Saturday, 28 May 2016

Better Writing – How to Start and End Chapters

We use chapters as a way of neatly sectioning the writing into manageable portions for both the reader and the writer. Chapters have many functions, but understanding them and knowing how to use them effectively is an important aspect to getting the most out of your chapters.
Chapters are useful in different ways. They can help build tension, create mood and atmosphere, and they can allow the narrative to breathe by slowing down the pace of the story or causing a short pause. This is effective if the writer wants to move from lots of action and shift to a slower pace to give the reader time to digest everything that is happening. Readers need the chance to take in everything that is happening without rushing along at breakneck speed.
Chapters are also effective for shifting perspectives and for changing POVs. They also allow the transition of time and are great for introducing flashbacks. And of course, they allow the writer to move scenes and settings without interrupting the narrative.
So with the different ways writers can use chapters, they can be used efficiently. Think of each chapter the same way as the very beginning of the novel – you have to intrigue, tease and lure the reader into continuing reading. And keep them reading. 
Every chapter should act as a hook to keep the reader reeled in.
Beginning of Chapters
The beginning of a chapter should not differ too much to your opening paragraph to Chapter One. In other words, it should entice the reader and lead them smoothly and seamlessly into the continuing story without them even noticing the chapter break. They just want to turn the page and read on.
Beginnings should lead on from the previous chapter in a logical manner – it’s a continuation of the story, after all. The exceptions are that if you want a discernible or deliberate shift in the time span – i.e. the transition of days, months or years or you want to use a flashback.
The other thing to remember is that the proceeding chapter should resolve story threads from the preceding chapter, or at least continue with them. That’s the purpose of a story arc.
You don’t have to start every chapter with a bang or an explosive action scene. But it should start with a hint of what’s gone before, as a reference. It should also have momentum and it should have enough in the opening paragraphs to keep the reader enticed.
Ending of Chapters
The ending of chapter is also a great opportunity to lure the reader. Writers use them to not only build some tension, but also to entice the reader to find out what might happen next.
Read any novel and you’ll see how writers approach this.
Create Mystery
Often writers create a sense of mystery and ambiguity at the end of a chapter to ensure that it entices the reader to keep reading, for example:
John’s expression creased, perhaps because he knew he would break her trust. ‘There’s something I have to tell you…something about me…’
This is another way to dangle the carrot for your reader at the end of a chapter. Mini foreshadowing is a way of hinting at a revelation or a future event that might occur in further into the story. It’s the same principle of normal foreshadowing in any novel – the idea is to scatter the narrative with hints of what may come, so ending your chapter with a mini-foreshadow is a good way to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, for example:
‘Don’t be too late.’
Julie grabbed her bag and coat and kissed her mother on the cheek. ‘Stop worrying, mom, I’ll be fine...’
Or you can use narrative to foreshadow, for example:
Joe stared into his whiskey glass. He knew it was only a matter of time. There was no escaping what he had done.
Writers like to escalate their chapters to end on a cliffhanger, which ensures the reader will want to turn the page to find out what happens next. After all, that’s what a cliffhanger does; it leaves the reader ‘hanging’ and anxious to find out what happens in the very next instant.
Again, you don’t have to have huge explosions and lots of action to create a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger can be very subtle; it’s the ‘not knowing’ element of what comes next that makes it effective, for example:
Billy scrambled in the snow for his gun, just as the soldier pulled back the bolt on his rifle.
The sound of the bullet echoed loud across the snowy vista, before the silence fell once more.
The story halts abruptly, leaving the reader wondering whether Billy is alive or dead, so they are lured into keep reading. It’s a typical cliffhanger.
Generally, use chapter endings to enhance tension or conflict or reveal something new about the plot or a character (or their immediate situation). Use them to lure, to intrigue or hint and things to come.
Another way to look at it is to use the ending of important chapters to promise answers to story and character questions in the preceding chapters. You don’t have to address all of them, but some elements will unfold, and so it keeps the story arc going. It’s a fundamental way to keep the reader interested.
It’s worth noting that not every chapter has to end with a tease and start with a hook. As with all writing, it’s all about balance. Those chapters that do have key events, important turning points, plot revelations or important scene changes and so on are the ones to focus on. 
Where necessary, use anticipation, tension, fear and emotion to keep your reader glued to the story. Think carefully about the start and the end of your chapters, think about what effect you want to achieve and what you want to convey.

AllWrite will be taking a break next week and will return 12 June.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Better Writing - Started To/Begin To/Decided To – Why You Should Avoid These

Better writing comes with knowledge and experience; it helps writers make the right adjustments to their writing. Knowing what to adjust and what to look out for comes through the apprenticeship of writing, by making mistakes and learning from them.
One of the things to look out for is the habit of using ‘started to/begin to/decided to’ in descriptions with characters. It’s one of those constructions that look perfectly normal within your narrative, yet it doesn’t make for good writing.  Of course, we’ve all done it as beginners, so no one is immune or perfect. It’s not that it’s inherently wrong, but rather that it’s good practice not to do it – it helps writers improve and strengthen their writing.
Why should you avoid these constructions?
Started to/Began to
The thing to remember is that writing should always be active, so when a character decides to do something or starts to do something, the writing quickly turns clumsy and instantly stops being ‘active’, for example:
She started to get up and her legs felt weary.
He began to dig where he thought the box was hidden.
The heat rose and she began to unbutton her shirt.
At first glance, there doesn’t appear anything wrong with these sentences, but a closer look reveals the awkward structure. Don’t have characters ‘start to’ or ‘decide to’ or ‘begin to’ do something – simply have them do it, for example:
She got up and her legs felt weary.
He dug where he thought the box was hidden.
The heat rose and she unbuttoned her shirt.
Notice that these examples are much better – they’re active, they are a much tighter construction and so they avoid being clunky or awkward. They get straight to the point. This makes for better writing, always.
Decided to
This is another one that, on the surface, looks fine, but doesn’t do much for the sentence structure. We all decide to do things – we decide to make a coffee, we decide to go for a walk, we decide to go to bed – but within fiction,  a decision isn’t actually an action, it’s a thought, but writers still make the mistake of trying to make it an action, for example:
He decided to head towards the bar.
She glanced up at the sun, decided to put on her sunglasses.
He decided to turn right.
These examples may not look that bad, but they are not actions and should not be construed as actions. They are thoughts. A decision is a thought.
These kinds of constructions almost always render the narrative passive. If written correctly, they would be as follows:
He headed towards the bar.
She glanced up at the sun and put on her sunglasses.
He turned right.
These are much tighter, they’re active and they get straight to the point.
There is an exception with having a character ‘decide to’ do something, and that happens if you are writing from a character’s POV, when you are using interior dialogue. This means you are directly describing his or her thoughts, so a character deciding to do something is actually relevant, for example:
He realised he couldn’t move the steel girders. He sat in the darkness for a moment, thought about his options. He decided to turn back and head towards the upper floor.
This structure is acceptable because rather than it being an actual action, the character, whose POV is being represented, is going through a thought process and then decides on an action. The interior thoughts show the reader what is happening, so in this case, it’s correct use. Remember, a decision is a thought process, not an action.
There are many ways a writer can make their writing better. Remember to keep the narrative active and aim for strong sentence structures. You can do this by weeding out any instances of ‘started to’, began to’ or ‘decided to’.  If the character has to do something, simply have the character do it.

Next week: Better writing – how to start and end chapters

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Getting Your Story to Flow

Getting any story to flow is a common problem that all writers face from time to time and there are numerous reasons behind why it sometimes proves difficult to get the narrative to work and make sure it stays that way.
When a story does flow, that’s when a writer is really focused and ‘in the zone’. It means that the words just keep flowing and the writer has to write until the scene or chapter is completed. Some people keep going until tiredness sets in. Creativity is at a peak; thoughts and ideas come naturally and seem so effortless.
But then there are other times when nothing much happens and the flow of the story stutters and seems more of a chore than an enjoyable experience.
When we think of ‘flow’, it’s the seamless quality of the story that matters.  When a story doesn’t flow, then there are problems either with the narrative/story or the approach used by the writer.
Stories should flow smoothly; the writing should come easily, however sometimes this is far from the case.  The process can sometimes be anything but smooth, and it’s one of those things that doesn’t magically appear at the click of the fingers – writers have to work very hard to establish it and maintain it.
Creating flow, however, is down to technique and a bit of experience.
Things that Affect Story Flow
There’s no getting around it, but bad writing really does affect the flow. Bad sentence structures, poor grammar, lack of clarity, no description and poor dialogue can disrupt the course of the story and put the reader off. There is little flow, if at all.
Contrived and stilted writing doesn’t help, either. This happens when writers try too hard. The thing to remember is that you’re not out to impress readers with fancy words or overly complicated sentences, but rather to entertain them with an amazing story told as effectively as possible. Leave the fancy words and the complex sentences to those who are masters of it.
Wrongly formatted dialogue can inhibit story flow. Learn how to set out dialogue correctly, with correct punctuation, and make it pertinent and punchy so that it engages the reader instead of confusing them because they’re unsure who is doing the talking or the action.
Huge chunks of narrative or boring description can bring the story flow to a full stop. Readers don’t have much patience, so when faced with overly long paragraphs, they tend to switch off. Info dumps don’t help the story in any way. That said, not all huge blocks of description will necessarily impede story flow. Written properly, larger sections of well written description, balanced with narrative and dialogue, actually help the flow of the story. The art is not to overdo them – every descriptive passage has its place.
Unless you are deliberately writing a story out of sequence (for dramatic effect, for instance) make sure that you write the story in the correct order of events that run parallel to the plot. In other words, the story starts at a crucial moment and moves along a timeline in chronological order, with one event or incident leading up to another until the exciting conclusion of the story. That way, the story won’t confuse the reader, but more importantly, the entire flow of the story is linear, logical and smooth.
Other aspects that can mess with the story flow are the choice of chapter or scene breaks. By their very nature, they break the flow of the story, but they do so briefly and seamlessly, with good effect. It’s important that you don’t pop a scene break in the middle of an important scene. That will kill the flow instantly and ruin any emotion, tone, mood or atmosphere you’ve created, and thus interrupt the reader’s focus.
Carefully place your scene breaks and chapters. If done correctly, the reader will barely notice a deliberate break in the flow that is also essential for it to continue.
Ways to ensure the story flows:

  • Make sure you have a plan to work to – you’ll know roughly where you’re going and what will happen. This helps to avoid writers block and the inevitable struggle to force the writing.
  • Plot points – these are essential in order to keep narrative momentum. Make sure you plot your story.
  • Make sure you know the important turning points in the story, i.e. the key incidents that cause twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.
  • Ensure dialogue is correctly formatted. Keep it pertinent and punchy.
  • Don’t overcomplicate sentences or go with obscure or fancy words. Keep it simple and clear.
  • Keep the narrative, description and dialogue balanced. Avoid info dumps and huge blocks of narrative.
  • Always try to escalate the action. The more in escalates, the more tension, conflict and excitement you create, so the story flow should be effortless.
  • Keep your story events in order – it’s easier for the reader to follow.
  • Choose your scene breaks and chapter breaks carefully. Try to end each one on a mini cliff hanger to ensure the reader stays glued to the story.

If you really want to know if your story flows, then read it aloud. You will soon learn if it stutters, pauses, drags, meanders and so on. If it flows properly, you should be able to read it without hesitation or pause. It simply works. Words flow. Sentences flow. Paragraphs flow. In fact, the entire book flows.
Story flow is down to technique and having a feel for the entire story. Take the time and don’t rush the process and the story flow will come naturally.

Next week: Better writing – Begin to/started to/decided to – why you should avoid these.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Run-on Sentences – Good or bad?

Many writers may not be familiar with ‘run on sentences’, or what they mean, but plenty of writers inadvertently end up using them from time to time, while other writers actively discourage their use.
So what, exactly, are they?
A run-on is a sentence is made up of two or more independent clauses ( a complete sentence) that are joined together without punctuation (i.e. semicolons, colons, dashes or full stops) or a conjunction (i.e. for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so etc).
Run-on sentences happen very easily and all writers have unintentionally used them when in the furious throes of writing, particularly if focused on the first draft, which is always full of countless errors and flaws. It’s at the editing stage where the errors are put right, including run-on sentences.
Fortunately, the run on sentence is easy to spot and just as easy to correct. They are very noticeable when read back through your work, because they make the narrative flow of sentences look odd, for example:
He realised he had missed the train he knew he couldn’t miss the interview.
She eyed him with suspicion she knew he was lying.
He heard the rush of the explosion behind him he ran to the car.
The sunset spread across the sky it flooded the landscape with a hazy hue.
Each example shows how the sentence falters at the point that there should be an independent clause. They are considered grammatically incorrect because of the clumsy sentence structures they create. Run on sentences don’t just weaken the narrative, they also don’t read very well.
So, how do you put them right once you’ve discovered them?
Because the structure is made up of two or more independent clauses without punctuation, then it’s a matter of putting the punctuation where it belongs. Let’s look at the above examples again, but this time, to avoid the run-on structures, the correct punctuation is in place:
He realised he had missed the train, but he knew he couldn’t miss the interview.
She eyed him with suspicion. She knew he was lying.
He heard the rush of the explosion behind him and he ran to the car.
The sunset spread across the sky. It flooded the landscape with a hazy hue.
Now the sentences read more smoothly, they make sense and are no longer clunky. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.
There is another variation of the run-on sentence that, while considered grammatically erroneous, they are considered as acceptable within fiction writing, and they are known as Comma Splices.
The Comma Splice
A comma splice is when two independent clauses are connected by a comma, rather than the correct conjunction (and, or, but, for etc) or punctuation. The examples below are comma splices:
The rain was hammering down, he shut the window.
Dave picked up the shovel, opened the shed door.
John obviously knew what she meant, he was an intuitive person.
While some sentences can look a bit awkward – writing relies on our judgement a lot of the time – and certainly the first one is awkward, but the other two are not too bad.  They are easily correct with the right conjunction (or punctuation), for example:
The rain was hammering down. He shut the window.
Dave picked up the shovel, and opened the shed door.
John obviously knew what she meant; he was an intuitive person.
Comma splices are very common, but unlike some aspects of writing that cause bad sentence structures, such as adverbial or adjectival sentences, comma splices are not as terrible if they are used solely for effect from time to time. They don’t weaken the narrative half as much as adverbs, poorly placed participles or adjectives. In fact, they can heighten the sense of pace.
The intended meaning of a sentence isn’t changed by their appearance, and while some may see them as grammatically incorrect, comma splices do have a small role in effective narrative, none more so than when writing is restricted by the amount of words, such as short stories and flash fiction. They’re exceptionally useful for cutting out extraneous conjunctions, moving the narrative along and keeping to strict word limits.
In essence, run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect and should be avoided, and they are considered a bad thing.  That said, the odd comma splice is acceptable; plenty of established and famous writers like to use them. The thing to remember is not to overuse them.
Next week: Getting your story to flow.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Which or That – Does it Matter?

As a continuation of the theme from last week on common word confusions, this one would probably top the chart. ‘That’ or ‘which’ has driven many writers crazy because of the similarity in meaning of these words. Not only that, but most of the confusion arises because it’s become widely accepted that they are interchangeable rather than grammatically incorrect, so the question is: does it really matter?
In the grand scheme of things, no, since their use has for many years become skewed by writers, and as already stated, either one is now accepted in literary circles and in British English, but for clarity and simplicity, there are differences between them and they do have different functions.
So what are these differences? First of all, both ‘Which’ and ‘that’ are pronouns.  We use pronouns to present a relative clause. A relative clause starts with the relative pronouns which, who, that, whose, when or where, and are often used to join two sentences. They are also used to identify the noun that precedes them, for example:
The walls are blue, which is not the right colour. (Blue is the noun)
Did you see the boy who climbed the tree? (Boy is the noun)
I need the screwdriver that I gave you a few moments ago. (Screwdriver is the noun)
We visited the glassblower, whose skills are amazing. (Glassblower is the noun)
That photo was taken when we went to the zoo. (Taken is a noun)
We went to the supermarket where I saw those shoes. (Supermarket is the noun)
‘Which’ refers to things/objects; however, ‘that’ refers to both things/objects and also refers to people, which is why it causes so much confusion, for example:
The shoes that she bought looked good.
The shoes, which she bought, looked good.
Both these samples look fine, and they’re both correct. But there is a difference between them, and that is because one is a restrictive clause and the other is non-restrictive.
Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Clauses
Both of the examples above are correct, however the use of ‘that’ in the first sentence introduces a restrictive clause. Restrictive clauses limit the meaning or nuance of sentences, hence the name. The restrictive clause reduces the first example to a simple statement, because ‘that’ is restrictive.
The second sentence contains ‘which’. This is known as a non-restrictive sentence. In other words, unlike ‘that’, the non-restrictive sentence provides a little more information, but it doesn’t limit the intended meaning of the sentence, but instead it alters the context slightly. The big difference between both examples is that in the non-restrictive use, ‘which’ is preceded with a comma (or enclosed by commas).
Let’s look again at the examples:
The shoes that she bought looked good.
The shoes, which she bought, looked good.
While these two sentences look almost identical, they’re different because the first example tells us that the woman brought some shoes – objects/things – and they looked good. It’s a statement; it’s restrictive.
The second example, which contains the non-restrictive clause, puts emphasis on the fact that she bought the shoes, so in a sense it provides more information, despite the fact that it’s more or less the same sentence. In other words, the context has changed.
If the clause is removed from the sentence, the meaning doesn’t actually change, just the context, so it simply has less information:
The shoes looked good.
Here’s another simple example, the kind of thing you’d find in any narrative. Notice the restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and the way they help the sentence meaning and change the context:
The books that she’d placed there earlier had gone.
The books, which she had placed there earlier, had gone.
Again, if we remove the both restrictive and non-restrictive elements, you’re left with a simple sentence:
The books had gone.
Writers spend a lot of time worrying over which word to use when they’re writing description, so knowing the differences between these two words makes things so much easier.
The examples below show how ‘that’ and ‘which’ should be used.
He opened his eyes to the shifting dusk that cloaked his tiny bedroom. (Restrictive clause)
Clouds swirled like thick, sulphur-tinted dust clouds that choked the sullen corridors in his mind. (Restrictive clause)
Every day they piled them onto waiting carts, which were then transported to area outside town, known as the Death Fields. (Non-restrictive clause)
She tied string around a muslin cloth, which enclosed some cheese, bread and smoked meat for their lunch. (Non-restrictive clause)
Once writers understand ‘that’ and ‘which’ better, there shouldn’t be any confusion over which one to use, or when.
Next week: Run-on Sentences – Acceptable or not?