22 November 2013

Scenes That Work

You have an idea for a scene in your story?  Great, just dive in and write your heart out.  When you’ve finished you sit back and relax, right?  Wrong.

Only after you’ve finished that initial first draft does the real work start.  Each scene is a mini story in its own right so you need to check that most of the elements of the Story Arc are present in each scene:

Stasis:  You only need to set the scene again if time has moved on from the last scene or the action has moved to a new location or a new character.

Trigger:  If the flow of your scenes is working right the trigger for this scene should have been in the previous scene for this character.

Quest:  What is the protagonist looking for in this scene.

Complication:  Every scene needs a complication or to be about overcoming a complication that was set in a previous scene.

Choice:  Someone in the scene will make at least a minor choice of some sort, even if it is just a choice to take action, allow an emotion or feel a feeling.   Make sure you show that choice to your reader as this is part of each characters development.

Climax:  The highpoint in the action/drama, normally near the end of the scene.

Reversal:  Not normally necessary for a scene unless the scene is all about a character’s critical choice and its consequences, as part of the overall story.

Trigger:  Unlike the overall Story Arc, most scenes end with the trigger for the next scene in this characters scene flow.  This keeps the story moving and the reader turning the pages.  Classically, this might be a cliff-hanger to the next scene.

23 October 2013

The Hidden Story - Novel Writing Workshop 4

This is where novel writing starts to become technical and for me where the fascination with stories as a kind of social glue starts – there is no society, past or present, that doesn’t have stories.  It’s one of the things that makes us human, which is amazing.

The story Arc is a technical tool that sits invisibly behind the story to provide structure and meaning.  There are different types of Story Arc, from the simple three act play to the 22 point arc used by my screen-writing hero John Truby (see Shrek as an example).

We’re using a standard 7 point Story Arc.  These are the steps on the way from the start of the story to the end:

Stasis:  The way things are now, particularly the way the Protagonist is now - perhaps lovelorn.

Trigger:  Something happens to kick the story into motion - maybe a new boy arrives at school.

Quest:  This causes the Protagonist to go in search of something – treasure, love or acceptance maybe.

Complication:  The Protagonist meets one or more obstacles on the journey which have to be overcome – perhaps a competitor or a love rival (Personified Antagonist) or a situation that pulls them apart (Situational Antagonist).

Choice:  The Protagonist has to make difficult decisions to overcome the complications (Protagonist decides to confronts the Antagonist).

Climax:  The decisions have consequences which lead to the dramatic highpoint of the story (Protagonist actually confronts the Antagonist).

Reversal:  The most important stage of all to create a satisfying story and the most often left out – Show what changes the quest, complication(s), choice(s), and action(s) have produced.  These could be physical or in terms of your protagonist’s character – the Protagonist has stood up to the Antagonist and won/lost, but the love interest switches allegiance out of Admiration/compassion.

Resolution:  The way things are now – Protagonist and love interest are deeply in love.

Some writers would say that every chapter, every character, every sub-plot, and every scene should have its own Story Arc.  Certainly the best and most sophisticated novels would seem to meet this criteria, but it is incredibly difficult to pull off and requires a genuine understanding of story.

Here’s an exercise to help you realise if a story idea will work:  Produce a simple three line plot – Premise, Complication, Climax, then build a simple 7 part story arc around it.  If it doesn’t easily work, move on to the next idea; if it does work, develop it some more.


16 October 2013

Devilish Villains - Novel Writing Workshop 3

Every Protagonist has an antagonist: Every hero has a villain.  It is easiest to see in an adventure story, where the Protagonist is the Hero and the Antagonist is the villain.  In a love story the Protagonist and Antagonist are the two love interests and they can sometimes swap positions, sometimes more than once.  Alternatively, the Antagonist can even be the Protagonist’s own conscience or moral ghosts.

Russell T Davies, who resurrected the Dr Who series, says that ‘Your hero is only as good as your villain.’

Antagonists don’t have to be evil or nasty, they just have to want the same thing(s) as the Protagonist, but choose to obtain them in a different way.  The best Antagonists are also morally entwined with the Protagonist.

Remember your character interviews?  Now is the time to revisit them so you can write or revise your Antagonist interview.  Whatever your Protagonist loves your Antagonist hates; whatever your Protagonist hates your Antagonist loves; whatever your Protagonist values your Antagonist ...you get the idea.  Even if they value the same things, they go about achieving them in opposite ways.

Only by confronting their weaknesses and moral values can your Protagonist change and grow – your Antagonist, whatever form it takes, is the tool you use to achieve this change for your Protagonist.
Don’t forget your supporting characters, they can also have secondary Antagonists or even be the secondary Antagonists.

Let me know how you get on and any good question or ideas you might like to share.


30 September 2013

Secrets of Character Construction - Novel Writing Workshop 2

So you’ve got a vague idea for a main character (your hero or protagonist), but they need fleshing out. I like to write an interview with each of my characters. First the trivial questions you might ask a new friend – just to get a feel for them: What do they look like? Favourite colour? Age? Heroes? Favourite foods? Foods hates? What do they care most about? How do they move/walk? How do they talk?
Now we are going to dig a bit deeper into their back story: Tell me about your family? Where you from? Your best skills? Happiest childhood memories? The most embarrassing thing ever? Most important thing that ever happened? Who are your friends? When did let someone down? Your saddest memories?

Conflict is the crux of any story and any character so here goes with the painful ugly stuff that will give your character extra dimensions: What really annoys you? What don’t you like about yourself? Your main character flaws? Tell me something really mean you did? What would you want to change about your personality? How could you be a better person? What makes you jealous? When do you ‘see red’ with anger? How would you change the world? What could the world do without?

This exercise will help give your characters depth and give you plenty of leavers to pull to upset their world - if your story starts to drag, pull one of these emotional levers to mix things up a bit (you are the puppet master!)

Now you need to repeat this exercise with all your supporting cast of characters. Tedious, but necessary. I like to have more than one main characters so I can play their moral flaws off against each other.

Let me know how you get on and please share any of your ideas.


09 September 2013

Plotting the Plot - Novel Writing Workshop 1

This story method is the one I find most useful.  If you don’t like it that’s ok, ignore me and go do your own thing – whatever works.
The idea for a novel can start with a character, story idea, a concept, a question, a what if? Or a story world.  We will start with the plot, because we have to start somewhere.  If you’ve already started with another element of the story don’t worry, all these workshops are interchangeable and can be done in any order.
The primary function of a fiction writer is to tell a story.  At the very minimum you need a three line plot.   his consists of
                   A Premise – what is the story about.
·                  A Complication – what difficulties do the characters have to overcome.
·                  A Climax – how does the story end.
Plotting is really all about storytelling and storytelling is all about conflict. For instance: a Princess is born, grows up, meets the Prince of her dreams, gets married and lives happily ever after is not a very interesting story (unless you are three years old). A Princess grows up overcoming the eccentricities of her parents, meets the Prince of her dreams who turns out to be a monster, but the Princesses’ pure love helps the Princes overcome his Monstrous traits, and they marry against the wishes of their parents and friends, is much more interests. Add that the two families are monstrous rather than the prince and you have Romeo and Juliet, turn pure love into obsession and you have Twilight.
It is all about what your characters have to overcome that makes your story interesting.
Without complications, objections, and hurdles for your characters to overcome, your story will fall flat, because all stories are about how humans overcome conflict.  In fact, the more difficult you make it for your characters the more interesting your story will become.
 Try sketching out simple, three line, plots:  a premise, a complication, and a climax.  The more you practice plot writing the easier it becomes, and sooner or later you are going to hit on that original plot that you cannot get out of your head and which turns into your next story.
Let me know how you get on and please share any questions, ideas or techniques.

11 January 2012

What I'm currently reading

Future Babble, by Dan Gardner: great essays on how the human mind works and can deceive us, but could have been said in a third of the space.

Scrivener's Moon, by Philip Reeve: The third of the Fever Crumb series and the best so far - Mortal Engines back on form. Of all the Philip Reeve books I've read, including the brilliant Here Lies Arthur, this is the first where the story hasn't flagged in the middle.

The Purpose Driven Church, by Rick Warren. Great management tools and concepts for church growth, that fit with our own concept of the 'Fuzzy Fringe'. Very American and corporate in feel, but some useful tools and ideas that can be transposed into an English rural parish with a bit of imagination and a large shoe horn.

28 April 2011

Vampires v Normal Character

If you are one of those people who despise vampires, you may be perplexed as to why vampire stories are still so popular. I think there is more going on with these stories than first meets the eye, and I think is has something to do with the nature of good stories.

While vampires occupied the classic good versus evil horror slot they were monsters, an expression of the animal within all of us, something other than human, a supernatural threat.

Move the vampire into the romance role and suddenly you have something else. Not only have you mashed together the horror and romance genres, but you automatically have characters full of internal as well as external conflict, and as we know already, conflict is the essence of a good story telling story.

These characters are constantly trying to reconcile their animal and human natures, protect the ones they love not just from others, but also from themselves. Often, their nature is secret from other characters which creates all sorts of conflicting emotions and conflict situations with their human loves – not to mention reader and character reveals. Also, of course, you have the classic romance scenario of forbidden love between a human and a non-human.

In short then, vampire characters come ready made with a whole suit of complex conflicts and contradictions, saving the author a lot of time, effort and thought because everyone knows what to expect.

The same effect can be tracked with the superhero phenomenon. Superhero’s came back into vogue once film makers started exploring their essential character contradictions. Now it is almost expected that any superhero will have a darker side, and as a person will be totally screwed up.

So, if you hate vampire stories, you now know what you have to do: create unique and compelling characters with loads of internal and external conflicts. Not a very easy thing to do, but worth the investment of time and energy, because these sort of characters generally occupy unique and compelling stories.

22 April 2011

Writing spaces

I’ve moved into a new writing office. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I have moved out. Now the spring is here, with some decent weather, I’ve taken to driving into the forest, walking to a shady spot with the laptop, and writing for an hour or two. For some reason, now that I’m at home more often, I find it easier to concentrate on writing when I’m out of the house. Here’s a picture of the new office, free-range horses and all.

19 April 2011

I Love Wattpad.com

I am officially addicted to Wattpad.com. Writing for an audience is both thrilling and pressurising. Nina Swift has over 2000 page reads so far and 77 official fans. It’s great having an audience read your work as you produce it, but also, they need feedback on their own writing and a regular feed of uploads – at least once a week, preferably 2 or 3 per week as I only upload 500 words at a time.

Working the fan-base takes about an hour a day, which is in addition writing.

From a discipline point of view, I need to write often enough to keep at least one chapter ahead of what I’m posting for my fans – that means draft, re-write and one edit. All this discipline is forcing me to get on with completing the Nina Swift novel which is good

Expediency has forced me to streamline my writing technique to become much more efficient. I now draft a new chapter into a notebook, re-write onto the laptop, and edit only once before posting/publishing.

Did I say I love Wattpad? No, well I do, and I’m addicted to it too.


18 March 2011

Space school is brilliant. Writing science fiction for younger children is challenging, I should know, I’ve been trying to do it for years, but in Space School, Tom and Tony Bradman achieve it in entertaining style. The setting is small enough for a young child to relate to: school life aboard a small space ship. The reason for being on the space ship is simple and plausible to young minds: the remnants of humanity have had to flee earth because of pollution. The stakes are high: the families aboard the Buzz Aldrin may be the only ones left as they have lost contact with the rest of the ships.

The story focuses on the relationships between Luke and his Mother (Captain of the Buzz Aldrin), and his two best friends, Yasmin, and Yori who just happens to be a computer genius. The characters are likable and engaging, and you care about them really easily.

The story is simple, straight forward, and not too complicated for a young child to grasp. It focuses on something a child could make happen with a solution in which a child could play a central part without being fantastical.

The writing is straight forward and easily readable, but at the same time, beautifully crafted, and easily assessable by the younger age group. Illustrations, descriptions, and explanations are contemporary and child focused.

I hope Tom and Tony Bradman can keep churning out these stories to fill that gap in the reading market for young boys that only Beast Quest seems to be tackling. Compared to Beast Quest, I think Space School is much better.

I’m impressed (ok, I admit it, I’m green with envy, this is the sort of story writing I would love to produce for my Jumpers series). I wish Tom and Tony all the best with this series, and will certainly be recommending it to friend’s children.