Saturday, 31 May 2014

Creating Suspense & Atmosphere – Part 1

Firstly, let’s start with suspense.
Writers love nothing more than dangling an imaginary carrot in front of readers, teasing them to the point that they can barely stand the suspense. But carrot dangling is one of the most effective ways of creating suspense, making the reader desperate to know what happens next. It keeps them turning the page.
There are several factors that create suspense:-

  • Characterisation and reader empathy
  • The reader’s concern and worry
  • Anticipation and expectation
  • Exploitation of fears and emotions
  • Impending danger and high stakes
  • Escalating tension and climax
Characterisation and Empathy

Reader empathy is about giving the main character(s) a deep desire to reach his or her goal and we also give them internal and external struggles to deal with, the kind that readers can identify with, the kind they have been through themselves – things like fears and hopes, or feelings of loneliness, being on the outside and looking in, not being understood, feeling unwanted etc.

We all have hopes and fears. We all have strengths and weaknesses.  We all have vulnerabilities. So should your characters. In essence, they are just like us.
The key is to create the kind of characters that have desires and needs and plans. In other words, complete characterisation. The more we know about a character, the more we empathise with them. And the more a reader can empathise with the character’s struggles, the more likely they are to connect with that character and the story; they start to care about that character and what happens to them.
Once that happens, they will instinctively worry about what happens to them, just like in real life when we worry about the people we care about.
Creating suspense is all about creating a sense of uncertainty.
The reader’s concern and worry
Think about novels you’ve read. Suspense usually builds when characters find themselves in danger.  What will happen to them? How will they escape the danger? What kind of danger is it? How will it threaten them? Is it physical, emotional or psychological?
Whj WWWWhen you show that something terrible might happen to the characters they care about, then you have created a sense of suspense. You are dangling that imaginary carrot; you are effectively holding the Sword of Damocles over their heads throughout the story. This creates apprehension and tension and above all, suspense, right until the last page.
And suspense is all about anticipation and escalating the tension, to keep tightening the screw, to bring the whole story to the boil for the climax.
Anticipation and Expectation
Create a sense of both anticipation and expectation for the characters and the reader. They need to anticipate the end goal, yet the expectation is high and seemingly out of reach.
Have the main character fail at certain points, so expectation is dashed, but then build it back up again with more expectation. It’s a rollercoaster – it creates tension and suspense in equal measure.
Don’t be predictable with tension and suspense either. For example, if you have a story about zombies and a character is trying to escape them, and he or she finds an abandoned house to hide in…we all know what will happen. Zombies will find the house and attack the character. This is predictable writing, so the way around it to be unpredictable.
By being unpredictable, you create a sense of suspense, because readers won’t truly know what will happen next.
Exploitation of fears and emotions
We all have fears and phobias. Your main characters will be no different. Is your character afraid of heights? Then place him in a situation where he has to face that fear.  Fear of the dark, fear of spiders or rats, fear of death…all of these are common to most people, so they will identify with your character the moment they come face to face with those fears.
This is exploitation of fears – you are exploiting fears within the reader, but also fears that your main character has.
Writers also build atmosphere and suspense by manipulating emotions.  Emotion is such a strong feeling – we all feel it, and so will the reader.  If you show the main character’s emotions changing in response to conflict and confrontation, immediate danger or a life changing event, then you will be able to create a sense of suspense and build on it to keep your reader turning the page.
Never be afraid to make it personal for the main character. It may not necessarily mean his or her life is in immediate danger, but it might be their child or a mother or father is in danger. This leads to what is known as high stakes, and it ramps up the emotions. 
Impending danger and High Stakes
Knowing what is at stake for your main character should come at the beginning or very early on in the story. Immediately we know what is at risk – life, the world, something personal…whatever it is, let the reader share it. They will become emotionally invested from the outset, so when it looks like everything will fail, but doesn’t quite, it creates suspense.
Always try to keep the stakes high. Create danger and fear, create conflict. This could be in the form of isolating the main character – without friends to help, how will he or she cope? How will they evade the danger?
Writers love making their characters vulnerable, for instance your protagonist is fleeing a pack of rabid dogs through woodland, but he drops the knife that would have given him some protection. What now? What can he do? The dogs will tear him to pieces…or will they?
Escalating tension and climax
A writer should always apply pressure and push the protagonist to his or her limits, right to end the end of the story. In other words, keep escalating the tension.
By creating dilemmas and seemingly unsolvable problems and challenges, then placing barriers in their way, you create tension and suspense. This will resonate with the reader and keep them hooked.
Nothing should ever be straightforward for your protagonist or your antagonist. Push, pressurise, create conflicts, take them to the brink until the climax…never make it an easy ride. Not for your characters and not for the reader.
In a nutshell, suspense is all about creating a sense of what happens next?
Who knows?
In Part 2 we’ll look at creating atmosphere and how it works in relation to suspense and they keep the reader on the edge of their seats.

Next week: Creating Suspense & Atmosphere – Part 2

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Writing Love Scenes

There aren’t that many writers who don’t like writing action scenes or descriptive scenes. But few things give writers the jitters more than having to write love scenes. They can prove troublesome even for the more experienced writers.
Buy why? Surely they’re not that difficult?
The answers to these questions depend on the writer, the story and the ever-changing writing landscape. The difficulties come in various guises.
Firstly, many writers just aren’t into writing about the love and sex and would rather bypass it than try to even string any description together. They would much rather concentrate on action or violence or something else entirely. It’s just not for them.
And more often than not, when we have zero interest in something, we have zero interest in writing about it. I fall into this category simply because love scenes bore me. I’m not interested in reading it and I don’t want to write too much about it. This is why I have zero interest in romance stories.
Unless you are specifically writing a romance story, you’ll find that love scenes aren’t really a necessity. They often serve only to titillate the reader or act as a “filler” to prop up the story and fill a page or two. Movies do exactly the same thing.
Those writers who are not interested in love scenes instead hint at what might happen between the characters, thus leaving the readers to their own imaginations. This is a preferable alternative that works well.
Other writers choose to ignore the obligatory love scene altogether and just get on with the story. Unless the story absolutely demands the scene, why bother writing one? Get on with the story.
Other writers are just too shy to write love or sex scenes because they know that their nearest and dearest may read what they’ve written, and that might prove embarrassing. What will Auntie Mildred think? What will your kids say? What will your mother say? It leaves the writer feeling uncomfortable, however the way around this is to remember that love and sex is part of life; it’s perfectly natural, so it’s just as natural to write about.
Something else to think about is that love scenes can also be annoying. And that’s because too often they sound very cheesy and cliché ridden. Love and sex scenes are always in danger of becoming caricature; something that ends up reading like a Barbara Cartland romance novel. No writer wants to be ridiculed over badly written love scenes, but many still get it totally wrong because they forget about the reality of it and fall into the trap of overblown, rose-tinted romance.
There is also a danger that any love scene can be underwritten or overwritten. There is a fine balance between keeping it real and writing it so that it doesn’t sound like a trashy romance novel.
So, how do you write love scenes that won’t sound corny, trashy or ridiculous?
I mentioned before about reality. This is when romance novels differ from other genre novels. Romance is formulaic – boy meets girl, girl dislikes boy because he’s rough around the edges/dominant/a bit of a bad boy/rich and powerful etc., then boy goes about getting the girl, girl finally melts into his arms, they live happily ever after.
Reality is very different. This is the 21st century, not the 18th century. Real men and women act and react very differently, in different situations. Think about the context of the story and how it affects your characters.
Many writers fall into the trap of having their characters fall in love half way through the novel, despite not showing any sign of attraction in the first half of the story. Unfortunately this is cliché. It happens in movies too. Readers will see it coming before the first kiss happens, so there is little impact.
Hint at what will come, show the attraction, but keep it subtle. This will help generate interest for the reader, so when your characters do finally get together, the impact is increased, not diluted. Remember, you have to tease the reader at every opportunity.
Clichés occur because writers still write some scenes like old romance novels.  For example:-
She ran her hands over his taut, muscular chest and gazed into his bright blue eyes. They glittered with lust.
He pulled her close, cupped her face as he leaned in, his breath hot and needy, then…
Then the reader threw up into a bucket because it was so cheesy.
Think reality, think context of the scene and think about your characters – what would they really do?
The effectiveness of love scenes also depends on the strength of the writing and how you write it. Dare to be different. Many writers succeed at love scenes because they make it gritty, or they get to the point by avoiding clichés.  Others take the literary route and render a scene with beautiful description without making it tacky.
Some of the best love scenes I’ve read don’t read like love scenes. That’s because the writers have shown them in context and they’ve shown realism; they’ve been gritty or fresh and they haven’t allowed the scene to become over-written. For example:-
Reluctance lodged between them and dusted their minds with uncertainty and yet she felt compelled to touch his hand; a subtle invitation that made his mouth twitch into a nervous smile.
He gripped her hand; saw her expression change along with the contours of her face beneath the fragile light, and at that moment he felt something; a sensation he’d never felt before.
This is description of that first contact between two lovers. It shows the context of the situation and the realism of feeling nervous and a little shy as a prelude to that first kiss. It doesn’t rely on cliché. The choice of words makes the description work.
Love scenes can and do work, but only if well written. We all have strengths and weaknesses, so if love scenes are your weakest link, either avoid them or practice writing them.
Remember the following:-

  • Avoid cliché and clichéd phrasing
  • Keep it in context
  • Getting to the point sometimes works
  • Make it different – it all depends on your descriptive skills
  • Cast aside the idea that all your family will read it. Just write what you feel comfortable writing.

Most of all, ask yourself: does the story absolutely need a love scene? If not, don’t write one. If it does, then think carefully about how you construct it. Choose your words wisely.
Next week: Creating suspense and atmosphere

Saturday, 17 May 2014

How to Motivate Your Characters

Every writer will know just how important characterisation is. It’s what gives characters their unique characteristics, it’s what makes them seem real to their readers.
One of the aspects of characterisation is motivation – the reasons why your characters do what they do.  What are the reasons behind their actions? What is it that drives them to act in a certain way, sometimes contrary to their personalities?
Motivation is one of the driving forces with any story. It is what makes them achieve their goal by the end of a novel, and it is what makes them change in either their personality or outlook, it is what makes their journey so tenable and believable for a reader.
More fundamentally, it moves the story forward.
But how do you keep your characters motivated (and more importantly, your readers interested?).
Writers use various ways to do this – Goals, obstacles, subplots and conflict. These main drivers, when combined, form a powerful fiction writing mix.
If you’ve been wise enough to sketch out a plot summary, then you will have an idea of what will happen during the course of the story and you may have an ending in mind. That means you’ve already assigned a specific goal for your main character to achieve, e.g. save the world or find the truth or prevent disaster, that kind of thing.
If you haven’t written a plot summary, you may not always know where the story is heading, and character goals may not be so apparent, or they may change considerably by the end of the novel (which means some of the character motivations may not make sense).
Of course, it’s not just your main character that will require motivation. You might also have an antagonist who also has his or her own objectives to achieve (usually to thwart to hero reaching his or her goals in some way or another).
There is no rule to say a character must have just one affirming objective in a story, either. They could have several. So by setting your character several objectives, you are motivating the characters to do certain things and to act in certain ways in order to get what they want.
By doing that, you are moving the story forward.
No story would be worth reading unless you place plenty of obstacles in the way of your characters.  Just when your character (and the reader) thinks the goal is in sight, you throw a curve ball, you knock them back. Your characters are not there for an easy ride. The writer should make life difficult for the main characters.
By placing obstacles in their way, you are creating new motivations for the characters – the motivation to overcome the knock backs, to beat the odds, to get out of difficult situations, and to succeed in reaching that ultimate goal.
You should push your characters in different directions, make them act, react or adapt.
By making their lives difficult and pushing them to the limit, you are once again moving the story forward.
These extra plot strands - pertinent to and parallel with your main plot – can provide extra motivation for your characters, because subplots will involve secondary characters directly involved with the main character, and they will interact with your main character. That means they will have their own ideas and objectives.
How you make your characters interact within these subplots will provide impetus for keeping your story moving towards the conclusion. It may be that your main character’s goals change focus because of a subplot, therefore the motivation may change and new objectives come into play.
Conflict is absolutely necessary in fiction. Without it, you don’t have much of a story.
Creating different conflicts reaffirms any character’s motivations, because of the negative and positive aspects associated with it. Just as obstacles provide necessary motivation, the same is true with conflict.  That’s because one character wants one thing, but another character may disagree and try to prevent it, thus creating conflict (and new motivation).
The more conflict you have with different characters, the more incentive you give them in order to get what they want.
And just like goals, obstacles and sub plots, conflict is a vital ingredient in moving the story forward.
If you want to motivate your characters, make sure you give them achievable objectives, give them plenty of hurdles and difficulties to overcome, weave in a subplot or two and above all, give them something to fight about – conflict.

Next week: Writing love scenes

Saturday, 10 May 2014

General Rules for Formatting Your MSS

These rules are for those who still wish to seek publication through the traditional route, and therefore they don’t strictly apply to those who are self-publishing and therefore may follow different formatting routes.
The idea of manuscript formatting is to make your MSS polished and presentable to agents and publishers, because it’s not just your story that needs to impress them.  A well-presented manuscript is just as important – it shows them that you have taken the time and effort with your MSS and you care about the standard of the work you’ve created.
Unless agents and publishers they specifically ask for certain formats, most go with the accepted standard manuscript format, which these guidelines follow.  They are not my guidelines, but simply what is accepted within the publishing industry.
Correct Margins
Your margins should be minimum 1” all round (Word uses the 2.54cm default, which is perfectly acceptable).  Don’t make them any smaller in order to fit more text on the page, because it detracts from reading.
The reason for the margins, other than making your text look neat and presentable, is that it allows editors to make notes in the margins as they read your MSS.
The Ragged Right Principle
The other thing to do is align your text from the left margin.  Ah, but isn’t it better to fully justify the text – it makes everything neat, after all?
Not necessarily. You might be in the habit of using fully justified text, but the big disadvantage is that you end up with large gaps of white between some words, and it also causes problems with hyphenated words and spaces after full stops.
And think about it – we naturally read from left to right. So a left aligned margin helps with readability. Also known as right-ragged, it’s preferred simply because it doesn’t cause the text to stretch out or cause any problems.  The other main advantage is that there are no large gaps after a full stop.
Don’t Use Fancy Fonts
Editors don’t want to see narrative in a font that they’re going to find hard to read. It will mean instant rejection.
Most agents/publishing houses stipulate they either want Arial or Times New Roman font, or sometimes Courier.  (Always check their requirements). Text is always black.
These are standard fonts used in the publishing industry and very easy on the eye, so it makes their jobs much easier, and it makes your manuscript much easier to read.
The size, as a general rule, is 12pt. This is just the right size for readability and presentation. Anything smaller could make the job of reading the manuscript quite jarring. Anything bigger and the narrative will look strange and will instantly turn a 200 page novel into a 300 page one.
Get the Line Spacing Right
There are quite a few variations regarding line spacing, depending on what the publisher requires.  It’s best to check what they prefer before you make any submissions, but most of them like double-line spacing, (2.0) again because it has been an industry standard for generations.
Again, it all comes down to readability and presentation. The spacing allows editors to make notes or corrections about the narrative. Of course, that’s not to say that 1.5 spacing isn’t acceptable either, because many agents and publishers ask for it, but check their requirements.
Don’t ever use single line spacing for a novel. This is universally hated, and may mean instant rejection.
Never print out your MSS double sided. Single sided only.
The key to getting it right with your preferred agents/publishers is to check what they prefer. They can vary, and it’s worth getting it right.
Indent Paragraphs
It sounds obvious, and it is, but there are plenty of writers who are careless and leave out the indented paragraphs, meaning all the narrative is presented with justified, hanging paragraphs.
Each new paragraph should be indented about 1cm (use the tab key or the format menu). 
It goes without saying that you should start a new page to denote a new chapter. They tend to written in capitals i.e. CHAPTER 1, or CHAPTER ONE.  Leave several blank lines between the chapter heading and the narrative. (Keep this consistent).
Italicised Text
I get asked a lot about this so it seems there is a lot of conflicting information available on the web that italics can be used to denote internal thoughts, emphasised text or languages etc.
The general rule is that whenever you want to show italics, simply underline the text. This makes it easy for the editor reading your MSS to see the formatting. Don’t assume that you can use italics – some publishers don’t like it, hence the underline method. 
Always check with in-house publishing requirements first.
Cover Page, Headers/Footers
Your MSS will need a cover page.  This will state the name of your novel, your name as the writer (particularly if you have a pseudonym) and your full actual name. It will also state how many words the novel is (to the nearest 1000 words) and your contact details.
You won’t have to point out to the agent or publisher that is copyrighted – it’s copyrighted automatically by virtue of you having written it.
Number your pages from start to finish. (You don’t number the cover page).
In the header, put your name and the title of the novel. (Note – this is not set in stone – there are lots of variations and advice about headers and footers, but as long as you have the right information, that’s all that matters).
And the obvious…
Ensure your sample chapters are as perfect as they can be. That means no spelling mistakes, bad punctuation and no grammar gaffes.  Your MSS has to be perfect in every way.
While lots of agents and publishers accept digital submissions, there may be a need for them to see printed hard copies, so make sure you use good quality white paper, 80gsm/90gsm. Don’t print on coloured paper. It must be white.
If you are sending printed pages, don’t staple or pin your MSS, or bind it. Don’t use fancy plastic folders, agents and publishers don’t like them. A simple loose elastic band is sufficient to keep everything together.
So, there they are, the standard guidelines to help you format your manuscript. Just remember there will be variations in requirements from publisher to publisher, and requirements may differ in the US compared to the UK and Europe. The golden rule is, always check before you submit.
Next week: Why you must motivate your characters

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Dialogue Dilemmas - Part 3

In this last part of Dialogue Dilemmas we’ll look at some more aspects of the technical side of dialogue – the correct use of punctuation. Things like dialogue tags and question marks continue to confuse some writers, simply because they don’t always know exactly where they should go.
Then of course, there are different ways of expressing quotation marks, depending on whether you’re writing for the US or UK market, so there are lots of things with dialogue structure that can still trip you up.
Quotation marks
One of the areas of uncertainty for many writers is the use of the type of quotation marks when denoting speech. This is where things become less clear, because there are some differences between British and American formats.
American convention usually prefers double quotation marks “ ” to show dialogue, whereas British convention likes the use of single quotation marks ‘ ’.
Neither is incorrect, however, it is worth checking with any publication or publisher to find out what their preferred requirements are before you submit work to them.
Question and exclamation marks
Questions marks and exclamation marks should never prove difficult, once you know where they are placed within dialogue, but another thing that seems to baffle writers come through the of question or exclamation marks, and whether the dialogue tags that follow the punctuation should be capitalised.
Firstly, question or exclamation marks should be placed within quotation marks, not outside, as the example below shows.
‘Where does it go?’ he asked.
As you can see form the example above, dialogue tags, (he said/she said etc), when used together with question marks or exclamation marks, are not capitalised. That’s because they are still a protraction of the speaker. For instance:
‘I guess you won’t want that envelope then?’ she asked, suspicious.
As you can see, the tag, ‘she asked’ should not be capitalised because it is a continuation of the whole sentence. Capitalising the tags will make a potential editor think you’re an amateur. Tags should only be capitalised if a full stop ends the sentence.
The one thing you should never do is use double exclamation marks or question marks in order to make the effect more dramatic.
‘Something like this!!’ she said.
The dialogue doesn’t need it. Whether it is narrative or dialogue, use one question mark or one exclamation mark only.
Quotations within Quotations
Sometimes you may be presented with the need to highlight a character quoting from something or someone else with dialogue, and this might present you with a moment of head-scratching or even panic.
How quotes within quotes are presented would depend if you are working with single or double quotation marks (depending on US or UK styles).
If, therefore, you are using double quotation marks for dialogue, you would use single marks to denote the quote.
If you are using single quotation marks for dialogue, then you would use double quote marks to denote the quote.
Using single quote marks to denote a quote within US style double quotation marks would look like these examples:
“I saw John today. Have you read his new article, ‘All the Pretty Flowers’?” David asked.
She looked up. “He said, ‘I hate you’.”
Now here are the same examples, but with UK style single quotation marks:
‘I saw John today. Have you read his new article, “All the Pretty Flowers”?’ David asked.
She looked up. ‘He said, “I hate you”.’
Dashes in Dialogue
Sometimes, when characters are in conversation, one may be cut off by another character or might be interrupted by something.  It’s a useful way of showing a dramatic cut off while a character is speaking.
In order to show this, writers use what’s known as an em-dash (–) which is so called because it is roughly the width of the letter m. This is a slightly longer dash than the n-dash, which is the width of the letter n (often used with dates e.g. 1989-1999, or between two words, e.g. machine-filled).
When a line of dialogue is interrupted, however, we use the em-dash:
‘I thought you better than that, you have no–’
‘Shut up, Jason,’ she cut in. ‘You’re so full of cr–’
‘That’s enough!’
Use of Thoughts in Dialogue
You can use thoughts in dialogue. And, as narrative, it is a useful way of showing some details of character to the reader without obvious character interaction. That means the reader can be privy to some things that the characters in the story won’t know.
Also known as interior monologue, it can be structured in same way as narrative. You don’t have to use italics to denote internal thoughts, but whatever you choose, just make sure it’s consistent throughout the story.
For example:
‘I told Dad we’re moving house,’ she said.
‘Was he pleased?’ John asked.
‘He was really happy for us,’ she said.
Yeah, right…
There is a lot more than meets the eye with dialogue structure, but once you know how to construct it and punctuate it properly, it should not pose any problems.

Next week: General rules for formatting your MSS