Sunday, 29 September 2013

Does there have to be a moral to every story?

Every story has something to say and every story conveys a message to the reader, whether it’s something about the world in general, or about the human condition, and the kind of issues that relate to all of us. These are all relayed through the characters that inhabit the story.
Any intended message can be overt, subtle or implied.
The moral of a story is not to be confused with the author’s personal thoughts and feelings, because as a rule, an author should never personally intrude a story.  Instead, morals are the products of our observations and the issues that impact all of us, and how we can learn and grow from them. 

Think of the snippets of wisdom given to you by your parents or grandparents – these are the basis of various morals adapted by society and used for generations. Our lives are dictated by morality, and fiction is no different.
Even from the dawn of time, storytellers have included morals in their tales; they all want to give us a message of some sort, whether that message is about love or kindness, bravery, courage, loyalty or trust, behaving in the right way or learning from one’s mistakes etc.

Even the most basic stories have something to tell us, but, contrary to belief, constructing a story with a moral template isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Writers, on the whole, tend to make it complicated when there is no need to.
So how it is done?  How do you convey that important moral message?

To begin with, every writer needs to thoroughly understand the kind of story they’re writing because from that basis, the heart of the story and its central themes, and the character’s personal journey, form the moral(s) of the story.
For example, if you have a story about betrayal or revenge, you may have a character that eventually comes to realise that, in the end, forgiveness is better than vengeance because although revenge might feel satisfactory in the short term, it doesn’t alter the situation in the long run. The moral of the story, therefore, is that forgiveness is better than vengeance.

Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ has many strong moral threads, particularly the injustice of slavery for the main character, by having a different coloured skin, and his struggle to become a free man in a land of white people.  The morals here are that skin colour makes no difference; no man is master above another because we are all born equal and it is wrong to prejudge someone.
Think about other stories.  To Kill a Mockingbird also explores racism and prejudice.

Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a moral story about the brutality of and pointlessness of war. It’s a simple message.
Throughout history, writers and poets have used morality within their tales.  There are countless morals to ponder in Aesop’s fables, while Homer’s Odyssey is littered with moralistic dilemmas for Odysseus to overcome and learn from.

Probably the most famous examples of any moralistic stories can be found in the Bible and Koran. Many of the tales involve people who embark on a journey and learn something about themselves and the world around them so that they may become better people.
Your main character’s story involves a personal journey. By the end of that journey they will have changed in some way, they will have learned about themselves, and so their behaviour will change too.  All this is interwoven with the central themes of the story, be them love, hate, revenge, jealousy, murder etc, to form the moral thread.

As you write your story, you will see how such morals are formed by what happens to your characters and how they go about achieving their set goals.  Sometimes we have firm ideas about the morals we want in our stories, while other times they naturally emerge as the story is written.
The strength of voice as the writer also plays an important role in how effective the moral thread is with the reader.  As already mentioned, such threads can be subtle, implied or even hidden within the story.  These are far more preferable for a reader than having it shoved in their faces at every available opportunity.  Don’t preach to your reader, but rather enlighten them. Readers like to figure out things for themselves – it’s one of the things that make reading a well written book so enjoyable.

Don’t get too caught up in trying to invent morals for the story because you think the story must have one. Often, the message emerges naturally as you write the story.  And of course all that depends on the quality of the writing; the strength of the characters and the situations that evoke emotion and empathy, the kind of journey they undertake, the various themes running through the story, and of course the strength of the author’s voice.  Your character must change by the end of the story/novel, and having shared the journey, the reader will too.

So, does there have to be a moral to every story? The answer is that every story has something to say.

Next week: Suspending disbelief for your reader

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Expressing tone in your writing

Setting tone in your stories is one thing, but expressing it is another thing entirely.

When we talk about tone, it generally means the overall quality, exposition and pitch of the writing and the value it brings to the narrative in terms of what it gives to the reader because they need to understand the tone of your novel or story.

The tone is about the writer’s ability to covey thoughts and feelings in relation to the themes that make up the story.  Often writers confuse tone with mood and ‘voice’, but although these aspects complement each other in fiction writing, there are subtle differences between them, and they both have different roles to play within the narrative. 

‘Voice’ is the essence and individual style of the writer coming through the narrative. Mood however, (and its close relation, atmosphere), is the effect created by the writer to evoke a range feelings within the reader – horror, sadness, humour, empathy and compassion etc.

The real importance here is how writers express the tone of the story and how they achieve this.

How do you create Tone?

Think about the tone of someone’s voice when in conversation. The pitch often changes, some words are emphasised by elongation or shortening them and their sounds change, depending on the person’s mood and reactions. 

So in fiction writing, it’s also about choosing the right words in order to convey the right meaning. It’s about the right exposition - emphasising words, changing the sound of them and varying the pitch and pace of them all help create tone.

The nature of a story’s tone is also dictated by the genre.  Romance writers lean towards softer narrative with and fulsome phraseology.  Horror writers will use darker words and emphasise certain words while thriller writers might use tight, concise exposition to create a fast paced tone.

For instance, compare these two paragraphs:-

She looked up from between crinkled sheets at the hazy light forming a seductive veil around the figure sitting by the window. Soft glow highlighted his strong features…
Now the other example:

She snatched the sheets aside and got out of bed.  The rain had stopped, but low light sprinkled the cool maw that clung to the room and bathed her face in a grey cloud…

You can see in the first example how the right words express the tone of narrative, even without knowing what kind of genre it is – words like ‘hazy light’, ‘seductive veil’ and ‘strong features’ all tell us the tone here is about romance.  When compared with the second example, the choice of words is different, the exposition is tight and the use of dark colours clearly tells the reader the kind of tone to expect.
Tone can be delivered in the following ways:

·        Using the right descriptive words
·        Use of imagery – colours and sounds, shadows and light etc.
·        Symbolism
·        Metaphor
·        Pacing and flow of sentences

More examples expressing different tones:
The sound of his mother’s whimpers carried through the musk-laden darkness like a creeping fog, and each hour that passed, her pain whittled against the silence. Locked behind the attic door, he listened as her voice slowly trailed off…
From this example you can hear the dark undercurrent in this extract, emphasised through the choice of words, the pace and flow of the sentences and how they’re pitched. 

Try this example:
Molly jumped against the soft walls of the bouncy castle and she rebounded, falling into a heap with the other children.  Her laugh mingled with a cacophony of voices, like a colourful kaleidoscopic melee…

This example is more buoyant and lighter in tone, made effective simply through choice of words.  Imagine if I had used a different tone:

Molly fell against the walls of the bouncy castle and she rebounded, falling into a heap with the other children.  Her screams mingled with a cacophony of voices, like the screech of caged cats…
See how the tone has dramatically changed, just through the use of different words?  That’s why tone is important in your narrative – the right tone.

You can see how easy tone and mood and authorial voice seem very similar, but each has its own role to play in the composition of a story. And where tone is concerned, once you know the precise nature of the scene you want to craft for your characters, then you can create the right tone.

Next week: Does there have to be a moral to every story?

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Power of Verbs and Nouns

If you have ever wondered how you can make your writing that much stronger, then the power of verbs and nouns might help. Unlike adjectives and adverbs, which actually weaken your writing, the use of strong verbs and nouns make the narrative more dynamic, vibrant and, above all, active in order to help strengthen the narrative considerably.
They are often referred to as ‘action’ words because they are especially useful for the fluidity and motion within sentences, where the subject is ‘doing’ something.  So when it comes to injecting clarity, movement and action, words like walk, grab, run and chop etc., convey to the reader exactly what they need to know. 

They can express the physical (to run, to walk, to fight), they can show a state of being (to appear, to be) or they can show us mental actions (to think, to ponder).

The interesting thing about verbs is that, unlike adverbs and adjectives, they can change in form, and there are several forms that belong to verbs.  For example, the verb to walk has five forms, which have different dynamics to sentences:

To walk, walk, walks, walked and walking.

-To walk with Tom is fun.

-I took a walk with Tom.

-Our walks together are fun.

-I walked with Tom.

-I like walking with Tom.

These examples show the difference with each sentence, whether it is to show past, present or future tense, to show the tone of the narrative and to convey active or passive voice.

One thing writers should always aim for is to make the verb active rather than passive. There are still lots of beginners who get confused with this. For example:
The plant was watered by the manager.

The whole sentence is clunky because of the passive voice.  It doesn’t read well at all.
Now the same sentence, but with active voice:

The manager watered the plant.

The difference is very noticeable and so much better in active voice.  It’s tighter, concise and easier to read and is so much stronger than the passive voice.
What about nouns?  Nouns refer to people, places, animals or things, for instance telephone is a thing, London is a place, a dog is an animal and Tom is a person. For example:

Tom visited London with his dog, Jenny, and used a telephone to call home once he had arrived.

Nouns provide a multitude of functions within sentences – as subjects, as direct objects, as indirect objects, as subject complements or object complements They are everywhere, and without them, writing would be pretty bland.

How do verbs and nouns work?
In fiction writing, verbs and nouns do the work for you.  Using more active verbs enables you to be specific within your writing, and nouns tell us the people, the places, the objects, animals and things. For example:

Tom grabbed the flashlight and listened at the door.  He heard the sound in the hallway, dull thud down each stair. His pulse drummed hard beneath his clammy skin, but despite the fear, he knew he had to investigate
The narrative in this example has ten common nouns – highlighted in bold.  There are also some verbs in there, with the odd adjective just to round the off paragraph. You can see from the example how nouns and verbs help the narrative flow, it’s active, it’s dynamic and it also conveys to the reader the mood of narrative.

Every sentence you write contains verbs and nouns, but because writers tend to rely too much on adjectives and adverbs, which means that there are not enough verbs and nouns in the narrative, for instance:

John was terribly handsome and wore thick black ruffled shirt and was dancing around the floor, showing off to the girls.  His bright blue sparkling eyes majestically caught every girl’s attention…

This whole paragraph is strewn with adverbs and adjectives.  With strong verbs and nouns, the sentence is much better, like this:

John’s blue eyes sparkled as he showed off to the girls gathered around the dance floor. Lean and handsome in his ruffled shirt, he caught every girl’s attention with his dance moves.

While it’s true that you can’t eradicate every adverb or adjective from your narrative – sometimes some of these words are required – you can minimise the amount you use.  Writers often rely too much on adjectives, and there is such thing as adjective overload.  All they do is clog the narrative.

Another thing writers don’t always see is the adverb usage.  Read through your manuscript/story and you will find more adverbs than you thought you had, guaranteed.  Weed them out, prune, cut back and reassemble using verbs and nouns and see the difference.
Remember the maxim: let your verbs and nouns do the work.

Next week: Expressing tone in your writing.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

How Important is Writing Style?

To know how important it is – or not – it’s best to get a feel for what writing style is all about.
Plenty of writers are under the impression that in order to be a successful, published author, they must create and promote their own distinctive and characteristic writing style, but the truth is by doing that, they could be cultivating some bad habits instead.

The truth is, writing styles are not something that writers typically think about, but rather something that develops naturally over time.
Writing style is as much to do with individuality as it is about writing.  It’s about how the writer presents the words to the reader, how well he or she knows the beauty of the language, how well a fiction world or fictional characters are blended together, how each sentence starts and ends, how each paragraph is unified with the narrative, how narrative and description are invented.  It’s how well a writer tells their tale.

In order to force style into their writing, writers tend to be deliberately arty or literary, or even worse, they try to be clever.  They do this by copying successful, famous authors and their writing styles, little realising that what works for the popular author, doesn’t necessarily work for Joe Writer.  That’s where bad habits creep in, so purposefully creating a writing style doesn’t work. 

Writing style develops as the writer does.  A writer’s work starts to become multifaceted and multidimensional, where before it may have been flat and uninspiring.  The writer begins to notice a difference in his or her work. There is a great force at work the more a writer actually writes – self-awareness. 
Becoming aware of the nature of the written word and truly understanding the intricacies created through description is a light bulb moment.  That’s because the style of writing has come to a point where it stands out to the writer – it has evolved naturally.
And once it does happen, the writer will instinctively know because writing will become almost seamless, and much easier, and the writer will become comfortable with their work.

But how important is it?
It’s only as important as an individual wants it to be.  Style is about individuality and originality.  Often readers can spot an author’s particular style, whether that might be short and succinct, colourful and lavish, brash and gritty, or just plain quirky.  And readers get to like certain styles.

What if I don’t develop my own style of writing?
You will; it just takes time.  It’s not an instant process.  Sometimes it can take months, sometimes years.  It depends upon how much work the writer does, how quickly they develop and the experience they gain.  It personally took me almost a decade to finally find my ‘style’.  But once I did find it, I became immediately at ease with my writing.  It was like climbing into a lovely, comfy seat moulded just for me.

Good writing – and writing style – invites us to read.  It should never be about trying to be different or cool or trendy, nor should it be about fitting into what you think publishers want, because they will see right through it.
Take the time to develop and cultivate your own style. Your writing will be better off for it.

Next week:  The power of verbs and nouns