Zen And The Craft Of Writing
When I first started writing fiction I read a lot of books about how to write. How to write attention grabbing stories. How to engage emotionally with the reader. How to keep the story moving forward. The inciting incident. The danger of excessive adverbs. Why you should show instead of tell.
I’ve read widely enough to have a fairly well developed sense of taste. I know when something’s really good. I know when something’s bad. I know when it isn’t quite working.
The difficult part though is knowing what needs to change, and how to change it.
The Little Reasons A Story Works
It’s not enough to have something dramatic happen in a story. The reason why it happens is also important.
In terms of impact on a reader, there’s a big difference between a character getting upset about losing their house to the bank and getting upset because their favourite tv show got cancelled.
What happens keeps the reader interested in the short term. Why it happens is what keeps them interested over the course of an entire novel.
Starting The Story In The Middle
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.
Forcing Readers To Like Characters
The story you’re writing may have the kind of lead character that people automatically root for. He may be a good guy doing the right thing; or a decent woman trying to sort out something that needs sorting. Heroic behaviour and overcoming adversity can bypass the whole need to tell the reader this is someone to cheer on. It’s obvious.
But they might be a little more complex than that. Maybe flawed, maybe even a bit awkward. Or they may not get to their heroic moment until much later in the story. How do you get the reader on board as quickly as possible without having to add ‘stick with it, things get good later’ at the bottom of each page?
2013 For Book Lovers
Sometimes I’m reading an ebook and I’d like to flip forward and see how many more pages till the end of the chapter. But I can’t.
Or I might be on a train and see someone reading their Kindle or Nook, and I wonder what book they’re reading. Bu there’s no way to tell.
Then I pull out up my own Kindle from the inside pocket of my jacket, with over a hundred books on it, and a bunch of comics, and even a couple of WIPs, and I think, it’s probably a fair exchange.
Making Scenes Interesting In The Now
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.
Dramatic Action Is More Than Doing Stuff
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.
When A Scene Isn’t Working
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.
What Episodic TV Teaches Novelists
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.
Episodic Storytelling Is A Problem
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.