Sunday, 17 September 2017

What Makes a Story Dark?


If you’re a horror writer or you love to write dark, psychological stories and thrillers, or moralistic tales, this is the one question that needs an answer. Wanting a dark story and writing one are two different things, so how do you actually make a story dark?
To answer that you first have to understand what is meant by ‘dark’. We usually define ‘dark’ as quantifiable elements that we know and are familiar with, but it’s more than that. Dark doesn’t necessarily mean scary or gory with a crazy psychopath going around chopping people into bits. Instead we have to think of ‘dark ‘as anything outside our accepted rose-tinted reality. Dark is the underbelly of our society; it’s the handling of ideas, themes, social issues and behaviours that would be seen as morally unacceptable.
It’s less about fictional monsters but more about the real monsters that lurk in the shadows, something that is underscored by our fears and anxieties. It’s the unknown, because the things we don’t know or cannot comprehend generally scare us.
A story is considered dark if it tackles the stuff that would make most people uncomfortable, and that, of course, could be anything, from the horror of war, drugs, people trafficking, child abuse, genocide, terrible crimes, terrorism, gritty or grim urban tales or horror...to good old fashioned blood and guts horror.
Dark stories force us to confront the kind of subjects we don't want to, sometimes taboo subjects. It makes the reader confront subjects they probably wouldn’t normally want to know about, but that’s what a dark story does – it makes the reader confront all those fears and unknowns and attempts to quantify them.
Human nature intrigues us and we, as writers, are always trying to find answers, and the best place to find darkness for any story can be found with human nature. Dark is the side of humanity we almost always fear. And that’s the key word here – fear. The things we fear most are what make any story dark. Fears and insecurities can take on any form – a fear the outside world, irrational fears that take over, fear of losing loved ones, a lack of hope, death, depression, illness...anything. Mix fears with the element of the unknown and you have a potent mix.
Dark stories also tend to be intense with emotions because of the subject matter and themes. With fears and anxieties pushed to the fore, emotions become magnified; they get in the reader’s face. There may not always be a happy ending in dark stories, either.
Different situations evoke different reactions, but if you want your dark story to be effective, then any underlying darkness within the story must have meaning. There needs to be a reason for it, just as there has to be a reason for your characters to do and act the way they do to get what they want, and they have to journey through to their goal. So, for instance, a story that deals with terrorism will have darker underlying themes. A story focused on child abuse will have some dark and uncomfortable themes and images. But they will have some meaning to the story.
Don’t inject blood and gore just for the sake of it, especially if it is entirely unrelated to the plot. This just confuses the story.
The other thing is that dark stories generally have very complex characters. Antagonists tend to be far more multifaceted because their personalities, dark secrets, traits and behaviours reflect the fact they are antagonists and they tend to act negatively throughout the story in comparison to the moral approach to the protagonist.
Elements that make a story dark:
  • Human nature
  • Uncomfortable subjects
  • Characterisation, especially deep, complex characters
  • Fears and insecurities and anxieties
  • Any underlying darkness must have meaning
  • Intense emotions
  • Dark themes
  • The real world - it isn't as pleasant as we think.
Dark stories tend to form from reality simply because reality is dark; what happens in our world is a source of darkness for any story. The real world is dark, even if we don’t like to admit it or face it.

Next week: What moves a story forward?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

How Do You Improve Your Writing If You Don't Know What Your Weaknesses Are?


It’s a conundrum that all unpublished writers face – how do you know how to improve your writing when you don’t know how good or bad you are, or what your strengths and weakness are?
It’s difficult to know just how well you’re writing if there is no benchmark or yardstick to measure it, especially when you’ve spent so many months working on something. For new writers in particular, it’s hard to detach from the work and remain 100% objective and, to a degree, self-critical, so it’s always important to gain some kind of feedback on their writing.
But how do you know how well your story reads? Does it make sense? Is the story strong enough? Does it have the right pace? Is the characterisation good enough?  Is the writing good or bad? What are your strong points, and more importantly, are there any weak areas?
Weak areas of writing aren’t and shouldn’t be seen as negative – it just means you haven’t perfected certain areas of your writing just yet. Every writer has weak areas, until those areas are recognised and improved. So how do you recognise those areas if you’re not entirely sure that what you’re doing is right?
The obvious choice for writers is to hire an editor, but this is the one option that will cost money.  A good editor will show you how to improve weak areas of your writing and strengthen the areas that are good. A good editor will not only tell you where you’re going wrong, but will show you how you improve. Of course, not all writers can afford to do this, so there are a number of ways available, which won’t cost an editor’s fee.
The most practical thing any writer can do is learn all they can about writing from the outset. The more information and advice you have about writing, especially the technical side, the better your understanding of writing will become. You’ll soon learn what works and what doesn’t and why there is general advice about some aspects – for instance, ‘show, don’t tell’ or ‘avoid adverbs and adjectives’. These exist for a very good reason. They are universally recognised as ways to improve and strengthen writing.
The other vital thing is to read – the more books you read by different authors, the more you glean from their style, voice and the way they structure their stories. Don’t just read your favourite authors, but instead read all different genres and styles. Reading others helps foster creativity and helps to inspire. Seeing how others do it helps to formulate your own approach to writing.
If you find a novel you particularly enjoy and admire, then analyse why you enjoyed it. Was it the beautiful descriptions? Was it the rawness of its approach? Was it the thrilling pace? Did it immerse you in a different world? Did it make you keep turning the page? 
All the elements that help you enjoy a particular novel are the elements you should employ in your own writing.
Writer’s groups or workshops are another way to help improve writing. They’re not for everybody, however, but they are a source of valuable feedback and support, because they will have members who will have more experience with writing and may already be published (traditionally), and they will therefore understand the process.
Another way is to use beta readers. By using a range of people to gain reaction and comments, you’ll soon see where the problem areas are in your writing. They’re not afraid to critique honestly and they can be very forthright about what works and what doesn’t.  The only downside is that every beta reader will have a different opinion. One will say it works, another will say it doesn’t. One will love the story; another won’t, so with beta readers it’s a case of employing common sense when confronted with contradictory opinions.
For optimum feedback, use only a handful of beta readers. Too many people will just complicate things and muddy the process. Don’t use friends or family, they won’t be objective. If you can, pick fellow writers or people who’ve had experience with writing in some way.
Of course, the bravest option of all would be to submit your work to a publisher – whether that’s an online publisher, indie publisher or a large publisher or agent.  This takes some courage, because they will either accept or reject on the strength of your work, however, whatever the outcome, they often give valuable feedback on your writing. This is why rejection – far from being negative – is a valuable and useful way for writers to see the areas they need to work on and to improve their writing and their approach.
Lastly, and by no means least, there’s good old fashioned practice. Write and keep writing. The more you write, the better you become. You become attuned to your writing, you gain an instinct with it, so you start to become aware what works and what doesn’t, you’ll spot those weak areas before they become a problem, and you’ll slowly learn how to strengthen your writing.

Summary:

  • The time to learn about fiction writing
  • Read all genres and styles
  • Look at different novels and why they work
  • Join a writer’s group to gain feedback
  • Make use of beta readers
  • And the bravest move – take the plunge and submit work to publishers. Most will give you feedback/advice for improvement.
  • Hire an editor
No writer is perfect, so there will always be areas for improvement, even for experienced writers. We’ve all started at the bottom, unsure of how to start a novel, how to lay it out, how dialogue works, what show and tell means etc…but then we learn, we grow and develop and ultimately, we improve.



Next week: How do you make your story dark?

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Should Main Characters be Flawless?


One of the most common mistakes among new writers is that they often make their protagonists perfect. They say the right things, they act impeccably and seem unruffled by anything and no matter what is thrown at them, they seem to be able to cope magnificently. And of course, they always win the day.
But of course, the reality is that none of us is perfect. We all have flaws and imperfections and very often we make mistakes. This is real life, so your protagonist also needs to reflect this, to a degree. Realism has to play a part in fiction.
Characters are so much different and realistic when they’re flawed. It’s what makes them so interesting and endearing. We see in them as reflections of ourselves. We might love the fact that the hero is shy. We might empathise if your main character is a weak leader or perhaps is vulnerable and frail. These are recognisable traits.
Characters don’t especially have to be nice, either. They have off days, just like real people. They’re human, after all. That means they can show incredible weakness sometimes. They can make huge mistakes, ones that may have devastating effects for others. Characters can sometimes be immature. Some characters can be abrasive or blunt and at first they might not appear likable, yet as the story develops they redeem themselves.
Main characters often lie, cheat, pass the blame and will do anything to get what they want, and because of this, they end up hurting others. But we can empathise with this kind of weakness; we’ve all hurt people we love one way or another.
The best characters are those who are flawed. And that’s why we remember them. They stand out, they’re different, they make us sit up and pay attention. There are no rules that say we have to like them all the time. That doesn’t mean you have to make your protagonists really horrid, but rather they should have faults and blemishes, and that’s why we remember them. Don’t go too far with the imperfections that you accidentally make your main character a stereotype.Nice characters don’t lie or cheat or hurt others or say the wrong thing. Nice characters don’t have any flaws. They’re perfect in every way. Does that sound like your protagonist? If it does, then it’s just not real.
Readers want good characters, not necessarily nice ones. That’s the difference. ‘Good’ has different meanings here – a good character means one that is well rounded, has foibles, makes mistakes, but possesses some morals and does, ultimately, want to do the right thing.
The other thing that is noticeable with some main characters is that writers often make them indestructible – because they’re so damn perfect. That might work for Hollywood, but not for fiction. In movies, the hero gets shot, run over, set on fire and falls from a ten story building and gets up without a scratch and saves the day. This is stereotypical rubbish. It doesn’t represent reality.
Your main characters will get hurt; they will feel pain and will get their arse kicked at some point during the story. Because no one is that perfect.
So, why can’t you have perfect characters?
If characters are nice, flawless and the epitome of perfection, then not only will they be unrealistic, they won’t cause any conflict with other characters, and every story needs all manner of conflicts.  This means they will appear flat and uninspiring and the reader won’t be interested in them, they won’t be able to relate to them, certainly not enough to provoke any emotion or empathy.
If your character is so perfect, how will he or she grow and develop throughout the story? That’s why there is always a character arc – it shows how the character changes and develops throughout the story. If your character is perfect already, then a character arc is impossible.
‘Perfect’ characters simply don’t create conflict, tension or drama, which is what every story needs. There’s no point in a protagonist if they’re flawless.
There is no such thing as nice, flawless characters in fiction. Everyone has flaws. Everyone has made mistakes. Every one of us is different and imperfect. That’s what gives us character and dimension.
Characters should be:
  • Real
  • Flawed or have negative qualities – Perhaps vulnerable, shy, immature, or maybe aggressive, impatient or ignorant. Everyone is different.
  • Weak in some areas and strong in others.
  • Interesting and colourful.
  • Not necessarily perfectly beautiful or handsome.
  • Moralistic
  • Mortal – they feel pain, they hurt, they can break bones, they bleed and ultimately they can die.
Should your main characters be flawless?  Absolutely not. You’re not, so why should they?
Next week: How can you improve your writing if you don't know what your weaknesses are?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Getting to Grips with the Ending - Part 2


Part 1 looked at why endings are important and why writers often struggle with them. In this concluding part we’ll look at the different types writers can use.
Endings are as unique as every story; however, there are some formulaic endings that writers like to use. There’s nothing wrong with this – writers stick with things that work and these types of endings work effectively. Not only that, but it really depends on the kind of story and plot you have that determines what ending you choose, whether that’s a natural conclusion, a twist ending or a completely crazy ending.
The main thing is that, whatever ending you do have, it must make sense.
The Twist Ending
This is a common ending among writers, but possibly the hardest to achieve, and that’s because it has to be executed correctly. If not, it will fail. The surprise or twist is that the reader won’t anticipate what happens – the ending will be a complete shock. 
To get this type of ending right, you have to ensure that the story contains clues and hints and that you make use of foreshadowing. Most of all, you have to wrong-foot the reader by making them believe they might know how the story ends, but through clever misdirection and a few red-herrings, they’ll be in for a surprise.
The surprise works because it’s completely unexpected. It’s not the easiest to achieve because if the reader is smart enough to follow the clues and hints, and overstep the red-herrings, they may guess the twist at the end, therefore that element of surprise will fail.
This type of ending needs a lot of planning and thought for it to work.
Mainstream Ending
A mainstream ending is what most writers choose. In other words, the hero saves the day, defeats the villain and gets the girl, or something very similar. In other words, by the end, all is well with the world and the characters, the antagonist is no more and everything will be fine. This is the nearest thing to the ‘happy ever after’ ending, but real life isn’t actually like that. If you choose this type of ending, it’s worth bearing in mind the following:
  • Protagonists are not superheroes. They will get hurt.
  • Villains don’t always lose.
  • The hero doesn’t always get the girl/boy. She/he might dump the hero at the end.
  • Protagonists don’t always get what they want.
  • Mainstream endings aim to make the reader happy because it’s what they usually want. But Utopian endings are for fairy tales and romances. Don’t be afraid to be slightly different with your mainstream ending. Being different is what writing is about.
Open to Interpretation Ending
Endings can sometimes be ambiguous or deliberately inconclusive. They’re constructed that way so that the reader can draw their own conclusions about what happens or is likely to happen beyond the words ‘The End’. But they still need to be satisfactory to the reader, even if you don’t give them all the answers. These open-ended conclusions generally raise more questions, but in doing so the reader will think about the story and come up their own answers.
These types of ending usually indicate there are sequels, trilogies or they are part of a series of books, and that the story will continue until they are finally concluded.
Does ‘The End’ mean the end?  Not necessarily. After an ending, there tends to be the resolution. The job of the resolution is to show what has happened to the characters since the climax. It also helps to smooth out the plot and wrap up everything so that the reader can close the book feeling content that the ending is A) the right one B) logical and C) plausible and satisfactory.
Do you have to include a resolution? Not if you don’t want to. Plenty of writers choose not to. When the climax is done, the story is done and there is no need to go any further. Again, it depends on the story and the characters. That decision is entirely up to the author.
Endings - What Not to Do
There are some things to keep in mind with endings so that they work rather than fail. The following are common errors found with endings:
Don't introduce deus ex machina. In other words, don’t have an unexpected power or event or unknown person swoop in and save the day and everything is rosy. This is a sham and the reader will not thank you for it.
Don’t milk your resolution. After an exciting climax, don’t then spend three or four pages of boring exposition explaining everything to the reader. The end should mean The End.
Don’t overcomplicate it. Writers go overboard sometimes as they try to wrap up all the multiple sub plots and threads, and it becomes a jumbled mess that makes no sense. Keep the ending simple.
A great ending for any novel should make sure it makes sense, is plausible to the reader and is, above all, is the most satisfactory ending for the story. Not every story is a happy ending. But whatever it is, it needs to be right.

Next week: Should your characters be flawless?

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Getting to Grips with the Ending – Part 1

There is plenty of advice about how novels should open and lure readers, but what about endings? How important are they?
The simple answer is that they’re extremely important. The ending is the biggest advertisement for the reader to buy your next book. A satisfactory ending to a great story will very likely mean the reader will want to read more of your work. If the ending isn’t well executed or it’s contrived, the reader won’t be so forgiving and may not think your next book is worth reading.
Endings are as important as your opening. They need a lot of thought and consideration, which is why writers often struggle with endings. They want everything within the story to conclude, but at the same time they don’t want it to be schmaltzy or make it feel like a fairytale ‘happy ever after’ and most of all, they don’t want the ending to appear forced. This is why endings are the most rewritten part of any novel. Writers sometimes write dozens of endings before the settle on the right one.
The biggest reason writers have a problem with the ending, however, is because they haven’t planned their novel. How can you plan your ending if you don’t know where your story is heading? You have to have at least some idea of how it will conclude, even if you don’t have all the fine details worked out. This is why it’s so important to outline chapters and put a brief plan together so that as the climax approaches, you know exactly how you want to end the story.
Everything that happens in the story – subplots and actions etc. – relates to the conclusion, and this is where writers get stuck. If you’re a panster, and you don’t do much planning, or none at all, then you may find yourself in this situation. Even if you’ve got your ending in mind, you have to link it with the whole story, which may prove troublesome if you’ve generally made the story up as you’ve gone along.
So how do you get the ending ‘just right’?
The success any novel relies on a great opener, solid storytelling in the middle and a satisfactory ending. So, to get the ending right, the events that lead up to the end-game – the denouement – must conclude in an acceptable and reasonable way. Everything that takes place within the story must logically link to the ending. The actions of the main characters will form the basis of the ending (actions have consequences. remember), but must be believable.
In other words, all the questions must be answered, all plot threads should have been dealt with and the climax should be a logical conclusion to the plot. But writers often forget to tie up loose ends. You don’t want your reader wondering what happened to Joe Bloggs, last seen wandering off into the night on page 45, never to be heard from again. Every thread needs to be neatly tied up before the end, otherwise you could create confusion. If you don’t spot these things, your reader certainly will.
The idea behind any ending is that the reader won’t know how it ends until they read it. And when they do read it, they’ll be amazed.
Next week we’ll look at the different types of endings that work well for writers and what pitfalls to avoid in order to make the ending successful.
Next week: Getting to Grips with the Ending – Part 2

Sunday, 30 July 2017

How Do You Start and End Chapters?


This is something that all writers struggle with as they figure out how to grab the reader’s attention and maintain that interest. But there is reason why chapters should start and end a certain way – they are constructed to grab the reader’s interest, maintain it and keep it sustained throughout the novel.
The opening chapter of your book is always going to be the most important one, because it initially must hook the reader, then the rest of the story needs to be strong enough to captivate them. The end of that first chapter should then end in a way that entices the reader, it makes them pay attention or it teases them enough to turn the page and keep reading, because they simply have to know what happens next. 
The hard part is to repeat this formula for almost every chapter.
That may seem a lot, but there’s a simple reason behind it. Writers do it because they must tease and tantalise the reader at every opportunity. The more they can provoke and evoke, the more interest they garner from the reader.
Generally speaking, each chapter is usually chronological – they chart events in order and so each time a new chapter starts, the writer has to lure the reader somehow.  This is done my making the opening lines of the next chapter really interesting. How do they do that?
It depends on how the preceding chapter ended. Was there a revelation; did some big secret come out? Was the main character in mortal danger from a seemingly inescapable situation? Did something terrible happen?
Whatever it is, the next chapter is the natural continuation and so writers either get straight to the heart of the action and open moments after the last chapter. They use dialogue or description to catch the attention of the reader. But whatever the next chapter, it must be interesting enough for the reader to carry on reading.
The ending of a chapter plays more of an integral role. It’s an invite for the reader to read on. This can be anything, but it needs to lure, it needs to be interesting enough for them to continue.  Think of it as a mini cliffhanger. These work well because almost always something unexpected happens to the main character.
The cliffhanger can be anything - it could take the shape of a huge revelation, which throws the main character into an emotional state. It might be that a truth is uncovered; the main character learns something which changes the dynamic of everything. Or it might be the main character makes a decision – perhaps a terrible one...or it could also be that the he or she is thrown into a terrible situation with no apparent means of escape. The stakes are high, the danger is imminent…
And that means the reader has to find out what happens next.
The next chapter should never cheat the reader. Don’t give them a cliffhanger where the main character runs from some kind of danger and she hears a noise and screams, thinking she’s about to be killed…and the next chapter shows that it’s a fox making the sound, which scurries off into the night. This stuff doesn’t stick and the reader won’t thank you for it. Don’t contrive; it does nothing for the story’s integrity.
The subsequent chapter to a cliffhanger should always follow. In other words, it follows the events. So if your main character runs from some kind of danger and hears a noise and screams, thinking she’s about to be killed, then the next chapter could start by showing how she evades the danger by thinking on her feet, or perhaps opens with her standing over a figure…
It’s a simple concept: Tease and reveal. Tease and reveal.
This is the case as the story moves towards its climax, where things become progressively more difficult for the protagonist, and writers often throw in one more big surprise twist at the end to ramp up every last ounce of tension and excitement and suspense. And it’s that magical ingredient suspense that really makes a story put readers on the edge of their seats. It’s all about uncertainty.
Will the hero survive the perilous fire? Will the revelation change everything? Will the story change dramatically after what has happened? What happens next?
The reader will just have to turn that page and find out…

AllWrite will be taking a summer break and will return 19th August.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Story Archetypes


Writers use them all the time, but what are they? Why do we use them?
An archetype is a typical character, situation, theme or symbol that is easily recognised and very common in novels, plays and movies.
We always notice typical characters, or clichéd ones, such as the two-cop partnership, the quirky or unusual best buddies, the teacher/mentor student partnership, the sappy female who needs rescuing by the hero or the smart-mouthed wise guy and so on. These are familiar character archetypes, but we’re interested in story archetypes.
A diverse range of story archetypes can bring a different purpose to the story. It’s not about complexity; to make a novel look complex, but rather it’s about simplicity - story archetypes help the reader identify with the characters and the story and their situations, because they see something they recognise and they easily understand such experiences.
There are plenty of situation archetypes that writers use all the time. They’re commonly used and easily recognisable, and they represent just a small portion that you can find in all literature. There are dozens of distinct types of situational archetypes found on the internet and in books, and they all cite the same things, for instance, the Quest describes the search for someone or something which will restore order in some way to the character and his situation, or make something good again.
Another familiar one is the Journey, where the hero goes in search of something – the truth, information; himself...it could be anything. It’s not that different from the Quest - the hero or heroine goes in search of something or someone and it’s about the journey they take to reach it.
Another other common type is rags to riches. How often have we read about these types of stories? This is where the hero or heroine is born into a life of poverty, but eventually, through hard work, help or even underhanded means, they overcome this and become rich and powerful. Of course, the ‘riches’ don’t have to necessarily mean money. Sometimes we enrich ourselves through knowledge, family, or what we do for others.
Fall and rise is similar to rags to riches because it describes how the protagonist starts off in a position of authority or power, and through a spate of bad luck, other people being underhanded or perhaps because of his own actions, he falls from grace and ends up losing everything and finds himself at the bottom of the pile, but through determination, hard work or sheer luck, he claws his way back to the top again.
There are others, such as Overcoming the Monster. The monster in question doesn’t have to be the horror movie kind either. It can be a person or a corporation or something more sinister.
You’ll probably recognise some aspects of these archetypes in your own writing. That’s not a bad thing, and that’s because there are a finite number of dramatic plots to use, but limitless ways we can interpret them, so we use these archetypes to help the reader feel familiar to and connected with the story.
In addition to situational archetypes, there are also symbolic archetypes that appear in stories. Again, some are quite common and very recognisable:
Light and darkness is used so often in literature that it could be a cliché, but like any archetype, it’s how we use it that makes the difference. We use light and dark because it’s still an effective symbol. Light usually suggests something spiritual, it represents hope, renewal, positivity or good things, whereas darkness implies foreboding, the feeling of vulnerability, the unknown, fear or something sinister. Writers use these two tropes as a way of contrasting narrative.
Fire and water are used symbolically because of the different associations with them. Water can symbolise just about anything, from life, being cleansed or even a soothing entity. Fire tends to denote rebirth, fear and or death. Again, different people use it symbolically for different reasons.
Birth and death doesn’t have to be literal – these can represent our state of being, our psyche and thought process and dreams. Symbolically they’re quite powerful – birth can often denote gaining knowledge or a realisation, whereas death can signify a breakdown of something; a marriage, feelings, a vehicle...anything the writer wants it to be.
Colours are another symbolic archetype that perhaps isn’t used as often as it could be, but we use them to provide contrasting ideas or to enhance the narrative. 
There’s no doubt that black and red are the most often used colours. Black represents darkness, the unknown, our fears, death and all things nasty and evil. Red, on the other represents life (and death), love, passion, anger, injury and emotions.
White represents the light, and so we associate it with something pristine or virginal, spirituality, goodness and purity etc. Blue, on the other hand, is a colour not explored as much as black and red, yet it can represent depth, feeling or soothing. Darker blues can be used to accentuate mood and tone, as can grey and green.
Of course, there are story archetypes in just about anything – characters, numbers, symbols, plots/stories, themes etc.
We use them not because they’re common, but because they provide us with different ways to enrich our writing.  We actually rely on them quite a lot – they form part of the building blocks of writing and they help our readers become familiar with the story.

Next week: How to start and end chapters