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?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Sequence of Writing - In Order or Not?

This is a common question that most writers ask. Does it really matter what order you write your novel? What works and what doesn’t work?
The answer is simple – there is no right or wrong. There’s no rule that says we have to write a story in order. Both approaches work. It depends on the kind of writer you are. It’s down to the writer how they want to write their novel, but it’s also down to the writer to bring it all together to make it work effectively so the reader will enjoy the story.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each one. It’s up to the writer to work with the method that works for them.
Linear Writing
Writing the story in sequence is known as linear writing. In other words, it’s written chronologically, in order as the reader reads it, chapter by chapter, from first chapter to last. This tends to be how plotters and planners like to write. They plan each chapter, they do chapter outlines and story arcs and they follow the story as they write. This keeps them focused and avoids confusion over sequencing/or sequence of events.
The advantage of this approach means that story threads and subplots occur logically (rather than an afterthought because it occurred to the writer while writing out of sequence). Plot points are addressed in order. Characters develop because the story is written in order and so they grow, act and react to each situation as it happens. The POV in linear writing is also consistent and more fluid. Also, the continuity of the story is maintained by this method.
Also, with sequential writing, it’s easy to see plot flaws. It also highlights errors within the narrative or description, or with tone, mood, tension or atmosphere.
Sequential writing can be restrictive to some writers who love the freedom of writing in any order that comes to them. And there is nothing wrong with this. But for most writers, this kind of writing is a much easier process to manage.
Non-Linear Writing
Writing out of sequence is known as non-linear writing. In other words, writers write scenes that are not in any logical order.  They write in any order they want.
For many writers, this is a better way of writing their novel. They feel more comfortable writing the scenes that they’re most excited about, the ones that they want to write about. It’s about writing any scene in whatever order, which can be more productive for some writers who are naturally ‘scene writers’. This works because many writers usually have fully formed scenes in their heads as soon as they get an idea for a story, and they focus on writing those scenes.
There’s more creative freedom with writing scenes, or snippets of scenes and dialogue, that are out of sequence. They don’t feel restricted by the rigidness of the need to write everything in order.
This type of approach can work even if the writer has done a brief outline or plan. That’s because scenes are still relevant to the story, whatever sequence they were written, since the writer has already ‘mapped’ out what might happen in the outline. That means you can write a scene that can be slipped into any chapter.
There are disadvantages of course – story threads and subplots are not written in logical sequence and are often added afterward, which could lead to some elements being less cohesive. Plot points are not always addressed in order because the writer is jumping back and forth from sections in the middle, at the beginning or at the end.
It’s also hard for characters to develop organically because scenes and chapters have been written out of sequence and therefore the jumping between parts of the story doesn’t allow the characters to develop as well as they would in linear writing. Careful attention to POVs is needed in order to keep them consistent, otherwise they might appear scattered in the finished story.
The most important thing to consider, however, is that non-linear writing could cause problems with the continuity of the overall story arc. It’s important that ‘scene’ writers keep focused on the plot and don’t lose sight of the story.
The other downside is that, in addition to editing, the writer has to stitch all the out of sequence scenes together, and do so effectively that makes the entire story arc linear.
Every writer is different, so how you write is less important than the finished product at the end of the process. You can write your novel in any order you want – just keep an eye on all the elements that make the whole story.

Next week: Narrative or dialogue - which is the most dynamic?

Sunday, 8 October 2017

When Do You Know It’s The Right Time To Edit?

What seems a straightforward question doesn’t always mean there’s a straightforward answer.
Even when a writer has completed a story, it’s not always clear when he or she should edit. That’s because a lot of writers will simply go back and tinker with various chapters, which means the writing process carries on without any definitive break or proper editing. This is common with new writers. They write, then go back a few chapters and change things, then carry on writing, and then they go back and change things again and so on, in a perpetual cycle, so nothing constructive gets done.
Other writers reach the end, but then immediately start thinking about the unresolved issue in chapter 14. Or there’s a subplot that they forgot to address. Or they should have added something in that all important action scene between the hero and the villain.  Immediately they go back to add and change things. And because they change things in the proceeding chapters, they then find they have to change things in latter chapters in order for the story to fit.
But that isn’t editing. It’s toying with the story and it doesn’t help. These behaviours mean that the writer doesn’t understand when it’s the right time to edit.
The right time is when you’ve finished the story and written the last chapter. But the last chapter doesn’t mean the last chapter where we write ‘The End.’ That’s how it is for the majority of writers who write their novels chronologically, or linear, so the last chapter really means the last one. There are exceptions to this, because some writers write out of sequence, known as non-linear writing. They sometimes know how the story ends (sort of) and write the last chapter first, or they write the middle sections first.
Some writers are scene writers. In other words, they write lots of difference scenes, not all in sequence, and then weave these into the main story to make a full novel. But they still have to write all the other chapters, so when they’re all written, regardless of the sequence, and they write whatever the last chapter might be, then it’s time to edit. They’ve reached the end. That’s it.
That means instead of immediately going back to tinker with things, writers need to leave it, completely, otherwise they won’t be able to separate themselves from the story well enough to form an objective perspective during editing, which is vital to the overall process.
The urge to fix that issue in chapter 14 or the hero needs to kiss the girl on page 40 might be there, but writers have to ignore it. Once the last chapter is written, it means that will be the right time to properly edit, where those issues and flaws and things to add can be completed at the editing stage.
Some writers just can’t distinguish when to stop writing and start editing, even after they’ve finished the last chapter. They have to learn not to go back and don’t tinker with things.
Instead, writers should put the novel aside and leave it for several weeks at least.  Some writers leave it for a month or two, even longer. But at some point they have to step away from it completely. This is just as important as the actual writing process – it’s necessary to allow the mind to refocus and not think about the story, so that when they do return to it, their minds will be refreshed, focused and able to see the story objectively.
After several weeks break from the story, they should do a read through. This is a good exercise because it shows how the story actually reads from a reader’s perspective. It will become apparent just how good the story is – does it make sense or does it jump all over the place and go off at a tangent? Do the characters leap from the page; are they believable? Do the subplots make sense? Are there any? Are there gaping plot holes? Is it just a pile of jumbled rubbish?
Writers don’t notice these things when they’re writing the story. They’re too close to the work, too involved and too absorbed to pay attention. And this is why it’s important to leave the work and come back to it after a long break.
The second read through is where writers make notes and look for flaws, inconsistencies, plot points, errors, characterisation, the correct mix of dialogue, narrative and descriptions and the usual grammar problems etc. This formulates the first edit and redrafting stage, then the second and third and so on.
The right time to edit is when you finish the last chapter (whatever sequence that may be), regardless how incomplete it might feel, or how bad you think it is. The first draft is always incomplete, inconsistent, full of flaws, errors and rubbish scenes etc.  That’s why we edit until it is complete.
The more you write and become experienced, the more you will understand when it’s the right time to edit. Remember that going back and tampering with the story isn’t editing, nor is it finishing your story. There’s a simple process involved:
Write the story>> Complete the end>>Leave It>>Read Through No. 1>>Read Through No. 2  = EDIT.

Next week: Does the sequence of how you write matter?


Sunday, 1 October 2017

Repetition – When to Use It and When to Avoid It

This is a subject that provides contradictory advice for writers, with the general consensus that writers should avoid repetition, but it doesn’t always say what kind of repetition to avoid, since it can actually be used effectively in narrative and can make a difference to the tone of the writing.
Generally speaking, the kind of repetition writers should avoid is the non-rhetorical kind, one that often makes the sentence structures awkward and shows that the writer isn’t focused on the words they’re using. The repetition could be certain words, phrases or even ideas. This is the kind of negative repetition that writers use without actually realising.
Positive repetition, on the other hand, is a rhetorical tool used for effective narrative delivery, emphasis, emotional or dramatic effect, narrative depth or for amplification.
Negative Repetition
Every writer does it. That’s how common it is. While in the throes of writing, we don’t often realise we’ve repeated certain words or even phrases, but it’s not a major thing and can easily be rectified at editing stage.
This kind of repetition is the stuff editors don’t like to see – recurrence of words that just make the narrative ineffective and clunky. That’s because there is no emphasis or dramatic effect and no added depth, for example:
She stood at the door and sighed heavily and watched for his reaction, but he seemed to resist the bait and kept a stoic, heavy expression which belied his thoughts. She knew that look and knew she wouldn’t win.
You can see that the words heavy/heavily are used. It doesn’t matter if the repeated words are a mix of adjectives, nouns, adverbs or verbs, they still convey the same meaning and so the sentences don’t quite work. In addition, ‘knew’ is repeated twice, and not deliberately, so again it doesn’t work within the context of the entire paragraph.
With some tweaks, the same paragraph can be improved by eliminating the repetition, for example:
She stood at the door and sighed and watched for his reaction, but he seemed to resist the bait and kept a stoic, heavy expression which belied his thoughts. She knew that look; she wouldn’t win.
Words we tend to overuse are the kind of words we most often repeat. That’s because our mind thinks faster than we type when we’re writing, and so we simply type what’s going through our head without realising we’ve used the same words in the same sentence or paragraph. That’s why a lot of descriptive words are often repeated – they’re the ‘go to’ words we like using the most or are most comfortable using.
Pronouns are also a major repetitive hurdle because writers don’t realise they’ve written a character’s name countless times, for instance: John went to the car to deliver the package. But then John realised he’d left the keys inside the house and went back. John saw them on the counter...etc.
This is very common and can be rectified at editing stage. So instead of repetition, the above example is much better like this:
John went to the car to deliver the package. But then he realised he’d left the keys inside the house and went back. The keys had been left on the counter...
Negative repetition is only a problem if it’s not spotted. But that’s why, as writers, we should go through several edits to eliminate these minor problems. As with everything in life, the more you do something, the more efficient you become, so therefore, the more you write, the better you become at spotting these common errors. You’ll start to vary sentence structures and your eyes will notice certain words that stand out – ones you’ve used before, time and again.
Positive Repetition
Unlike negative repetition, the positive type is just that – it lends to the narrative and is a deliberate ploy by the writer to emphasise or underscore the story. It’s this deliberate use that the reader will understand, and that’s because the structure of repetition is different, for example:
Mike quickly stopped when he saw Joe in the middle of a large room, surrounded by smaller tiled rooms and blackened by mould.
Joe looked up. ‘You hear that?’
In this example, the sound – tap, tap, tap – is repeated for emphasis three times. This is a very common way to stress certain sounds and words. Here’s another example of the three-word accent:
His cold way, his cold eyes; as cold as the dead landscape before him....
The repetition here works because ‘cold’ is a descriptive word and each time it’s used it adds to the atmosphere and overtones being conveyed. This style creates a rhythmic flow of a particular key word and creates an impression of emotion and mood.
This can also be used in dialogue, where certain words are repeated to accentuate or reinforce the meaning and tone, for example:
‘You see that? You see what happens when you don’t listen? That’s the result. Because you don’t want to see the truth of it...’
There are lots of different literary devices to employ effective repetition, which writers don’t, or rarely, use, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, anaphora, antistasis and epiphora etc. There are so many ways to repeat words to give a deeper meaning, to evoke mood, rhythm and tone.
If you choose to use repetition, think about what you want to convey. Think about how you want to construct it. If you use it correctly it will add depth to your narrative and should be so subtle that your reader will hardly notice.
Next week: When do you know it’s the right time to edit?

Sunday, 24 September 2017

How to Move the Story Forward

One of the universal principles of good fiction writing is the need to move the story forward. If you don’t move the story forward, then the story can’t evolve. A story that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything isn’t a story.
Every story depends on the development of the main plot and the characters, as well as themes and subplots. A good story can’t exist without these elements.
There are numerous ways to move things along, for instance, dialogue, characterisation, description, exposition, plenty of conflict and transitional scenes.
Dialogue is present tense and active, so it’s a good way to move the story forward. It works because it’s selective. In other words, it should only divulge information that is necessary. That means characters interact with each other and impart necessary information that relates to the plot and what might happen. You can also use dialogue to exchange clues and hints and to foreshadow events.
Writers don’t always think of description as something that can move the story along. But it does, because it imparts necessary information for the reader and keeps the momentum going. Writers do this by describing certain details – they may use direct information or they may use hints for things that are yet to take place later in the story. Giving out this information to the reader helps the story move forward, and with action scenes or fast paced scenes, this momentum is increased.
Narrative or direct exposition – unlike the indirect exposition known as ‘Show don’t tell’ – is used by writers to quickly move things along without overpowering the rest of the story. Simple narrative helps to give certain snippets of information that doesn’t need huge blocks of description, for example:
‘The group disbanded in 1944, though Peter knew pockets of partisans still existed’.
This imparts enough information for the reader and doesn’t need large chunks of backstory or explanation. It’s exposition that moves things along within a scene. This is how effective narrative works – interspersed with description and dialogue and in small amounts.
Transitional Scenes
Transitional scenes allow forward movement of time like the wave of a magic wand. Without them, the story would stutter, become bogged down and may deviate from the main plot. These kinds of scenes allow the writer to forgo the boring stuff that characters might otherwise undertake, and instead it gets to the next scene as quickly as possible. This allows time to move forward from one point to another and therefore so does the story.
Character motivations are often revealed through dialogue. People let slip what they really think and feel when they are talking – the ‘real’ person behind the persona comes through. What your characters really want and how they’re going to get it provides a catalyst and so moves the story forward. Character motivations drive the action, which in turn drives the story.
Conflict is known as the backbone of any story, but it also drives the story because the types of conflict you create act like fuel in an engine – it provides power and thrust. Readers need to see the hero fight his way out of all sorts of trouble. Often this leads to action scenes, which always propel things forward. Your readers need to see how such conflicts are resolved. And of course, they’ll be desperate to know if the good guy wins over the bad guy by the end of the story.
Other Added Elements
There are other elements you can use to help with pushing your story toward to its conclusion, ones that writers don’t generally think of, but are still worth a look at.
Plot twists are something that the reader will not expect – so a turning point or major revelation should leave the reader wondering what will happen next. You should reveal information in your scenes to keep the reader engaged – elements of the plot, pieces of a jigsaw that your reader will be mentally trying to solve. These types of information revelation push the story forward.
Pacing is another useful tool. Vary the action and drama scenes with slower, reflective scenes where the characters, through their thoughts and actions and dialogue, can once again impart necessary information and move things along for the reader. Of course, the more active scenes move things along more quickly.
Each scene you write must advance story in some way. The use of dialogue, description, narrative, character motivation, transitional scenes, conflicts, building and solving problems within the plot, revealing characters and above all, revealing necessary information, all work together to move the story forward.
All these elements must have momentum. If they don’t then the whole story may stagnate and not actually go anywhere and the story won’t reach its conclusion. This is why we talk about the importance of ‘moving things forward’.

Next week: Repetition – When to use and it and when to avoid it

Sunday, 17 September 2017

What Makes a Story Dark?

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

Next week: What moves a story forward?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

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

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


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

Next week: How do you make your story dark?