Thursday, 28 February 2013

A Plot Problem Is A Character Problem

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If a story seems a little dull, if the plot doesn’t seem to be very engaging, you could deal with it by having more stuff happen, more people running around, new characters, additional subplots and so forth.

Usually, though, the problem is not in what’s happening, the problem is who’s doing it.

If the character hasn’t been created with enough depth, what they get up to will feel arbitrary and unsatisfying. If the plot isn’t holding people’s attention, the first place you should look is character.

Monday, 25 February 2013

A Character Needs A MacGuffin

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A MacGuffin is the thing a character wants. It’s what he sets out to find, hide, build or destroy. Its existence is what drives a story forward.

It was a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, and the reason he gave it such a silly name is because he believed it didn’t really matter what it was, just as long as it existed and the need it represented was clear.

The important thing is that it’s tangible.  An object, a person, a place. Some thing. If a character wants to be happy, that isn’t a MacGuffin. If he wants to be happy by stealing the Hope Diamond and becoming rich, then the diamond is the MacGuffin.

But you could replace the diamond with any similar object and it would work just as well. The important thing to remember is that it needs to be a thing, not an idea or an attitude.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Starting A Story In The Middle

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Starting a story in the middle of action is fine if that’s the kind of story you’re telling. Generally, that'd probably be something in the adventure/thriller genre. But not all stories suit the kind of opening where assassins are chasing a monkey over the rooftops of Buenos Aires (although I have no doubt that book would be a huge hit).

And even if you are writing in that genre, you might prefer to build up to those kind of scenes. Having someone hanging from a twelfth storey window ledge can feel very hackneyed. We don’t know the character, we don’t know why he’s up there, and frankly, we don’t care. It’s not always enough to just put some random person in peril.

A high tempo opening scene might not be right for your story and it quite often reads like an attempt by the writer to inject the story with drama it hasn’t really earned and can feel contrived.

But an energetic set-piece out of an action movie isn’t the only way to make the reader feel they’re in the middle of something interesting. Another way a story can benefit from starting in the middle is to start in the middle of emotion.

Monday, 18 February 2013

What Makes An Idea Worthwhile?

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Let’s say you have a character who is hungry. You decide to show the reader that he’s hungry by having him stare into a baker’s window looking at all the lovely cakes.

So he’s drooling, stomach rumbling and all these delicious cakes, which you describe in great detail, are just out of his reach.

You ask yourself, does what I’ve written convey my intention? And if you think it does, then that’s that.

But when other people read what you’ve written, they may not like it. They may say, yes, he’s hungry, but so what? It’s a lot of lovely cake description, but I know what a cake looks like. Yes his need for food is apparent, I get it. But why are you telling me?

And at that point you look back at the story and you ask yourself, why did I want the reader to know my character is hungry?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Readers Have Needs

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Different readers will have different things they like to read. Genres, style, subject matter – all these things will vary from person to person.

But there are some qualities in fiction that are the same for everyone. These are the things we all look for in a story, and they are also how we judge whether something is a good read.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Creating Anticipation

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Anticipation is more than being eager to find out what’s going to happen. When you anticipate something, you predict events. You have an expectation.  The way things turn out will definitely affect how you feel about the story you’re reading, but the anticipation part is nothing to do with what actually ends up happening. 

Because what creates anticipation is not just a question without an answer, it has to be the kind of question where the reader thinks they know what the answer is going to be.

Having no clue what’s going to happen creates no anticipation. But when anticipation is at a high enough level, it can be more exciting than the actual outcome.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Forcing Readers To Like Characters: Admiration

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No matter what kind of personality a character has, helping others will win approval. Batman and Superman have very different approaches to fighting crime, but both are regarded as admirable.

As long as you show the character being helpful, you can get away with all sorts of other questionable behaviour.

This is sometimes referred to as ‘save the cat’ or ‘pat the dog’. You see the character do something nice and you like them for it.

But this is the concept at its most basic, and most transparent.  A superhero who helps random people makes sense, it’s part of the job. An accountant who suddenly risks his life to get a cat out of a tree to make your character come across like a good guy, is going to feel like the obvious 80s movie device it is.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Forcing Readers To Like Characters: Recognition

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So far in this series on how to force readers into an emotional relationship with the characters in a story we’ve looked at the various ways to create sympathy. 

Another technique is to create a character that the reader feels they recognise and relate to. Someone who’s dealing with things that strikes a chord with the reader’s own experiences

However, this does not mean the reader will only identify with characters who are similar to themselves. If that were true, every story would only have a very limited readership. And any story set in an unfamiliar world would be rejected immediately. Clearly that is not the case, so what is it that readers do identify with?

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