Saturday, 28 March 2015
There are some things that every writer should get right before any thought of publication (either through self publishing or traditional). With the onset of self-publishing, especially, there is a tendency of complacency (and lack of writing ability) in so much that a writer can write however they wish, because there are no ‘rules’ to follow.
While this is indeed true, it is also misleading. There is also no quality control with self publishing, so if writers do break those ‘rules’ then the result will be a terrible, unreadable mess. Fact. That is why there are guidelines in place, to ensure a writer produces a quality written piece of fiction.
If you want to write a novel then you have to know the fundamentals. If you ignore the fundamentals, then you’re not going to achieve much as a writer.
Planning – a little planning goes a long way. A lot of planning goes even further. The less prepared you are to embark on a novel, the more problems you will encounter. So plan your novel - sketch out the chapters, make sure all your important characters are well defined, know a rough ending and know where the story might go.
Length – have some idea of what the length your novel will be and try to stick to it. Anything less than 60,000 words will be a novella. Any more than 110,000 words will end up being a saga (and probably a huge bore for your readers). Average length novels run from 80,000 to 100,000 words.
Plot – what is the plot? What, essentially, is the story about? What is the point of the story? What will it achieve, what is it trying to say? Make sure your plot is as tight as it can be, otherwise readers will pick out the holes, the obvious plot flaws, quite easily. If your plot isn’t watertight, then the rest of the story will fail.
POV – there are certain guidelines for this, and there is good reason for it. Too many writers believe that there is nothing wrong with jumping from one POV to another, mid scene. This is not a good idea, and it’s another classic error made by beginners. And those too arrogant to want to accept any different.
The general rule for POV is that viewpoints should not shift until there is a new scene or a new chapter to introduce them.
The reason for this ‘rule’? Try reading a novel with viewpoints all over the place. It’s hard to figure out whose point of view it is and whose story is being told. It’s confusing and difficult to read. If there is no clear viewpoint and it’s not clear whose story is being told, then the story has failed on a major level.
If authors can’t get these basics right, then they have no place writing.
Characterisation – A good book always has great characters. Lack of characterisation makes for a poorly written book. Make sure your characters are interesting, dynamic, but ultimately flawed. Make the reader care about them. And make sure the reader can root for your protagonist. There’s nothing worse than a hero we all hate.
More importantly, whose story is it? Many authors make the mistake of letting secondary characters take over. The main character’s story becomes lost. This is a classic mistake made by beginners.
Conflict – where is the conflict? What kinds of conflict will it have? A story without conflict isn’t a story.
Conflict usually takes the form of good guy versus the bad guy; it is the fuel of any good story. But conflict can come from different things - the environment or surroundings; it can be internal conflict from your main character. It could be conflict between secondary characters or with companies or even authorities. Whatever the conflict, make sure it works as part of the overall story.
As with every aspect of fiction writing, don’t force it.
Structure – The importance of structure shouldn’t be overlooked. But what exactly is structure?
When we talk about structure, it means the construction of the novel. In other words, are the scenes set out properly (do they flow instead or do they stutter and jump from one thing to another?). Is the dialogue structured properly? Are the chapters clear? Are POVs correctly done? Does the whole thing move the story forward in a logical manner? Do you have a tight plot in place, with clear subplots and themes to underscore the story?
Above all, does your story make sense?
All these things working together make up the overall structure of a novel, and if one of them is lacking or flawed, then the structure isn’t working and the story won’t be as strong as you may want it.
In part 2, we’ll look at more fundamentals for writing a novel, such as the beginning and ending of the novel, dialogue structure and exposition.
Next week - Fundamentals of Novel writing – Part 2
Saturday, 21 March 2015
How different are they from writing full length stories such as novels or novellas?
Despite their similarities, short stories are quite different, certainly where structure and content is concerned.
Unlike novels, short stories have a limited amount of space in which to tell the story; usually around. 1000 – 10,000 words, so how the story is told is dictated by its length. In contrast to novels, there is a lot to cram into the short story, without it feeling too cluttered, rushed or contrived.
There are no hard and fast rules where short stories are concerned, but there are certain aspects writers should consider and a number of things they should pay attention to, especially as there is a limited amount of words to work with. That doesn’t mean writers have to be so economical with words to the point that description suffers and falls prey to ‘telling’, rather than ‘showing’ but instead it means writers have to be very careful about which scenes require more description and which scenes don’t, because even short stories need adequate description and imagery to help make them more believable.
What does a short story need?
From the outset, your short story must identify whose story it is and what the central point of the story is. If you have only 1000 words in which to tell that story, then it’s vital you engage the reader from the very first word. That means introducing the main character immediately and letting the reader know what the situation is within the first two paragraphs.
It’s important that the reader understands the story from the opening lines. Establish the time, the place and the action (the Greek Unities) as early as possible. It makes life easier for the reader and for the writer.
Get the POV right before you start. Whether it’s first person (popular with short story writing) or third person, make sure you’re comfortable with it – and stick with it – otherwise you’ll end up doing more work in the long run to correct a POV that just doesn’t work.
Just like the novel, a short story needs a great beginning, an interesting middle and a satisfactory end, which is no mean feat when you don’t have many words to do it. Not only that, but the story must make sense. There is nothing worse than a short story that doesn’t have a theme and then wanders off the beaten track and doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say.
It also needs a significant starting point. Jump straight in right at a pivotal moment that something affects your main character. Short stories don’t have the luxury of lots of exposition, so it’s important to establish the defining opening scene because that then sets the tone for the rest of the story.
Don’t skimp on tension, atmosphere, emotion and conflict. Just because short stories are short in length doesn’t mean that writers should overlook some very vital ingredients. It might seem a lot to fit in, but it can be done. It just means that every word and sentence is precious, so make each one count.
Don’t complicate the story with too many characters; otherwise it will be hard for the reader to follow them. The fewer the characters in the story, the less likelihood there is for complication. Fewer characters make for a better story because it makes the narrative tighter and allows the writer to concentrate fully on those characters. It will also prove easier for the reader to follow and much easier for the writer to establish immediacy with the reader.
The short story structure is less complex than the novel because there are fewer themes and almost no subplots (that just takes up valuable wordage). All the aspects of a novel can be found in a short story, but they are considerably pared down, like a miniature novel.
Why do some short stories fail?
1. The writer has used too many characters, so it becomes too confusing for the reader to follow who is doing what and when.
2. The writer has failed to let the reader know the time, the place or action and simply blunders on regardless.
3. The story hasn’t opened at the most crucial point in the character’s life and instead it rambles on before anything interesting happens.
4. It hasn’t set any scene or revealed what is at the heart of the story.
5. It doesn’t have a very good beginning, with a muddled middle and a poor ending that gives no answers.
6. There is no central theme.
7. The writer just hasn’t thought it through.
Some people can write short stories with ease, but find novels more complex, while novelists find it bothersome to contain a whole story in 1000 – 10,000 words. Others can do both.
The best way to understand how short stories are structured and how they work, however, is to read as many as possible. The more you read, the more you will learn.
Next week: The Fundamentals of Novel Writing
Saturday, 14 March 2015
Part 1 looked at some of the main causes of character conflict, the kind of things that give our characters motivations, things that make them act and behave in certain ways which raise the tension and keep the reader interested - such as love and hate, the need for a character to reach his or her goal, desire, the good guy versus the bad guy effect, making choices and facing dilemmas.
In this concluding part, we’ll look at a few more causes, ones that we don’t always readily give a second thought to, but they are important ones nonetheless, because they are elements that can cause conflict, and where there is conflict there is tension and emotion, the very substance of stories that readers love.
Ignorance might not seem an obvious choice of the cause of character conflict, but characters, like people in real life, have a tendency, and a great capacity, to be ignorant of a lot of things, and when someone doesn’t see the truth or refuses to believe something or someone, that’s when the trouble starts.
Characters who are ignorant of the things that are happening around them will always attract conflict, because there will always be other characters desperately trying to change their opinion or outlook. This kind of external conflict can exist between one of more characters.
Look at it this way - what if your main character can’t accept something, despite everyone else telling him differently? In real life we are all probably guilty of that at some point in our lives, and that goes for your readers, too. They will know this feeling, so this kind of conflict will certainly resonate with them, because they understand the emotions going on with the all the characters, they will relate to this type of conflict.
Another one is prejudice. This is something that we all fall prey to, in one form or another. It’s human nature to prejudge. No one is perfect, and your characters, with all their imperfections and flaws, should be no different.
When we prejudge, we make our own assumptions about something or someone – more often they are unfounded and completely wrong. And that’s the kind of prejudice that causes conflict – characters being treated in a different way because of who they are, who they are with and what they do, or they are treated differently because of their skin colour, their gender, their looks, beliefs or their sexuality.
Some of the best novels contain characters fundamentally weakened by prejudice – think To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Human Stain.
And so to our final primary cause of conflict...fear. Good old-fashioned fear of the unknown always causes conflict because ultimately we fear what we do not know or understand.
It’s also closely linked with prejudice and ignorance, since fear, prejudice and ignorance go hand in hand.
Again, it’s human nature to fear something we’re not quite sure of. And those fears don’t have to be external. They can be internal fears – fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of making a fool of oneself. All these fears lead to a heightened sense of emotion, and that can lead to friction with other characters, especially if they don’t really understand what your main character is thinking or feeling.
In real life we have encountered many of these fears, so we know what kind of tensions and conflicts it can cause to those around us. Fear is a powerful reactionary emotion and one of the strongest emotions used in literature. And because it’s so powerful, it causes a great deal of conflict.
Whatever the reasons behind it, characters love to fight and disagree and argue – it’s what makes an interesting story. But next time to you sit down and create a story, think about the very reasons why your characters act the way they do, and the very real causes of character conflict.
Next week: Writing Short Stories
Saturday, 7 March 2015
No story is without conflict. It’s a driving force not only for the plot but also for the characters. It makes characters do things they wouldn’t normally do. It makes them behave in ways they wouldn’t normally behave.
But to understand why characters react to conflict this way, writers should learn the fundamental primary causes of character conflict and why they’re so important in fiction writing, the kinds of reasons that universally make sense and provide the catalyst to create such tension and conflict.
You have the characters, you have the plot layout, you have a rough idea of the ending, you have scenes plotted and prospective subplots, but your novel lacks the tension and the conflict, so you might wonder: exactly what kind of conflict do I create for my characters?
That depends on the plot, other characters and the surroundings, because there are certain types of conflict to help writers:
Man v Man – This is external conflict
Man v Himself – This is internal conflict.
Man v Nature – This is external conflict.
The most important thing for any story is that the main character wants something, but he or she is somehow being prevented from getting it. Think how you feel if you couldn’t reach your goal? Think of the frustration and anger and disappointment this would create because your goal is in reach but you are thwarted at every turn. This is external conflict.
Another cause of any conflict is good old fashioned love and hate. Characters love to hate each other just as much as they love to love each other. Characters who don’t agree – even best friends - will clash, thus providing lots of different tension and varied conflicts. This is also external conflict.
Another cause is desire, which covers a large spectrum of emotions. Desire is falls under this type of cause, because sometimes what we desire isn’t always what we get. It’s not just desire of another person, but sometimes it’s the desire of a special object or place, or the desire to achieve something. The desire can be obvious or it could be profound. It really doesn’t matter, because the true conflict comes when the character’s desires are not fulfilled, which causes internal conflict.
Let’s not forget another primary cause – the antagonist versus the protagonist, or sometimes known as ‘good versus evil’. Every story will have a protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the bad guy) who will clash throughout the story, each time growing in intensity until it culminates in the final showdown or ‘end game’ where the hero might win the day. Or he might not. This is another example of external conflict.
Here’s another one to consider: Imagine being faced with many choices – what do you do? What path do you take? What might happen? Will you make the right choice? Choices make for good conflict because there is always the danger that your main character will make the wrong choice, which will result in danger and tension and lots of conflict.
Most stories will involve the character making important choices; whether right or wrong. This is internal conflict.
Similar to choices, another primary cause of conflict is the dilemma. No one likes to be faced with a dilemma, but unlike choices, which can be right or wrong, the dilemma forces the character to make a choice between two bad outcomes. In other words, there is never a right choice. But the decision behind whichever the choice the character decides on will be full of conflict and tension. This would take the form of internal conflict.
Think about the states of conflict we create for ourselves in everyday life – the emotional conflict, dramatic conflict and sometimes physical conflict. Somehow we resolve them in our own way. Sometimes it’s a good outcome, sometimes it isn’t, but nevertheless we are forced to behave in certain ways, we lash out, we react badly or irrationally, we act hastily.
Sometimes we do things we regret. And that’s because such conflicts awaken our instinctive desire to act and react.
In the concluding part of this look at primary causes of character conflict, we’ll look at some other familiar causes of conflict, which are important to any story.
Next week: The Primary Causes of Character Conflict – Part 2