Saturday, 25 May 2013

Creating Subtext

I’ve written about this subject previously, but I’ve been asked to revisit this much underappreciated aspect of fiction writing, so therefore it deserves another look.

There are so many elements that go into fiction writing that writers really should take the time to understand them, because writing is not an easy, instant process.  In fact, it’s quite difficult to conceive, develop, plan, research and write a novel.  And that’s because there are many technical things a writer should be aware of - not just creative ones - if they want to succeed. 

So how many writers actually consider subtext?

Surprisingly, not many. Writers have a tendency to race through their novels without considering the more mechanical aspects such as symbolism, simile, metaphor and so on.  And they do so because often, they are not aware that the story needs them. This is the difference between a serious writer and one that suddenly wakes one morning and decides they want to be a ‘writer’.

Serious writers will tackle every minuscule detail of their story. Wannabe writers won’t.  Serious writers will underscore their narrative with subtext. Wannabe writers won’t.

So what is subtext?

Every story has subtext, but not every writer will be aware of this. 

Subtext is the implied meaning or theme within the narrative. It can also refer to the thoughts, actions and motives of characters that are not always so overt.  The reader, however, should completely understand the subtext. 

Think of the ocean. On the surface lies the story, but something else lurks beneath the surface.  There are always undercurrents – the subtext – the kind of things that always move around beneath the surface, just out of view.

In other words, it is the suggestive and implied messages hidden just beneath the surface of the narrative that makes subtext so effective.  This is where readers to ‘read between the lines’.  It is a clever device which, if done properly, offers more for the reader than they first realised.

Why is it needed?

While subtext is not a mandatory requirement for storytelling, it’s one of those elements that enrich the narrative by giving it extra dimension – not just for the benefit of the story, but also for the benefit of the reader, so writers should incorporate it in order to enhance and deepen their story.

Writers have always buried hidden meanings, messages and nuances within narrative; it’s a game of hide and seek; one that readers unconsciously like to play.

Crime novels and psychological thrillers employ subtext to great effect because they use it as a way of suggestion or manipulation, they often make the reader believe something or they hint at a hidden meanings or themes underpinning the story, however, subtext is found in all genres of stories.

How does subtext work? 

It’s an obvious question – how will the reader understand it without it being over complicated or even missed?

Firstly, writers wrongly assume subtext is something far too complicated to tackle; that they have to make subtext fit the narrative, but in reality, it isn’t actually complicated. 

Subtext usually occurs naturally because of the story and themes that the writer generates as the story unfolds.  Writers sometimes create subtext without even trying.  It simply happens logically.  There will be other times when the subtext presents itself before the story has begun – the writer will instinctively spot opportunities for subtext.  It’s up to the writer to spot the potential and exploit it at any given opportunity.

There are a number of ways you can do this - you can use narrative, metaphor, symbolism and dialogue to generate subtext.

Implying subtext through narrative means the writer can hint at something in such a way that is not overt, but almost subliminal. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, the subtext is about the prejudices that are apparent in all of us and this is carried throughout the novel in descriptive asides, that something as simple as the colour of one’s skin can cause others to become hostile.

Implying subtext through use metaphor or symbolism means writers can use visual stimulus or imagery to provide subtext.  In a story about destruction, this can take the form of ominous clouds in the distance, or the repetition of seeing a certain animal – a crow is often used in movies and literature as something foreboding – to suggest a series of bad events.  A ghost or horror story might have a character that senses déjà vu in the lead up to critical events.

Implying subtext through dialogue means that beneath the spoken words there may be hidden meanings and emotions.  There may be character thoughts and motives which could also be explored through subtext. Characters are ambiguous by nature, just like real people.  There is more than meets the eye with everyone, after all.

An example of this might be a character who gives the impression they are not quite what they seem.  Without giving too much away, you could have the character say to another, ‘You know you can trust me, don’t you?  The reader will instinctively know that’s not true.  The subtext is that this character cannot be trusted and that something bad might happen further into the story.

Subtext is also a way for writers to inject political or social commentary into the narrative, particularly if it is a sensitive or controversial topic, things that we don’t talk about openly, the hints about darker side of society and humanity.   

Remember, subtext isn’t the actual theme – it’s an adjunct, a simple but effective addition to underpin both theme and plot, to enrich and colour the story to full potential. The best way to understand it is to read books – you’ll learn to spot it.

Next week: Getting the setting right


Saturday, 18 May 2013

There are two sides to every story

Whatever the story, whatever the genre, there are always two sides to every story, and story tellers need to show that. But what does this actually mean?
Put simply, writers are not just writing about their main character.  The story may be about them, but there are also other characters that share that same story.  In truth, it is not entirely about the main character.  That means that while every story must have a protagonist; it must also have an antagonist. 
The antagonist – otherwise known as the ‘bad guy’ (you might have more than one) – has a specific, important function in fiction writing.  If you don’t have one, then there will be little or no conflict in the story, and without conflict, there is no story to tell, because fiction (and life) is all about conflict.
Primarily, any story will be about your main character – it’s about their journey, what happens to them, the decisions and dilemmas they face and the obstacles they have to overcome.  It is told, for the most part, through their eyes, but sometimes writers forget to include the antagonist’s views and their perspective.  This happens partly because writers think it isn’t necessary to concentrate on anyone other than the main character.
In order to balance the story, however, you have to have the antagonist’s viewpoint. A story that focuses solely on the main character, without really featuring the antagonist except only to mention him or her in passing, is in danger of failing.  The story needs to be about both of them.
Imagine a James Bond movie without a villain.  Or what if Oliver Twist didn’t have Fagin?  What if Cathy didn’t have Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights?  They would all be completely different, and boring stories, without these characters.  And that’s solely down to good old fashioned conflict.
The dynamic created between the protagonist and antagonist is what keeps readers interested and invested in any story; it keeps them turning the page. 
Both character types need each other; the negative and positive clashing against one another. Imagine two people in an argument. In order to gain some sort of balanced view or opinion, one has to listen to both sides.  The reader is doing exactly the same thing.  By allowing them to look at both sides of the story, they can form their own opinions about the story.
Writers go wrong when they fail to include the antagonist, or they devote very little time to them.  If they fail to observe this, then they create an imbalance.  They are only telling one side of the story.
So how do you actually tell both sides of the story?
It’s simply a matter of inclusion.  Remember to devote a few extra chapters to your bad guy(s) and give them a little bit of limelight.  They are sharing the same story, after all.
That means some of the story will be from their viewpoint – it’s the writer’s chance to show why the antagonist acts in a particular way, what is motivating him or her.  It’s a chance to show the reasons why he or she is in conflict with the protagonist, and what his or her objectives are. 
It also means the writer can explore back story, develop characterisation and expand subplots and threads of the story that will make more sense to the reader once woven into the main plot.
By allowing the antagonist some attention, you are also allowing the reader to share with them.  You divulge information that only the reader and the character are privy to, so that the protagonist is unaware. This in turn creates atmosphere and tension, and of course, added conflict for your main character further into the story.
It also keeps the reader’s interest going. 
Just as every story needs a hero, it also cannot work without the villain.
And that’s why there are always two sides to any story.

Next week: Creating subtext

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Novel v. short story – is there a difference?

The answer is yes, there are some very clear differences between short stories and novels.  There are also clear advantages to writing and working with these different story types.
Some writers love writing short stories, while others balk at the idea.  Other writers only write novels or novellas, and wouldn’t even entertain the thought of writing short stories.
But why can some people only write one specific type, where others have easily diversified and can write anything from flash fiction, poetry, short stories, longer stories and novels?
The answer probably lies in a writer’s own misconceptions and fears:  “I can’t write short stories – I don’t know how to…” or “I just can’t seem to write short stories, they never seem to work…”  There are other excuses, such as, “I can only write novels – short stories are too limiting…” or “Only serious writers write novels…”
If a writer can write a 1000 word story, they can also write an 80,000 word novel – they just don’t realise that they can.
The same is true for those who write novels. If they can write an 80,000 – 100,000 word story, then there is no reason why they can’t easily write a short story or a flash fiction.
Sometimes it’s down to a writer not even trying to broaden their writing skills.  There’s nothing wrong with that; but for the writer, it might be advantageous by not limiting oneself to a certain type of story writing. There is a lot a writer can learn from experimenting with and writing with many story types.
Of course, there might be genuine reasons why a writer can’t write one or the other – it might be that they are simply not very good at writing short stories, but are great at writing novels, and vice versa.  Everyone is different, and not everyone can do it, but writers should at least give it a go. 
Advantages of short stories and flash fiction pieces: 
·        They help hone key writing skills – short stories are great for cutting one’s writing teeth.  Sometimes writers start off small and work their way up to the larger stuff.  New writers should start with short story writing to help them perfect their craft.

·        Shorter stories help with editing by forcing the writer to be judicious with word usage.  It makes them think carefully about sentence structures and the right words to convey the right meaning, without wasting words.  A writer has to learn how to tell a story in 1000 words rather than 90,000.

·        They help a writer focus their concentration on characterisation – short stories usually have a limited amount of characters to work with, perhaps one or two, therefore characterisation is (for the most part) more concentrated.

·        Flash fiction stories are even more concentrated – every word counts; the story should still be there, despite it being told in so few words.

·        Short stories also focus the attention on the strength of the story – again limited wordage means the writer must have a watertight plot and flawless story.

·        Short stories tend to be constructed around a single climactic event, rather than several that might take place in a novel.  This makes it easier to deal with the drama and emotion for beginners – they’re concentrating on one event rather than several.

·        Short stories tend to take place over a few hours or days, thus making it easier for the writer to focus on, as opposed to the large time modes that take place in a novel.
As with short stories, there are also advantages to writing longer fiction (stories over 10,000 words), novellas and novels:
·        They help a writer understand the planning and development of the writing process because each of your 30 or so chapters should be sketched out, complete with the logistics of how the story will grow and develop.

·        Novels are perfect for thorough characterisation – longer stories make it easier to explore a character’s background and back-story, thus making them more lifelike and plausible. They also have many characters to work with, as opposed to the one or two in short stories.

·        They help writers understand plot & subplot development, something that can’t be explored too much with shorter stories.  Novels usually contain several subplots

·        Unlike short stories, novels contain many rising complications for characters, followed by resolutions, in order to maximise tension towards the climax.

·        Novels take the main character (and reader) on a journey – the character is somehow changed by the end.

·        The scope of a novel means you can cram more of your narrative into your story – you have an average of 80,000 words to play with instead of, say, 5000 words.  Writing novels means you can not only explore a story idea, but you can create more characters to inhabit the story.

There are undoubtedly many differences in the construction of novels and short stories, and different advantages, but the basics of fiction writing remain the same.  Writers shouldn’t be afraid to give these different types a go to expand their skills and experience. 
Each type has its own skill set, each one teaches the writer something different, but each one is very useful writing tool. First attempts won’t be brilliant – but practise really does make perfect, so if you haven’t tried to write a short story, then give it a go.
And if you’ve always wanted to write a novel, but have limited yourself to short stories, then what’s stopping you?

Next week:  There are two sides to every story.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Ways to Avoid Wooden Characters

Whether you write short stories or novels, having fully rounded, believable characters always complements a strong story and therefore makes the experience of reading the story more enjoyable.
The one thing that can let a story down is clichéd, wooden characters that have little depth.  This often happens with first time writers who have not yet learned how to characterise, and often their first creations tend to fall flat.
Another reason why characters might be somewhat like cardboard is the lack of attention to full characterisation. This is where writers tend to neglect characters for a plot driven story.  In other words, the story is great but the characters are thinly sketched.
All primary characters need to be fully realised and, above all, believable, regardless of plot driven or character driven stories.  That means they have to relate to the reader like a real living, breathing person.  In effect, they have to leap from the page. 
Every writer should aim to make their characters so real that the reader can’t help by but care about what happens to them.
How do you spot cardboard characters?
Clichéd characters can make the narrative boring and uninspiring.  So, at the read through stage of editing the first draft, the writer should be looking for signs that the characters are flat and two dimensional, rather than multidimensional, lifelike and memorable enough to leap from the page. 
Have you described the character?  Surprisingly, many writers forget or ignore description of their main characters. This can leave a gap in the reader’s mind – they have to formulate a picture in their mind of what the character looks like, the kind of person he or she is. The description doesn’t have to be detailed; it can be subtle, or hinted at, just enough for the reader to formulate a picture.
Is the POV from their perspective? Do they see things through their eyes?   Main characters will have thoughts and feelings, just like real people, so a lack of internal thoughts or feelings projected into the narrative will make the character appear unexciting and emotionless.  Bringing the reader into the thoughts of your main character(s) will help them get closer to them.
Do they interact well with other characters?  Dialogue plays an important role with characters – what they say and who they converse with says a lot about them.  If your character talks in monosyllabic, short sentences, the reader might assume your character is badly drawn and rather simple, and probably won’t care too much about them because you haven’t given the character enough depth.
If you give your character something meaningful to say, however, coupled with dynamic dialogue, then of course your reader will find the character interesting, and they will relate to them, and that means they are likely to care about the character.
Actions perform an important function where characters are concerned because what they do and how they do it can say so much about them; their actions and reactions will be scrutinised and interpreted by the reader.
In real life, what we do and how we do it says a lot about our personalities, and the same is true for our fictional characters. Their actions are performed directly because of their personality traits – we all have faults, foibles and quirks.  Make sure your characters do, too.
Do they show emotion?  This is an obvious question, and it’s also related to actions and reactions, but it’s important that your character shows his or her emotional side to situations and other characters within the story because the reader will empathise with the character. This will make the characters more believable, and will certainly make the reader care about them.
Empathy creates immediacy, and in turn that allows the reader to emotionally invest in the character.
Is their personality apparent? In other words, what qualities set them apart from other characters in the story?  Do they have a habit of any kind, such as a dependency on smoking or drinking, or do they have a nervous tick?  Do they subconsciously play with their hair?  Do they always dust away invisible crumbs from their clothes?  Are they fastidious about their appearance?  Are they quick to temper, or are they shy and introvert?
In real life these traits are what layer people’s personalities and make them multidimensional.  It should be no different for your characters. These traits should be apparent in your main characters.  If they don’t exist, then you’ll soon notice why your characters appear flat and uninteresting.
How do you correct the problem?
Pay attention at the editing stage and find out if your characters come across as wooden, clichéd, flat or just plain boring because they don’t have anything interesting to say.  Correct this by injecting some realism into them – remember that characters need to be as close to real life as you can make them.
Give your characters personality, thoughts, feelings and emotions and faults.  Describe their appearance.  Make their actions stand out, make their dialogue dynamic, make them larger than life.
Make them memorable.
The idea is to make the reader care, empathise and interested in your characters, and more importantly, be interested what they have to say.
Once you start layering your characters this way, and correcting their limitations, by the next draft they will really start to emerge. 

Next week: Novels and short stories – is there a difference?