughout a novel and therefore shouldn’t be ignored by writers, because by constantly and subtly teasing them you can also keep them reading. 
Sometimes these opportunities occur naturally as the story progresses, while other ‘teasers’ are precisely plotted and planned by writers and then strategically placed within the narrative.
The ‘hook’ is the very first chance a writer has to grab the reader’s attention – right at the opening of the story; something that holds their attention and keeps it so that they keep reading.  This can be achieved by hinting at things to come in the first chapter, to lay clues about what might happen in the rest of the novel. 
You’re teasing the reader from the outset.
How does ‘teasing’ work?
There is a variety of ways a writer can tease the reader.  The most common ways are as follows:
1.    Information hints
2.    Revelation hints
3.    End of scene or chapter cliffhanger
4.    Narrative allusion and suggestion
5.    Foreshadowing
6.    Dialogue

Information hints are self-explanatory.  The idea is that the writer plants clues for the reader to pick up on, so later in the story they will, literally, put two and two together and come to their own conclusion (whether they're right or not).
The hints don’t have to be obvious; they can be as subtle as you want them to be – don’t underestimate your reader because they will be astute enough to notice them.  And the information you are hinting at is and should be relevant to the story/plot; something that might be referenced to happen further in the novel, or the information is relevant to something that might happen specifically to a character etc.
For instance, your main character is afraid of water, so you might reference this a couple of times earlier in the story – an information hint that the reader will notice.  They will think that because it has been mentioned a few times, something must happen further into the story. This is an indirect, gentle tease.
Then, later in the story, several characters are boating on a lake, but an accident occurs and the main character must jump into a lake to save another character.  But she is frozen by the irrational fear of water – the same fears hinted at earlier.  Can she jump in and save the day?
Revelation hints work the same way, but instead of letting the reader in on snippets of information, the writer lays clues to a surprising revelation or important disclosure further in the story – a plot twist perhaps, which might wrong foot the reader.
For example, what if your main character becomes attracted to another character in the story – it looks as though he might be falling for her, and their relationship hots up.  This subplot will tease the reader about what happens next with them.
Then, when the reader least expects it, the writer unveils the bombshell: it transpires that she is one of the bad guys, and the hero finds that he has been trapped by her deceit and faces imminent danger…
In other words, revelations and plot leaks act as a lure for the reader to continue reading. 
An end of scene or chapter cliffhanger is one of the oldest ploys for writers to use. When written correctly, it practically guarantees the reader will keep reading. 
The idea is simple – the end of a scene, and particularly the end of chapters – should hint at something about to happen, or something inevitable in the next scene or chapter, so that the reader has to read on in order to find out what happens. 
For instance, in the first example of the character afraid of water, the writer is teasing the reader with a ‘what if’ situation.  What if the character doesn’t jump into the water?  The other character will drown.  But if she did jump, she could save the other character, and overcome her fear of water.
The end of that scene, or chapter, would end on a cliffhanger.  For example:
Chris watched the little girl struggling in the water, head barely able to keep above the surface, curdled cries skimming across the water.
Adrenaline raged through her body; heartbeat loud in her ears.  Legs spasmed with the fear as the reflections danced from the water’s surface, but all Chris could think about was the cold darkness beneath, the shadows that lurked there.
She took in a breath, made a decision.
The reader is left guessing what that decision is.  They have to continue the story in order to find out, so they have. In effect, they have been teased by the writer.
Writers should aim to do this with most of their chapter endings.  Always keep the reader on their toes. 
Narrative allusion or suggestion is a ploy writers use in order to toy with the reader.  They do this by alluding to something or planting ideas to sway the reader’s mind, which is done through subtle suggestion.  The idea is that the reader will read and digest this, and they will unconsciously remember it, until at such time in the novel that they discover they’ve been duped by the writer.
Of course, know these by another name: red herrings.  These are particularly prevalent in crime novels and thrillers and they work to great effect.
They are more difficult to construct because of their complexity in relation to the story, characters and subplots, and therefore they need a lot of thought and planning in order to initiate them and make them work.
The easiest example of this is the writer’s double-cross.  In a crime novel, for instance, the writer sets up the characters and the storyline in such a way as to make the reader believe that one particular character is the killer.  The writer plants clues, alludes to the character’s guilt, even going as far as using the power of suggestion to cement the idea in the reader’s mind. 
The writer ‘dangles a carrot’ to tease the reader in this way, until such a time as it’s revealed in a plot twist that it was in fact another character who did the crime and not the one the reader assumed.
The reader has been double-crossed by the writer through a well-written and well-constructed tease.
Of course, these narrative allusions are not confined to crime or thriller novels.  In context, they can be used in many genres to illicit the same effect.
In the next article we’ll continue the theme by looking at how foreshadowing and dialogue can tease the reader.

Next week: Teasing the reader Part 2

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Breathing Life into Description

Description is description, right?

That depends on a writer’s perspective and how much the writer wants to invest in it. 

Previous articles have looked at how important description is in any story, and why it’s needed, but what separates ordinary description from the kind that leaps from the page and gets writers noticed by editors and agents?

The answer to that depends how a writer breathes life into description. Without doubt, description is one of the most important aspects required in fiction writing, and how a writer handles it makes all the difference to how good that description is.

The thing with description is that sometimes it can be flat an uninspiring, not because something is particularly badly written, but because instead the author hasn’t really bothered with it.  This can make reading a laborious affair. 

And if it is boring and unexciting, then this is indicative of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, which is one of the most common attributes to dreary, lacklustre description.  In truth, we’ve all been guilty of writing flat description at some point or another.

As we grow in confidence with our writing, however, so too should our ability to visualise the story for the reader in a completely unique, expressive and exciting way.

Every writer has a distinctive writing ‘voice’; therefore each writer will convey description quite differently, but it is how visual and rich that description is that could not only help a writer’s chances of publication, but also help to transport the reader right into the heart of the story.

Telling versus Showing

One of the main problems with description is the way writers deal with exposition.  More often than not they tell rather than show the reader.  This is fine for the less important scenes, but with key scenes – the dramatic, emotional and action type scenes, it’s vital to show the reader, to allow them to share the story and the emotions and reactions rather than just read about it.  Description for these key scenes should be animated enough to stimulate the reader, rather than bore them.

There are some writers who still don’t understand the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ and continue to write unexciting, simplistic description.  That’s fine if they want to write the mundane.  But for writers who want to set the bar higher, showing the reader through evocative, visual description reaps its own rewards.

How is it done?

There are several elements to this.  The writer needs to be aware of and understand these elements closely to create the kind of description that brings a story to life; the kind that lifts it from the page and transports the reader into the fictional world.

Description, and how writers convey it, is a very unique thing; we all do it differently, but that doesn’t mean the important elements that make up good description should be ignored.

Think of it this way – your reader cannot see, taste, touch, smell or hear anything.  As the writer, you have to describe things so that they can see, taste, touch, smell and hear everything happening in your story.

You need to be aware of:

·        Sensory details
·        Visual details
·        Emotional details

Sensory details are woefully ignored by many writers, but they can play a major part in description.  The five senses offer a distinctive insight for the reader. They may not be able to physically smell something, or actually see, touch or taste or hear anything, but by giving them richly layered hints, they will use their imagination quite effectively. 

A writer can make the reader imagine the smells and the tastes, they will visualise details, they will feel the touch of the breeze, or a hand on the skin, or the texture of something, and they will hear the sounds described.

For example, the following excerpts are taken from my short story ‘A Stain on the Heart’ (© 2012, anthology ‘One Hour’, published by Static Movement). 

‘A breeze prowled across the muddy forest, left tainted by a miserable, doleful downpour, and now it smelled stagnant beneath the lingering scent of burnt wood and flesh.’

Prowled, miserable, doleful, stagnant and burnt umber are the key words here.  They are key words for a good reason.  Imagine the sentence without them.

Visual detail, while very similar to the senses, covers the way the reader perceives the description of setting and place and objects, and how the writer has visualised the necessary details to make the story believable, for instance:

As a sliver of dawn light inked across the sky and reflected from the snow-capped forest of the Ardennes, the devastation slowly emerged and soaked Freddie’s mind with sounds and images he would rather forget. The dull light grazed across the scene. He saw upturned mounds of earth, fallen trees and dark scars carved through sullied snow. But it was the frosty, soulless landscape littered with helmets and boots, fragments of uniforms and bits of men that made his stomach drop to his feet.

One other thing that description does – which is quite important – is to relay emotion.  Emotion and the ability to move your reader, is a driving force within fiction. The following excerpt is from ‘Voices’ (© 2012 anthology, ‘Last Night’, published by Static Movement).  The first example is telling the reader. 

What had begun towards the evening had continued as the sunlight sank behind the trees, leaving sunlight gleaming between the branches, which seemed lost within the confines of the camp, and just as lost on the confused and hungry people that filed from the cattle trains.

He thought about the bodies from the showers, lives stolen, their eyes lifeless and hands frozen.

This is fairly flat and uninspiring.  It doesn’t say much to the reader and it certainly doesn’t do anything other than tell the reader.  And it certainly doesn’t show anything.  Now the original excerpt, which shows the reader:

What had begun in earnest towards the evening had continued as the sunlight sank behind the thick line of pines that veiled them, leaving beautiful saffron-tinted rivulets gleaming between the branches. Such beauty seemed lost within the cold, barren confines of the camp, and just as lost on the deathly-grey faces that filed from the cattle trains – confused, hungry and riddled with exhaustion.

He thought about the fresh mounds of flesh dragged from the showers, lives stolen, their eyes lifeless and yet brimming with riven reflections of their last terrible moments, their hands frozen into gnarled claws.

This shows rather than tells.  It uses visual and sensory stimulus, it references colour as a metaphor, it stands out and it makes the reader think because it focuses on the emotional impact.  It contains many of the elements needed to make description come alive.

Description is description, but it’s nothing unless a writer breathes life into it.

Next week: How to tease the reader.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Constructing Scenes - Part 2

Continuing our look at how to construct key scenes, we’ll take a look at Transitional scenes and Flashback scenes, which are quite common in fiction and very useful elements for the writer.

Writers use transitional scenes to cross a specific time span, i.e. hours, days, months or even years, without the need to describe everything in detail.  Usually they are nothing more than a few sentences, but they tell the reader that time has passed, without the writer having to bore the reader by describing the details of the time span with long-winded passages.


Four weeks later, John drove the car to the high street and parked up near the bank, just as Dan had instructed. He waited.

It says concisely what the reader needs to know – four weeks have passed since Dan’s conversation with John (in Part 1) and the narrative has moved forward to the day of the robbery.  Two sentences cover what might have taken the writer a page or two pages to describe.

Well written transitional scenes should be seamless and unobtrusive so that the reader will barely notice.  They are designed to move forward (or backward) without disrupting the flow of narrative.

Flashback scenes, as opposed to transitional scenes, are self-explanatory.  They jump back to a moment in the character’s past in order for the writer to explain things that are happening in the present.

They form an integral part of any novel, and although not a compulsory requirement, they are desired if the writer needs to explain specific incidents that happened to the main character in the past that may affect their behaviour as the story unfolds in the present. 

Flashbacks also help propel the story forward, despite the paradox of leaping backward.


He remembered it clearly, the memory still fresh like an open wound. The original feelings of euphoria and arrogance had quickly turned to angst the moment the far off sound of sirens broke through the night. Like the others, he’d thought he’d got away with it.  They had split the money and gone their separate ways, thinking that would fool the police, but it hadn’t, and panic set in at the thought of being caught…

The scene slips unobtrusively into the past, and uses pluperfect tense to show the reader that it happened in the past, rather than the present.  This is achieved by using ‘had’ in the narrative.

Note that I’ve not included Flashforwards, simply because they fulfil the same function as flashbacks, however, unless writing sci-fi/fantasy, or a time travel themed story, flashforwards do not have a place in a story, since neither the writer, nor the characters, can predict the future.

Now, if we stitch some of the example scenes shown in Part 1 together with these examples in Part 2, we should have something that contains the majority of those scene elements to make an entire scene.

‘Don’t expect me to help you out of this hole,’ John said.

‘Just this once,’ Dan said.  ‘I promise I won’t ask again.’

‘Yeah, you said that last time, remember? I’m still paying. I could have got caught.  I was that close.’

‘But you didn’t get caught.  We got away with it.’

‘There’s only so many times people can get away with it. You’re asking too much this time,’ John said.  ‘It’s just too risky.’

‘We get a good pay out,’ he said.  ‘Don’t tell me you aint interested in that…’(Conversational)

He remembered it clearly, the memory still fresh like an open wound. The original feelings of euphoria and arrogance had quickly turned to angst the moment the far off sound of sirens broke through the night. Like the others, he’d thought he’d got away with it.  They had split the money and gone their separate ways, thinking that would fool the police, but it hadn’t, and panic set in at the thought of being caught… (Flashback)

Four weeks later, John drove the car to the high street and parked up near the bank, just as Dan had instructed. He waited.  (Transitional)

John glanced in the rear view mirror, saw perspiration on his brow, thick like honey.  Then he peered ahead and closely watched the doors to the bank.  The engine hummed, waiting, the sound almost soothing and soporific, but it had felt longer than four minutes since Dan went into the bank that John contemplated driving off without him, anything to get out of growing dangerous situation. Minutes ticked like an echoing clock in John’s frazzled mind… (Descriptive)

From these different types of scenes it’s easy to see how they work together to create a cohesive whole scene, what we usually term a ‘key’ scene in the story.

Not all of the elemental scenes have been used, of course, but this example makes use of conversational, flashback, transitional and descriptive scenes, and scenes work better when there are more of them.  Writers have many scene elements at their disposal, so they can use any number of combined scenes within the story, and of course, it’s up to the story to dictate where those scenes need to be.

Next week: Breathing Life into Description