Sunday, 3 December 2017

How to Construct Subplots – Part 2


In this part, we’ll look at how to construct subplots, but from the perspective of first person, which is much harder to get to grips with.
The question here is: can subplots be constructed in a first person story? After all, there is only one perspective in first person – the protagonist.  And that’s it. It’s not like having the diversity of multiple viewpoints as with third person stories, but that’s not to say that subplots can’t be done in first person. They can, but they’re quite limited.
Unlike third person stories, where the viewpoint can change from character to character, and the richness of different character views can come into play (and so subplots can weave around the main character), with first person, this just isn’t possible. First person stories have to involve the main character, since the story cannot be told from any other character other than ‘I’ of your main character.
By being involved in a subplot, the main character gets to see different outlooks of other characters, because they will be involved on a personal, individual level. But in order to carry different subplots, it means the main character must be sufficiently complex, otherwise the just won’t be interesting enough to sustain more than the main plot.
Let’s look at the crime novel example from part 1, but this time as first person. It would have the following basic plot structure:
The protagonist, a cop who’s never played by the rules, is brought in to help solve a crime similar to one that happened 20 years earlier and the suspect was never caught. His story is the main plot.
The antagonist is the main suspect, a high-profile politician who may or may not be guilty. He was suspected 20 years ago of a similar crime. But he has friends in high places. This is a subplot - but instead of telling the subplot from the perspective of the villain, it must be told from the cop’s POV – as the first person. That means he will be involved on a personal level with this character, so it will certainly involve more of his inner thoughts and feelings, what he thinks, how he reacts to the villain and how the villain acts and so on. These thoughts and feelings are more amplified than if it were third person simply because it’s all told through the main character’s eyes. It’s all personal to him.
The cop falls for the antagonist’s ex-wife, but he can’t be entirely sure whether to trust her or use her to his advantage. This is another subplot – but again, instead of telling the subplot from the perspective of the ex-wife, it must be told from the cop’s POV. That means he will react to her, his thoughts will reflect what is happening and his feelings will also mirror this. It all must be told from his perspective. These two subplots will then connect to the main plot of finding the killer, but the whole story will remain the POV of the main character throughout.
A successful first person story subplot relies on hints, implication and inference from the other characters. These can then be interpreted through the eyes of the main character.
This is just one of the reasons why first person stories are quite hard to master – they are very restricted in what the author can achieve, so they need a lot of planning and thought.
Whichever you choose – third person or first person – adding subplots enriches the story, strengthens characterisation, heightens reader interest and adds variation to the overall story.
Next week: Avoid common mistakes – make your writing better

Sunday, 26 November 2017

How to Construct Subplots – Part 1


A subplot is an essential part of any novel. These little side stories add depth to the main story, and they help develop other characters beside the protagonist. They run parallel to the main plot; they are connected to it, but they should be constructed in a way that they never overwhelm the main story.
They are designed to maintain further interest within the story, so that the reader will never get bored, and they help give the overall story lots of variation and substance. They add extra layers and levels of complexity to the story. In other words, there’s plenty to keep the reader occupied. A subplot can involve any of the main characters – the protagonist, the antagonist or secondary characters, so some of the story is seen through their eyes.  They are all part of the main story, but they might also have their own stories that relate to the main story, so they might have different goals, different perspectives and different agendas and they will have different obstacles to overcome.
The thing about subplots is that they support the main plot.  So if you were to remove that subplot, the main plot wouldn’t collapse without it. At the same time, don’t overcomplicate the story with so many threads that it’s hard for the reader to keep track.
Subplots should be clear, not confusing.
Creating Subplots
It always starts with the main plot and characters. The main plot is always the main character’s story. But within that story there are other characters to consider. The antagonist is one – they have a story, too. Then there may be some important secondary characters to consider who may be involved with the hero or the villain, or may have their own agenda.
You then need to ask what the purpose of the subplot is. What will it achieve? Is it to help tell a different perspective to the story?  Is it to show important events that the reader wouldn’t otherwise be aware of? How does it relate to the main story?
Creating a subplot doesn’t necessary start at the beginning of the writing process. It can happen halfway through, or even at editing stage when the writer feels that a subplot may be necessary to help expand the main story. However they manifest, the writer should consider how important the subplot is to the main story, what is achieves and how it will be resolved before the end.
Let’s look at a simple example of a crime novel. It would have the following basic plot structure:
  • The protagonist, a world weary cop who’s never played by the rules, is brought in to help solve a crime similar to one that happened 20 years earlier and the suspect was never caught. His story is the main plot.
  • The antagonist is the main suspect, a high-profile politician who may or may not be guilty. He was suspected 20 years ago of a similar crime. But he has friends in high places. This is a subplot.
  • The cop falls for the antagonist’s ex-wife, but he can’t be entirely sure whether to trust her or use her to his advantage. This is another subplot.
In this story, the antagonist becomes the main suspect, but with few clues and high profile friends to shield him, he knows he will get away with it, which aggravates the protagonist. This subplot will interact with the main plot and converge at the end.
The protagonist falls for the suspect’s ex-wife, thus complicating matters. But can he trust her? And could he use her to his advantage, putting the relationship at risk? This subplot will weave in and out of the main story and resolve at the end.
Subplots like this can weave through the main story. Writers do this by starting new chapters from the character’s viewpoint. Placed correctly, they should help enhance the story. This can be a trial by error sometimes and can involve some editing and switching around – that’s perfectly normal. But the end result is that these ‘subplot’ chapters carefully interspersed within the main chapters, help tell the full story and often converge at the end to complete the story arc.
Well-crafted subplots weave in and out of the main plot and often interact with the main plot for some time before they are resolved. Let’s look at another example in the thriller genre:
  • The protagonist is a hard-working successful businessman who seems to have the perfect family and home, but he hides a secret. This is the main plot.
  • A stranger from the past turns up – the antagonist – who knows of the protagonist’s dark secret and threatens to shatter his perfect family life. This is a subplot.
  • The wife begins to suspect her husband isn’t all he seems and confides her fears in her best friend, who has never liked the husband. This is a subplot.
  • The eldest daughter becomes embroiled with the stranger when he takes a liking to her, thus complicating a delicate situation. This is a subplot.
It’s clear here that the antagonist is out to cause the main character trouble. It’s payback for something that happened in the past. His motivation is to destroy his former friend’s life in any way he can. This subplot will interact with the main plot and converge at the end.
The protagonist’s wife grows suspicious of her husband’s behaviour and begins to think that the man she married isn’t the ‘perfect’ guy after all. She turns to her best friend for support, but she has never liked the husband and sees an opportunity to have a dig and force them apart. This subplot will weave in and out of the main story from time to time before being resolved at the end.
The protagonist’s teenage daughter is charmed by the antagonist, and he uses her as leverage, which causes conflict within the family, especially with her father. This subplot will pop in and out of the main story from time to time until it’s resolved.
You can see here how the subplots could interact with the main plot. And by using new chapters or different character perspectives, writers can expand extra story threads like these to help tell the full story without overcomplicating things.
But what about first person stories? Are they possible? The answer is yes and in Part 2 we’ll look at how to approach subplots for first person stories.
Next week: How to Construct Subplots - Part 2


Sunday, 19 November 2017

How Important Is Realism In Fiction?


Every story needs to have at least some hint of realism, even if the work is fictitious. That’s because the story is fictitious, not the setting, the era or history or the minor details. That’s where the realism should be.
The idea is that a story needs to be believable and you want the reader to become immersed in the story. To achieve this, the story has to feel not just believable, but also real. And the characters need to feel real, too.
With the exception of fantasy and sci-fi novels, realism in fiction is about portraying a certain reality. And the key word to understanding this is: plausibility. The story, the characters, their motivations, the setting and the plot all need to be plausible, regardless of genre.
Readers want something that makes sense, something they could relate to, even if they’ve never experienced certain things, and that means they want some kind of realism – it’s what makes a fictional story seem real. This is known as verisimilitude.
This is why suspension of disbelief is so vital for a story to work. The reader needs to see beyond the fact that the story isn’t actually real, but that it is so good and feels so tangible that they suspend their disbelief and truly immerse themselves to the point that immediacy is created – they can relate to the characters and story; they feel the emotions and can empathise, even if it’s fantasy or a science fiction story. That’s because characters are fully drawn, multi-dimensional ordinary people struggling with relatable problems in extraordinary circumstances.
Creating realism means making use of a number of elements - creating a realistic setting, having a plausible plot, believable characters and so on.
Where setting is concerned, a place doesn’t have to be real in order to feel real. The place becomes real enough for the reader through how good your descriptions are. Lame description – or telling – doesn’t help the reader to enter the fictional world you’ve created. It has to grab them, the place has to leap from the page; descriptions need to be visceral enough for them to see the neon reflections through the rain in a grimy city or the azure sky layered with clouds over a vast expansive landscape.  Description draws the reader.
Characters that feel real are characters that the reader can identify with, but don’t choose ridiculous names for your characters. Ordinary people in real life don’t have crazy names. Wild character names just detract from the fiction.  New writers are prone to this gaffe, in the belief that outlandish character names make the characters stand out.  Not so. The quality of writing makes writing stand out, not stupid character names.
Characters with believable actions are also important for realism – in other words, don’t have a character who, for instance, is an ordinary wife and mother of three who, inexplicably, is able to pick a deadlock with a paperclip or even hotwire security ridden cars, since most ordinary people can’t do this is real life It isn’t real, but writers often make this fundamental error. They turn their characters into experts at everything, when in fact they’re not. Unless your character is military, police, martial arts trained, a scientist or a trained expert at something else, don’t make your ordinary main character something he or she isn’t.
Realistic storylines are just as important as realistic characters. The plot has to be plausible. Readers have to suspend disbelief to an extent, but they won’t thank you if your story is too outlandish and utter claptrap. Real life is full of amazing stories, and so a fictional story, which by itself is a figment of a writer’s imagination, still needs to show that element of realism. Make your stories believable, not contrived.
Conflict also contributes to a sense of realism.  Life is full of conflict and no story is complete without them, however small or huge they might be. Everyone has problems to overcome. Everyone has arguments and fall outs. Life isn’t all rose tinted clouds. So stories should reflect this with a certain amount of truth.
You can see how these elements ensure that some realism makes it into your story. Realism is important to fiction because the reader will not be able to believe the story otherwise. They won’t find be able to relate to it, they won’t be able to identify with it, nor the situation or characters, and without the reader’s interest, they won’t want to read the story.

Next week: How to construct subplots

Sunday, 12 November 2017

How to Make a Story Flow


When writers talk of story flow, they are referring to the movement of the story and whether a novel moves smoothly from start to finish.
Every story needs to be dynamic in this way. It needs to be smooth, seamless and coherent. This is what we know as story flow, but it shouldn’t be confused with pace because pace is the speed at which a story moves.  Flow, on the other hand, refers to how the story moves along. It’s all about movement, and how it draws the reader in.
But why is flow important? It’s something that needs to occur in for the story to make sense to the reader. If a story doesn’t flow, then the story may be too confusing or disjointed for the reader to make any sense of it. This is why the movement of the story is critical – it must constantly move forward. This is why we refer to the importance of a story moving forward.
How does story flow work?
Both scenes and chapters need to be relatable – the action needs to progress in a logical manner and not go off at tangents. Actions must be logical and escalate accordingly – the time and the order of unfolding events need to be in a certain order, so a character does something that leads to another action, and that leads to other actions and so on. In other words, one scene needs to lead effortlessly and consistently to the other, all while revealing the plot.  And a story that sticks to the plot is a story that works.
Subplots also support story flow – but they need to be relatable, too, in the same way that the main plot is. The help to continue the story forward, they help with this constant movement because they provide extra threads of interest for the reader which helps to push things towards the conclusion.
Varied pace is also key to story flow. Reflective scenes coupled with action scenes give the reader the sense of things speeding along or slowing down, which helps with the movement of the story.
Dialogue is another important tool. Through dialogue, characters reveal information and hint at things to come and so on, and are therefore vital to story flow. Dialogue links narrative to description and vice versa, and helps to link different scenes, thus giving the sense that the story is moving.
The most obvious thing when all these factors are brought together is that the story makes sense, that it’s uncomplicated and it moves smoothly.
When a story doesn’t flow, the problems are compounded, because it has a negative effect on the writing. There are familiar problems with flow. The obvious one is that the story won’t make sense; therefore the order of action won’t work. This is down to poor writing and the reader will find it hard to follow the plot. The other problem is that the pace may be affected, too.
Confusion also causes problems. If the reader is confused about badly written characters, or there are too many characters, this will impede the story flow.  Not only that, but writers can also make the story so convoluted that it’s impossible for the reader to understand what’s going on. New writers in particular are guilty of making their story too complicated in the belief that it will make a better story. It doesn’t. Stories can be complex, if thought out properly, but it’s better to keep things simple. 
You can spot all these problems when you read through the story. If you have to read sentences twice, or you trip over certain words or sentence constructions, then it means the flow isn’t working. Chapter and scene breaks can interrupt flow if they are not done correctly. That’s because if you create a break where there shouldn’t be one, it can disturb the entire flow of the story.  The more you do this, however, the better you become at seeing how flow works.
So how are these problems corrected?
They are usually noticed at the read-through stage, when the writer realises that the story isn’t quite right; it seems to jump aimlessly, or it feels disjointed, or it might be obvious that the story goes off course and doesn’t seem to bear much relation to the main plot. Sometimes the structure of the story is haphazard and hasn’t been thought out. This is where rewriting is a writer’s best friend.
Writers need to recognise such problems. They will then be able to rectify them and ensure the story sticks to the plot - that chapters don’t waffle and the subplots are relevant to the main story, but more importantly, each scene moves from one to the next logically and effortlessly.
Create the right words and sentences – this is what writing is about. Writing should be smooth, easy to understand, have rhythm and pace, fluidity, a sense of movement.  Actions, scenes, chapters and plot should all interconnect. That may sound daunting, but it really isn’t. Think of painting by numbers. Connect the dots and you make a picture. If you don’t connect the dots properly, then you have a problem. It’s not that different with writing. Connect the dots – character actions, within structured scenes, logically happening in sequence within specific chapters which relay the plot – and you have a full picture.
And that is story flow.

Next week: How important is realism in fiction?

Sunday, 5 November 2017

How to Include Themes in Stories


The relationship between themes and the main story is an important one. Themes underscore what happens in the story and provide the basis of the reader’s deeper understanding of the characters, their actions and what the true meaning is at the heart of the narrative.
When we think of themes, the most common ones we find in novels are love, betrayal, loneliness, acceptance, deceit, friendship and so on.  Most are formed around emotions; therefore what characters think and feel towards others can form a theme – hate, perhaps, or misunderstanding. This emotional element draws the reader – they can relate to many themes, therefore they will create some empathy.
Thriller and crime stories tend to lean heavily towards the darker side of human emotions – so themes of power, corruption, hate, mistrust, betrayal and deceit are very common. Romance novels rely on themes of love, naturally, but also might involve deceit, jealousy, betrayal and maybe forgiveness.
Themes run through the entire story. The main thing we notice about them is that they’re not visible. They dwell beneath the surface of the story like invisible threads. They can be quite subtle or they can be quite overt in nature. Like motifs, they can be repeated throughout the story to remind the reader, known as leitwortstil, by using recurring words or phrases to underpin the theme. Often such phrases and words are spoken by characters, so they become even more easily recognisable.
Many themes develop symbiotically with the story. They grow with and during the story because they're directly related to the characters and the plot. As they develop, so do the themes. And as a writer, you have to understand the relationship between theme and story arc. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird isn't just about racism. It has other themes: good v. evil, prejudice, distrust, hatred, friendship and innocence. These are borne from the very fibre of the story and not something that was added afterward. This is how themes work.
How Do You Include Theme Within Narrative?
Normally you’ll have a good idea of a central theme to your novel because of what the story is about.  For instance, a boy meets girl story will dictate the theme of love. A story of an awkward teen finding his way in the world will dictate a rites of passage theme. So within that central theme, and during the planning process, the writer will see more themes emerge, known as sub-themes.
The best way, then, to include themes within your stories is to know and understand the story and what it’s about before you even type a single word. That’s because themes don’t work if they are an afterthought. It’s hard to force themes to ‘fit’ the narrative. Don’t overthink themes, either. Writers sometimes try too hard to shoehorn themes into their stories without realising they have no relation to the story. Let the themes occur naturally.
With some idea of the main theme, you can then construct your story accordingly. For instance, if the main theme is injustice, then one might expect that one character inflicts the wrongdoing on the main character as part of the story plot. The main character suffers because of this, which will create conflict, but it will also create empathy with the reader, who will despise the villain and root for the poor protagonist. As the story expands, the main character decides to exact revenge for this injustice. This revenge becomes another theme, borne from the developing narrative.
Another example might be a main character that works for a big company and is downtrodden and treated badly by the greedy, power-hungry boss. The main theme is greed and power and the effect it has on people. As the story develops, circumstances change for the protagonist, who finally outsmarts the boss to impress his peers, leaving the greedy boss looking foolish. This overcoming the odds is a sub-theme that develops from the narrative. Empowerment could be another sub-theme.
This is how themes become part of stories. The main theme comes from the main plot, and the sub-themes materialise as the story and characters develop. Theme within narrative gives the story more colour and depth. Most novels have a main theme and multiple sub-themes running through them. It really depends on the story. So in other words, the more you understand your story, the better the themes you’ll be able to develop.Summary

  • The type of story will dictate a main theme. Look at the plot – what themes might arise?
  • What are you trying to say to the reader? – This will often be the main theme.
  • Planning or outlining the story will show possible sub-themes.
  • As the story unfolds, more themes may naturally emerge from the narrative.
  • Characters and their actions often give rise to sub-themes.

Next week: How to make your story flow.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

What Should Come First – Plot Or Characters?


Writing is an art form; there’s no set pattern, there’s no uniform way something must be done and no specific brush strokes to do, which is why this question causes confusion among writers who are unsure of themselves when it comes to putting a story together.
Convention would have us believe that plot must come first, especially as the story idea almost always comes first. But sometimes the writer has a specific character in mind – usually a strong character who wants to be heard, whose personality is that strong and the story is often constructed around the character, rather than constructing characters around a story idea.
Plot First Approach
This is a little more complex in structure than the character first approach. Authors who have a strong story idea will work on it to expand the themes and the story arc, together with subplots and different scenarios. They ensure that it is mapped from start to finish. They know what will happen, the kind of obstacles the main character will face; they have an idea of the ending and what the story means to the reader; what it’s trying to say.
The characters are drawn from the plot; they emerge from the synthesis of the story to form part of the story structure, but the plot is always the main focus. The story, therefore, is paramount – the characters are simply tools that the author uses to tell that story. This is the basis of plot driven stories.
From the plot, all characters develop around it. Character growth comes with the advancement of the story and often it has a direct influence on how they act and react.
This plot first approach is easier to work with, simply because all the elements required to tell the story are there – plot points, obstacles, major incidents, high stakes, ultimate goal, themes to explore, plot twists and sub plots. The author knows where he or she is going and can therefore anticipate flaws and address issues and mistakes.
Almost all stories develop this way – we have an idea, we construct the story around that idea and we conjure the characters that will help us tell the story.
Character First Approach
This approach is less easy to work with. Creating a character before there is any plot or story ideas means the writer has to work hard to create a story that fits the character without overpowering the character development. Often this is a character driven story that has a strong emotional theme and purpose, but the story takes ends up taking a backseat. And because the characters came first, the plot is less complex than it would be if it were a plot driven story.
The downside to this approach is that while characters have been fully drawn and are wonderfully real, the story isn’t, so the story arc is left undeveloped. That means all the plot points, possible sub plots, themes, goals etc., don’t get the same attention, and without full story development, the author may not know where the story is actually heading. They have to constantly keep constructing things around the characters, which can be troublesome, because what characters do within the story can also alter the story arc. Without a planned plot, the characters can take over, and the meaning of the story could be lost.
This is why it’s much harder to maintain character driven stories. That’s not to say writers should avoid this approach. Many writers prefer to work in this way; however, to avoid losing the meaning of the story, or the extra work trying to make the story fit the characters; it may be worth doing some story planning with the characters so there is at least a foundation from which to work.
In order to do that, you have to know the following:

  1. What is your character’s ultimate goal?
  2. How will he/she achieve this?
  3. Who or what stands in their way?
  4. Who will help this character? Who will prove a nuisance to this character?
  5. What is at stake?
  6. What themes are there?
  7. How will the story end? Who will profit from the outcome?
  8. What will the reader gain from the story?
Motivation, deep emotional development and strong characters are the stable of character first writing, which is why some character driven literary novels are classics, but writers shouldn’t neglect the story, even if it has to be constructed around the characters. That way you avoid some of these pitfalls.

So, what should come first - characters or plot? It doesn’t really matter, as long as you invest in the story. You may have thought up the most brilliant character, but without a story, there is no point, because the character must have a reason to be there, to exist in the first place. And they can’t do that without a plot.
Whichever approach you choose, ensure there is a cohesive, developed story to tell.

Next week: How to include themes in stories


Sunday, 22 October 2017

Which is More Dynamic - Narrative or Dialogue?


It’s a question that’s often asked. Which is more dynamic – narrative or dialogue?  And if there is a difference, should you use one more than the other?
Dynamic storytelling means the story has varied pace and can move forward at the right moments – something that’s lively and active. There are two elements that do this – narrative and dialogue. But what about description? Unfortunately it doesn’t move the story along – its role is to describe scenes to the reader. Narrative and dialogue, however, do move the story forward.
We think of narrative as simple explanation, with no real importance. It’s snippets of information to prop up the story, which may explain why it isn’t often thought of as dynamic. The smaller those informative bites are, the better. Readers pay more attention to small amounts of information rather large chunks of it. These smaller packages of narrative help move the story along to a degree, but not nearly enough as dialogue would.
Dialogue, on the other hand, is naturally seen as dynamic because of the immediacy it creates, and because it’s present tense. Dialogue fuels the story, it increases pace and moves things along and it creates the perception that it’s ‘now’ or ‘of the moment’. It happens in real time and it delivers the right information to the reader in the least amount of time.
For these reasons, dialogue is one of the best tools for moving the story forward.
The thing about writing is that it’s all about balance. Writers should look for a balance of narrative, dialogue and description; otherwise they’re in danger of creating the Goldilocks Effect – not too much of one thing, and not too little, but just the right amount for an all-round good read.
Dialogue "tells" rather than shows, because it's dialogue. When you speak to someone, you are talking (telling). You don’t act out the conversation like a game of charades. That’s why dialogue can only tell – by virtue of one character telling something to another, and that’s why it’s active and dynamic.
Dialogue only accounts for a small percentage of the average book compared with larger portions of narrative and description. Take an average book and pare it down to the ratios of dialogue, narrative and description and you’ll find that dialogue doesn’t score as highly as you think, despite it being such an important element. Tighten further still to the number of speakers in the story and the total number of chapters and the result it would eye-opening.
This is why dialogue is a vital tool. It doesn't carry much emotion on its own, it never has, except through suggestion, where specific words lead the reader, for example, "I wish you were dead!". This is a leading sentence. There's no emotion here, except that which is suggested by the word 'dead' and an exclamation mark. The same could be for, "I love you", "I lost my child" or "You lied to me..."
These words suggest emotion to the reader, but never show it. And they logically can't, because fictional dialogue doesn't have actual sound, tone or pitch like TV or movies. The emotion - the pain, the intent, the humour - comes from the beats and kinesics we insert between dialogue - the part that forms the 'showing' part of it, e.g.:
The awful sensation clawed at her chest. Her voice pitched and her eyes shuttered. "I wish you were dead!"
Now the emotion is there, because the snippets of narrative lend support to the dialogue.
Supposedly, 93% of conversation is non-verbal (Albert Mehrabian, 1971). It's one good reason why we need to show it, with the help of narrative. So, to answer the question of whether narrative or dialogue is more dynamic, the answer is, of course, dialogue.
But it cannot truly be considered dynamic without the benefit of narrative.

Next week: What comes first - plot or characters?