Sunday, 23 July 2017

Story Archetypes


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

Next week: How to start and end chapters


Sunday, 16 July 2017

How to Create Drama in Fiction


Drama is a vital ingredient for all good stories, it’s those tense, nail biting moments that eventually build to a crescendo, or they make us sit on the edge of our seats in anticipation. It’s what keeps us turning page after page.
But how do writers create drama? How do they make it work within the narrative for it to be effective?
All drama derives from circumstance – in other words, we can generally create drama in any given situation, depending upon certain factors, and most frequently than not, drama occurs in tense scenes or scenes of conflict, and the catalyst almost always tends to be lots of emotion.
There are lots of situations in any story that can cause drama – bitter sibling rivalry, a burning hatred of being wronged, the need for revenge, being misunderstood, or a desire to be accepted and so on. The list of dramatic situations is endless, but the one thing that drives all drama is conflict and emotion.
Conflict – disagreements, fights, struggles and friction etc – drives any story.  It could be external conflict, internal conflict or a main central conflict. Whenever we create different conflicts, we also create different dramatic situations. This is how we make good drama. 
Think about the best soaps on TV – they rely on drama; they thrive on conflict and emotion. Characters often clash, disagree or fight. Then there are the more conniving or devious characters that conspire, backstab and deceive. The main characters generally end up in some usual or difficult situations and we wonder just how they will escape such predicaments.
Behind these conflicting situations there is always an underlying emotion – jealousy, fear, hate, desire, deceit, betrayal etc. Emotions bring your characters into sharp focus; they are vulnerabilities that the reader will understand. When you unveil such vulnerabilities within your characters and push them into near impossible positions – what will happen? How will they manage to get out of it? Because of these ‘what if’ scenarios, and the apprehension of not knowing the outcome, you create drama and tension.
Writers also love to mislead their main characters. They like to force them to make bad decisions or make terrible mistakes, usually with awful consequences. This creates drama, of course, not only because of the heightened emotion that is created, but also because the reader knows what the right decision should have been. The burden and emotion of wrong decisions is something the reader will recognise and empathise with, so this creates a certain amount of tension, emotion and therefore the end result is a dramatic situation or scenario. The reader is left wondering just how the character will get out of such a situation - they will keep turning the page to find out. You’ll see this used very effectively in lots of TV soaps, TV dramas and movies.
The other thing writers do is create all manner of complications. That’s because the protagonist’s journey should never be an easy one, otherwise there would be hardly any drama to keep a reader awake. Instead we make our main character’s suffer, we complicate things, we escalate danger, we heighten conflicts, we raise the stakes and we push them to the brink. We force them to make bad choices and decisions.
How do you create drama? At key points in the story, mix conflict and emotions, mislead your characters, have them make bad decisions and always introduce complications. All these elements will produce dramatic situations and scenarios to keep your reader enthralled.
Next week: Story archetypes

Saturday, 8 July 2017

How to Make Your Writing Stand Out – Part 2



Part 1 looked at some of the ways writers can make their work stand out, especially if they want to be noticed by agents and publishers. These are things like description, voice and style, story and sentence structure, using the senses, full characterisation and so on, so in Part 2 we’ll look at some more ways that can help writers can stand out among the crowd.
What’s the first thing that grabs your attention when you open a book? It’s the opening chapter – something exciting, gripping or tense. Without that, you wouldn’t probably read on. Writers take advantage of that by being different or quirky with the beginning of their stories. They use clever opening lines that really do make us pay attention. That can be anything – a posed question, a snippet of description, a statement or even dialogue.  How it’s presented to us makes all the difference.
Of course, we can’t leave out some of the vital ingredients in any story – conflict and action. Every story needs a certain amount of these, but it also needs emotion. It’s a sentiment that grounds us, so without emotion, how do you really tell a story and connect with the reader? Emotional connections through actions, and given rise through conflict, make your story unique. These three elements are so dynamic. Without them, your story won’t stand out.  
There are some elements that writers use that others don’t. How many times have you read a book and noticed subtle symbolism? The use of symbols, or sometimes motifs, all provide juicy morsels for the reader – they love to spot these things. Novels that don’t contain any of these extra layers tend to be a bit bland. But if you want your novel to stand out, give the reader more than just a bland story. Give them symbolism or motifs placed throughout the story. Clever writers give the readers reason to find something different on a second or even third reading. That makes a story stand out.
Foreshadowing is another way to add subtle hidden depths to your story.  Readers love hidden clues about what might happen further in the story, they love to uncover those hints. The more layers the reader uncovers, the more things they reveal. And that’s what can make a story unique.
A good story always knows what’s at stake.  Obstacles that stand in the way of the main character and his or her goal and situations that seem almost impossible are ways to make a story stand out.  If you show a greater understanding of what the story means for the main character and can show that importance translated to the reader, then the strength of the story will stand out.
Of course, every novel needs to be well-structured and well written for it to be noticed. Having all these literary devices and elements at your fingertips is all well and good, but they’re of little use unless what you write is actually well written. How you write is just as important as what you write.
Never lose sight of all these elements and you won’t go far wrong in your writing.
Next week: How to create drama in your writing

Sunday, 2 July 2017

How to Make Your Writing Stand Out – Part 1


It’s an age old question for writers. What makes one book stand out from another? What makes one so amazing and others less so? It’s especially important if you choose the traditional publishing route, and you need to impress agents.
From the outset, your writing needs to grab your reader’s attention and maintain that attention all through the story. It needs to continually captivate them, so much so that they’ll want to come back for more. To do that, your writing needs to stand out.
But how do you really make it stand out?
What makes a book a bestseller? A combination of things, since not all bestselling books would win a literary prize, but what makes them stand out is a mixture of elements that appeals to the reader, elements that make stories they enjoy, stories they will want to read.
To begin with, you need to find your voice, one that is strong and different. Voice is the way an author writes, coupled with a style that’s different. This is why some authors stand out more than others. How they tell their stories, in the style that they do, makes them instantly attractive to readers.
Make the story unique. That may sound strange, since all stories are unique, but what we mean by unique is that it’s a story that hasn’t been told before. Many stories share the same ideas or plots, but it’s the way they’re told that makes them different. Some writers present their stories as a diary, while others deliberately choose to mix POVs. Others skilfully use flashbacks. And some writers are clever enough to write their stories backwards – they start at the end and work their way through the events that led to that ending.
Sometimes it’s in the approach or the structure of a story that makes it unique.
Something else that makes a work of fiction stand out is description. Writers approach this individually – some use very visual or colourful descriptions, while others are more gritty and raw. Descriptions are vital for captivating the reader, so whether you’re eloquent, even flowery, or very visceral, always use description to masterful effect.
Use all the senses, use colour, use layers - don’t be afraid to be individual with the way to describe a scene. The imagery you create is what the reader will remember about your book; something they will remember. This is why we show rather than tell. Would a book be so memorable if all it did was tell and not show?
Attention to detail may not seem very important, but it is if you want that description to feel real for your reader. What goes on in the background of a scene is just as important as what goes on in the foreground. Think of a photograph in 360o. That’s what the reader wants – they want the full picture of what’s happening. Attention to detail makes your writing stand out.
Some of the stories we remember most are those with characters we love, or love to hate. What makes those stories stand out so well are the characters, the kind we can care about and sympathise with, the kind we want to win the day, and the kind we want to see get their just desserts at the end.
Multidimensional characters that can leap from the pages really can make your work stand out, because they make the story so real and so memorable. It doesn’t matter if they’re ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations, or whether they’re angelic or evil, make them unforgettable.
Notwithstanding great characters, a story that stands out among others is one that contains a well thought out plot. A tight plot is the skeleton around which your story hangs and without one, the story fails.
In Part 2 we’ll look at other ways you can make your writing stand out.

Next week: How to Make Your Work Stand Out – Part 2

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Dramatic Irony


It’s a common question writers ask. What is dramatic irony and what does it mean? Is it useful for authors?
Many writers mistake dramatic irony with creating some sort of drama with an ironic twist, but it’s nothing really much to do with actual drama, but rather the effect it creates. When we refer to dramatic irony, it means the reader knows something that the characters don’t.
Why include this in our writing? It’s a way for the writer to involve the reader – they know what’s about to happen, especially if it embroils the main character, but they can’t do anything about it except read on. It’s like scuba diving – you can see the dark menace lurking behind your diving buddy, but he’s completely unaware of the imminent danger.
This literary device helps the reader to experience what’s happening on a much deeper level than just reading about Character A going about his business with Characters B and C. By allowing the reader in on what will happen – rather like sharing a secret – they become aware of danger, tension, fears and emotions, because they can guess what might happen to the character who is completely unaware.
There might be a killer lurking in the shadows, creeping around outside a house, and the writer can show this to the reader, but inside the house, the victim is unaware of such danger.
Why do we use dramatic irony?
We use it to create drama and atmosphere at key stages within the novel. If the reader is privy to something that the character is not, it raises the tension and suspense for the reader. It also gives the narrative a different dimension because it allows the reader to become part of that moment, more involved, and if revolves around a main character, then emotions are heightened and the immediacy between character and reader becomes stronger. This happens because we don’t want anything bad to happen to the hero, and the threat of impending tragedy will do just that.
Every author has used dramatic irony to a greater of lesser degree, everyone from Shakespeare and virtually all his plays to Stephen King. And they use it because it’s a great way to connect with the reader on a very different level.
When is it best to use it?
When the drama of an important scene demands it. For instance, the hero could be searching for something or someone, but he’s not aware of the gang lying in wait for him, however the reader is aware. You may have a scene where the hero is about enter a situation that could end terribly – in a courtroom for instance - but he won’t know that. The reader will. This is how dramatic irony works, and more often than not, authors actually create this without thinking about it, rather like an in-built ability. That’s because of the way we write if working with 3rd person multiple POV. It allows the viewpoint of many characters, and therefore, it allows the reader to see things that other characters won’t.
While dramatic irony works well for 3rd person POV, it will not work for first person, since the viewpoint cannot change.
If you want to create extra atmosphere, tension and emotion, make sure you employ dramatic irony. The narrative will be much better for it.

Next week: How can you make your writing stand out?

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Is Style the Same As Voice?


Beginners often confuse the two, thinking they’re the same, but they’re not the same. They may sound similar in what they do, but there are differences.
Voice
When we talk about voice, we’re describing the writer’s personal voice; his or her personality. It’s a highly particular and distinctive tone, a developed way of writing that is unique to the writer, formed from their personality and the way they construct their words, sentences and paragraphs. Voice is, and should be, as individual as a fingerprint. And it’s that fingerprint that readers come to recognise.
Think of someone’s voice – how different it is from others. It might be deep and velvety or it could be raspy and sexy. Or perhaps it’s helium like. Everyone’s actual voice is different and unique, and a writer’s voice works in much the same way, so voice is distinguished because of the way something is written, how it’s written and the tone of the writing.
The thing with voice is that is doesn’t happen overnight. It certainly doesn’t happen in your first novel. That’s because voice must be developed, and that process of discovering the individuality and distinctive tone takes a while, usually over a period of a couple of years.
A strong voice helps the writing stand out – it leaps from the page because it’s so different and unique. So writers should take the time to develop their voice instead of rushing into self-publishing something that is neither unique, nor stands out from the other millions of books.
How do you know you’ve finally found your voice? It happens when you write with it without even noticing. When you re-read your work at editing stage, your voice will be there – those little tell-tale markers that pinpoint how you write, and no one else.
Style
Style is more expansive than voice in that it encompasses so many things. Generally speaking, style is the way something is written, a manner within the narrative that readers recognise. People are said to have their own sense of style, and it’s no different with writing. Every writer has his or her own style of writing.
Some writers love elegant, descriptive writing. Others like to use long and complex sentences. Some prefer to dazzle with lots of symbolism, metaphors and imagery, while others writers use sparse prose and simple sentences, which gives the writing a raw, gritty narrative.
My readers know my style of writing – it makes use of semi colons and em-dashes and asides to enhance character, and descriptions are generally poetic.
Style is recognisable. Hemingway and Nabokov are recognisable by their descriptions. Stephen King, Terry Prachett and JK Rowling have their own styles.  Dickens had a simple style, while Shakespeare’s was more romantic and ornate. Every one of them is different from the other – that unique way of writing separates them from each other.
The thing writers shouldn’t do is change their style or voice to suit a particular genre or to fit in with something. The result will be a contrived mess. If you have a style, whether that is minimalist, gritty, blunt, elaborate, florid or passionate, develop it, because it’s your unique stamp, and it will fit whatever genre you write.
Style and voice are different, yet they’re generally considered one and the same thing. In truth, an author’s style refers to the way he or she writes, while ‘author’s voice’ is the author’s personality and personal view of the world. Both require discovery and development.
Next week: Dramatic irony.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

How to Use Kinesics (Body Language) to Characterise


We all know that description plays a major part in fiction writing, which is used to balance the narrative and dialogue, but there is another essential element of it that uses non-verbal movement – body language and gestures. This is also known as kinesics.
It’s said that 93% of conversation is non-verbal (Albert Mehrabrian, Silent Messages, published 1971), and that is because we often use our body to communicate, even when there are no words being spoken, such as facial, movements and hand gestures that show sentiment or feeling.  Expressions – and their associated movements - often convey a person’s emotions. Body postures can also show the inner feelings of someone – whether they are stiff and awkward, or relaxed and happy.
This kind of description is overlooked by many writers and that’s because it’s something they don’t really think too much about. But writing isn’t just about writing – it’s about observation. So when you see people engaged in conversation, there is more going on beneath the surface than you realise. Their body language will tell you more about what is not being said than what is actually being said.
So in any story, writers use body language and gestures – kinesics – to show more than is actually being said; it’s visual, and readers love visual prompts, but body language should  be written in the context of the narrative; it has to be consistent with the scene and what you want to convey.
In dialogue, body language shows the reader what the words cannot, since dialogue is telling rather than showing. It adds depth to those seemingly unimportant moments; it shows us true emotional states beneath the words that are spoken. These visual prompts work well to show the reader how one character may really feel, and they are often inserted with beats between the dialogue, for example:
‘I knew this would happen...’ The lines across her forehead deepened and she swallowed hard. ‘I shouldn’t have let him go.’
His shoulders rose like a burgeoning shadow. ‘I don’t think for one minute you cared. You’re just out for yourself. ’ His eyes narrowed. ‘But you’ve been found out...’
The first example shows the woman’s expression deepening with a furrow, followed by swallowing hard, which shows her anxiety and fear. The second example uses the rise of the man’s shoulders to show slight anger and the narrowing of the eyes is often a sign of disbelief or suspicion.
These subtle snippets help to characterise because they show characteristic behaviours we all recognise.
In descriptive moments, writers show body language to underscore the true emotions or feelings of a character and to compliment the description. Again, it is another way of adding depth, and readers will appreciate visual prompts, for example:
He peered around the wall and saw the crowd. He sucked in a deep breath to calm the torrent in his chest. He fiddled with his tie as he tried to remember his speech...
She waited at the entrance, breath caught in her throat, as she wrung her hands as though washing away imaginary dirt, her head low.
In the first example the man sucks in a breath and then fidgets with his tie. These are signs of nerves and anxiety; the body gives away clues without even having to say a word. In the second example, the movement of the woman’s hands suggests some inner emotional turmoil, while the act of hanging the head low is passive stance, or perhaps a submissive one. Again, although subtle, it helps to reveal character and adds complexity to characterisation.
The use of body language is an effective way of controverting what a character is actually saying.  They may say one thing, but their body language says another and often their emotions give them away. It is a clever way to subvert emotions that are implied by feelings that are really visible.
Crossing arms is a defensive stance. Tapping of fingers on something is generally a sign of annoyance. Hands on hips can signify all sorts, within the context of the narrative – such as defiance, indifference or even boredom. Some people play with their hair. Some people scratch their ears or nose. Some people cross their legs when they’re annoyed and often bob their foot up and down to show it. Some people bite their lip when they’re nervous. We often arch our eyebrows as a sign of curiosity or incredulity. We stiffen our bodies to show we’re not intimidated, or we shrink back if we are. The list is endless.
Body language doesn’t have to be over the top, so don’t overwhelm the story, otherwise you will overburden the narrative and it will slow the story down. Kinesics works because it’s subtle. It shows actions underscoring emotions, and helps to show rather than tell. So next time you write dialogue or description, don’t forget kinesics:

  • Body posture
  • Gestures
  • Facial expressions
  • General movement
 
Next week: Is style the same as voice?

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Getting Into Your Character's Head/Mindset


Characterisation is important if you want to create believable characters, and character development is a way for writers to achieve this. The phrase ‘getting into your character’s head’ means the writer needs to have a fundamental understanding of the main character’s background, motivation, beliefs and goals – the very things that can influence the what the character does in the story, how they behave and how they act and react.
It means that everything is written instinctively. In other words, you don’t ponder how your character will act in one situation or what he would say. Instead you just write it, because you automatically know exactly what the character will do and say.
The reality is that the character is in your head; your creation, but the strength of characterisation is such that you can get into his or her mind at any moment, without losing focus, to feel his or her emotions, thoughts and feelings.
How do we do it?
Firstly, ask yourself how well you know your main character. If your characterisation isn’t strong enough, you won’t be able to get into the protagonist’s head; you’ll struggle to understand many character elements.
Character development, unlike characterisation, is an ongoing process throughout a story, because of the situations they face, obstacles they overcome and the traumas they endure. Characterisation, however, starts at the very beginning, before you commit even one word to the story, so it’s vital to characterise. You have to know what they like, dislike, love, hate, their beliefs, passions, relationships etc. Understand their physical, psychological and sociological characteristics, and how they see themselves in the world and with other people. Know their personality, what makes them tick.
Know who they are and what their backstory is – this is vital to how they behave in the story. Everyone’s past shapes how they behave in the present. What are the events that have brought them to the present moment?
Know what the character wants – what is their motivation? Why are they undertaking their journey? How do they feel about it? What will they accomplish and how would they feel if they failed? Something important must be at stake for them to do what they’re willing to do in order to achieve their goal. If you understand the character’s motivations, then it’s easier to understand his or her thoughts and feelings.
Make the character relatable. The vital connection for this is emotion, which in turn creates empathy with the reader.  Emotions are universal to all of us – we feel pain, joy, sorrow and hate. Some things make us angry, some things make us laugh. But we can all relate to emotions, so as writers we tap into that, because we know readers will understand all these feelings; they will empathise with the character.
The one thing writers do to get into their character’s head is to echo their own feelings and thoughts and emotions. For instance, when you failed at something, how did you feel?  Did it hurt deep inside? Were you angry? Disappointed or bitter?
When you lost something dear, did you feel distraught, sad or maybe depressed?  And if something amazing happened, how did you react?  Did you celebrate, did you get drunk or did you simply smile to yourself?
If you know your character well enough, you’ll know exactly how he or she would act and react or behave in any given situation.
To summarise:

  • Characterise before writing.
  • Know their backstory and past.
  • Know what the character wants, and why. Know exactly what motivates them.
  • Make the character relatable to the reader – what are their goals, what’s at stake?
  • Know their thoughts, behaviours, traits, emotions and feelings.
A character is defined by personality, behaviour and beliefs. They are governed by memories, emotions and feelings. They are influenced by many things, people and situations. Just like real people. The more you know your character, the easier it is for you to get into his head. Know their thoughts, feelings, perceptions and above all, their emotions.

Next week: Using body language (kinesics) to characterise.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

How to Use Similes and Metaphors


Similes and metaphors are extremely useful tools for writers, they bring extra depth and layers to the writing in ways that normal description doesn’t.
New writers don’t always understand the difference between the two or how they should be used, and often think they have the same function, but they do differ, and offer different things to the writer. As with many literary devices, it’s how they’re used they makes them effective, not how many are used.
Simile
A simile is a fairly simple figure of speech - it compares two separate things by using connecting words such as, as if, as though or like, for example:
His voice sounded gritty, like footsteps across gravel.
Her words became dull, as though muffled by water.
John’s face screwed up, as if an electric charge had shot through him.
With each of the examples, there is a connecting word – “like” and “as though”, which help to make the comparison. So in the first example, the gritty voice sounds like footsteps across gravel. In the second one, dull words sound as though they’re muffled by water. And in the last one, John’s features change, the kind of expression you might see from an electric shock, so the comparison becomes a visual prompt for the reader.
This kind of description helps the reader better imagine the scene. The similes lift the description and make it more vivid. They help the reader interpret the description with sounds and images.
Writers don’t always realise they’ve used a simile because we use them all the time in every day speech when we describe something to another person. We automatically layer what we say to help the other person visualise it. That’s how commonplace similes are.
The best use of similes is to do it with key descriptive scenes. Don’t overload the narrative with them, otherwise it becomes too much and will detract from the description. Let them lift those descriptive moments and help the reader “see” the scene.
Read any book and you’ll see plenty of similes placed carefully throughout.
Metaphor
Metaphors provide slightly more depth to the description. They are more complicated, and unlike similes, they are not found in everyday speech. For this reason, they take a bit more thought to construct and convey the right meaning.
They act as a contrast, like similes, but they don’t use the connecting words of “like” or “as though”. They refer to one thing by mentioning another as a way of comparison, for example:
He drowned in a silence as vast as the ocean.
Alice ran through the colourful fields of a barren landscape.
Fear fell across his face in cold, callous flakes.
John fanned his feathers in her presence, though she barely noticed.
There are no connecting words but there are comparisons. In the first example, the silence is compared to the ocean, in which the character feels as though he is drowning. The fact that silence isn’t something that you can actually drown in doesn’t matter, but by showing this comparison to the reader, the visual impact means the reader can imagine the strength of the silence is such that it overwhelms and therefore “drowns” him.
The second example shows Alice running through imaginary ripe fields, yet in reality the landscape is barren.  The fact that there can’t possibly be any fields in a barren landscape doesn’t matter - the comparison makes the reader take notice of the description, and that’s what metaphors do.
The third example shows the character’s fear, externalised as the cold snowflakes that fall about his face. This helps the reader understand that fear by imagining the sting of those icy flakes against the skin, so in this instance, the fear is compared to something quite cold.
The last example shows how showing off is compared to a bird fanning its feathers to impress the female. The man clearly doesn’t possess any feathers, but it’s meant symbolically and it shows his infatuation with the other character through this comparison.
This is how metaphors work; they induce the reader further into the story with striking, stylistic descriptions that are powerful enough without the need to write reams of description.  They can encompass anything, with a little thought. This is why writers should consider them carefully, since not all metaphors work. Don’t mix metaphors, don’t force them for the sake of needing a metaphor every few pages, and don’t try to be too clever with them either.
A metaphor only works when the meaning is meant, and it will enhance the description.
Can you mix metaphors and similes? In moderation, yes. The same rule applies in terms of overloading the narrative. One or two here and there can enrich the narrative, but too many will spoil it, so make sure the comparisons mean something, and the meaning of the narrative is enhanced because of it.
So, for instance, let’s take a simile and a metaphor from the examples above, and mix them:
His voice sounded gritty, like footsteps across gravel. But it seemed help would never come, and eventually, after hours of calling out, he fell silent and drowned in a silence as vast as the ocean.
Used together, the description is enhanced by the comparison of the simile, and the meaning hidden beneath the narrative comes to the foreground. In other words, this poor character is shouting out for help, which will never come, and so that awful desperation and sense of loneliness is clearly visible beneath the metaphor.
We use similes and metaphors to strengthen descriptions by evoking the senses and the reader’s imagination, and by cleverly hiding true meanings beneath the narrative, just waiting to be discovered.
Next week: Getting into your character's head/mindset              

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Resist the Urge to Explain


What does that mean, exactly? Well, it describes what it says – writers should resist the urge to explain things. This may seem contradictory, since the writer has to explain things to the reader so that they understand the story, but in this instance, we’re talking about the urge to explain everything. There’s a fundamental difference between the two.
New writers, in particular, have an in-built habit of over-explaining things, simply because they don’t really know any different, and they assume that’s what the reader needs and wants. But that’s not the case. In this instance, less is always more.
From the first chapter, writers feel they have to explain everything, on the assumption the reader simply won’t get what’s going on. But readers are smart. They pick up on things very easily, so the need to explain is mitigated by the fact that they don’t need to be force-fed every morsel of information in order to ‘get it’.
That’s one of the main reasons why too much explanation – or exposition – leads to telling rather than showing. And while there isn’t anything wrong with telling – in all the right places – there is everything wrong with it in all the wrong places.
The reader doesn’t need to know everything about the story, the character and his or her background in the first chapter. It doesn’t have to happen in the second chapter or third. It can happen when the writer feels it necessary to impart such information.
The first chapter serves as the lure. It doesn’t need to contain everything. Instead, the proceeding chapters feed juicy snippets of information as the story unfolds.
The urge to explain things comes in many guises. Info dumping is another one of them. It’s expositional overload - a Nightmare on Explanation Street. Readers hate info dumps, as do editors and agents. They don’t want important information dumped over two or three pages in one huge, boring chunk. That’s a sure fire way of killing the story. The reader won’t bother to read anything else you’ve written, because they already know almost everything.
In order to keep the reader interested, and hooked, clever writers hold back information rather than explaining everything. This is a very deliberate ploy, and with good reason. That’s because we can introduce information bit by bit, when it suits the story and the plot, and of course, a character’s situation. That way, we retain some mystery, some drama, some tension and atmosphere and that most fundamental element – conflict.
The beauty of writing is that some things are worth holding back – the important snippet of information, that incident from the past, the significant revelation, that confrontation with the antagonist...it could be anything. But that ‘anything’ can be worth something later in the story. That’s because the reader doesn’t need to know everything there is to know about your main character or his/her situation in one go. The less they know, the better (and stronger) your story will be.
On the flip side, there is also a trend with writers to go for brevity in the mythological belief that the average reader has the attention span of a gnat. Some might have brief attention spans, but most don’t. Brevity is fine in very small doses, but the thing about brevity is that it has no substance, and if there is little substance, then there is little reason to read your book.
The need to explain things is rather like the Goldilocks effect. Not too much that it spoils the narrative, not too little that there is no substance and reader has nothing to read, but just the right amount, in the right places, at the points in the story that really matter, that makes the story so enjoyable.
Resist the temptation to write four pages of backstory in the first chapter. Resist the urge to explain the main character’s background. Resist the urge to explain why your main character is embarking on his or her journey. Resist the urge to explain why the villain is so villainous. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the reader just won’t understand the story unless you explain it all to them.
Explanation has its place, but only when it’s the right moment. How else can you retain a sense of mystery or intrigue? How else will you keep your reader in suspense? How else will you tease and lure them?
If you want them to keep turning the page, never give too much away.

Next week: How to use similes and metaphors.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Making First Chapters Successful – Part 3


Part 1 and Part 2 looked at an array of elements to include to make a first chapter successful and stand out to your readers, but since there are so many to consider, we’ll conclude with a few more to ensure that the opening of your book hooks the reader from the very first word and keeps them hooked.
Central Theme
This is something that can be hinted. You don’t have to club the reader over the head in order for them to get the main theme that runs through your book. Themes are the veins that run through every story, and your reader will easily pick up on them. The more they enjoy the story, the more things they will understand.
Often a story has a central main theme – betrayal or revenge, for instance. So by hinting at these themes through subtext, through character emotions and thoughts or carefully placed flashbacks, you can establish the main theme very easily.
Be Visual, not Verbose
The description, or how you apply it, in your first chapter is a benchmark of what the reader can expect throughout the book. That means that if you write the first chapter like an amateur, the rest of the book will look amateurish as well.
But if you take the time to describe visually (show, don’t tell), then the reader will fall for your unique voice and writing style, and so they will know what to expect in the coming chapters.
So don’t tell the reader about the main character standing in the rain waiting for the moment to get the bad guy. Show the reader. Describe. You can tell the reader everything, but unless you allow the reader to visualise the situation through your description, there is no point to the book.
That’s because it’s all in the detail of your description.
What Lies Beneath
What lies beneath the opening chapter?
The whole story, that’s what. The first chapter serves as a synopsis of the entire story – in other words, it will hint at everything the reader wants. It should hint at what the story is about, why it’s taking place, what might happen. It should have motive, emotion, themes, conflict...all the things the reader absolutely wants and expects.
The first chapter is an appetiser. Make sure it leaves the reader wanting more.
Avoid Exposition and Info-Dumps
Many first time authors do this. They begin the first chapter with the entire backstory of the main character, then go on to explain what the story is about and then finish with some huge info dumps. This will kill the story dead.
The reader won’t care one bit for the main character or his/her story because they’ve had to read ten pages of boring rubbish to get to the main point of the story. Any drama that an opening chapter should create will be swallowed up by extraneous drivel.
This is why we tell writers to be lean with exposition and backstory, which can come in the proceeding chapters, bit by bit. So if you want a great first chapter, avoid unnecessary info dumps and huge passages of narrative and instead jump right into the story.
Avoid Prologues
Some will argue that there’s nothing wrong with prologues. And there isn’t anything wrong with them. If you want a prologue, write one.
But if you want to engage your reader, avoid them. Prologues do kill the story. You’re asking the reader to read through some boring stuff that relates to the story somehow, but where nothing actually happens. There is no conflict, no emotion or descriptive essence before the reader finally gets to the first chapter and by then they’re already bored and really couldn’t care less.
The fact is that almost all prologues are not necessary. The writer will say that they can’t find anywhere else in the book to put this information, which somehow relates to the story. No? So they can’t use a flashback? They can’t use memories through a character? (thus strengthening characterisation in the process). They can’t use it in dialogue? They can’t feed it through expositional snippets during more dramatic moments? They can’t write anything?
A prologue doesn’t actually add much to the story. It simply sucks up all the tension and drama and mystery of the opening chapter and may well mean the reader abandons the story. They probably have better things to do than read a prologue about nothing in particular and where nothing actually happens.
The thing with opening chapters is that the reader will often remember them, because it’s their first introduction to the story and the characters, but also of you, the writer. It’s your style and voice. The way you write is just as important as all the elements that go into making a first chapter successful.
Every writer is individual, but it’s how they engage with the reader that makes the reader come back for the second novel, the third and so on. And they will come back, as long as the first chapter hooks them and keeps them reading.
Next week: Resisting the Urge to Explain