Thursday, 27 December 2012

Most Popular Posts Of The Year

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Well, the world didn't end so I guess we'll be doing it all again next year. Thanks to everyone who dropped by over the last twelve months, and especially those who left comments. 

To round off the year, here are Moody Writing's top ten most popular posts of 2012 (based on page views):

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Dialogue Tags Are Annoying

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Most people know how to add dialogue tags at the end of dialogue to identify who’s speaking.

"Look at me,” said Malcolm.

And sometimes instead of using dialogue tags, we use action tags.

“Look at me.” Malcolm waved his hands over his head.

Both indicate who’s speaking, but the difference, although small, is important. The dialogue ends with a comma in one and a full stop (period) in the other.

Not so hard to figure out. But sometimes we don’t want to put the tag at the end of the dialogue, we want to put it somewhere in the middle. And that’s where the fun starts.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Different Characters, Different Beliefs

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In order to make a scene between two characters feel interesting it needs some degree of conflict. That’s fine if one character happens to be a cop and the other a robber, but the story isn’t always going to present you with directly oppositional characters like that.

But even if the characters in a scene don’t have anything to fight over and the scene isn’t highly charged or full of high stakes, you can still give characters something to clash over.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Assume Reader Resistance

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There’s always the feeling when you write something that maybe no one else will want to read it. And that’s exactly how you should think.

Sure, there are going to be one or two people who are into exactly what you’re into, but for the most part people won’t be. Just because you came up with a story won’t automatically make them want to read it.

Realising this is half the battle to avoiding it (although admittedly it is the easy half).

Monday, 10 December 2012

Fiction Is About Facing Problems

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One of the main tenets of writing story is to make the reader as the question: What happens next?

But this question shouldn’t be aimed at the writer, or even the story. The question should be aimed by readers at themselves.

And they shouldn’t be sure of the answer

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Making Scenes Interesting In The Now

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In terms of what’s going on in a scene you can break it down into three main areas:

1. What happened ‘Before’.
2. What’s happening ‘Now’.
3. What’s going to happen ‘Later’.

The most important for a reader is no.2, the ‘Now’. That's where readers experience the story—what's in front of them.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Dramatic Action Is More Than Doing Stuff

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Often the reason a scene doesn’t work, or doesn’t seem to have any life to it, is because what’s happening in the scene isn’t very interesting.

People may be doing things, moving around, attempting to reach their goals, but how they’re going about is too straightforward or too easy.

There are various ways to achieve things in life that are reasonable and sensible. You want to be a doctor, you go to medical school and study hard. If you portray that within a story it may feel realistic and true, but it won’t be very gripping.

There is more to a good story than holding a mirror up to life.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

When A Scene Isn’t Working

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There comes a time when you have to face facts. You’ve tried to convince yourself that scene where your main character goes back to her old house and stares at it for four pages is a good scene, an important scene where the reader learns things they need to know, but... it just isn’t a very interesting scene.

You know this because none of the people who’ve read it have ever said anything good about it. Quite a few have said bad things about it. And most have not mentioned it at all. You could take their silence as a sign they’re okay with it, but do you really want to write a story that’s just okay?

So, something’s got to change.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Knowledge Is Power But Story Is King

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Knowledge is power. Or is money power? Maybe power is power. Certainly a gun is power. But if there are two guns and only one has bullets, and you know which, then we’re back to knowledge is power. Unless what you know is that the empty gun is the one in your hand.

The point I’m making is that no rule is universal. Just because something is true in one situation, doesn’t make it true in another. You need to understand the context.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Funnily Enough: A Place for Writers

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Since the web’s going to be fairly quiet today, I thought I’d take this time to mention my other site, The Funnily Enough. A place for writers to find information that will help them write a better book.

I visit a lot of writing blogs on a daily basis (usually when I should be doing something useful) and I come across a lot of posts about the craft and business of writing. Sometimes it’s a tiny site with hardly any followers, or it could be a huge corporate site with many contributors covering a host of subjects.

Unlike most collator sites which use an automated system to hoover up vaguely pertinent articles, I select everything personally and leave out stuff which is either too basic or overly esoteric.

Monday, 19 November 2012

What Episodic TV Teaches Novelists

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After the last post on episodic writing a lot of people mentioned TV as an example of where an episodic structure works very well. So I thought I'd address that.

The first thing to bear in mind is that just because something is delivered in an episodic format, doesn’t mean it’s episodic narratively speaking.

If I take a novel and split it up into sections, and then let you read one chapter a week, then that’s an episodic way to read the story, but it makes no difference to the story itself.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Episodic Storytelling Is A Problem

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The problem with episodic storytelling is that often the writer can’t really see the problem with it.

Stuff is happening to the main character, as it’s supposed to. Maybe even quite interesting stuff. Different scenes may not be directly connected, but they’re still happening to the same person, so it feels like there’s a connection.

But when you have a character who goes from one thing to another seemingly at random, what you end with is a character who has nothing better to do. It’s not very captivating when the story meanders and the main character doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Secrets Of Language Revealed!

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The point of language is to communicate your thoughts. The rules of language are there to clarify structure and prevent misreading. If you can communicate what you want to communicate without following those rules, that’s perfectly okay.

However, it’s easier to follow the rules because that’s why they’re there—to clarify your meaning—and most people are already aware of them.

And, generally, if you’re not sure if it should be a semi-colon or an em-dash, is the adverb necessary, does the repetition work as emphasis or is it clumsy, chances are you’re over-thinking it.

I know what I want to say but I don't know how to say it is another way of saying you don't really know what you're trying to say.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Story Questions Worth Pursuing

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You don’t make readers want to know what happens next by not telling them what’s happening now.

There’s a guy, he’s being chased by someone. We don’t know who, we don’t know why. Clearly he doesn’t want to be caught, but other than that everything is a mystery. So as the reader you’re going to keep reading to find out what’s going on, right?

Well, maybe if you have absolutely nothing else better to do. But for most of us, that implication that everything will become clear if we keep reading, and that it’ll be totally worth it, just doesn’t pay-off in most cases.

Because it’s easy to make it seem like there’s something amazing around the next corner. It’s much harder to actually have something amazing waiting there.

So how do you make it clear that the journey will be worthwhile, and at the same time not reveal too much and ruin the surprise?

Monday, 5 November 2012

Stealing Good Ideas Is Okay

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While there’s nothing new under the sun, somethings are blatant rip-offs. And although it's perfectly possible to successfully repeat an established character or familiar story concept, those successes are fairly rare (not that it stops people trying).

The problem is most people steal the wrong bit of a story. The superficial, obvious stuff isn’t what makes a story work, it’s just the easiest to copy.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Why First Chapters?

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This post is more a question than the usual rambling on about the craft of writing I usually inflict on you.

The question is this: When you send out stuff to agents, why do they insist on getting the opening chapters?

Is there something especially telling in those chapters? And if so, what?

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Subconscious Storyteller

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This is the ideal: blank page, close eyes, start writing.

Sometimes that actually works. Stuff just comes out of somewhere and you know what needs to happen next. Sometimes.

Most times it’s a struggle.

But if we have a part of us that can create the stories we want to tell and can come up with brilliant ideas out of nowhere, why doesn’t the subconscious just produce the goods when we need it to?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Reader Meets Character

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In order for a reader to like a character that reader has to feel like they know the kind of person the character is.

This is easiest to achieve using archetypes, stereotypes and clichés. The cynical but brilliant detective, the unfairly betrayed wife, the shy but sweet nerd... You feel like you know these characters because you really have known them, in one guise or another, all your life.

And while the received wisdom is too avoid the overly familiar, I don’t think it can be denied that lots of successful books use character-types we’ve all seen many, many, many times before (maybe with an added twist, but not always); and these variations on Cinderella or Philip Marlowe or whatever can be very successful.

But often the reason writers fall back on the tried and tested is because they don’t really know how to get the reader to know the character quickly without resorting to the shorthand of referencing traits already out there.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Words: The More The Muddier

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The idea that the more words used the clearer the meaning becomes is one that trips up a lot of writers.

Not that additional details are always a bad thing, but the ‘a little more information couldn’t hurt’ approach is very definitely wrong. It can very much hurt.

If I want to visit you then there is a minimum amount of info (street and house number), and an optimum amount (best route, which exit to take) that I need. And then there’s an excessive amount (the name of your neighbour’s dog).

On the other hand, what difference does it make if you mention the neighbour’s dog? It’s not going to make the address harder to find.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Single-Mindedness of the Novel Writer

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Working out if you’re meant to be a writer is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do.

Talent doesn’t come into it. The truth is, if you are a moderately intelligent, imaginative person, chances are you have the ability (at your best) to write something someone somewhere will want to read.

Of course, connecting with those ideal readers isn’t quite so easy, but that’s another post entirely.

No, the way you can determine whether you are a novel writer is quite straightforward. You have to write a book.  See, it’s easy. And also very hard.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Characters Should Think Progressively

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Written fiction allows access to a character’s mind in a way that no other medium can. What someone thinks often gives a new perspective on events, can reveal aspects you hadn’t considered, or add depth to the way you perceive a character.

Often this is presented as a snapshot of the character’s current state of mind. This is what’s happening, and this is what the MC thinks about it. But what makes a character interesting isn’t just who they are or what they do, it’s how they get there.

And while ‘it’s the journey not the destination’ may seem obvious, knowing exactly which part of the journey is the interesting bit may not.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Putting Emotion In Story

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The travails and adventures of your characters should have more than a superficial effect on the reader. Ideally, the impact should be somewhere between enthralling and devastating.

But how do you convert words on a page to tears in eyes, lumps in throats or hearts in mouths?

There are two basic ways to transfer emotion from page to reader: sympathetic and empathetic.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Story Is A Drug

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Making the reader want to know what happens next in a story is an excellent way to get them to turn the page and keep reading. But that’s not what hooks readers.

Curiosity will only provide part of the glue that makes readers stick with a story. The truth is even if the reader knows what happens next, if they’ve read it before, seen it before, heard spoilers, know the original version... they can still enjoy it.

But if you already know what happens in a story, why is it still worth reading?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Chapter One: The Casual Vacancy

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This is another of my posts on how a successful author hooks the reader at the start of the story, what information she feels is necessary at this point and how she approaches things like POV, character and voice (other first chapter I’ve analysed can be found here: Chapter One Analyses).

I chose The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling partly because it’s in the news, but also because it was a good opportunity to see how an author goes about winning over readers who might be sceptical or wary of her attempt at a new genre.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Story Structure is Simple

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Sure, a story needs a Beginning, Middle and End, but apart from that what else do you need to build a satisfying and effective story structure?

The answer is simple: Nothing.

In the same way that the four building blocks of DNA enable the creation of all life on Earth, so B, M and E, if positioned, combined and repeated correctly, can produce an endless variety of story.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Cliffhangers For Unscrupulous Writers

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The dirty secret about cliffhangers is that they work.

Whether they’re corny, cheesy, clichéd, obvious, predictable or downright contrived.

Sure, you may well get called a hack and a cheap manipulator, but cliffhangers only guarantee the reader will cross the chapter break, they don’t guarantee they’ll like what they find when they get there.

Obviously, it would be preferable if writers used this technique for good instead of evil. But we all know that's not how cliffhangers are used for the most part. Anyone with a television set can see the abuse and misuse they are put to nightly. Still, it’s worth having this weapon in your arsenal. How you use it is your affair.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Dialogue Clinic

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Dialogue is one of the most important parts of a story. Readers will skim through everything else, but rarely will they skip over dialogue. It’s engaging, it’s fun, it brings a story to life. Plays, movies, radio are all constructed around speech.

Turning functional dialogue into something more, something that rivets and entertains, is difficult. It would be great if we could just listen to people talking and naturally condense it into sparkling dialogue—and some people do have that facility—but for most of us it takes a bit more effort.

The following three areas are key to good dialogue. You can ignore them all and still write engaging dialogue, but it’s a lot easier if you keep them in mind.

1. Saying exactly what you mean is boring.
2. People agreeing makes for terrible conversation.
3. What you say is more important than how you say it.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Good Endings Are Hard To Find

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Readers want you to tie up all the loose ends, bring things to a close, make it satisfying and logical, and they want it to feel right.

And they don’t want to hear any nonsense about realism and how sometimes in life there is no answer, no proper endings, no closure. But then, ending a story isn’t about realism.

And they all lived happily ever after... What the hell does that even mean?

The end is just a place for passengers to disembark. Journey’s end. But what you need to have achieved in order to call it an ending isn’t always so obvious.

Monday, 3 September 2012

A Writer’s Reasons For Falling In Love

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If your story has two (or more) people who fall in love, it’s easy to explain away those feelings in vague terms. She was beautiful, he had amazing eyes, it felt like he’d known her all his life, her heart skipped a beat and she just knew he was the one etc. etc. etc.

Although those sorts of reasons are perfectly believable and exist in real life as well as in numerous works of fiction, there is still a sense that the writer doesn’t really have much of an idea of why these particular people hooked up, or even what love really is. Readers make allowances for it because they don’t really know either. But just for fun I thought I would try to make a list of non-vague reasons for people to fall in love.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Resist Giving Characters A Helping Hand

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It is tempting, especially at the beginning of a story, to have things happen in a way that is convenient, just to get the ball rolling. A new guy starts at work and our heroine likes the look of him. Later that evening she’s in the supermarket doing a little shopping and who should be buying olives at the deli counter but that guy from work...

Obviously that scenario is perfectly plausible. We run into friends or work colleagues all the time. You can be visiting a foreign city, walk round a corner and bump into someone you went to school with and haven’t seen in years.

But the temptation for a writer to lend a hand, to put their character in the right place at the right time, makes it harder to get to know the character. You are in fact delaying the start of the story.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Good Story Requires Incomplete Exposition

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Exposition is where you explain things to the reader in the text. It’s a necessary part of storytelling to help the reader understand what’s going on in a story, especially when it comes to stuff the reader won’t automatically know. The MC might work for a government department and the reader needs to know what the department does, so you have to find a way to get that info to them. When handled badly it can read very clunky.

But there is also another expositional technique that gives the reader information in a very high impact and emotional manner. This is where you reveal something that the reader is able to convert into an understanding of the situation without you having to explain it.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Chapter One: The Devotion of Suspect X

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This is a continuation of my series of first chapter dissections where I analyse the opening chapter of a successful novel to find out what makes it work, how the author hooked the reader, which rules were followed, and which were broken to good effect.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino is a mystery novel of the classic 'genius' detective type. If you'd like to read the first few pages for yourself you can do so here.

The book opens as follows:

Monday, 6 August 2012

After The First Draft: Part 3

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A short series looking at how to approach revisions. Part 3: Seeds need water, water needs seeds.

So far we’ve looked at tweaking the start and end (where information tends to bunch up), and making sure characters have identifiable story-world reasons for what they’re doing.

Another element worth looking at early on is establishing the tone. Not the overall tone of the story, I’m talking about the tone of each scene. The specific tone I’m talking about is one that indicates this will be a story worth reading.

Monday, 30 July 2012

After The First Draft: Part 2

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A short series looking at how to approach revisions. Part 2: Pinocchio Needs A Soul.

Your characters, particularly your MC, are the most important aspect of your story. If people don’t engage with them, they aren’t going to finish reading the book.

You don’t want to wait until you’re polishing the final draft to sort this out. You want to do it as early in the process as possible. Once readers are hooked into the characters, you have a solid foundation to build on.

That doesn’t mean your characters should jump through windows and have kung-fu fights (even though it might add a fresh twist to the Regency romance you’ve been working on).

What it does mean is your characters need to be more than puppets being moved from scene to scene.

Monday, 23 July 2012

After The First Draft: Part 1

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A short series looking at how to approach revisions. Part 1: Avoiding the Accordion.

Once you have a complete first draft it isn’t always clear what to do next.

By a complete first draft I mean where you have a beginning, middle and end with no place markers you intend to fill in later. It may need a lot of work and even wholesale changes, but there are no gaps in the sequence of scenes.

At this point there will be some obvious technical changes you need to make. Clarify, cut, develop etc. but generally the story is there.

So you have this thing. Now what?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Two Sides To Every Story. At Least.

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Tension is a key element of drama. Tension is a question. It’s an outcome you want to know. It’s anticipation. Tension comes in different sizes and shapes.

“There’s a bomb on the bus!” is a different kind of tension to “Are you waiting for someone?”

The big, explosive stuff (physical or emotional) takes care of itself. You may need to manage it, but tension will be present. My daughter’s been kidnapped! — very hard to underplay.

This post is about working tension into smaller, more intimate scenes.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Writing A Bottle Scene

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There are times in a story when not much is going on. Your character is isolated or apart from everyone else, away from activity or the main plot.

Readers may find this sort of scene dull or pedestrian and the suggestion will be to zhoosh it up somehow. This advice will most times be right. However, sometimes you want a scene to be low key or concentrated down to a few ingredients.

There’s nothing wrong with this, often the strongest character moments come in the quieter moments. But that doesn’t mean you should have long scenes over a cup of coffee and endless banter, nor does it mean you need a bomb on a bus and SWAT teams flying in through windows to make it exciting.

One of the best ways to see how to make the most of a limited situation is to take a look at what TV shows call a ‘bottle episode’.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The 5 Best Pieces Of Writing Advice

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The following are the five best pieces of advice to do with writing that I have come across. Obviously there are many excellent tips out there and how useful they are depends on the kind of writer you wish to be, but these are the ones that made a big difference to me and seemed to make the most sense.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Making Your Readers Care Like Your Characters Care

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In any story the main character will have something on their mind. They will worry and fret based on how important ‘the thing’ is to them.

Just because they happen to think this thing is worth obsessing over or getting upset about doesn’t mean the reader will also.

Showing the character really worked up about this thing won’t automatically make the reader feel the same way.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Reading With An Agenda

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There are probably some books you feel like you should read but you don’t really want to. 

They’re great books—you know this because everyone says they are. They win awards and feature on Best Of lists and when you look at the photo of the author on the back, they seem to be saying: “This is what a real writer looks like.”

But your heart sinks if you even think about picking the book up. It’s not your style, it’s not your genre, it’s too long, it’s too boring.

Well, there’s a way around this problem.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Not All Characters Deserve To Be In The Story

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It’s pretty easy to overpopulate a story.

Usually, it’s to make things seem realistic (an office should have people in it, a party should be crowded).

Sometimes it seems like a clever ploy (with 73 suspects the reader will never guess who the murderer is!).

Or it can be a way to give different types of readers someone to root for. These characters are the love story, these guys provide the adventure, this one will appeal to older women, this one to comedy fans...

Too many characters often make a story hard to follow, confuse the reader and create unnecessary complications. But once they’re in, taking them out can seem daunting, like pulling at a single loose thread that ends up unravelling the whole cardigan.

It’s really not that hard, though.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Give Characters Interesting Anecdotes

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If you want readers to know about your character’s past, put it in the form of an anecdote.

Don’t just tell them her parents split up when she was nine, have her remember how they bought her a talking doll before telling her the cat had been run over, a princess outfit before telling her Nana had cancer, and a bike before telling her they were getting a divorce. And now, every time someone gives her a present, she feels like running screaming from the room.

Fact and figures, names and dates don’t mean anything to readers.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Real Reason Writers Need To Read

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There’s a specific skill you gain from reading widely — not just the stuff you like — that is an essential tool to becoming a better writer.

Critiquers, beta readers, editors, they read your WIP and offer you advice and opinion and maybe even suggest solutions. But how do you know if they’re right? 

And what about when different people offer you conflicting advice? Who’s right then?

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Writing Great Characters

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You know how important a great main character is to a story. Sherlock Holmes or Elizabeth Bennett or Becky Sharp. Whether they’re fighting at the edge of a cliff or having a quiet moment of reflection or making a total ass of themselves, you want to be there with them. That’s the sort of thing you want to create, right?

Monday, 18 June 2012

What Makes Your Character Think That'll Work?

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If a character’s family is in dire financial straits and our hero decides to rob a bank to pay off the debts that are threatening to make his family homeless, you can probably accept that as a plot for a certain kind of story.

However, if you start writing that story with just that information what you will get is a pretty flat, unengaging tale. The key element missing from the summary I provided above is why — why does the MC come up with that solution?

If you don’t know that, you don’t have a story.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Bedding-In The Premise

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Any idea, no matter how crazy, can be made to work in a story. As long as you set things up well enough, the reader will buy whatever you’re selling.

That doesn’t mean providing any old nonsense will work, but it does mean any old nonsense can be made to work, whether it's how the impossible murder was committed, or why the billionaire fell for the 6/10 brunette, or the guy who claims victory by using The Force.

The important thing to remember is it’s the stuff during the build-up that will make or break the story, not the explanation after the fact.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Waiting For A Story To Get Going

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Story is about character. There’s what happens to the character, and there’s what the character does (not necessarily in that order).

Of these two key elements, what the character DOES is far more important than what is DONE TO the character.

Readers want to engage with a character who makes decisions and choices and takes action.

If it’s all about what happens TO the character, then chances are it’s going to turn out to be a boring story.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Writing Websites I'd Like To See

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While there are a million websites, blogs and forums offering advice on writing, publishing and what to read, I feel there are some areas of the writing experience that are sorely underrepresented on the interwebs.

The following are some suggestion for anyone out there looking to start the next must-visit website for writers, but just can’t think of what to base it around.

Monday, 4 June 2012

A Good Scene Isn’t Written, It’s Dramatised

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Every scene has a purpose. Once you know that purpose, and you make sure the scene fulfils that purpose, job done, right?

Not quite.

If a man is needs money and he goes to an ATM and gets some cash, and the purpose of the scene is to get him from broke to not broke,  then what you have is a dull scene.

Whether you tell me about him getting his money, or you show me him getting his money, it will be just as dull either way.

What the scene lacks isn’t purpose or clarity or action or a character with a goal, what it lacks is drama.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Can You Be Trusted To Tell A Good Story?

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Or, to put it another way, would you want to read a story by someone who doesn’t know what they're talking about?

Me neither.

In fact, even if someone sounds like they don’t know what they’re talking about, that’s enough to turn off most people. They don’t want to read that guy’s story, or listen to his views, or spend any time in his presence.

When it comes to communicating with people, especially people you don't know personally, to ‘sound like’ you know what you’re talking about is more important than actually knowing what you’re talking about.

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