It was a dark and stormy night… Or not.

chickensummer“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

 

I can’t think of many readers – and I include myself amongst their number – who open a work of fiction in the hope of perusing pages upon pages of description.

And yet whenever a story comes to me it never takes the shape of words alone, it visits as a whole scene: scents, images, sounds and textures alike. For my readers to feel at home in the stories I write, I have to make the effort to translate what I see, give them enough of the world I envisaged for them to be able to make it their own. All this of course, in the hope that they will want to stay.

Description brings both the settings of our stories and the characters therein to life. In many respects the setting itself is another character in the story and it needs conflict and tension to breathe alive. It craves influence.

#1 Know your setting intimately:

Listen into its everyday rhythms, its smells and sounds. Get a feel for its weather patterns. Make a sketch of buildings, fauna and flora that make it distinct. And just like any other character, the setting will relate to others. It may affect their moods and behaviour, and at times it may even reflect their temperament.

Some places are such an ingrained part of our identity that it is almost impossible to detach and commit them to paper. The attempts feel intrusive: as if we were carving out pieces of our own selves. If that holds true of us, then it must be also true of our characters. In describing the spaces they inhabit, we lend them weight and substance. Yet how does one decide what to describe and where to remain silent?

#2 Be selective about the details: make them allude. 

A telling detail will always trump pages of flourish description. It will tell the reader everything they need to know about a character or a place, pull them into the story and make it vivid, while remaining unobtrusive.

Some authors are more generous in their descriptions, others almost spartan. My own approach is one of light brushstrokes. I always try to give the reader enough so that they can get a feel for the place where the action or dialogue takes place and for the characters within, but not so much that they would stop and think: “Aha! Here’s the description.”

No matter how wonderful a passage of description or characterisation might appear at first glance, if it stops me in my tracks on a second reading and I find myself gloating with a poetic turn of phrase or gushing over an exquisite sentence, then I know that it will have to go. Or at the very least it will have to be retired for a story that would allow it relative anonymity.

#3 Aim for specific detail and avoid the generic:

“It was a dark and stormy night” may well have appeared florid even to the 19th century reader who first opened Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. What if the storm were announced by the “parched creak of a door” or “the incessant sigh of the wind” as it does in one of John Le Carre novels instead?

When done well, description will ground both action and dialogue. Characters will no longer be spectres who speak and act in a void. The edges of their physical world will no longer be indistinct and their own bodies and personalities too will gain sharper contours.

#4 Add mood and tone through the use of the senses:

Sight and sound, taste and texture – all serve a double duty. They don’t only enliven a scene or a fragment of dialogue.  More than describe, every one of them can offer a sense of who the characters are and how they relate to the world they inhabit. This allows characters to transcend the fictive reality and become – to the reader at least – real people. After all, the suspension of disbelief is what all authors strive towards.

#5 Use description to deepen key scenes:

Description can be a great aid to setting the pace. Key scenes often require a slowing down of pace. Since the reader has been building up to them for pages on end, these are the moments they want to savour, really be there alongside the characters they are rooting for. Each key beat, each turning point allows the author greater leniency when it comes to description.

Yet no setting, no matter how detailed its exposition and no character description, however masterfully handled, can supplant the rich imagination that a reader will bring to the page. No two people will see the same hillside, abandoned cottage or factory furnace. No two passionate mouths or sylph-like figures will be the same in the eye of the beholder. Each and every one of us will bring our own furniture to the set and populate even the most exotic of locations and radiant faces with that which feels familiar. 

The skill of the author then lies not in the number of details provided, but rather in how those details are woven into the fabric of the story, so that – while seeming subordinate to the rest – they offer a deep sense of place. 

*

Here are a few passages of description that I am particularly fond of because they do more than offer information, rather they entrap one into a sensual experience of (both) place and people.

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop… [s]omehow it was hotter then… bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. … There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“…it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock- no pain, only violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand bags in front of me receded into immense distance.” George Orwell, describing his experience of being hit by a bullet in the Spanish Civil War.

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonised by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare. 

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

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The Mystery of an Interesting Plot

Mystery-BooksThis is the plot wherein lieth burried the writer. Who dunnit? It’s rather predictable, isn’t it? I’ll have a guess and say that it was an inside job. You heard me. The writer did it. How? It was predictable. The plot. The plot was predictable!

For a writer keeping the plot from getting flat is amongst the greatest challenges.

I read an article earlier today on Keeping your Plot Interesting and decided to add a couple of my own suggestions to their number.

First things first, what are we plotting?

Plot is nothing more nor less than a way of telling a story that will make readers resent having to put your book down no matter what emergency tears them away from the page. Because what they have on that page is life. The life of a character who takes them along on a day-dream. This is what plot does: it facilitates great storytelling, the kind that transports the reader into a dream and keeps them there.

A great plot will grip not only the reader, but the writer too. So what are the ingredients of a great plot?

Interesting characters are key, and the lead must be a little more so, they must be compelling. If the reader identifies with the lead, they will keep reading. This is why likeable leads fare better and are easier to write than unlikeable ones. We sympathise with characters we like, care about their hardships and will them to succeed. Even negative leads must be likeable to some degree, or failing that, they must possess a power that will compel the reader to keep turning the page. 

What drives the action of the novel is that character’s objective, their reason for being in the story in the first place. Whatever the objective, it must derive from that character’s dominant desire and be crucial either to their happiness or to their safety in order to carry the narrative through.

Once the objective is established, we are ready to throw as many obstacles in their path as our imagination will allow. The more the better: opponents, conflict, confrontation, inner struggle – you name it. Let the lead have what they want within the first few dozen pages and the story is done for. Make them go through a few hundred pages of hell to get it and you have a novel. 

And having spent all that time and effort keeping the lead from reaching their goal, there comes a time to bring the story to a rewarding end. Rewarding for the reader, rather than the character of course, although there will be times when both can be equally satisfied.

Each writer will have their own ways of keeping a plot from becoming predictable. My main tip is to draft several potential ends to the story, and foreshadow each in turn throughout the narrative so that any of them could be a real possibility. Even if you have a favourite one picked out already, working towards multiple endings can help prompt unexpected twists in the story and will be sure to keep both characters and readers on their toes.

Mystery solved?

unHooked

hook-em-inIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that an aspiring writer in possession of a manuscript must be in want of a hook. 

There is a very good reason why some of the most memorable lines in literature are to be found at the gateways of novels. A well crafted first line will grab the reader’s attention and pull them into the narrative. It will act as a propellant, set the tone of the story and showcase a writer’s creativity as well as their endurance.

Why endurance? It is a popular misconception that hooks are one-liners. The intensity of that first line has to be sustained throughout the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter and leave traces through the entire novel.

The hook is not a marketing gimmick, although it has been known to be treated as such. It is a promise of things to come. Crafting an incredible opening sentence will put us in good stead, but to keep the reader on-side, the story that follows in its wake has to live up to the expectations we’ve created. That’s the trouble with a good hook, once we got a taste of it, we are left craving more – insatiable readers that we are.

Another major oversight when it comes to using literary hooks are the closing lines of paragraphs and chapters: perfect places to dissuade the reader from putting down the book.

There are many ways to get a reader hooked. Here are my favourite trio:

Action:

If we begin a novel in media res: where something is already happening, the reader is plunged into the thick of it and are bound to stay with us. After all, they need not take the trouble of going through paragraphs of dull description before the spiced up, conflict riddled action begins. Of course, it must be a momentous form of action. If we can keep them wondering at the underlying motivation of our characters and desirous to find it out, all the better.

Dialogue:

This is another form of action. Its inherent drama is an advantage in using it as a hook, and a few well-chosen lines of dialogue can showcase conflict better than any other literary technique. However, there are certain drawbacks to this, especially when it comes to making the transition from a conflictual encounter to explaining the context in which the clash took place. It must be handled with care so that the tension of the moment is maintained throughout.

Foreshadowing:

Another example of beginning in media res. We start in the middle of a scene at a moment of intense conflict or tension – whether inner or outer – giving the reader a taster of what is yet to come. Once the scene is set, we return to where it all went wrong and guide the reader through the action back towards that moment. It is important to get the balance right between what is initially revealed and what is withheld with a promise that the next page – or perhaps the one after that – will hold the answer.

And a little extra for the adventurous:

Description is incredibly difficult to use as a hook and is one for the writer who likes a challenge. There are certain prerequisites to keep in mind if determined to take this path:

  • It must be dramatic,
  • It ought to establish the mood of the scene,
  • It should reflect the protagonist’s inner world at a moment of extreme tension.

Whatever hook we choose, it has to make the reader feel something and prompt them to read on. Most importantly, we must remember that hooks only work if they are in keeping with the tone of the rest. A brilliant start will fall flat if what comes after doesn’t live up to it, and a drama-filled final line will read like soap opera theatrics if preceded by bland prose.

Perhaps a quick overview of what will unHook the reader may help? Here are some common mistakes:

  1. The Iceberg: This is the stand-alone offender. A hook that will catch the reader’s attention, but has no relation whatsoever to the actual story. Remember that marketing ploy that got you to read a story and then made you feel cheated when the content didn’t live up to the original promise? This red herring is it, and the rule also applies to hooks at the end of chapters.
  2. The Screamer: Sometimes referred to as the over-exited hook, this hyperbolic supernova of intensity is in danger of making the rest of the story sound pedestrian. Unless of course, we take pains to bridge the gap and maintain the intensity in the pages that follow. The easier solution is to tone down the hook and bring it in line with the main body of the text.
  3. Inaction or Action UnHooked: Just because something is going on, that doesn’t mean it is important enough to make it as a hook. If the protagonist is hurrying out of the door because they are late for work we are unlikely to read on, unless of course the Earth is about to be hit by a meteorite and they are the only one with a solution. 
  4. Dialogue UnHooked: The main danger with using dialogue as a hook is the tendency to fall into the melodramatic. Moreover, when it simply floats on the page unattributed, dialogue is unlikely to work as a hook. It is a hard ask at the best of times. When it comes to opening sequences, infusing every line with tension and mixing in characterisation and scene-setting, without making it apparent to the reader, is key.
  5. The Void: This is, as the title suggests, the absence of a hook whether at the beginning or end of a chapter. The only solution to this problem is to practice writing them. Most of our favourite novels will have something to teach in this respect. For the cautious, the best advice is to err on the side of excess, and then pull back until the hook comes in line with the story.

Use that first line to pull the reader in. Make a promise, hint at more to come, and keep that promise. Let tension mount and if you do it well, the hook is in and the reader will find it impossible to slip away.

Out of Character?

Disclaimer: No books have been harmed in the writing of this article. All characters have been provided with a safety briefing before participating in the experiment and have signed waivers to that effect.

I write fiction not for my readers and not for myself. I write fiction for the sake of those odd heroic characters that are contained therein. They are counting on me as much as I am counting on them.
― Nicholas Trandahl

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I don’t know about you, but my life is a novel populated by troublesome characters.

If you don’t believe me, you need only peruse an account of my latest altercation with one particularly recalcitrant specimen of their number: Let me get into your head! screameth the author, pulling at her hair in desperation.

It is not unusual for writers to have a love-hate relationship with their characters. As authors we want to be fully in control of our story with all of its twists and turns; yet more often than not, we discover that once we have populated our manuscript with characters, the ungrateful residents will make a run for it and take a life of their own.

Characters can make or break a novel. It comes as no surprise that getting characterisation wrong will ensure our manuscripts a cosy trip to the publisher’s fireplace. And given that winters are getting longer and colder with each year, I fear that kindling is in high demand these days.

So far this series of writing tips focused on the Don’ts rather than the Dos of fiction writing, on avoiding mistakes that may deny our manuscripts the chance to see the light of print. We’ve prepared a well presented manuscript and followed all their rules so far. The prose sounds just right, not one jarring sentence in the mix. We even avoided writing in an unsuitable style or using excess adjectives and adverbs. Even that truculent comparison has been brought into play, not to mention the spades of great dialogue. However, I can’t help thinking of those overworked publishers freezing in their offices late into the night with no firewood at their disposal and an idea struck me:

How about a little character sabotage?

Even if we’ve mastered viewpoint, there are still some wonderful means of making our novel less compelling and thus ensure the publisher’s fire will be nicely stoked. Feeling charitable this eve? Let’s see what we can do.

Your first bet is to launch into the story without naming any characters at all. Write as many pages as you can: heated action, conflict galore, show it all unfold but do not reveal one single character name in the process and make sure there are no instances of characterisation at all. I know it’s tough, but hey! We want that fire going, don’t we?

If you’re not doing too well on that count, this second pointer is bound to help get that manuscript into the slush pile. Pick up an old sock and draw a face on it.  If the characters have as many in-depth traits as that magic-marker-bejeweled sock, job done. Pin it above your writing desk as a reminder any time you’re tempted to write in a character that exceeds sock traits or actions.

Make them boring. Make them unbelievable. Make them as unpleasant as you possibly can. Here are some of my favourite character clichés for inspiration:

  1. The Mad Scientist: An inexorable thirst for knowledge and desire for progress have left him isolated from the world and functioning as a somewhat amoral character. Even if his intentions are noble ones – experiments undertaken for the sake of humanity or for the greater good of the world – it will all end very badly indeed. A big head of fluffy white hair and glasses hanging off the tip of his nose are a must.
  2. The Russian Spy: If the character is male they will be harsh, hardened by years of work in the field. He drinks a lot of vodka and, of course, speaks English with an accent. If they are a woman, she will be beautiful and usually blonde. Long legs are a prerequisite as well as being versed in the art of seduction.
  3. La Femme Fatale: She spells danger from the moment she first makes an appearance on the page. There is an air of mystery about her and she has all men at her fingertips. She is necessarily the ultimate seductress and will use her power to get whatever she wants.
  4. The Mary Sue: The ideal woman with a heart of gold. She is beautiful, although she does not know it and must overcome some terrible tragedy from her past when she meets the “right” man.
  5. That Brooding Rebel: There is no question about it: he must be both gorgeous and a taciturn. He eschews the society of men and women in equal measure. Broods a lot, usually because of his less than exquisite background, but will become the most sensitive and understanding of men when his fated love comes along.
  6. The Nice Guy: Everyone likes him. He is considerate and modest, has a good sense of humour but will always laugh at himself rather than others. His sole focus in life is to win the heart of the woman he loves, but since even fictional female characters prefer the “bad guy” he will not succeed in his quest try as much as he will.
  7. The Average Joe / Jill: Medium-sized, brown hair, brown eyes and with no distinctive characteristics whatsoever – average Jill and Joe read like police-report descriptions. Everything about them is generic. They lead boring lives where nothing happens and die much the same – of old age usually. Unusual choice for a protagonist, but often found populating the supporting cast. 
  8. Mirror Mirror: Whether a plain Jane or a rich b*tch, a reluctant hero or a b*st*rd of a libertine, this character finds it impossible to know what they look like unless they look in a mirror. When they do take a peek, their features are usually flawless and in many cases will remind the reader of a specific actor or actress who will be named in order to facilitate their imagination and spare the author the trouble of actually describing them.
  9. The Heartless Villain: The bad guy who is so bad that he is simply unbelievable. His  sole motivation for all despicable actions is nothing more than a desire to do evil. To make up for all this villainy, he has an equally “touching” good side: he either loves his mother or remembers fondly the girl he fell in love with as a young boy, or perhaps he is a vegetarian who loves his cat. When he confronts the hero, he will always give an account of his plans and offer less than plausible explanations for his actions. If inconvenient for the author to keep him meddling in the protagonist’s business, the villain will conveniently give up on his evil plotting for no reason whatsoever.
  10. The Fashion-Savvy Gay Friend: Always at the ready with a witty line and some fashion advice, especially when his broken-hearted heroine is in need of shopping therapy. He refers to men as “she” and to women as “girlfriend.” The master of taste when it comes to labels and interior design, he is a shoulder to cry on and can always be trusted to critique other characters’ tastes, whether in clothes or men.

Feel free to add to the list. I’m sure you’ve come across a stock character or two in your day. 

Archetypes exist for a reason, so it is possible to use one as a guide and then add some twists to make them our own. Beware: if you want to make your novel unpublishable, steer away from the cliché at your own peril. 

The above ought to have done it: we are well on our way into unpublished oblivion. But if you’re afraid that the novel might still sneak through, perhaps the third solution will come to the rescue: introduce all characters at once so that the reader can have no chance to wrap their head around who’s who. Do you have ten or perhaps a dozen characters in your novel? Bring them all to the same table as near the start of the novel as you can and let the chaos begin!

It’s also a good idea to introduce a few extras here and there. Let them show up only once and then disappear from the plot never to be heard of again. Walk-on characters are fun and they are also bound to irritate a publisher, which is exactly what we’re attempting to accomplish here.

Another good way of getting the publisher confused is by allowing several characters to dominate the narrative, so that it is impossible to determine who the protagonist is. The easiest way to accomplish this is by using multiple viewpoints with as little skill as we can possibly muster. And if we can also make sure that they are characters we don’t care about, all the better.

If all else fails, here is the masterstroke: create an unsympathetic protagonist. Of course, even such protagonists can be compelling if we dedicate a lot of time and care to make them likeable. Do not fear. Get them to kill their wife after abusing her for years or molest a child and show no remorse for it whatsoever, and chances are no one will read beyond the first few pages.

You know what. I’ve changed my mind. The whole book-burning idea just doesn’t sit well with me somehow. I’d much rather my manuscript was allowed to live another day. With that in mind, I’ll have to think of a different way to keep the publishers warm. Cup of tea springs to mind. Unless of course everyone else decides to go along with the original plan, in which case I’m off the hook. 😉

Daily Prompt: Teach Your (Bloggers) Well

Call me Ishmael

The opening line of Moby-Dick must be one of the most recognisable in Western literature.  Imagine now that Melville had kept the structure of the sentence but substituted the name for another.

Call me John.

It does’t come anywhere near the impact of the original, does it? Ishmael tells its own story. There is a mystery attached to it, something that prompts us to delve deeper, search for an underlying meaning, both apparent and hidden from view. Whereas John… What could possibly interest us in a plain old John?

That is not to say that there are no Johns of interest to be found in modern literature, however…  Here is a challenge for you. Do you recall a John this very moment?

cardboard-cartoon-character-4-8141594While there are many ways for a writer to miss the mark when it comes to characterisation, it is near impossible for a publisher to make a decision either way without delving a little deeper into the manuscript first.

There are a couple of indicators they will be on the lookout for from the first page: character names. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet perhaps, but get it wrong, and I’m afraid that what our publisher will be sniffing out in-between the lines is the amateur writer.

Why do names matter? First impressions are as important in print as they are in person and the use of clichéd names – the Jacks and Joes, Marys and Sarahs we have come across one hundred times over – will signal to the publisher that they may well be reading a manuscript whose author either lacks the imagination to search out distinctive names for their characters or are themselves of a rather clichéd mentality.

On the other hand it is possible to err in the opposite direction by giving characters in a contemporary setting overly exotic names and this will cause just as much damage. Just think about having to read a novel populated by Grunzilbas and Frantomimons.

While a good plot may carry through characters with ordinary names, a poor plot is unlikely will not be strengthened by the use of character names that – while certainly original – are also difficult to remember and will be a cause of great irritation for whoever attempts to make it past the first few pages.

There is a third problem to add to the mix; what I like to call the Russian syndrome. Say you’ve found an interesting name for your character, which is neither clichéd, nor intrusively exotic. Take “Liese” for example. It is unusual enough to be memorable, but not so unusual as to make it annoying. You’ve even come across a surname that will work well with it… say: “Helling”. You’re off to a good start:

Enter Liese Helling.  

First sentence done, but wait a minute! What’s this? One page later the reader’s head is already spinning. After being introduced to Liese Helling in the first sentence, the next gives them an account of Mrs Helling’s troubled afternoon. Two sentences further and here’s Liesy being reprimanded  by her villainous husband. Then they are witness to Liese’s inner life while she bemoans her fate. Helling gets an urgent call from her children’s school to inform her of a bullying incident and then Ms Liese abandons everything to…

Now imagine that the scene unfolds with another six or seven characters in the room, and that for each of them there are four or five name variants. Instead of having to remember seven or eight names, we have to keep track of forty throughout.

While most readers will keep at it trying to wrap their heads around character names in the great works of one Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, they will be less likely to be as patient when reading a novel by a modern writer. So… It is best to give them time to get used to the character before asking them to remember a Liese Helling’s half dozen appellatives.

The solution to all these problems is a straightforward one:

  1. Research names for you characters. There are plenty of books on names and excellent internet resources too. Choose names that suit them. It is never too early to think of the underlying symbolism of a name; this may help deepen characters and add something else for the reader to delight in.
  2. Make them distinctive enough without making them sound like something out of a Martian encyclopaedia (unless you are writing science fiction, of course, in which case you may have a broader spectrum of names to work with).
  3. Then choose one way to refer to them, your favourite appellative, and stick to it.

Of course… we mustn’t forget to introduce them too. I know, I know. But you’ll be surprised how often it happens: ten pages of fast-paced action and not a character name in sight! There is no point in their having memorable names if the reader does’t get to know them.

Here we step into the realm of characterisation proper. More on this coming soon.

Meet the Amateur’s Viewpoint

There is one sure way for an editor or publisher to find out the amateur: the viewpoint switch.

alternating viewpointFirst things first. Before we have written the first line of a novel we have to know both from whose point of view we’ll be telling the story, as well as decide whether we’ll use first-, second- or third-person narrative to do this.

Getting the viewpoint consistently right requires a great amount of skill and care. One mistake and the intended effect will be destroyed, rather like the appearance of a stain on an immaculate dress.

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of common mistakes when it comes to viewpoint.

The first one is such a basic mistake that it very rarely finds itself on the page of a submitted manuscript, although if ever it does, it is a good enough cause for instant dismissal. I refer of course to:

       1. Switching from first person narrative to second, or third person. For example:

I remember clearly the first day I met Clare. She was the angriest person he‘d ever come across. We decided to go through the date anyway. I did not think that I’d ever see her again. But then Mike had been known to be wrong before.”

Although this is an extreme case, I hope it illustrates how confusing the switch in narration can be. Mike begins by telling the story from the first-person, but then quickly changes to first plural and then goes on in third, first again and third again. Confused yet? I know I am.

       2. The second type of mistake is just as easy to identify, and it refers to instances when the narrative method is consistent, but the viewpoint character changes:

“I loved the way he flipped that coin between his fingers. Heads! he’d declare with such confidence as if the outcome was fated. He was the same when it came to every aspect of his life. It was mesmerising. I knew that she liked me, admired even. What I didn’t expect was to be ambushed on a third date with silly questions about where all of this was going. Nowhere, darling. That’s what I wanted to tell her, but I bit my tongue and said instead that we’ll flip a coin for it.”

The first six sentences are written from the point of view of the female character. Let’s call her Clare. Although the narrative continues in first-person, it’s clear that the viewpoint character suddenly switched. It is her male companion, Mike, speaking next.

Although it is possible to have more than one viewpoint character in a novel, it is best if each of them have their own separate chapters or else the reader will soon be confused as to who is telling the story and when. Within each individual scene or chapter however, it is key to stick to one viewpoint.

There are many experienced writers who use the viewpoint switch to their advantage, but they will never make the switch mid-sentence or mid-chapter. That is the sign of an amateur and they will soon be found out and sent home to think again (from one point of view only henceforth, or so we hope).

       3. Have you ever come across a character who knows things they shouldn’t? Hopefully not, as such characters usually find an early death on the slush pile. Of course this is not a case of busy-bodies who shove their noses where the sun don’t shine as it were, but rather it is about characters who suddenly and incomprehensibly know what other characters are thinking and feeling.

“Mike decided that Clare will have to do. His parents insisted on a plus one, two days before his brother’s wedding, and out of all his on-off girlfriends she was the only one who was free that weekend. He watched her walk away from the table, wondering whether she danced as well as she walked. She stopped when she reached the door, turned around and waved. She thought he looked handsome in his burgundy shirt and skinny jeans.”

You may have noticed the offending line. Yep. It is the last one. It’s Mike’s viewpoint we witnessed throughout the paragraph, so how on earth is he supposed to know what Clare was thinking? This is a blatant example of viewpoint inconsistency. Unless this is a paranormal novel and we’ve already established that the viewpoint character can read minds, that line needs to be cut out and quick.

       4. The final mistake I will mention in this context is the most difficult to spot. It usually occurs at the start of a novel where we first meet the narrator: the viewpoint character that does not engage the reader.

I won’t attempt to write an example for this, because it is rather tough and I hope at least that I’ve never done it in the past and will never in the future. There are several ways however to identify such a narrator: they will be plain boring. Their voice will be bland and unoriginal. There is nothing distinctive or gripping about how they introduce the story and as a reader you won’t either like them or dislike them, you simply won’t care. The result of course is that you won’t care about the story they are telling either.

The solution is also quite simple. Get a trusted reader to peruse the first five pages of your manuscript (no more) and ask them to answer the following questions. Does the voice of the viewpoint character stand out on the page? Do they have an idea of what that character is like from those pages alone? Is their interest piqued?

If the answer is “no” to any of those questions, then it is a clear case of the viewpoint character requiring a little spicing up.

Now that we’ve got the viewpoint and narration down, we’re ready to step into character. See you on the other side. Bring me a loveable villain and a conflict-driven hero and we’re in business!

Show | Don’t Tell

You’ve just finished work on a dreary day. You may be a commuter in need of a read for the train journey home. Here is a lovely bookshop enticing you with a multitude of offerings, but which will you pick? You may be tempted to go straight for a tried and trusted genre, but even after narrowing it down to this, your job is not yet done. You will have to leaf through a few books until you find the right one for you. How will you decide?

I imagine that each of us has a different way of going about it. For me the first page is key. I will open up the book and often discard it after the first paragraph. If I’m not caught yet, chances are I won’t continue reading. If the first paragraph makes for good reading, I will continue on until I have finished the first page. In most cases, my mind is made up by the time I’ve turned to the second.

In view of this, I was not surprised to discover that 99% of manuscripts submitted to agents and publishers are dismissed on the basis of the first five pages.

Five pages? Really? Is this all the space and time we are given to prove our worth? Apparently so.

'The manuscript is 'green' because it's typed entirely on the backs of rejection slips.'That is not to say that  an agent will take an author on the basis of five good pages alone, but this is the window of opportunity to impress and to persuade them to continue reading. The writing tips I’ve shared so far were geared specifically towards this:

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— Immaculate presentation that follows the rules set by the agent or publisher in question.

— Well constructed sentences and appropriate use of punctuation to create the right sound.

— Avoiding the trappings of unsuitable style.

— A manuscript that has been purged of excess adjectives and adverbs.

— Nurturing specificity and rich vocabulary when using comparison.

— Mastering the art of writing great dialogue.

Now that our overworked agent/publisher is caught, we need to keep them on side. Would be a pity to give them an excuse to eliminate us from their must reads after a good start. They’ve made it through those five pages. They are intrigued, but their brow is knitted still. Lips pursed and pen tapping hurriedly page after page, they are searching for a weakness, something that will justify them in setting this manuscript aside and moving on to the next – there are hundreds more waiting after all. What are they looking for?

Ah yes… that good old tell-tale sign of lazy writing: too much telling, not enough showing.

SHOW | DON’T TELL

This is one message that I shout to myself every time I come across an instance of unnecessary telling in my own narrative. Telling works just fine for outlines and drafts, but when it comes to publishable stories, it simply won’t do. Let’s break it down into the Wheres and Hows:

Easy places to look for telling that ought to be showing:

A. When introducing characters or settings,

B. When giving characters’ backstory,

C. Where there are a multitude of events following one another in quick succession,

D. In the gaps between major scenes, where what happens is described rather than happening,

E. Anywhere in the narrative where there is information instead of action.

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Next, some ways in which to figure out how the telling is done:

1. Character description: This is where the fault line begins. Writers are expected to describe their characters, give an indication as to what they look like and who they are. While in the past authors could get away with paragraphs upon paragraphs of this, that is no longer the case.

When it comes to physical description light brushstrokes are preferred to in depth characterisation. For the protagonist we may get away with more, but it is still better if the description is sprinkled here and there, rather than concentrated in one place. For all other characters: pick one main feature that would set them apart from the crowd and leave it at that. Three at most if you must. If a character’s traits are all average then describing them will hardly paint a memorable picture: “Here’s average Bill meeting average Mary on an average day for an average exchange. Blah.”

To tell a reader what characters are like, on the other hand, is a big NoNo. If they are kind, catch them in the act and show them doing something that would imply to the reader that this is how they are. If they are brutal or a liar, then we must see them acting with brutality or lying through their teeth, and so on.

The same goes for places. Showing what a place or a setting is like is much more difficult that telling, but do it well and a reader will feel like they have seen it instead of reading about it in a substandard tourist brochure.

Show and let the reader come to their own conclusions about characters and places.

2. By interpreting we make the story our own. When a writer tells the reader that their character is an alcoholic then the reader has no other option than to accept this. There is no room for interpretation. On the other hand, if the reader sees the character drinking again and again they might try to find other explanations for their actions:

  • the character may be undergoing some physical strain and trying to numb it with alcohol, perhaps they were a soldier and those old wounds are still bothering them on a cold day;
  • the character may be under emotional strain: why did that phone call with their ex make them take to the bottle?
  • s/he may use alcohol to relax: are they about to take a major decision and need something to take off the edge?
  • …or to chase away bad memories. Did something happen in their past that they can’t get over? Are they drinking to forget?
  • Perhaps they are an alcoholic, but what got them there in the first place?

Even if the reader reaches the conclusion we want them to reach, by having to think about it they make the story and the characters their own. They will endow the characters with their own life experience and rich internal life. It would be a mistake to rob them of this opportunity. If the story is theirs, they will keep reading.

Show the reader a character who starves their child and they will not need to be told that the guy is a heartless good-for-nothing villan.

3. Tell and all you have is description. Show and you’ve got yourself a scene. Scenes are what make up a novel. In telling what should happen rather than showing it in action, we describe events instead of allowing them to unfold, so that the narrative reads like the outline of a story rather than being one.

It is impossible to experience something that does not actually happen. We can only get into the character’s shoes when we live the story alongside them. By showing, by going into some detail for both inner and outer life, we pull the reader into the world we’ve created.

Of course, it is impossible to dramatise every single event, so it is key to pick carefully those parts of the story that render themselves to becoming tense, conflict-filled, therefore dramatic scenes.

4. There comes a time when telling is in order. Of course, it is impossible to show everything. Some things need to be told, but when we do it with a purpose in mind it is possible to strike the right balance between the two. Here are a few examples of good places where telling is a necessity:

  • To establish narrators and viewpoint characters,
  • To allow a character to give their opinion about someone else in the story (this can be a good way of “showing” that character’s point of view, giving their perspective.)
  • To establish conflict between what a character tells us, either about themselves or someone else, and what their actions show us to be the truth (great for establishing an untrustworthy viewpoint character)

More on characterisation to follow… but if you are curious about a villain’s fate or are in the mood for a laugh perhaps Despicable Me will oblige 😉