Saturday, 26 November 2016

Developing a Story – Part 1

All stories need some sort of development, to a degree.  Writers are as individual as their stories and everyone approaches fiction writing in a different way, so there are authors who like to develop and plan their stories in great detail, and those who write ad hoc, commonly known as “pansters”.
It’s entirely up to the writer what they do, however some planning and development is encouraged, otherwise the result could end up an incoherent mess.
There are a number of benefits for story development. It’s the difference between driving a car in the dark with the headlights on and driving without any light at all. Without lights to see where you’re going, you’re quite literally in the dark – in every way. Story development works in the same way – you can choose to be in the dark about, and just hope for the best, it or you can plan your story/novel in as much detail as you want.
Story development makes the process so much easier, it helps the writer not just to put together a story, but to understand the underlying complexities of that story, because of the varied elements involved – everything from structure, the characters, plot, themes, sub plots, outcomes and ending.  Writing a story isn’t just about sitting down and just writing. What goes on behind the scenes to make the story happen is just as important.
Good story development entails all the elements you want in your novel or short story. But to put the development into action, you have to have some basic foundations to work with first:-
The Story Idea/Plot

  1. What is the story about? What’s the plot?
  2. Whose story is it?
  3. What is the message of your story?
  4. What will it achieve?
  5. How will it end?

You need to be fully familiar with the premise of your story, and that means you need to know what it’s about, whose story it is, what it wants to say  and what it will achieve; otherwise you may find yourself on a road to nowhere.
The Characters

  1. Who are the main characters?
  2. What motivates them? Why are they involved with this story?
  3. Why do they behave in certain ways?
  4. What is the protagonist’s relationship with the antagonist? Why is there conflict?
  5. What does the protagonist want to achieve? What’s his/her prime goal?
  6. Which character might be involved with a subplot(s) and the main plot?

Familiarity with your characters makes it much easier to write them because they become almost real. This level of awareness eliminates common problems that occur as the story progresses, such as knowing how your characters are supposed to act in an unfamiliar situation, without them reverting to stereotypes, or by acting out of character.  Characters need to be believable in all they do, so you have to know their behaviours, reactions and what drives them.
Other problems that arise without some planning is becoming stuck halfway through because you don’t have any idea what your characters should do next or how they move the story forward. It’s important that characters are thoroughly developed prior to writing.
The Setting/Timeline

  1. Where is the story set?
  2. What is the time frame? Does it happen over a few days, or less, or over a period of years, or even decades?
  3. When is the story set?  Modern day, decades ago, last century, or further still? Or perhaps the future?
  4. What kind of locations might also appear?

Know the setting, or locations, and know where and when the story will take place. Writers often zig-zag from location to location (James Bond style) in the belief that including loads of cool places will impress the reader, when most of the time the locations just distract from the story rather than enhance it. A little planning is required to set the story correctly and make it credible and believable.
The Subplots

  1. What subplots might there be?
  2. Which characters might be involved?
  3. What impact will they have on the main story and characters?
  4. What will they achieve? What are they trying to say to the reader?
  5. How will the subplots they be resolved in relation to the story as a whole?
Subplots strengthen the story by adding extra, interesting story strands for the reader. The developmental process should always include a subplot or two, but always make sure you tie up all the loose ends. Don’t leave your reader wondering.

The Themes
Every story needs a theme or two. They underpin and add layers of depth to the story. Themes such as love, betrayal, deceit, forgiveness and so on, all add to the strength and weight to the story.
What’s the genre? Is the story horror, fantasy, a romance, sci-fi, or a hybrid of genres? Too often authors write their novels but don’t have a real indication of what genre it actually is, and the type audience it’s aimed at. Sometimes their stories start out as one thing and change halfway through the process, thus making things messy, so knowing the genre you intend to write helps to define the whole story from the outset.
Now that the basic ingredients are ready, you can now start to develop in detail. There are many ways to do this and writers can use as many or as few as they like. Next week we’ll take a look at the different methods to adopt for developing your story.

Next week: Developing a story – Part 2

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Starting Points – Where Should a Story Start?

This is a common question asked by almost all writers. At which point is the right point to start the story? Where is the best place to start?
The obvious answer is to start at the beginning, because that’s where every story starts, but in truth, the story shouldn’t start at the beginning, not in the literal sense. This sounds like contrary advice, but it actually isn’t.  All good editors and writers will agree – a story should start just after the beginning.
But what does that actually mean?
It’s the general accepted principle that a good story opens at a crucial or significant moment in the character’s life. Often, you will come across the ‘Open with a bang’ statement, which advises to open the story in such as way as to grab the reader’s interest. In essence, this means the story should jump right into the action, and that means the beginning of the story should reflect this.
In real terms, however, this action probably wouldn’t happen until chapter two, when things get going and stuff happens. That’s because most writers make the common mistake of first ‘setting’ the scene and establishing  the story for the reader, which means  they spend the first chapter filling several pages with exposition and backstory before anything significant or important actually happens.
The general advice, then, is to start not at the beginning – not in the true sense – but to open the novel bang in the middle of that important, significant moment or with the action, and forego all backstory and exposition. In reality your second chapter most often should be your first chapter.
Start the story where it’s most appropriate. Don’t bore the reader with pages of backstory or a prologue or huge info dumps. The idea is to grab the reader’s attention immediately and keep them interested. This won’t happen if you spend half a dozen pages explaining everything, otherwise you lose this effect and you lose the reader.
To maximise your opening, starting points should be:

  • Interesting or intriguing or mysterious
  • Action led
  • At a critical moment of the character’s life – a pivotal, decisive turning point.
  • In real terms, the crux of your story would most likely be found in your chapter two, so in fictional terms, make chapter two your chapter one opening.
To avoid problems of boring your reader or not engaging them sufficiently, don’t start the story with any of the following:-

  • Prologue
  • Backstory
  • Indirect exposition
  • Info dumps
Your opening sets the stage for the entire story, so you have to get it right. Start your story mid-way through some action, a significant event or incident or use dialogue to take advantage of your reader’s interest. You can even use very brief description (as long as it is dynamic).
When you hear advice not to start at the beginning, it means you should do just that and start at the moment that is really the most important.

Next week: Developing a story

Sunday, 13 November 2016

What’s a Character Arc?

In much the same way that story arcs work, as discussed in last week’s article, character arcs encompass how a character grows and develops throughout the story, from beginning to end. But what are they exactly?
When writers refer to character arcs, they’re referring to the continuing development path of a particular character, which begins at the very start of the story, when he or she is usually at his or her most vulnerable or weakest, and follows this development right to the end of the story, when the character is at his or her strongest. It’s that change the character undergoes that is captured in a character arc.
Again, like story arcs, when we talk of a character arc, it’s a figurative thing, rather than a physical one. It is a representation of the chronological journey your main characters take through the entire story and the transformation that occurs because of this - his or her motivations, main goal, expectations, conflicts, important events, revelations and turning points, and how such events are overcome or dealt with. It incorporates how a character grows and changes and emerges at the end of the story a changed person because of what has happened to them.
Often the crux of characterisation is the fundamental changes the character goes through – which can be physical, emotional or psychological. Not only that, but the character has to have learned something about the world or themselves by the conclusion of the story, otherwise the reader will not be satisfied with the resolution you offer. In real life, every major life experience changes us in some way, (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse), and so fiction is no different.
Essentially, there is only one real character arc for your character and not the half a dozen or so ‘types’ to be found on the internet, such as the ‘character growth arc’, the ‘change arc’ or the ‘hero/villain arc’ and so on. These are superfluous and unnecessary. That’s because every type is already found within the character arc – it encompasses the character’s growth, their emotional and physical ups and downs, their ability to adapt and their change of a character etc. There is only one type.
So who gets to have a character arc?
Generally speaking it’s usually only the main characters that have character arcs, rather than secondary characters, since they are the ones that undergo change and growth – whether that change is self awareness, a change of character or outlook or the ability to adapt to the significant changes that have occurred within their life.
The character arc also runs parallel to the story arc, in that the character progresses with the story, with the events and incidents and with the key turning points etc. Like the story arc, it must chronologically track the beginning, middle and the end of the character’s journey.
While a character arc may only be a figurative thing, some writers like to plot their character’s paths with an actual arc to help them characterise and visualise the character’s journey through the story. This is actually a good way of bonding the character to the story so that they run parallel and a practical way of ‘seeing’ the way.
When considering a character arc, allow for the following aspects:-
  • The moment the character is introduced, when his or her journey starts. The object of the story (the goal) is established.
  • The emergence of character motives (which will be part of the plot – the reason the character does what he does), which affect behaviour and actions and their development.
  • The emergence of conflict and emotion within the unfolding story and the need for the main character to overcome the obstacles and major events that might prevent him/her from reaching that goal.
  • The conclusion of the story, usually in the form of peak action and emotion.
  • The resolution, which shows the reader how and why the main character’s life has changed because of his or her experience.
As you can see, character arcs aren’t that much different to story arc; they follow the same structure and path and development. They can be figurative or they can be real, plotted arcs, but nevertheless they can help the writer visualise their protagonist’s journey within the heart of the story.
Next week: Starting points – where should the story actually start?

Sunday, 6 November 2016

What’s a Story Arc?

This is a phrase often used by writers to explain elements of a story, but many don’t understand what it actually means, or indeed what a story arc is.

Whenever you hear reference to the story arc, or a narrative arc, as it is sometimes known, it is usually referring to the continuing narrative path; the logical construction of the story from the very beginning and right to the end.
The best way to picture the arc is to imagine a line graph. Every narrative arc incorporates the start of the story, the major events and incidents that happen, and it follows through the rising action and conflicts, all the way to the end of the story. The “arc” reference is more of figurative thing - a starting point, which rises, then reaches a pinnacle; a conclusion, and then forms a descent towards a resolution, so in effect, it takes the shape of a curve (the symbolic arc).
But the important thing to remember about the story arc is that it in truth; it’s a representation of the chronological journey of the plot.
There’s a lot of stuff on the web about 5 point or 8 point arcs, but in reality, the arc isn’t about precise points of exposition, action, climax, falling actions etc., or indeed the over-complicated ways of describing something that is very simple. Exposition and narrative, action and climax are all necessities in writing. The arc shows the path that the characters and the story take. It follows the narrative structure and involves the main plot, sub plots and the underpinning themes, but more fundamentally, it tracks a beginning, the middle and an end. (These three sections should not be confused with a three act structure, normally found in plays. Novels and plays are very different and novels do not conform to ‘acts’).
Novels simply have parts, or sections, and the number of those parts depends on the writer and the story. Most writers tend to use three or four parts as part of their structure, or story arc. Longer novels have more.
The general story arc encompasses the following components as part of the chronological journey of the plot:
The very beginning of the story: the moment the character is introduced and his or her journey starts. The object of the story (the goal) is established.
The rise of the story - the emerging situation and character motives (which will be part of the plot), including the introduction of the antagonist.
The emergence of conflict and emotion of the unfolding story. There will be the need for the main character to overcome obstacles and major events that might prevent him/her from reaching that goal. The arc will also include emerging themes.
The middle section – the climb towards the pinnacle of action and tension, including major decisions, turning points and revelations.
The ending – the peak of action, the impending climax.The resolution, which shows the reader how and why the main character’s life has changed because of his or her experience.
In simple terms, the arc is the line of your character’s journey and how they get from one situation to another through the course of the story, and how they change or are defined by the end of it.
Writers sometimes use of physical story arc as part of their novel planning, to physically show the journey their main character takes, rather than it being a figurative or metaphorical ‘arc’ that we only imagine, as most are. This helps to visualise the story structure in a way that helps the writer understand the plot better.
Story arcs don’t just describe the intricacies of the beginning, middle and end of a story. They can also provide a tangible, physical connection to the heart of the narrative.
Next week: What are character arcs?