Saturday, 24 January 2015

Sorting Fact from Fiction

Sometimes it’s very easy to get so carried away when writing a novel that the lines between fact and fiction often become blurred.
It means that writers sometimes end up mixing fact with fiction (otherwise known as faction), which isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s been done for years and is extremely common. There is nothing wrong with using real places or events as a backdrop or setting for your fictional characters. There is nothing wrong with using historical figures within the story, but bear in mind that you can’t really put words into their mouths and treat them as you would fictional characters, because you cannot truly know their personalities, so you can’t presume to know what they would say or do. Also, you can’t write about what is unobserved. It’s a very thin line to tread, so for beginner writers, it’s best avoided.
Writers blend fiction with fact because they can apply a fair amount of artistic licence to the story, but mixing known facts with fiction requires attention and focus from the writer to ensure these two elements blend in a way that seems perfectly natural and factual to the reader, without deliberately misleading them.
Novels such as The Da Vinci Code used many fictional elements and tried to pass them as fact. This is where fiction and fact become blurred and misleading.
The dilemma for the writer is to sort fact from fiction in order to maintain a sense of reality. And that means any writing, no matter if a novel or a short story, should always aim for clarity. Writers should ensure that the facts don’t get swallowed or overshadowed by the story. Some good examples are Roots, by Alex Haley, or In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
When done correctly, the factual lends a voice to the fiction. That said, facts are not fiction or vice versa, so it’s important to keep them separate if you are aiming for clarity, but you want to reflect reality within your story without distorting, changing or even erasing the truth.
So, how do you sort fact from fiction?
Facts are what we know as true. This is important from a research point of view because writers should avoid warping the facts (unless the novel is specifically a sci-fi or fantasy novel and such facts can be subject to manipulation), because readers are very astute and will pick up on inaccurate information or deliberate bending of the truth.  For instance, the assassination of President Kennedy happened on 22 November, 1963. That’s a factual occurrence you cannot change, so writers have to understand that factual elements such as these form the interior strength to your novel by providing an accurate background.
Don’t try to fool the reader by skirting around facts or making them up as you go along – they won’t thank you. This is especially important if you are writing an historical novel using fictional events around factual characters, or fictional characters interacting with historical events.
Whenever you research for your novel or story, the first place you might look is the internet. It is an ocean full of information, but not all of that information is accurate. And because facts are vital to back up any story, the approach to research should be thorough. That means writers should double check everything and cross reference any facts they wish to use. Sometimes the best way to do that is the old fashioned way – by going to the library.
Sources for factual information:
  • Internet – some sites like Wikipedia, are full of flawed information, so don’t think that anything here is established fact.
  • Library – probably the best place to research and cross reference your information.
  • Groups, Associations or Organisations – they can provide the kind of information that isn’t always easy to come by.
Remember, if you miss anything or your facts are full of errors, the reader will spot it and it will put them off reading anything else you’ve written. If you can’t get your facts right, why should they bother reading any of your work?
Even though we’re in the business of writing fiction, that does not mean we have to ignore the facts. If you are writing about a specific period in time, ensure that you reflect the reality of it. If you are writing about an actual place, again, make sure you have the correct information to describe it and integrate it into your narrative.
  • Don’t ignore research.
  • Don’t make up ‘facts’ and pass them off as accurate.
  • Don’t deliberately mislead your reader with facts
  • Double check/cross reference your research – be thorough.
  • Aim for clarity – ensure the facts endorse the fiction.
  • Keep it simple.
Fact and fiction can co-exist in any novel. Just be clear that facts remain facts and the fiction doesn’t envelop them.
Next week: Reading your novel out loud

Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters - Part 3

In the last part of this series about a novel being more than just a plot or characters, we’ll take a look at some of most overlooked elements of novel writing, the kind of things that are either simply ignored or barely shown by writers – Setting, Background and Time.
Does it matter about setting? Is the reader likely to care even if the setting is hardly mentioned?
Again, setting is one of those elements that writers pay less attention to, but shares equal importance with any part of a well-constructed novel. The setting tells the reader where and when the story takes place – whether it’s just one location or many.  They can be real settings or fictitious, but whichever they are, the setting gives the reader more information, instead of an empty story.  The more information the author can supply, the stronger the story.
Many writers make the mistake of either not making the setting known, or they go overboard with far too much description that the result is badly written and quite boring for the reader.
Clever writers often use setting rather like a painting backdrop. A brief description is enough for the reader to build a picture in his or her mind, rather like brushstrokes on a canvas. The best way to help the reader understand the setting it is to sprinkle the narrative with palatable snippets so that the description doesn’t overwhelm the reader in large, daunting chunks.
So, whether the novel is set in the Civil War, the Wild West, warn-torn Europe or the middle of space, make sure the reader knows from the outset.
A thoroughly researched background will give your reader plenty to think about, not only in terms of your characters but also in terms of the setting and the things that are happening around the characters. 
Think of that oil painting again. It's just as important to know what is happening in the background, as well as the foreground. Brief, vivid descriptions will bring a background to your reader's attention, and will enable your reader to see the whole picture, without destroying the whole view.
And, just as with a setting, make your reader aware of where the action is happening, but drop some hints about the circumstances of the story, the reasons why the events are happening in that particular setting with your characters.
Background can be anything that relates to the story and your characters. Take the Civil War example. There is plenty of background here – the turmoil of war, the experience of those who lived through it, the stakes...they all form the background to a story.
Just don’t ignore it; otherwise you’ll leave your reader guessing.
Does your story have a sense of time?  Again, it’s one of those things writers rarely think about, but every story has a time – the period in which the writer tells that story.
It doesn’t matter if your novel takes place in a 24 hour period or spans generations, what is important is that the reader understands this adequately. It is surprising how many writers fail to tell the reader what time of day or night it is in a novel, instead they concentrate on all the action.  
A writer doesn’t have to necessarily tell the actual time to the reader to do this, unless the story involves a clock, or clock-watching, as part of a motif, however, any subtle hint is enough for the reader to understand the time of day or year. The setting of the sun will tell the reader evening is approaching. The glare of streetlights or the moon denotes night time. The long shadows cast by the sun in the afternoon shows the reader.
Writers can also hint at the seasons to show the reader the time of year without blatant exposition, for instance the leaves on the ground in autumn, the fresh crisp air or the touch of frost of winter, or the sweat and discomfort of heat in the summer. All it needs is a little artistic thought.
But what about days, months or even years? How can a writer show the passage of time without writing about every minutiae? Again, there is no need for huge descriptions, but rather hints at the passage of time.
Writers do this in a number of ways:
  • New chapters or sections allow the writer to show a time shift. From one chapter to the next, the writer can show that time has moved on.
  • Transitional scenes – they bridge the gap between one moment of time to another by hinting it in the preceding scene, either done through narrative or dialogue – and then start a new scene in the new time frame.
  • Indirect exposition – this hints within the narrative or a character’s dialogue that time will elapse, so when the next scene starts, the reader will know that a certain amount of time has passed.
Whatever method you choose, always let the reader know when, where and how. The more information you give them, the more committed to the story they become and the stronger your story becomes.
It’s very easy to miss out a lot of these elements simply because we don’t consciously think about everything, but the more a writer understands these essentials, the easier it will be to write a fully realised novel.
Next week: Sorting fact from fiction

Sunday, 11 January 2015

A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters - Part 2

Part 1 looked at some of the more obvious elements that make a novel, things like plot, characters, subplots and viewpoints. Part 2 will look at those elements that are less obvious to writers, ones they wouldn’t normally stop and think about.
A good novel needs themes. Themes form the moral fibre of the story. Plenty of writers worry over what themes – if any – should be included, or how they should be used, but more often than not, some themes grow organically with the story. 
You might have a couple of themes already in mind. For romance writers, themes of love, betrayal, deceit and happiness are usual staple fare. For thriller and crime writers, themes of revenge and death or hatred tend to be top of the list, for horror writers main themes might be death, resurrection, the black arts etc. 
But the interesting thing about any story is that, aside from main themes, smaller sub-themes also emerge.
Themes help to connect the reader with the story and the characters, because they are associated with emotions – we feel the giddiness of love, we feel the sting of betrayal; we stew in our hatred of someone or something. We identify with the feeling of loss or grief. We know what it’s like to feel sad. We can empathise with the characters. We feel what they are feeling.
That’s why themes are so important, they help the reader identify with the characters and the story, they bring the reader closer.
Every story should have conflict because it’s the driving force of your story, the fuel that stokes the narrative fire.
A good story can’t survive without conflict. In a story with no conflict, nothing happens. If nothing happens, then there is no story to tell.
Conflict can mean many things. It doesn’t just mean two people getting into a fight or a huge argument. There are different types of conflict, some which don’t involve violence or arguments. Some are subtle, such as wanting to buy an engagement ring for your sweetheart, but not having enough money. Or perhaps someone has told you some information about your best friend, and you’ve been sworn to secrecy. What about choosing which dress to wear? The red one or the blue one? All of these are varying forms of conflict.
There are three kinds of conflict (which can be broken into sub-conflicts):
  • Man against man
  • Man against nature
  • Man against himself
In a novel there will always be the main conflict, and usually takes the form of the protagonist versus the antagonist. This is man against man.  Then there might be a struggle between the main character and himself, an internal conflict, perhaps a fear of something, but he knows he must overcome the fear to save the day, which is man against himself.
From these three types, you can create as many sub-conflicts. But remember, if you create conflict, you must also resolve it by the end of the novel.
How many writers fail to add backstory? 
It’s often overlooked because writers, beginners especially, simply don’t think about it, while others don’t think it important enough. But it is important. Without a splash of backstory here and there, your reader will never know why your main character acts or reacts in a certain way to something or someone.  
Backstory provides the reader with snippets of explanation to help with plot points in order to move the story forward and, most of all, it helps with characterisation. For instance, you may have a character who was abused as a child – this will have an impact on him or her in the present, so therefore drop some of these backstory hints into the narrative so that the reader can understand your character’s actions and reactions.
How is it done? Backstory doesn’t have to take the form of an info dump over two or three pages – it could be a couple of sentences or a paragraph. Think of little morsels on a fishing line. Go fishing every now and then.
But backstory is important – it lets your reader know why and how, it helps them understand.
How many writers pay attention to the structure of their novel? Surprisingly, there are plenty of writers that don’t yet understand the concept of structure.
But what is meant by novel structure?
The structure of a novel needs to be solid – it’s the framework by which your narrative will form to help it flow from the opening sentence to the closing sentence. The basic structure is made up of three acts – the beginning, the middle and the end.
The beginning is the set up – what the story is about, whose story it is, why they are on that journey and the conflicts that will arise from it.
The middle is the story and how it develops through a series of obstacles and conflicts, each one escalating in tension as the main character overcomes them, until finally it leads to the climax, the ultimate crisis moment.
The ending is that final conflict, the end game, quickly followed by the resolution, where the main character changes in some way, they’ve learned something about themselves and all loose ends are resolved.
The flow of the story should – if it were plotted on a graph – slowly escalate, constantly moving up towards the pinnacle, the denouement – the climax.  It should also graduate logically – in other words it should all make sense as it progresses, rather than deviate or go off on a tangent, otherwise you are in danger of confusing the reader.
Most of all, every story structure should have a great beginning, a solid middle and a powerful ending.
In the concluding part of this series, we’ll look at the other, less known aspects of what a fully conceived novel should contain.
A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters – Part 2

Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters – Part 1

There are many parts that make a novel and without them, the structure of a novel wouldn’t exist. Every writer knows that there should be a plot – the basic story structure – and that the story will have characters, but they won’t always know about the other ingredients that make a good novel.
In the first of this three part series, we’ll take a look at the obvious elements that all would be novelists will either already know or should have some basic knowledge about. These are the easy ones for writers to concentrate on. But of course, there are others, less well known, that help make a novel whole.
So let’s look at the basics:
A plot is the skeleton of the basic story. It involves a series of events that happen throughout the story, through the eyes of its characters, and happens in a certain sequence.
A basic plot would be: ‘The hero has 24 hours in which to solve a series of puzzles set by a psychotic killer, who is holding his family hostage…’
In simple terms, it’s how the hero goes from point A to point B and finally achieves point C.
No story is complete without a compliment of well-defined characters to populate the story.
Characters have to have meaning. They shouldn’t be in a story if they don’t actually do much and don’t contribute to the story (except to be a specific background character). Characters should never make up the numbers.  Every character you create must count. Every character must be there for a reason.
There are a number of characters that inhabit a novel. There are lot of sources that say the number of character types ranges from seven to over twelve types, but most of these are just sub-divisions of the basic character development, for example, rounded characters or static characters.
All characters should be rounded. That’s the point of characterisation. And if characters remain ‘static’ then there is little point is developing them or including them in the story if they are not going to grow with it. This is why there are only three character types that you should concern yourself with:
Main characters – these usually combine the protagonist (the hero, whose story it is) and antagonist (the adversary or villain trying to thwart him/her). They are the driving force of the story, and the main cause of the required conflict that every successful novel needs.
Basically, they are your good guy and bad guy and they have the greatest effect on the story arc.
Secondary characters – the next step down from main characters, they are the support cast (and are often involved in sub-plots). They are there to help move the story forward and are there to compliment the main character(s).
Secondary characters should be just a well-developed as your main characters because they will appear in many important scenes with your main character(s).
Peripheral characters (or background characters) – these are the less developed characters, usually with walk-on parts or non-speaking parts, but are there to provide additional background to an otherwise empty scene.
Remember, all characters must have meaning, so if you have a scene in a restaurant, for instance, then you will have a main character, a secondary character and lots of peripheral characters to populate the scene. A waiter will be a peripheral character. He may only say a few words, but he is necessary for the scene.
If you find a character doesn’t actually contribute anything to the scene or the story, get rid of them.
A subplot is a secondary strand of the main story, but will directly relate to it.
There can be one, two or more subplots in a novel. They can be simple strands or they can be quite complex, depending on the type of story. There are no hard or fast rules. Obviously, a writer doesn’t want too many otherwise there is a danger that subplots can overshadow the main plot.
Subplots will often involve secondary characters, but the structure will always relate to the main plot in some way, either thematically or symbolically and must support the main story in some way.
Let’s take the earlier example of our hero trying to solve a series of puzzles in order to save his family from a psychotic killer. One of the secondary characters will be the hero’s wife. A subplot might involve her efforts to try to escape with the children as the time ticks away. Another subplot could involve the hero turning to an unlikely source for help, perhaps.
Every writer knows that their novel must have a viewpoint, whether first person, third person or omniscient.
First Person – Told exclusively through your main character. This creates immediacy, it brings the reader closer to your character and allows you to explore what your character is feeling and thinking throughout the story. The main drawback with this viewpoint is that it is quite limiting and is quite difficult to maintain in a full length novel because of tenses.
If you want to use first person POV in a novel, you must be proficient with tenses.
Third Person - Longer stories, usually action/thriller style, tend to work better in Third Person. This is the most common POV and allows you to employ more description, narrative and emotion within the story. This works really well for action scenes, particularly when dealing with multiple characters. It is also the easiest POV when dealing with tenses.
Third person POV is not as limiting as First Person POV. The majority of full-length novels opt for this because writers can explore third person multiple viewpoints, which means the writer can write from the viewpoint of many characters while keeping the main focus on the main character.
Omniscient (or all knowing) – this is the most impersonal viewpoint, and rarely used, simply because it makes the narrator god like, ‘all knowing’ and ‘all seeing’. In other words, the narrator jumps from one character to another character, but mostly it intrudes the narrative, for example:
‘This is the moment John must to decide what to do, and as you might imagine, he’s quite undecided in his actions or fortitude, but the time is upon him and so his next action might surprise you…’  
This is not an altogether defunct viewpoint – many contemporary writers have used it, such as with the Lemony Snicket books, or Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy – but it would need some consideration, since it is not as popular with publishers or editors these days.
Beginnings and Endings
Every story must begin and end. What we do in the middle is what makes the story.
But of course, writers should know that the beginning is incredibly important – the very first sentence must grab the reader’s attention and not let go. The beginning must also set the tone of the story immediately and open at a significant moment in the main character’s life – something that pushes him or her to undertake the journey they will share with the reader.
Writers should give careful consideration to the beginning of the story and their opening sentences. Hook the reader, reel them in and make them want to continue turning the page.
Endings are just important, a necessity of even the simplest of novels. The conclusion of your novel must always be satisfactory, believable and leave the reader with the feeling that it’s the right ending.
Make the ending convoluted or trite and the reader won’t thank you. It has to make perfect sense; it has to credible and must be a logical conclusion to the whole of the story, not just snippets of it. And like any beginning, a writer should consider his or her ending very carefully.
So, those are the basic elements of any novel – plot, characters, subplots, viewpoint and beginning and endings.
In the second part of this series, we’ll look at less known aspects of what a fully conceived novel should contain in order to make it more than just a few characters and a plot.

Next week: A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters – Part 2