Sunday, 16 April 2017

Creating Contrasting Description

What is meant by contrasting description? 
In this context, contrast is all about complimenting the underlying story with different, opposing aspects. It’s a literary device that provides the light and dark shades to description, but one that is rarely thought about.
Contrasting description isn’t just about being vivid in order to draw in the reader. It creates a different tone and atmosphere by allowing the reader to imagine those subtle differences and therefore hold their attention. It is also a way of uniting two separate concepts, for instance if the writer describes abject stillness contrasted with lots of movement, or utter silence contrasted with overbearing noise. These are interesting contrasts that can be layered within the main description, for example:
When the din finally stopped, when it seemed all had stopped, a strange kind of hush crept in, like a fine mist, and rendered the muddy, bloody landscape in a silence that he felt all too deafening, and for a moment he held his hands to his ears to shut out the screams in his head...
The contrast here lies in the way the quietness of the scene creeps in, (following the noise of a battle), to the character trying to diminish the screams that can only be heard by him, despite the silence around him. This allows the reader to see through the main description to the emotion hidden beneath; that this man is emotionally distraught.
In this second example, the contrast uses colour as concepts layered within the description, rather sounds or perceptions:
Dmitry should have been appalled, but he wasn’t, because the soldier’s death was nothing like the poppy red puddles he’d seen glistening on pristine snow, spewed from his mother in her last moments, but instead the soldier’s blue-eyed expression remained unmoved the snow unsullied, despite the blade sticking out of his chest...
Here, the character, Dmitry, feels disappointed that the soldier’s death is nothing like his mother’s death, and it uses the distinction of ‘poppy red’ puddles on ‘pristine snow’ to separate the ‘unmoved’ and ‘unsullied’ death by contrast, and it achieves that by neatly weaving these two concepts within the description. It makes it more interesting for the reader, and really focuses their attention on that moment.
Sound and colour are just two ideas that are often contrasted. Dickens contrasted best and worst of times, and wisdom and foolishness in the opener to A Tale of Two Cities. It’s subtle – a blink and you’ll miss it moment – but it’s still contrast nevertheless. Shakespeare uses contrast in almost all of his work. The most used example is Sonnet 130, where he contrasts the features of a mistress – her eyes are nothing like the sun, lips not as red as coral, her breasts are not as white as snow, and hair like wire – to show how ordinary she is by comparison to these things. As the reader, we imagine the mistress to be rather plain and unattractive.
Writers often like to contrast the weather, or light and darkness to underpin themes of good and bad. Themes and ideas can also be subject to contrast. Love and hate are universal themes, as found in Romeo and Juliet, tension and travesty are contrasted in many descriptions within To Kill A Mockingbird, but the way writers are able to contrast them within their descriptions makes all the difference to the depth and meaning of that description.
Writers can use contrast in almost anything – sound, colour, theme, sensations, perceptions, people, ideas, surroundings and emotions...things that can provide the reader with more than just pretty words, but rather something more meaningful and rich.
But what about characters?
Characters are often contrasted; however, writers should be careful not to create cliché here. The reason for this is because contrasting characters have largely been done to death – the kind of stuff usually seen in movies tends to be regurgitated in novels, for example the good cop, bad cop pairing, or the brilliant character and the stupid character who team up, or the black guy with white guy who settle their differences by working together. This is the same for pairing male and female characters or kids and adults and so on. They may not seem it, but all of these are cliché.
If you contrast characters, make them unique and different in a way rarely seen before in order to avoid the hackneyed ones we so often see. Contrasting characters doesn’t have to mean ‘opposite’, but rather it can mean ‘complimentary’. Writers just have to think differently about it.
Description is a valuable part of our writing, but sometimes we can weave different elements within it to make it more interesting and thought provoking for our readers. By creating contrasting description, we give readers more than one layer to peel back; we give them many layers to help transport them from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Next week: Making first chapters successful  

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Is it Important to Have a Clearly Defined Antagonist?

Every story has an antagonist, in some form, whether that’s human, a corporation, a government, an animal, something environmental, something elemental, mechanical, robotic or even other worldly.
But how important is it to have a clearly defined antagonist?
The role of the antagonist is to thwart, impede or cause all manner of problems in order to stop your main character reaching his or her goal. Antagonists come in all forms and usually represent the immoral, negative side to the often moral, ethical and positive side of the protagonist. They are often portrayed as evil, nasty and villainous, but they can also be none of those. An antagonist doesn’t have to be evil, but he or she should be well drawn out and realistic in his or her behaviour.
That means they also have a goal to reach within the story, which will bring them into conflict with the main character. Why and how is important for writers to explore and cultivate, just as they would do with the main character. These characters revolve around each other and the plot.
Often stories have a gamut of leading characters and it’s not always easy to figure out just whose story it is, because they haven’t clearly defined those characters. This is a common mistake by writers. The reader has to know whose story it is, who is involved and why. This alone is good reason to clearly define such characters – clarity is so important in fiction.
And just because your hero gets star billing doesn’t mean you can leave the antagonist in the shadows. They have a story to tell, too, which is always linked to the main character somehow. They have to leap from the page in just the same way your protagonist does. They must therefore have motivation – reasons why they do what they do or behave in certain ways – and they should also have goals and backstory. And just like the hero, they, too, must develop and evolve throughout the story. That’s what makes them real. But it also marks them from other secondary characters that inhabit your story.
These things define your antagonist.
Without an antagonist, the story may lack depth and structure, since the protagonist won’t have much to do in the way achieving his or her goal if he doesn’t have someone causing problems and obstacles at every turn. Without such a character, where will the conflict come from? Conflict is so important in any story, otherwise there isn’t a story to tell. How can conflict arise if there is no antagonism?
Antagonists are often the very reason readers become so invested in a story, because they want the hero to overcome the bad guy, they want some form of comeuppance, they want the satisfaction of seeing the antagonist defeated. That’s one of the reasons that keep them gripped to the story.
Develop your antagonist as much as you can. Make them as complex, formidable and multidimensional as your hero. Make him or her real enough for your reader to provoke reaction and emotions from your reader, especially when he or she gets the upper hand over the main character and seems unstoppable. We desperately want the hero to fight back, to regain control, to overcome all obstacles to defeat the bad guy.
Antagonists should stand out from the secondary characters. They should be introduced early within the story develop in all their antagonistic glory. They must appear real to the reader, in everything they do.
Love them or hate them, they have place within our stories and a vital role to play, so yes, it’s important they should be clearly defined. If not, your story won’t be a strong as you think it is.
And neither will your hero.

Next week: Creating contrasting description

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Is it Better to Edit During Writing, or the End? Part 2

In part 1, we looked at the editing during the writing process, and the problems it might cause to the overall flow of the story. In this second part we’ll look at editing after the first draft has been written, and whether this process is more suited to a polished, finished product.
Editing After Writing
Most writers separate the two tasks of the writing process – writing and editing –and treat them as such. The first part of the process is the writing, getting the bare bones of the story written and laying the foundations with which to build a brilliant story. The second part of that process – editing – follows a short down time which allows the writer to come back to the story refreshed, with new ideas and a clear understanding of the plot. This down time separates the writer from the story in an objective way.
Writers do a read-through prior to actual editing. This gives them an idea how the story actually reads, however, the constant tweaking of editing as you go means this is just not possible.
Unlike the start-stop process of editing as you write, leaving this process until the story is written allows for an unfettered storyline that is more focused in detail and ideas, even if it is the first messy draft. That’s because the story has been allowed to happen without interference.
Not only that, but it will have taken less time to write because there is no constant back and forth trying to constantly edit everything. The argument here, of course, is that the editing process is just as long anyway, so how is this way more efficient?
It’s more efficient because the first draft, followed by the first edit - as two separate processes - is much quicker than the first draft being editing from day to day, tweaked, changed, then written, then tweaked, then written and then finally finished, only to have the same proper editorial process applied anyway, because even though the writer has edited during writing, it will not be ready for publication. It will still need editing properly. So the process takes twice as long as is necessary.
Mistakes that have been made in the first draft are much easier to spot during a proper, focused first stage edit, and that’s because the writer has taken some time away from it and therefore doesn’t fall into the trap of “not seeing the wood for the trees”. It’s also much easier to spot more complex errors in the characterisation, the plot or the continuity of the story and its events. That’s because the whole of the story is being observed, rather than in snippets.
Plot flaws, sub plots problems, cohesion of story, flow, pace, chronological events, continuity...all these are much easier to spot than they would be if editing as you go. And because there is no “interfering” of previous chapters during the writing process, then it stands to reason that the latter part of the story – the most important part of the entire thing – actually makes sense because earlier events tie in with concluding events as they should. Writers who edit as they go miss this cohesion, which is why their stories meander unnecessarily or lose focus.  
By “seeing” the whole story from start to finish, it’s much easier to see what elements have worked and which ones haven’t. This just isn’t possible if you edit as you go, because of the constant changes. With the whole story, some things can be cut, some added, and some changed to make the story much better and stronger. It’s also possible to see story flow, correct pacing and correct continuity errors.
Of course, the best thing about editing after you’ve written the story is that you can add metaphor, similes, motifs and symbolism, foreshadowing, character motives, themes and other complex aspects to certain scenes or chapters, characters and situations that you can’t do if you edit as you go.
Pros and cons aside, the general advice is to leave the process of editing until the whole story is written. Of course, writers can do as they please when it comes to their writing, but there is general advice and certain guidelines in place for a very good reason.
Next week: Is it important to have a clearly defined antagonist?

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Is It Better to Edit During Writing, Or At the End?

Every writer has a different way they approach writing. Some like to edit as they go, while others like to wait until that first draft is done before so much as changing a word.
Since there are no hard and fast rules, best practice is usually the way to go. There are pros and cons for editing during writing or at the end of this process, but when it really comes down to it, many experienced writers choose the latter method, simply because the benefits far outweigh any negatives. Of course, it's down to each writer in the end.
Editing During Writing
How many writers stop what they’re doing and go back a few chapters to edit stuff?
This might seem a great idea, but the stop-start nature of this process means that the narrative suffers because all the writer is doing is slowing down the writing process and making it painful and drawn out. By continually going back to edit, writers lose focus on what is important within the narrative they’re currently writing, so some things go off on a tangent, sub plots suffer, they don’t keep an eye on continuity of events and characterisation can suffer because the writer has taken his eye off the ball.
The outcome of this is a process that takes longer than a normal draft would take, since the toing and froing between writing and editing means that two single tasks are swallowed up into one and any cohesion and clarity is blurred because the constant stutter causes the narrative to suffer and story focus is lost.
Not only that, but writers may end up making more mistakes by switching back and forth between writing and editing, because they are not concentrating on what is fundamentally important – writing the actual bare bones of the story. This is especially compounded if the story itself is complex.
Another major problem is that the writers don’t allow enough time from writing to editing, to allow the mind a break from the story and characters and the glaring errors, and that means they won’t distinguish between narrative mistakes and the deeper, complex ones; they just won’t see them. They’re too involved.
The complex stuff is exceptionally important. For example, you may not spot the plot flaws as easily as you would if you treated the editing process as a single task undertaken weeks after the writing process. You may not spot characterisation problems, or you may not realise that what you’re writing doesn’t actually make much sense. That’s because you’re too busy editing the previous chapter, and so on.
Editing as you go can cause all manner of problems with chronological events. If writers edit the previous page or chapter, they may cause plot problems later down the line with events that are yet to happen, and characters are to act and react with continuity. Something in chapter 30 might relate back to chapter 2, but you’ve already edited chapter 2, so now it doesn’t make sense. You’ll end up editing it all again anyway, which is inefficient and time consuming.
The other way of looking at it is “interfering” as you go. In other words, the urge to go back and interfere with the previous chapters to tweak things can cause problems with the entire storyline, since how can a writer know what will be written later in the story if he keeps interfering with the earlier story? The answer is you can’t.
Many writers do come to realise that the creative side of this process – writing – doesn’t always gel with the deconstructive, practical part – editing. You’re giving free range to your creativity on one page, but then constricting it and changing it on the next. To create and deconstruct at the same time can be destructive – it’s a volatile coexistence and rarely works.
That’s why they are two separate tasks within the writing process. Doing both at once isn’t conducive to flow, clarity, continuity or cohesion, not to mention all the other complex aspects that go make up the writing process.
That’s not to say that this doesn’t work for everyone. Some people like to edit as they go, and that’s entirely up to them. The end result is that the entire thing will still need to be edited properly anyway, several times, so in terms of efficiency, it’s not always the best way to approach things.
In Part 2 we’ll look at editing after the first draft has been written, and whether this is a better process for the writer.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Revealing Character Traits

There’s a lot to be said about character traits – they’re as individual as fingerprints and can be very revealing to your reader in ways that help them understand your characters on so many different levels.
Your can use character traits to show the reader what your character is feeling, without having to directly tell them. By establishing character traits early on in the story – the earlier, the better – you can use them to show the reader at key moments how your character feels, the emotions he or she has and the thoughts they have in any given situation.
Behaviour plays a big part in character traits – how we behave effects how others perceive us and react to us. Sometimes we act predictably, while at other times we do something that is considered “out of character”, depending on what is it we’re reacting to.
The thing about character traits is that you don’t have to fling everything at the reader in one foul swoop. If you do that, you’ll have nothing else interesting to reveal to the reader as the story progresses. Instead, it’s better to intersperse relevant characteristics at opportune moments, to drip feed the reader in order to main the interest.
Writers use the following ways to show character traits:

  • Actions
  • Body language
  • Reactions
  • Dialogue & Voice

Actions/Body language
What we do and how we do it can speak volumes about who we are and how others perceive us, and that’s true of our characters. But the way we show readers is what makes this work, rather than what we tell them, for example:
John slammed the door.  He often got angry whenever people let him down. It always raised his hackles and so he always resorted to slamming things.
This is telling the reader what they don’t particularly want to know – not what they need to know. This is a missed opportunity for writers. They can show the reader the kind of person John is without having to tell them. That’s because the art of revealing character traits is all about subtlety, instead of the obvious. When rewritten, the example reads differently:
John’s senses tautened and he slammed the door, yet in his head it sounded like an angry growl of thunder and immediately he shrank from his anger, afraid to let it spill over.
This rewritten example shows John reacting to his anger. He shrinks away from it, he realises his aggression, which reveals to the reader that he doesn’t like getting angry and could be afraid of showing it.
Actions show the reader the kind of characters you’ve created, especially within confrontational situations. Conflict creates actions and that creates plenty of opportunity to reveal character traits.
Body Language
Body language is very revealing. It’s a trait we all possess, and the best writers tend to be the most observant, because they use things like nose rubbing, ear scratching, curling hair around fingers, finger tapping and chin rubbing for their characters, which makes them that more interesting and rounded.
Imagine a character that always plays with their earlobe if they’re lying. Or a very wily, clever character who has a habit of stroking his chin when he’s deep in thought. Small, almost unnoticeable movements can give the reader insight into your characters. Readers will pick up on these subtleties without any effort.
Watch other people; gestures and body language may not appear important, but they are, because without them we wouldn’t have much in the way of expression.
How we react to things can be just as revealing as how we are with actions. That’s because reactions show the reader hints of behaviour that is unique to that character. How would your character deal with being accused of something? Will he react with anger, will he be dumbfounded or will he be evasive, perhaps afraid to show guilt?
If a character has been wronged or betrayed, how would he or she react? How does your character reaction to something someone says – something bad, mean or insensitive?  How they react can reveal more to the reader than simply telling them.  Readers don’t want to be spoon fed. They want to find out for themselves.
Reactions, like actions and body language, can help them do that; anything that helps to bolster characterisation.
Dialogue & Voice
What your character says and how he or she speaks can help the reader formulate the kind of character they are. Some people love the sound of their own voice; others don’t like to say a lot. Some people stutter, others don’t know when to shut up, especially if nervous. Some people have loud, commanding voices; some have quiet, shy voices and some have flat, monotone voices. All these tell us the kind of person they are.
Tone, pitch and elevation define certain characteristics, so don’t miss the chance to use them. Dialogue is a clever way of revealing character traits without being obvious, particularly as emotions play an extensive part in how the reader sees your characters, and many emotions are often found in dialogue.H
Dialogue can show a character’s feelings through tone and pitch and the way those words are spoken, especially when reaction to another character. Sometimes it’s not how much characters say, but what they don’t say that tells the reader about the kind of characters they are. Character traits might seem trivial, but they aren’t. They’re exceptionally important if you want to show your characters in a multidimensional light.

Next week: Is it better to edit during writing, or at the end?

Saturday, 11 March 2017

How to Engage the Reader - Part 2

In part 1 we looked at various ways to engage the reader with your writing, such as using conflict, emotions, hooking the reader and vivid descriptions etc. There are, of course, several more ways to a writer can keep the reader hooked, aspects which writers are not always familiar with, or never utilise. So let’s look at some more.
Tease and tantalise the reader at every opportunity. Readers love to second guess things. They love to try to figure out who the real bad guy is, or “whodunit”, or figure out whether certain characters can be trusted. Readers also love to be teased and tantalised with the promise of things to come further in the story, or revelations that could shock and decisions that could have dramatic effects.
It’s the “what if” and “what happens next” that keeps the reader glued to the action. Never miss an opportunity to tease and tantalise.
Pacing is crucial. It’s what fools the reader into thinking that things are racing along with excitement and exhilaration and action, interspersed with quieter, slower moments. It’s obvious why action scenes – and faster pacing – engage the reader. Writing that is quick, dynamic, dramatic, tense or full of conflict form all the ingredients that keep the reader turning the page to find out what will happen next.
Pacing can create a sense of trepidation and excitement, so use it wisely.
A lot can be said about the level of characterisation. A character that the reader can relate to means they will connect with and care about that character throughout the story. Real, believable characters keep the reader engaged, because they often recognise such character traits within themselves.
Great characters have a combination of traits, flaws and behaviours that we all recognise. But most of all, make sure that the reader connects with your character emotionally. That is what will keep them engaged. Shared emotional experience.
Foreshadowing is another way to raise the level of interest for readers. It’s a way of showing the reader what’s in store, what’s to come, the things that could happen.  It’s the “storm clouds” on the horizon way for writers to subconsciously plant ideas into the reader’s mind, without the reader actually realising; not at first anyway.
Writers use all manner of ways to foreshadow. It could be a black crow watching from the trees. This might foreshadow death the looms later in the story. It might be the cold brightness of a full moon that signifies an important event. It could be description of weather. It could be a description of a character being cruel to an animal, thus foreshadowing an even deadlier act later in the story.
Foreshadowing is often overlooked because writers don’t really understand it or they aren’t too sure how to show it. But it’s worth reading plenty of books to gain an insight how other authors approach it, if only to get a better insight on how it works to keep the reader engaged.
Themes – they bolster the underlying emotions on the surface and help the reader understand the motivations and actions of your main character. Every story has a theme or two. While they may not seem important, they are fundamental to engaging your reader, because your themes are the invisible life blood of your story.
Themes such as betrayal or revenge are very emotive, and most themes will provoke the reader, since they will undoubtedly have felt such feelings in their own lives and therefore they’ll create emotional connections.
Lastly, the story itself should make sense, be logical and believable. Any story that fails to make sense, isn’t that logical, is too hard to read or too over the top to be believable, won’t capture the reader’s interest. You can’t expect a reader to engage with the story if it’s poorly written.

The best way to engage the reader is to involve them at every opportunity by using everything at your disposal. Hooking them, maintaining their interest and their emotional involvement is the key to engaging your reader every time.

  • Hook the reader
  • Make the opening count
  • Start the story in media res – the most vital point.
  • Construct a water tight plot.
  • Use captivating subplots
  • Create conflict
  • Use emotion
  • Create tension
  • Use vivid description, well written dialogue and informative narrative
  • Tease and tantalise
  • Use pacing
  • Create believable, solid characters
  • Create foreshadowing
  • Use themes to bolster the story
  • Make sure the story is logical and believable

Next week: Revealing character traits

Sunday, 5 March 2017

How to Engage the Reader – Part 1

There are umpteen tricks and ways available to writers to engage the reader from the first page of the book, to the very last. That’s because there’s a vast arsenal of literary devices, tricks and strategies at the writer’s fingertips, but how a writer uses them is the real key to engaging the reader, and keeping them engaged.
A book that works is a book that speaks to the reader, one that involves them on a psychological and emotional level, one that creates immediacy and empathy and makes the reader want to care enough about the characters that they feel almost real.
Engaging the reader isn’t about standing on the sidelines and simply narrating or reporting that this or that happened. It’s about pouring your heart and soul into every word – that’s what draws the reader, that’s what fires their imagination and helps them identify with the characters and the story.
Engaging the reader is all about involvement.
So, what are the magic ways – those tricks, strategies and literary devices – that keep the reader so engrossed?  There are countless ways, but the main ones writers need to focus on are the most simple of elements, thus:
Hook the reader from the outset with an intriguing premise. The first line of your first paragraph of your first chapter is the delicate precipice from which everything balances. Get that right and half the battle is won. Hook your reader with the promise of an amazing story – let those first few lines grab them by the scruff of the neck and never let go.
Be vivid, colourful, gritty, raw, real...whatever your style, whatever your voice; grab the reader’s attention. Make that opening count.
Start the story at the most vital point. Don’t start the story with a boring three page backstory. Don’t start it in the run up to the moment your character is involved with the story. Instead start it at that crucial moment, start it with a bang, start it at the moment your hero’s life falls into the toilet, start it at the point your heroine might die; start with danger or excitement or tension or conflict. Or all of them.
A tight plot without flaws is better than a poor plot riddled with faults. We all know how important it is to have a fully realised and well thought out plot, but it’s even more important that it is reader-proof. In other words, a reader will spot a plot hole – no matter how small – and that can have an effect of the reader’s enjoyment of the story. If you want to engage the reader, make sure that the plot is fault free and watertight.
Other clever strategies include intriguing and captivating subplots. Related to the main plot, sub plots are smaller story threads that run parallel to the main story and involve other characters. Subplots create intrigue and suspense and raise questions that the readers just love to answer. This is the epitome of reader involvement.
Create conflict and emotion if you want to involve the reader. No book can exist without these. Real lives are full of conflict and tension, so creating these elements is one of the easiest ways to engage the reader and ensure they identify with the characters and their ongoing struggles to reach their goal.
Nothing grabs the reader more than emotion – it’s the one real thing that they will absolutely identify with. Everyone has emotions, everyone has feelings and everyone will have gone through similar emotions to your characters – grief, sadness, loneliness, joy, fear, anxiety and so on. If there is little emotion in your story, then you won’t engage the reader on any level.
There are similar elements to conflict and emotion, and that is to create tension, atmosphere and mood in all the right places. These elements keep the reader on the edge of their seats with intrigue, trepidation or dread. What might happen next? What could possibly go wrong? What lies in the darkness ahead? How will the characters get out of the situation?
These things cause the reader to react with certain emotions, and that means they’ve become involved. And that’s the whole point.
What about the actual stuff that is the story, the description, the narrative and the dialogue?  A balance of all three is a good way to involve the reader; it means you can’t go far wrong. In other words, don’t overdo it on description and leave dialogue languishing. Or don’t write too much narrative and leave the description wanting. Look for a balance of all three.
Dynamic description should always show rather than tell. Narrative sections should be brief and informative without turning into info dumps. Dialogue should inform and move the story forward.
Equal amounts of all three elements make the book a much better read.
There are so many ways to get the reader involved in the story, so in part 2, we’ll look at more literary devices, elements and ways to engage the reader and keep them engaged.
Next week: How to Engage the Reader – Part 2

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Why Your Story Needs High Stakes

What are high stakes?
It’s the risk element at the heart of any story. What might be lost? What might be gained? What might be the consequences?
Within every story, the main characters often make choices that affect the path of the story and they are responsible for actions and reactions that create cause and effect. The consequence of those actions is that some risk is involved – whether that’s personal risk or public risk (i.e. risk to other people).
High stakes – or high risks – are also made tangible by the presence of conflict. Where there’s conflict, all manner of risks tend to emerge.
The reader wants to know what might be gained or lost within a story. Is survival at stake? Is it love? Or a loved one? Is it a house, something precious or something sentimental, perhaps? These are the things that mean most to your main character – something that resonates in all of us. What would you do to protect your family, your house, everything you have?  And what would such loss mean?
High stakes indeed.
There is always something or someone at stake in every story; some that are deeply personal and some that puts other people in danger – and this friction causes all manner of conflict; just the thing you want for a great story.
Personal High Stakes
What means the most to you is probably not far different to what means the most to your characters. And if such things were at risk, it’s likely we’d all act in a way to try to do everything in our power to avoid the consequences. Your main characters will act in the same manner. An element of risk will change their behaviour; they will do things out of character, go to extremes or maybe even cross certain lines to achieve his or her goal.
By creating high stakes that are personal to your main character, you create immediacy with the reader, who will sympathise; they will understand the motives of your characters and they will become emotionally invested because they will know what such high stakes mean. Not only that, but the more realistic the stakes, the involved the reader will be.
Of course, the one thing that keeps the tension within high stakes is the huge and very real threat of failure. What if the hero fails to find the car bomb?  What if he/she can’t find the cure for his/her son’s mystery illness?  What if the father can’t save his son from the house fire? These are true high stakes.
But the idea of the high stakes relies on that realisation that it might go wrong and all will be lost. That’s the reality.
Public High Stakes
Personal high stakes are one thing, but public ones carry greater responsibility because it’s not just one person or one thing that your main character has to consider, but it could be the fate of many.
There are always innocent victims of conflict. Clever writers use public high stakes to crank up the tension and create extra conflict by making things worse for the people involved.
For example, imagine a hostage situation. The bad guy will start killing hostages unless your hero can try to talk him out of it, or perhaps disarm him. Or what if your main character is a soldier trying to defend a village from terrorists? Does he sacrifice some of them to reach his goal, or does he gamble those high stakes to try to protect the innocent women and children, while facing the inevitable threat of death, all by himself.
With public stakes, there is greater capacity for something to go wrong, to fail, and therefore the loss would also be greater. The emotional impact of this threat is more significant. The consequences are palpable and very real, and if writers can create this sense of realism, then the story will become even more compelling.
Change or Escalate the Stakes
Don’t be afraid to change the stakes to keep readers interested. There’s no reason why your main character can’t start out with one set of stakes and as the story progresses, more conflicts emerge and those stakes take on a different meaning altogether.
Protagonists and antagonists will share different high stakes, so when they are thrown together at various points in the story, their goals and motivations create huge conflict, because one will lose and the other will win. So whatever is at stake, there will be loss and there will be gains. Good or bad. One or the other.
The other thing writers can do is escalate the stakes, to make things almost impossible for their main character or to make the stakes such that the hero could lose everything if they make a fatal mistake or decision. Writers love nothing better than to make everything a whole lot worse for everyone, because the moment they do, they escalate the risk, and when that happens, the consequences become unfathomable, terrifying and very real.
The fundamental question is this: what is truly at stake for your protagonist? Is it worth the risk? The answer, of course, is yes, it’s always worth the risk. The higher the stakes, the greater the risk. Risk creates tension and conflict, which in turn creates emotions.
This is why your story needs high stakes. Without them, your main character will have nothing much to do and nothing much to care for.

Next week: How to engage the reader

Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Trouble with Supporting Characters

With most stories, we create supporting characters to help tell the story; a way of adding dimension, depth and colour, as well as lending support – be it in a good way or bad way – to the protagonist.
A story full of people is like real life. Some are good, some bad and some are fleeting. In fiction they have an important role to play because those supporting characters help the writer tell a vivid story that keeps the reader involved by sometimes utilising them as viewpoint characters. They may even be involved in subplots.
To help move the story forward, they are involved to a degree with the protagonist and his/her story, therefore they can cause conflict, change the direction of the story or affect the lead character. All this helps the reader understand the complex dynamics of characterisation.
But there are some drawbacks with supporting characters, and writers usually don’t discover these problems until they are well into writing their novels.
Most supporting characters that inhabit the main story shouldn’t really number more than a handful, otherwise the reader may become confused with who is who and it may be difficult for the reader (and the writer) to keep track of a multitude of people. Aim for clarity and don’t overburden a manuscript with a cast of hundreds.
Most novels have the protagonist and antagonist as main or primary characters. The secondary or supporting characters tend to be family members, close friends or colleagues, sidekicks/partners – who may be with the hero or they could be associated with the villain - mentors or teacher types, and of course, the clichéd love interest.
So what are the drawbacks of these supporting characters?
The main one is that some secondary characters have a habit of taking over or stealing the spotlight. In other words, the writer hasn’t recognised that the character has overshadowed the protagonist. This is a common problem, particularly in the first draft, because the writer is simply writing the bare bones of the story and needs to get it written.
First drafts tend to be the foundation of the story; the skeletal structure that will ultimately become a full blown novel, so the writing isn’t that structured, it may meander from the main plot from time to time and some things may fall into the background when they should be in the foreground.
These issues are ironed out in editing and redrafting. The writer should spot this. Remember that the story is about the protagonist – it’s his or her personal story, so the majority of the spotlight should always be on your hero.
If you see that one of the supporting characters has stolen that spotlight, then you need to make some cuts to bring your main character back into focus.
But how do you spot this? The best way to check is to count how many of your chapters relate to your protagonist. Then count how many relate to secondary characters. Most novels will have a main character percentage that hits around 70%.  So if you see that Character B appears in 35% of the book, Character C appears in 20% and Character D is 10%, you will see just how much of the limelight your protagonist has by comparison. In this example, the hero appears in only 35% of the time, which is the same as Character B.
So whose story is it? The protagonist or Character B?  If the balance isn’t addressed, it can cause major headaches and the reader may not be sure just whose story it really is.
The other problem with your supporting characters is that often – and this occurs with new writers – one or more turn into a cliché.  The love interest character is a cliché, there’s no getting away from it. It’s up to the writer to make the writing dynamic and clever enough to escape that label and present the story in such a unique way that it’s not even noticeable.
As an example, the “damsel in distress who needs rescuing” character is a huge cliché and almost always crops up in manuscripts. This is the 21st Century – women can kick ass, too. The other most often used clichéd character is the “stupid woman” who never listens to her hero boyfriend and decides to leave the safety of the car to investigate the creepy noises, despite being told not to. Or the one that runs from the haunted house in nine inch stilettoes and keeps falling over. There is also the one that walks stupidly into danger so that the hero can – you guessed it – rush in a save her.  This is contrivance ex machina.
Not all women are stupid and need the hero to save them every other chapter. The amount of writers that still do this is astonishing.
Another problem is that writers often inadvertently switch importance of characters halfway through writing, which means the protagonist and secondary character swap places. This confuses the story for the writer and reader. Be aware of this and correct it at editing and redrafting stage, or rewrite the story to change the protagonist. Be clear before you start writing just whose story it is.
Sometimes the supporting cast can turn out to be more wooden than a forest. If that happens, the story won’t have the support it needs, since the secondary characters help to tell the story. Characterisation is just as important for them as it is for your protagonist.
Supporting characters may not share equal spotlight with the hero, but their presence is what makes the story, so it’s important that they help bring the story to life without causing trouble. Be clear from the start who your characters are and what role they will play.  That way you will avoid these common problems.

Next week: Why your story needs high stakes.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

How to Write Dramatic Dialogue

We’ve looked at this subject before, back in 2013, but it’s always worth a revisit.

Dialogue is one of those things that a lot of writers feel insecure about. This may be because it’s sometimes hard to ensure dialogue is active, dynamic, interesting and realistic for readers, instead of being forced or stilted, melodramatic, hackneyed or just plain terrible. Readers aren’t interested in mundane pleasantries and chit-chat. They’re interested in the action and nitty-griity, the stuff that really matters.

The key to getting dialogue right is down to listening to real life conversations and observing how people interact when communicating with each other, because dialogue isn’t just about one character saying something to another. It also involves a certain amount of physicality – movement, gestures, ticks etc. And of course, each character is individual and therefore has a unique voice, a certain way of talking and acting, so this should be apparent when you write dialogue.

Dramatic dialogue enhances the atmosphere and mood of the scene by utilising emotions – anger, sadness, betrayal, frustration etc. Emotions are what lift ordinary dialogue from the page and brings the reader closer to the story. Dialogue without emotion is flat and boring, so it’s important to engage the reader in this way.

When people engage in a conversation, particularly passionate discussion, you’ll hear certain tones and pitches within people’s voices, with some people showing abrupt rhythms in their speech, while others have almost ‘sing-song’ rhythms.  All these nuances show the individual personalities of your characters. They are character revealing, which dialogue should be.

Let’s look at the some examples of emotionless dialogue and the affect it has on the reader:

‘The crash happened this afternoon. I wasn’t there, but I got a phone call,’ he said.

‘That’s terrible,’ she said. ‘If there is anything we can do, just say.’

‘Thanks, but it’s done, there's nothing anyone could have done,’ he said.

This type of flat, uninspiring dialogue is very common among new writers. It’s not a bad thing, but it means that it just takes time to show the reader the emotion of the moment with the characters. If the scene is dramatic, the dialogue should show this, without being over the top, of course.  So, rewritten with some warmth and emotion, it would be like this:

The knot in his throat tightened. ‘The crash happened this afternoon. I wasn’t there, but I got a phone call.’

‘Oh, Peter, that’s terrible,’ she said, and her expression sank. ‘If there is anything we can do, anything at all, just say.’

He half smiled through his hurt; a pretence. ‘Thanks, I appreciate it, but I feel so terrible, I feel I should have been there - there's nothing anyone could have done...’

This time around, there are hints to what the characters are feeling because it shows the tightening of the throat – emotion does that, or if you try to stifle crying. Her expression ‘sank’ and he half smiled to hide his true feelings of pain. This is more realistic, with reactions that carry more emotion for the reader.

Anger is another emotion that can create dramatic dialogue. If you’ve heard people in real life arguing, it involves shouting, pitched voices, being loud, as well as being physical, and lots of gestures and sudden movements. Any dramatic dialogue should capture this to make the reader believe in the emotion, and the realism, of it all, for example:

‘Why are you saying this? She was standing there one minute and vanished the next, I swear.’

Halsted sighed. ‘Look, Mr Van Bruen, your wife wasn’t with you when you entered the store.’

‘Yes she was! Why don’t you believe me?’

Halsted leaned forward. ‘Please, sir, you need to stay c--’

Van Bruen shot up from the chair. ‘No! I won’t stay calm. You’re not listening to me. None of you are listening to me!’ His eyes widened and coloured with irritation. ‘You’re all the damn same, all of you...’

This example uses pace and punchy sentences to create tension within the dialogue, together with sentences being interrupted and the inclusion of sudden movements from the main character, who reacts badly to the questioning. The shows the reader the emotions that simmer beneath the surface. Not only that, but it doesn’t resort to being over-dramatic. The reader could relate to the situation.

Dialogue, dramatic or otherwise, should always move the story forward and also reveal your characters. What the reader won’t learn about your characters in narrative, they will learn from your characters through dialogue.

The other thing you can do to manipulate the reader’s emotions and create tension and is to create obstacles to communication between characters.  For instance, if character A is trying to get his point across about something extremely important, perhaps life changing, then provide resistance from character B or C; something that provides tension and frustration. For example:

‘You should at least look at the figures,’ Cole said.

‘I don’t need to look at figures. This business is just fine without your meddling,’  Davis said, unconcerned.

‘How can it be fine when it’s losing so much money?’ he shot back. ‘You can’t bury your head in the sand and hope for the best. You need to look at these figures because people’s jobs depend on it.’

Davis stood up. ‘I don’t need a jumped up little would-be accountant trying to tell me how to run my own damn business, otherwise you can find another job. Got that?’

Cole shrank beneath Davis’ shadow.

‘Now stop bothering me and get back to work...’

As the reader, you want Cole to get through to the stubborn Davis, but he’s thwarted.This is a common way for writers to create tension and drama in their dialogue, and again the reader will relate to this.

Dramatic dialogue needs drama and conflict and emotions to work. Without these ingredients, the dialogue will be flat and boring.

To summarise:

  • Dramatic scenes require dramatic dialogue.
  • Know your character’s motivations and desires – create obstacles in their conversations, get them passionate or frustrated or angry. Get the most from their dialogue.
  • Emphasise speech – use tone and pitch and contrasting rhythms.
  • Keep the dialogue short and snappy.  People don’t chit-chat when in an emergency, neither should your characters.
  • Emotions and tensions and conflict all create drama.
  • Create immediacy with your reader – make them relate to the characters and their situation.
Next week: The trouble with your supporting characters