Saturday, 31 August 2013

Are rules made to be broken?

Let’s get straight to the point – rules are put in place for a reason. But that’s not to say we can bend those rules when it suits us.
But when it comes to fiction writing, how far can you bend those rules and is it okay to even break a few?

The answers depend upon the rules in question and the kind of circumstances that exist for writers – i.e. whether the writers are just starting out on their fiction writing journey, or still unpublished, or whether they’re established and experienced writers who perhaps can get away with a few writing transgressions.

There is certainly no reason why we can’t bend a few fiction writing rules; we all do it, but blatant misuse of them won’t do writers much good.
Firstly, new and unpublished writers should dispense with any arrogance about “It’s my story - I can do what I like, how I like” where creative writing is concerned. That kind of attitude will not get you published (unless of course you are an exceptional writing prodigy bursting with immense creative talent and publishers fall at your feet for you to dictate to them how things should be done).

In the real world, however, the reality is quite different.
Your job as a writer is to impress an agent or publisher, to make your work stand out, to make them sit up and take notice of you and, ultimately, take a chance on you and your work. That means putting in the hard work through the painstaking writing and editing process and the polishing to perfection of your manuscript. It also means abiding by general fiction rules in order to give yourself an advantage.

But why do some break the rules?
More experienced and published writers – those who have developed a good working ethic with their editors, those who earn a lot of money for themselves and their publishers, are allowed to push the boundaries. Many famous writers do bend and break lots of fiction writing rules, but that is because they’ve already worked hard to establish themselves through publication. 

Which writing rules matter?
The rules every writer must stick to concern grammar.

Correct grammar is paramount; it sets a standard, and they should never be infringed.  Where novel writing is concerned, any writer who cannot grasp basic grammar will get rejected because you are showing prospective agents or publishers your poor writing skills, thus exposing limited capabilities.  
Don’t think for one minute that editors will gladly give up their time to go through your manuscript correcting your mistakes before joyfully declaring they will accept your masterpiece, because they won’t. You will be rejected.

If you cannot present a perfectly polished manuscript to agents or publishers, you will not find publication. They will spot silly grammatical mistakes, even if you don’t, and they will not only judge your writing skill on the content of your manuscript, but also on the standard of your synopsis and your covering letter. 
What are general fiction rules?

There are plenty of unwritten ‘rules’, a long list of do’s and don’ts that are not as strict or as rigid as grammar rules, but writers can creatively bend some, and on occasion, break them.
Here are a few examples of the kind of general ‘rules’ that writers should observe:-

·        Don’t use too many adverbs.
·        Cut down on the use of adjectives.
·        Avoid hanging participles
·        Don’t use clich├ęs
·        Show, don’t tell
·        Writing should be active, not passive
·        Don’t change tenses
While these are not set in stone, they exist to support the writer in the most positive way, and they exist because hundreds of famous and talented writers before us have toiled and ploughed through their creative works, gone through many rejections and learned through feedback what is accepted and what isn’t, and they have passed this imperative advice onto fellow writers.  If not for them, we wouldn’t have these ‘rules’ to guide us.

New and unpublished writers can bend them, to a point, but should avoid breaking them.  Remember, you are writing to impress agents and publishers, not your ego.  Until you are sitting alongside the likes of Stephen King, J K Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Tom Clancy or Robert Harris, then it’s best to stick to convention.
Every writer starts at the bottom of the ladder and has to work their way up, so when you do become published and you have that experience behind you, then you can experiment with pushing boundaries and breaking the odd rule or two.  Until that time, the advice would be to stick to fiction writing rules to increase your chances of becoming the next big thing.

There is never any shortage of would-be novelists who think they know it all and don’t stick to accepted conventions, whose works are littered with crimes against fiction and all manner of grammatical nasties. They are the kind of people who will not listen to advice.  No wonder, then, that they remain unpublished.
Rules are there for a reason.  Bend them, but try not to break them if you want to get your novel noticed.

Next week:  How important is writing style?

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Prologues – The Pros & Cons Part 2

In part 1, we looked at the advantages of having a prologue, so in part 2 we will look at the disadvantages of using them, and why they now proving unpopular with agents and publishers.
What are the disadvantages of a prologue?

The simple truth is that prologues are seen as unnecessary. They form a great chunk of text at the beginning of a novel, which readers might either ignore or skim read out of boredom, or it puts the reader off reading the rest of the novel altogether because it’s just too much of a chore.
The idea with the opening chapter of your novel is to get right in at the heart of the action or defining moment in your main character’s life, so why spend so much time constructing an attention-grabbing opening chapter, only to stall the whole thing with a large piece of narrative stuck at the front? 

Any momentum, gravitas or excitement that you wanted to achieve in your opening chapter is completely wiped out by a plodding prologue. It’s not exactly the best way to thrill and impress an agent or editor, is it?
Another big negative is that many people also see them as info-dumps, the kind of informative narrative that just won’t fit into any chapter or scene within the novel, yet to the writer it seems necessary to the plot, so they end up writing a large chunk of information in a prologue that in reality becomes an info-dump.

Another drawback is that sometimes prologues are misplaced or ill thought out; in other words, they have very little impact on the story whatsoever, or don’t relate to the main plot in any substantial way.
Other times, writers unintentionally let the prologue turn into a preamble of boring explanations without realising that it will stifle the integrity of the story, and that will be a sure fire way of instant rejection from publishers.

Of course, writers don’t actually need prologues.

They can actually integrate the necessary hints, information, teasers and POVs into the main story without too much hassle.  And they can do it because they take the time to structure the story and to fully understand it, and they do so through dialogue or action, character thoughts or flashbacks.

So how can a writer tell if including a prologue is the right action to take? 
In order to answer that question, a writer should ask a few more questions in return:-

  • Does the story really need a prologue?
  • What purpose does the prologue serve?
  • How does it impact the story?
  • Does it accomplish what is actually needed?
  • Does it enhance the story or does it hinder it?
  • Can the same result be achieved through the main story?
Have a good look at the novel and decide if there really needs to be a prologue, when instead you can do away with it and get straight into the action with a gripping opening chapter. 
If there wasn’t a prologue, would the reader still understand and follow the story? More often than not, the answer is yes.

Would the prologue actually prove a distraction? Would the reader remember the details in it while halfway through the novel and while confronted with revelations that refer back to it?  If you think it would be a distraction, then don’t use one.

Don’t make it complicated to the point that it will distract the reader from the main events in the story. 

For the most part, prologues are just not necessary. They’ve fallen out of favour over the last decade, simply because readers now want everything instantly.  They don’t want to wade through a couple of pages or two of preface before they actually get to the novel.
And from an editor’s point of view, if it’s the difference between getting noticed or heading straight into the rubbish bin, then leave out the prologue to improve your chances of publication.

Potential publishers or agents really aren’t interested in a huge info dump. They want direct access to the action, the story and the characters. 

The prologue, however, may be too slow and not engaging enough for that to happen.

Prologues can serve a useful purpose, if cleverly written, but they can also destroy the impact of a novel’s opening chapter.

The general advice where prologues are concerned is to carefully consider whether your novel needs one. If you really must have one, make it count. Make it engaging and intriguing so that it grabs the reader’s attention.

And if you do choose to have one, make it memorable, just like your opening chapter.

Next week: Are writing rules made to be broken?

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Prologues – The Pros & Cons Part 1

There are plenty of novels, particularly older ones, where you might see a prologue before the main story actually begins.

But what are they, and what purpose do they serve?
Firstly, a prologue, or pro logos in Greek - which means ‘before words’- is a preface to the main story, or a separate introduction of sorts.

Sometimes they are only a paragraph or two long, while others could be as long as an average chapter. There is no set length to how long prologues should be, and no golden rules that govern them.
In simple terms, for the prologue to be effective, it must contribute to the main plot in some way, it must provide facts and information which is relevant, otherwise it will lose impact and ultimately fail.

How useful are they?
That depends on what the writer wants to convey.

Prologues are a way for writers to hint at the main story in some way because sometimes they feel they need to convey even more information than they can comfortably slot into their main story, especially if the writer wanted to explain certain things that would prove otherwise difficult to do in the main story without making the story overly long, seemingly jarring or by burdening the narrative with info dumps.
Sometimes a writer just can’t construct a chapter around certain information or facts pertinent to the story arc. 

As crazy as it sounds, there may be times when background information, past events or characters might relate to the main plot, however they don’t actually need to be part of the story, so in that sense, prologues do serve a purpose by giving the writer a chance to show some aspects of the story that relate to the main plot.
What are the advantages?

Prologues can act to highlight something in the past that now has a bearing on the story in the present, or it may have unknown characters that have influenced the main character somehow, but are not actually present in the main story. This is a way writers can provide the reader with clues about a character’s motivations, by providing clues in the prologue that will be apparent to the reader later in the novel.

Writers also use a prologue to show specific moments which have happened in a character’s past and that only the reader would know about. This would have a bearing on the character as the story unfolds, to which the reader is privy. 
Prologues can act as flashbacks by providing background detail about certain events that have happened in the past that once again have a direct bearing on the main character’s story.

They also act as plot ‘seeders’ – in other words, the prologue plants seeds of future events yet to happen in the story, which later may form a big ‘reveal’ or important plot twist.
It’s also a good way to sow some simple or subtle plot twists without falling into the trap of inadvertently creating a ‘dues ex machina’ (a forced, contrived scene or set up that has no actual relation to the story, but is written simply to get the writer out of tight spot).

The use of a prologue can also be effective for setting up different points of view. For instance, the prologue can be told in a different character viewpoint to the rest of the story, or it might be the prologue is told in first person, and the rest of the story follows in third person.

Writers who have used prologues include Clive Cussler, Stephenie Meyer, Ken Follet and Charles Dickens, among many.
When it comes to using a prologue, the writer has to make it as interesting and eye catching at the opening chapter. And just like the opening chapter, it has to engage the reader from the start. If it doesn’t, then the premise of the prologue will fail and the unfortunately, reader will judge the writer on that, and not the content of the rest of the story.

Another thing to consider with prologues is that if you do hint at events yet to unfold, or characters that are yet to be revealed, then any ensuing plot twists, sub plots and conflicts created by the prologue must be resolved by the end of the main story, otherwise you will disappoint the reader by leaving plot threads and questions unanswered.
But the one thing that all writers should know where prologues are concerned is that they either work, or they don’t.

In part 2 we’ll look at the disadvantages of using a prologue, and why writers should carefully consider using them before using them in their novel.
Next week: Prologues – The Pros & Cons Part 2

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Scene Breaks – Part 2

In this part we will conclude our look at scene breaks in fiction writing, and why we need them.

Following on from Part 1, where we looked at point 1 –  a change of scene from one location to the other, and point 2 – to show a change of character viewpoint, we’ll continue with the reasons why and how we use them:-

3. To notify the reader that time has progressed from the last scene

Scene breaks are a very easy way to show how time has moved on from one point to the next. It’s possible to skip hours, days or even weeks with a scene break; as long as the writer draws attention to the fact that time will pass by before the next scene, otherwise a jump in time without hinting at it or preparing the reader might confuse the them. For example:

He peered across the River Thames, thought about Eve. Even though she had fled the country, Peter knew he needed to see her, and he wasn’t prepared to wait any longer.  He knew he had to go and find her.


Six hours later, Peter arrived in the Gothic town of Prague…etc.

From the example, it’s obvious that Peter will go after the girl, and it involves travelling, so the notion of time progressing has been hinted at for the reader.  The writer has prepared them. Therefore when the new scene starts, six hours have passed, and it’s straight into the action, without jolting the reader.

4. To move the story forward

Imagine if there were no scene breaks within a novel. It would just go on and on and on and probably wouldn’t be an enjoyable read. It would be like listening to a 10 hour concert without respite – eventually you’d get bored and switch off.

Writers must always move the story forward at every opportunity, and novels need scene breaks, because they are another way of helping to keep the story momentum, and we’ve already looked at ways of doing that with Points 1 and 2 - changes of scene and change of character viewpoints. 

These all work together to keep the story moving forward.

Where should scene breaks be located?

Placement of scene breaks is vital – they should be at the right moment within the story, without letting the narrative drag on and on until there is nothing more to say in the scene, or without prematurely cutting off the scene and thus leaving the scene (and the reader) hanging in mid air. 

Writers often make the mistake of inserting a break at the wrong moment.  The idea is really to break at a moment that would seem natural, or the writer can end the scene like a mini cliff-hanger in order to keep the reader interested.

On the whole, a scene break should occur when everything in a scene has been said, i.e. all necessary information has been imparted and the story is ready to move forward.  Scenes should never drag on. This will bore the reader and make the story untenable.

But how does a writer know exactly when to insert one? 

That’s the million dollar question, and it doesn’t have a definitive answer. That’s because every writer is unique in their writing - their style, their voice and their approach.

In truth, there is no right or wrong. Placing scene breaks comes with experience, when a writer becomes used to the scenes he or she is writing, so they intuitively know when the breaks should be placed. The more you write, and get become better skilled, the more instinctively scene breaks will occur to you.

But what happens if a scene break in your novel happens right at the end of your current A4 page, but you need to show that there is a break in the narrative? Without a way of showing a break, the next page would look like a continuation of the story and thus might confuse the reader.

The way writers get around this is to insert three asterisks, centred, like this:-

* * *

In novels, the general rule is that you don’t asterisize at any time other than if the scene ends right at the foot of your page. For all other scene breaks in novels, use the ‘three returns’ method (or more if working with single line spacing, according to a publisher/editor’s particular requirements).

Short stories are a little different where scene breaks are concerned because you can use either gaps or centred asterisks to denote scene breaks, but it’s always wise check the publisher’s requirements first before submitting your work.

Scene breaks are one of those things that writers don’t really think too much about, but yet are incredibly important because of how versatile they are at showing narrative breaks and transitions.  They are standard cursors to show the editor or publisher that you understand the idea of general story formatting, that you know what you’re doing.

Next week: Prologues – Pros and cons

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Scene Breaks - Part 1

Every story needs scene breaks, but what exactly are they and why do we use them? 
Writers use scene breaks for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, they are a way of showing the reader that there is a normal break in the narrative. This is a way for the reader to take a breather from continual narrative and reflect on previous chapters or scenes.  More importantly, it also gives the writer the opportunity to move the story forward.

There are two ways to denote a scene break. First there is the clean space which leaves a gap between the end of one scene and the beginning of the new scene. The second one is the use of three asterisks centred on the page.  This is known as asterism (from the Greek word for star).
Writers should remember that scene breaks in novels differ slightly from short stories because the requirements in terms of scene breaks can differ between editors and publications.

Where novels are concerned, writers use double line spacing, so to show a scene break they leave a clean blank space between the end of the last scene to the beginning of the new scene, and they do this by pressing the ‘RETURN’ button on the keypad three times:


This ‘three returns’ method then gives a wide enough space to denote to the reader that the new scene is a completely separate scene from the previous one. It defines a nice clear break.

For some short stories, you may be working to a specific requirement of single line spacing (or even 1.5 spacing) requested by an editor or publisher, so it’s appropriate to return four or five times to denote a large enough clean break. It doesn’t have to be precise – these are just guides, after all – but once you do it, you must stick to that throughout the story so that the breaks remain consistent and clean.
So, why do we need scene breaks? Are they really necessary? 

In truth, yes we need them and there are several reasons why they’re required, so I will try to explain how they work and why.

1. To show a change of scene from one location to another

Scenes are never constant; they switch from one place to another to keep the momentum of the story going, so rather than spend two pages describing how the characters move from one location to the next during a lull in the action, or how a scene changes from one to the other, it’s much simpler to insert a break.

The new scene then starts with a new location, without the need for the writer to explain everything. For example:

Jason slammed the phone down, the conversation with David rattling around his head like a loose pebble. He grabbed his car keys and rushed out the door. He got in the car and raced out of the gates, determined to find David.


David’s house looked quiet, but that didn’t mean to say David wasn’t home…

Here, the example shows how a simple scene break helps to magically transport the character and the reader to the next new scene.  It’s done seamlessly and unobtrusively and feels natural to the story.

2. To show a change of character viewpoint

Scene breaks are also a perfect way to show a change of viewpoint from one character to another, and that’s because viewpoints should never change mid-scene. The end result will be confusing and disjointed and won’t be an enjoyable read.

If you want to concentrate viewpoint on a new character, always insert a scene break and start your new scene. For example:

Dave stirred the coffee. ‘Isn’t it about time you kissed and made up with Anna? You two can’t avoid each other forever.’

Jane had initially decided against contacting Anna, but the enforced silence between them now grated against her. It had been so long that she had forgotten what had sparked their fall out three years ago.

‘Too much time has passed,’ Jane said. ‘Besides, there’s too much resentment. She probably hates me even more.’


Anna stared at the photograph of Jane and Dave.  She looked up at her husband.  ‘Look what I just found, hidden in my old purse…’

Here the scene break shows the scene ending with Jane and then beginning a new scene with Anna, with the story from her viewpoint. It’s done cleanly and seamlessly and this is what writers should aim for.

In part 2, we’ll continue our look at why we need scene breaks in our stories, and we’ll also look at knowing when to insert them, because it’s just as important to know when to use them as well as knowing why.

Next week: Scene Breaks – Part 2