Category Archives: Change as a function of character

Self Editing: Eveything you need to know

I had planned a post at some point similar to this, but when I read the talented Sharon Zink’s page I decided to share it.

Sharon is an amazing writer and I have had her on my blog. She also does the same job as me in that she offers manuscript appraisals; the same level of detail.

So I decided to share this link because it really is a masterclass in writing and everything on here is exactly the kind of thing I say to clients all the time when I assess their manuscripts…

Take heed fellow scribes!

I am now about to write the homecoming chapter on Pelicans… this is exciting, it’s the final chapter when we reveal the last of the missing pieces… and it’s raining so I am loving the sounds of rain on the roof as I write! The morning goes pitter patter… ❤

Have a wonderful day everyone!

http://sharonzink.com/writing-tips/all-first-drafts-are-sht-so-heres-a-masterclass-on-self-editing/

 

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Further thoughts on back story

What is the function of back story?

Were you paying attention last time?

Many might say that it explains the character, that it’s essential to enable the reader to understand why a character is behaving as he is (motivation). Yes absolutely true. But don’t forget, and this is the crucial bit, it  has to be woven seamlessly into the plot in a way that feels as if it’s almost invisible. The reader imbibes back story as they discover character, notice how they react, behave and through the carefully placed memories that motivate or foreshadow key moments.

And here’s my further thought — could it be said that back story isn’t to provide answers — but to provide questions?

There lies the essence of the good hook — right?

Have a great day.

 

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Getting into Character

I find myself this week back in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco and then climbing the dizzying heights of Pacific Heights and down to Pier 39. Contrasting neighbourhoods. No I have not jetted off to the states again (more’s the pity) but am back in the minds of Frank and Richard in the next novel. It’s already had a fair polish but needs some overhauling and the ending is in my head but not on a page. So here I am back there. What these characters are telling me is I know Frank’s voice really well (ex con, hard but soft) and Rich is more of a challenge as he is a bit of a bumbling prof recovering from a mental breakdown.

So for me to be suddenly back with these guys feels like a real treat. I have done a lot of work on this one but now I think it’s time to get to sorted. It’s pacey and psychological this one, darker too.

Because I’ve been to San Francisco a few times, one in particular on a fact-finding mission for this book, I feel more comfortable than perhaps I Am Wolf where I have never been to Alaska or Moscow. One of things we did in San Francisco five years ago (see I said I had been working on this for a while) was walk in Golden Gate Park, ride the amazing carousel that is in the novel and wonder where a body might be found near the carousel. Yep really. But what you can’t capture from Google earth are smells and the feel of the place. So I also had my notebook and asked what scents I could pick up on — get a feel for the place in the early morning. What I love about San Francisco is the fog, very atmospheric, right?

So I must leave you now to get back into character. While Frank has his issues — and so does Rich although I think your sympathies are with him from the get-go, Frank is the likeable rogue  and so I hope all of that comes across. Well — I will have to make sure it does. Being a writer is like being a character actor.

 

AlcatrazIsland

Have a great Wednesday, y’all!

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‘Trying to write a story without structure is like trying to invent an airplane without wings’

Yeah it’s a long title and one I plucked out of a book on writing, to be precise Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brookes. *recommended*

He says that no matter how you get there — be it with lot of plotting or through what arises organically through drafting, and whether you know it and think about it as you write or have  natural instinct for what works, structure is essential. Without it the house falls down or the plane doesn’t fly. And even if the architecture is lavish, akin to great writing, beautiful narrative, without structure you have no story. Right? I’ve said that before.

Like a natural law of the universe.

So let’s see writers if he has something new to say …

If the structure isn’t right, he claims, then you fill find it impossible to sell your work — yeah that’s what he says. He says that while experimental structures are interesting, keep the for the lit class not the novel or screenplay you’re trying to sell!

What he talks about is the adaptation of the three-act structure we see in plays — but it’s what we call the 4-part model, and for those who have worked with me professionally you’re recognise this more like the story arc I provide for those struggling with the plot.

Brookes talks about how every story in the world needs to adhere to this structure or it is doomed to fail and this is what I say about the story arc. It’s the same thing essentially but he visualises it as four boxes — these contain the scenes and what happens  to the hero in each box is the result of evolution in a sense, growing — anticipation — foreplay — sex — climax :to use his more crude analogy.

But what he says that I think is important is that what happens in box 1 in the set-up when we meet the character is developed in box 2 and box 2 needs box 1 and box 3 needs box 2 etc. So it is like a child growing. But what does this mean in real terms?

Box 1: Set-up — establishes everything that will follow. It introduces the protagonist and its single mission is to lay the premise, to foreground the key conflict of the story. And only hint at the antagonism in the plot (what do I keep saying? Don’t burden the set-up with too much back story! Lay the foundations!)

The function of Box 1 is: to set-up the plot by creating stakes, back-story and character empathy, while foreshadowing the oncoming conflict.

While you will most likely have the first inciting incident, this is what will foreground the big major plot point. Brookes warns that establishing the conflict too early does not allow time to establish the back-story. I see this when I critique and while I love it when we start right in the action and this is a device that’s fine, you still need to back-track in places as you will see to explain it and sometimes this device, unless handled with skill does not work as well as it should.

The more we understand and empathise with the hero the more we root and invest our time wanting to go with them on the journey, so you need to set-up, but you also don’t need to overdo the back-story so it’s a balance.

Box 1 ends with the reader now engaged and understanding the hero and takes us to the edge of the threshold, the stakes are now raised to the point of no return. So now we have the first major plot point (not to be confused with the first inciting incident which may coincide or may be part of the set-up) — now the story truly begins.

Got all this?

Have I hooked you? This is what Box 1 does (akin to the first 25% of the story) — have a look at how this can be applied to your own writing or the books you’re reading.

And I will resume with the next part tomorrow!

I will get it next week! Second edition!

I will get it next week! Second edition!

 

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Believe in your characters … make them ‘shine’ …

I was watching the revered Stephen King on BBC Breakfast this morning, a rare interview and I have to say he is still the writer I would most like to sit down and  have a coffee with.

One of the things that I always say about his writing is his ability to write believable, yet flawed characters. Their success I think hinges on the fact we are all champions of the underdog, we fall for the characters and root for them. And as I tell my clients this is essential.

This message came across loud and clear in the interview I just watched as he prepares for his sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep. He was asked about Kubrik’s interpretation of Jack Torrance and the other characters in the film version of The Shining  and he confessed to not liking the film because it was ‘cold.’ He said there was an emotional detachment to the characters that he had not written in his book. In fact he said you have to ‘make the reader fall in love with the characters’. He wants you to feel warm. And he said, I thought interestingly, if the reader roots for them, they care about their plight and it’s easier to scare them. Or as he puts it so succinctly: Horror comes from love.

Great thought and I had something similar scribbled on the notes I have started making for my workshop in Bath on writing psychological thrillers. I don’t write horror per se but then it very much depends on what you define as horror. Salem’s Lot still sits up there as one of the scariest horror books for me and I don’t know I have the ability to scare in that way. But Dead Zone is my favourite because it taps into the human psyche  in a less overtly horror way and this is something I aspire to. In psychological thrillers it’s about taking the normal and creating around it the worst possible scenario, so the horror is real but more ‘of this world’ — so a missing child, a phobia, kidnapped, waking up not remembering who you are … etc. See what I mean?

I wasn’t going to blog about this today but I decided it warranted discussion while it was still fresh in my mind. As a writer I was very influenced by Stephen King, the way he not only has these memorable plots and great stories, but the reader becomes part of that world, wholly immersed and indeed rooting for his underdogs. I don’t think my characters have the issues many of his have, perhaps less disturbed although if I was asked to name one who most felt like a Stephen King character I would probably say my protagonist in Isle of Pelicans, awaiting a rework once I finish I Am Wolf, previously known as the Reluctant Clairvoyant — ex con, moves to San Francisco and the voices are back. He’s a good guy who got lost along the way.

But then again, aren’t a lot of our characters — doesn’t art not imitate life anyway?

While many might knock Stephen King for not being a ‘literary’ writer I still think he writes great stories, excellently and has the page-turnability I need from a good book. So Doctor Sleep is most certainly on my Christmas list.

I can only hope the characters you’ll all meet in While No One Was Watching are anyway near as good as his — but I have a feeling you will be rooting for them …

To whet the appetite …

 

Gunshots silence the world. Kennedy is assassinated. Fifty years on it’s a moment we all remember, even those of us who weren’t here.

But what if that’s not the moment you remember? What if you watched it all from the grassy knoll but when you turned around you have dropped your child’s hand … and worse, much worse — she’s gone. Now people are shouting and parents lay over their children to protect them. But not you. You were so caught up in the moment you forgot your own child. Does that make you a bad mother? Some point and run up the grassy knoll. Others say the gunshot comes from that big old building they don’t even know the name of … yet. But they will. Of course they will.

But you don’t. You don’t do any of these things because you stand still and you stare into nothingness. Your child is gone. But imagine far worse than even that, than even a dead President — imagine your child is still missing fifty years later. And it all happened while no one was watching.

So when people remember where they were and what they were doing when they those gunshots silenced the world — you remember something else. You remember it as the moment you opened your eyes and the world you knew was gone.

But why is Eleanor Boone still missing? What did she know?

Coming November 1st from @parthianbooks … I have a song composed especially for it to be released next month to go with the book trailer.

And the first edition cover is a special 50th anniversary cover … more on that soon.

Preorder now if you dare … LINK  … when you order King’s latest book …

 

 

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The moment when everything changes ….

The title of this post is a line plucked randomly from one of my many writing books.

Aptly it is something I often discuss in relation to plot when I work with clients.

Of course you all know change is the most important action of any key character in terms of both the character arc but also the story arc. Without change, is there even story?

But what brings about this change and how do you get there?

One of the common weaknesses in story is not so much a lack of change, although I do see this too, but it tends to be either a lack of real motivation for change and/or a lack of credible reason at the moment when everything changes — and these are different.

Let me explain.

I have come across stories where the motivation for a character to change is lost or ill-defined but how can you have a true story if you don’t know or you don’t believe what’s at stake? The conflict needs to be established early and it needs to be believable and as we ‘cross the threshold’ into the story (to coin Christopher Vogler’s much-used expression in The Writer’s Journey) then you will also need to crank up the tension, raise the stakes just at that moment so now the character has no choice but to — take the challenge, get the bus, confront the inner demon. This is fundamental to good story telling in any form or genre — be the conflict internal or external, small or large. The reader needs to believe the character and feel there is no other action ‘they’ can now take. And now we have mapped out an arc where we know the climax will be the point where ‘that’ question to be answered, ‘that’ conflict resolved in one way or another.

Of course this sounds simplistic (and yes I have talked about this before) but it’s how you do this that makes all the difference. The reader knows what’s to come but they don’t know what curve balls will be thrown along the way or what the outcome will be at that moment of resolution. Throw in strong believable characters and I can tell you one thing — the reader does know if they’re rooting for that character or not and what outcome they want, already. And they should or at this point they’re putting down the book! Note as well that we need the conflict as early as we can, stories that take too long to set it up can lose the reader before they get started!

So make sure you the motivation for action is defined enough — something really important (life changing even) has to be at stake for ‘that’ character.

So if you get this right, what about that moment when everything changes?

Well in a story with good subtext and character development the change begins with the journey just as we start to age as soon as we become adult! So the key plot functions will not just be how the character seeks his goal and overcomes his dilemma but in the way the events of the story start to change him or her. So by the time we reach the climactic scenes we believe why the character is now able to walk in a dark room, confront the enemy etc.  We believe it but it still needs more …

The biggest change has to be the one that pushes the character to ‘their’ limits at the key moment after which we head for the resolution and of course the ending, the homecoming usually shows the effect of this change afterwards.

Again this might seem to be a simplistic interpretation of the story arc — but that’s the point, it is simple and it should be simple. It’s from that you build the intricacies of the real story. What you don’t want is a character to have an unexpected change of heart at a key moment that breaks down and is inconsistent with everything we know about him so far.We need to have seen the gradual change and then the big one at the key moment. A sudden change of heart would only work (I think) if it has also been built into the character’s development and foregrounded. A flaw of the character but one we kind of see coming?

Now some of you might think this doesn’t apply to the more subtle more character-driven ‘literary’  story and it sounds more like a plot-driven dragon slaying adventure but you’d be wrong. That’s the reason for the inverted commas today for ‘that’ character and ‘their’ conflict. The story can be Harry Potter with a huge external quest where life and death stakes are there bold and clear, we know exactly what’s at stake. Or it can be subtle, internal, psychological but it can still be life and death for that character.  Remember my OCD story I talked about in the dim and distant past (probably not!) well all she had to do was press three odd numbers on a mobile phone — call 999. Hardly life and death for Harry potter or indeed most of us — but for her, it was and ‘that’ story set out to show that and make us believe why.

Whatever the form of the story when that pivotal moment comes — we need the reason for the change that brings about the resolution to be credible. If there is a change of heart we need to see why and buy into it completely.

Have a look at the books you’re reading and see how and indeed how soon the key conflict is established. How does the plot slowly change the character and what happens at the climax of the story?

Getting to grips with story is key to writing a good one — a memorable one, one that stays with the reader. It isn’t just about how you write it and those narrative devices. You need everything to work together.

Have a good one everyone!

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