Sunday, 28 May 2017
Similes and metaphors are extremely useful tools for writers, they bring extra depth and layers to the writing in ways that normal description doesn’t.
New writers don’t always understand the difference between the two or how they should be used, and often think they have the same function, but they do differ, and offer different things to the writer. As with many literary devices, it’s how they’re used they makes them effective, not how many are used.
A simile is a fairly simple figure of speech - it compares two separate things by using connecting words such as, as if, as though or like, for example:
His voice sounded gritty, like footsteps across gravel.
Her words became dull, as though muffled by water.
John’s face screwed up, as if an electric charge had shot through him.
With each of the examples, there is a connecting word – “like” and “as though”, which help to make the comparison. So in the first example, the gritty voice sounds like footsteps across gravel. In the second one, dull words sound as though they’re muffled by water. And in the last one, John’s features change, the kind of expression you might see from an electric shock, so the comparison becomes a visual prompt for the reader.
This kind of description helps the reader better imagine the scene. The similes lift the description and make it more vivid. They help the reader interpret the description with sounds and images.
Writers don’t always realise they’ve used a simile because we use them all the time in every day speech when we describe something to another person. We automatically layer what we say to help the other person visualise it. That’s how commonplace similes are.
The best use of similes is to do it with key descriptive scenes. Don’t overload the narrative with them, otherwise it becomes too much and will detract from the description. Let them lift those descriptive moments and help the reader “see” the scene.
Read any book and you’ll see plenty of similes placed carefully throughout.
Metaphors provide slightly more depth to the description. They are more complicated, and unlike similes, they are not found in everyday speech. For this reason, they take a bit more thought to construct and convey the right meaning.
They act as a contrast, like similes, but they don’t use the connecting words of “like” or “as though”. They refer to one thing by mentioning another as a way of comparison, for example:
He drowned in a silence as vast as the ocean.
Alice ran through the colourful fields of a barren landscape.
Fear fell across his face in cold, callous flakes.
John fanned his feathers in her presence, though she barely noticed.
There are no connecting words but there are comparisons. In the first example, the silence is compared to the ocean, in which the character feels as though he is drowning. The fact that silence isn’t something that you can actually drown in doesn’t matter, but by showing this comparison to the reader, the visual impact means the reader can imagine the strength of the silence is such that it overwhelms and therefore “drowns” him.
The second example shows Alice running through imaginary ripe fields, yet in reality the landscape is barren. The fact that there can’t possibly be any fields in a barren landscape doesn’t matter - the comparison makes the reader take notice of the description, and that’s what metaphors do.
The third example shows the character’s fear, externalised as the cold snowflakes that fall about his face. This helps the reader understand that fear by imagining the sting of those icy flakes against the skin, so in this instance, the fear is compared to something quite cold.
The last example shows how showing off is compared to a bird fanning its feathers to impress the female. The man clearly doesn’t possess any feathers, but it’s meant symbolically and it shows his infatuation with the other character through this comparison.
This is how metaphors work; they induce the reader further into the story with striking, stylistic descriptions that are powerful enough without the need to write reams of description. They can encompass anything, with a little thought. This is why writers should consider them carefully, since not all metaphors work. Don’t mix metaphors, don’t force them for the sake of needing a metaphor every few pages, and don’t try to be too clever with them either.
A metaphor only works when the meaning is meant, and it will enhance the description.
Can you mix metaphors and similes? In moderation, yes. The same rule applies in terms of overloading the narrative. One or two here and there can enrich the narrative, but too many will spoil it, so make sure the comparisons mean something, and the meaning of the narrative is enhanced because of it.
So, for instance, let’s take a simile and a metaphor from the examples above, and mix them:
His voice sounded gritty, like footsteps across gravel. But it seemed help would never come, and eventually, after hours of calling out, he fell silent and drowned in a silence as vast as the ocean.
Used together, the description is enhanced by the comparison of the simile, and the meaning hidden beneath the narrative comes to the foreground. In other words, this poor character is shouting out for help, which will never come, and so that awful desperation and sense of loneliness is clearly visible beneath the metaphor.
We use similes and metaphors to strengthen descriptions by evoking the senses and the reader’s imagination, and by cleverly hiding true meanings beneath the narrative, just waiting to be discovered.Next week: Getting into your character's head/mindset
Sunday, 21 May 2017
What does that mean, exactly? Well, it describes what it says – writers should resist the urge to explain things. This may seem contradictory, since the writer has to explain things to the reader so that they understand the story, but in this instance, we’re talking about the urge to explain everything. There’s a fundamental difference between the two.
New writers, in particular, have an in-built habit of over-explaining things, simply because they don’t really know any different, and they assume that’s what the reader needs and wants. But that’s not the case. In this instance, less is always more.
From the first chapter, writers feel they have to explain everything, on the assumption the reader simply won’t get what’s going on. But readers are smart. They pick up on things very easily, so the need to explain is mitigated by the fact that they don’t need to be force-fed every morsel of information in order to ‘get it’.
That’s one of the main reasons why too much explanation – or exposition – leads to telling rather than showing. And while there isn’t anything wrong with telling – in all the right places – there is everything wrong with it in all the wrong places.
The reader doesn’t need to know everything about the story, the character and his or her background in the first chapter. It doesn’t have to happen in the second chapter or third. It can happen when the writer feels it necessary to impart such information.
The first chapter serves as the lure. It doesn’t need to contain everything. Instead, the proceeding chapters feed juicy snippets of information as the story unfolds.
The urge to explain things comes in many guises. Info dumping is another one of them. It’s expositional overload - a Nightmare on Explanation Street. Readers hate info dumps, as do editors and agents. They don’t want important information dumped over two or three pages in one huge, boring chunk. That’s a sure fire way of killing the story. The reader won’t bother to read anything else you’ve written, because they already know almost everything.
In order to keep the reader interested, and hooked, clever writers hold back information rather than explaining everything. This is a very deliberate ploy, and with good reason. That’s because we can introduce information bit by bit, when it suits the story and the plot, and of course, a character’s situation. That way, we retain some mystery, some drama, some tension and atmosphere and that most fundamental element – conflict.
The beauty of writing is that some things are worth holding back – the important snippet of information, that incident from the past, the significant revelation, that confrontation with the antagonist...it could be anything. But that ‘anything’ can be worth something later in the story. That’s because the reader doesn’t need to know everything there is to know about your main character or his/her situation in one go. The less they know, the better (and stronger) your story will be.
On the flip side, there is also a trend with writers to go for brevity in the mythological belief that the average reader has the attention span of a gnat. Some might have brief attention spans, but most don’t. Brevity is fine in very small doses, but the thing about brevity is that it has no substance, and if there is little substance, then there is little reason to read your book.
The need to explain things is rather like the Goldilocks effect. Not too much that it spoils the narrative, not too little that there is no substance and reader has nothing to read, but just the right amount, in the right places, at the points in the story that really matter, that makes the story so enjoyable.
Resist the temptation to write four pages of backstory in the first chapter. Resist the urge to explain the main character’s background. Resist the urge to explain why your main character is embarking on his or her journey. Resist the urge to explain why the villain is so villainous. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the reader just won’t understand the story unless you explain it all to them.
Explanation has its place, but only when it’s the right moment. How else can you retain a sense of mystery or intrigue? How else will you keep your reader in suspense? How else will you tease and lure them?
If you want them to keep turning the page, never give too much away.
Next week: How to use similes and metaphors.
Sunday, 14 May 2017
Part 1 and Part 2 looked at an array of elements to include to make a first chapter successful and stand out to your readers, but since there are so many to consider, we’ll conclude with a few more to ensure that the opening of your book hooks the reader from the very first word and keeps them hooked.
This is something that can be hinted. You don’t have to club the reader over the head in order for them to get the main theme that runs through your book. Themes are the veins that run through every story, and your reader will easily pick up on them. The more they enjoy the story, the more things they will understand.
Often a story has a central main theme – betrayal or revenge, for instance. So by hinting at these themes through subtext, through character emotions and thoughts or carefully placed flashbacks, you can establish the main theme very easily.
Be Visual, not Verbose
The description, or how you apply it, in your first chapter is a benchmark of what the reader can expect throughout the book. That means that if you write the first chapter like an amateur, the rest of the book will look amateurish as well.
But if you take the time to describe visually (show, don’t tell), then the reader will fall for your unique voice and writing style, and so they will know what to expect in the coming chapters.
So don’t tell the reader about the main character standing in the rain waiting for the moment to get the bad guy. Show the reader. Describe. You can tell the reader everything, but unless you allow the reader to visualise the situation through your description, there is no point to the book.
That’s because it’s all in the detail of your description.
What Lies Beneath
What lies beneath the opening chapter?
The whole story, that’s what. The first chapter serves as a synopsis of the entire story – in other words, it will hint at everything the reader wants. It should hint at what the story is about, why it’s taking place, what might happen. It should have motive, emotion, themes, conflict...all the things the reader absolutely wants and expects.
The first chapter is an appetiser. Make sure it leaves the reader wanting more.
Avoid Exposition and Info-Dumps
Many first time authors do this. They begin the first chapter with the entire backstory of the main character, then go on to explain what the story is about and then finish with some huge info dumps. This will kill the story dead.
The reader won’t care one bit for the main character or his/her story because they’ve had to read ten pages of boring rubbish to get to the main point of the story. Any drama that an opening chapter should create will be swallowed up by extraneous drivel.
This is why we tell writers to be lean with exposition and backstory, which can come in the proceeding chapters, bit by bit. So if you want a great first chapter, avoid unnecessary info dumps and huge passages of narrative and instead jump right into the story.
Some will argue that there’s nothing wrong with prologues. And there isn’t anything wrong with them. If you want a prologue, write one.
But if you want to engage your reader, avoid them. Prologues do kill the story. You’re asking the reader to read through some boring stuff that relates to the story somehow, but where nothing actually happens. There is no conflict, no emotion or descriptive essence before the reader finally gets to the first chapter and by then they’re already bored and really couldn’t care less.
The fact is that almost all prologues are not necessary. The writer will say that they can’t find anywhere else in the book to put this information, which somehow relates to the story. No? So they can’t use a flashback? They can’t use memories through a character? (thus strengthening characterisation in the process). They can’t use it in dialogue? They can’t feed it through expositional snippets during more dramatic moments? They can’t write anything?
A prologue doesn’t actually add much to the story. It simply sucks up all the tension and drama and mystery of the opening chapter and may well mean the reader abandons the story. They probably have better things to do than read a prologue about nothing in particular and where nothing actually happens.
The thing with opening chapters is that the reader will often remember them, because it’s their first introduction to the story and the characters, but also of you, the writer. It’s your style and voice. The way you write is just as important as all the elements that go into making a first chapter successful.
Every writer is individual, but it’s how they engage with the reader that makes the reader come back for the second novel, the third and so on. And they will come back, as long as the first chapter hooks them and keeps them reading.
Next week: Resisting the Urge to Explain
Sunday, 7 May 2017
Part 1 looked at many of the elements required in order to make a first chapter interesting enough for the reader to keep reading, but there are plenty of others at a writer’s disposal. Writers don’t have to use every single one, but they’re important enough for most first chapters if the writer wants to get them right.
Begin the story, Not the Book
Open in media res, the most tense or dramatic moment. Most books start with the beginning of the book, but it’s not the beginning of the story. Writers spend far too long establishing a story at the beginning instead of jumping right into the thick of it from the outset.
The reader will pick up the story as the story unfolds – that’s what storytelling is about.
Somewhere in the first chapter you should let your reader know when and where your story is taking place. That doesn’t mean you write a three page description of the setting, because that will just kill any impetus of the opening chapter. The first chapter really doesn’t need an overload of unnecessary information.
Instead, hint at the setting, or just write a couple of lines to show where and when. That’s all it needs. The reader will fill it the rest.
A Crucial Opening Line
There is a gamut of advice on having a great first line in order to lure the reader. But this is one bit of advice worth taking, because not only are we writers, but we’re also readers, and when we read the first line of a book, we want to be hooked, we want to read on, we want to be entertained and we want that promise of great things to come.
That’s what a first line should deliver. It’s the bait the dangles before your reader, the finger that begs them to follow.
Study some of the opening lines to books and see what makes them work.
Action, dialogue, an interesting line of description…it doesn’t really matter. There is lots of advice telling writers to open with action, but while this is not a bad idea, writers don’t have to open with explosions or a car chase or a shootout with the hero. There are other ways.
Some books open with amazing dialogue. Some open by teasing with intrigue or mystery with a few lines of visual description which provokes the reader, it demands the reader become involved rather than making them stand on the sidelines to watch it unfold, as action scenes do.
Whether it’s a bit of action, a bit of dialogue or a bit of mystery or intrigue, how you open the story is wholly dependent on how well you write it.
Make the Reader Care
Immediacy and emotion makes the reader care about your characters. Establish an emotional connection from the outset and you will have your reader in the palm of your hand. And the best way to create emotion is to throw your main character into danger, to make things almost impossible for him. Or you take from him something that matters, like his house or his wife or children – these are tangible emotions we can all connect with because we know what the feeling of loss is like, we know what it’s like when everything gets on top of us and there seems no way out.
Readers will respond to what they understand, and they all understand raw emotion.
Cast a Flicker of Light
The idea of any first chapter is to whet the reader’s appetite. So rather than illuminate the entire story in the first eight pages or so, simply cast a flicker of light over things. Writers have a habit of explaining everything in the first chapter, so the rest of the story doesn’t have much substance, subtext, twist or much plot to give.
Hold back. Don’t tell them everything. Tease the reader. Hint. Whet their appetite. Drive them nuts to know more.
Just cast a flicker of light over the things you want them to know. For now.
In Part 3, we’ll conclude with a final list of elements to include in a successful first chapter.
Next week: Making First Chapters Successful – Part 3