Setting as Part of Story
You want readers to feel like they’re in the world of your story. When the character enters a place, you want the reader to feel like they too have entered that place.
How you do this would seem fairly straightforward. You describe everything the character sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches, right?
But you may have noticed that while description of setting in a good book is immersive and entertaining, when you write something like that in your own story it can often feel longwinded and unengaging.
You paint a clear picture of the world but it’s like you’re not actually in the picture, you’re just viewing it from a distance. So how do you close that gap so the reader is pulled into the setting rather than skimming over it?
Status as Character Calling Card
The main character in a story will tend to have something about them that marks them out. They need to be distinct from everyone else just as a matter of practicality. It might be a special skill or ability—they’re the best at what they do—but it could also be a behavioural or psychological thing. A character who’s good-hearted or brave or willing to sacrifice or whatever.
While their job or social standing will give the reader a rough idea of the kind of person the story will be about, it’s this unique quality, this thing that marks them out, that gives them their true status. It is also what makes them appealing to read about.
However, while you as the writer may have a very clear idea of what’s so great about the character, the reader doesn’t. And letting them in on it halfway through the book is not going to do you any favours.You have to win them over in the first few pages. So how do you do that?
A Protagonist’s Moment of Realisation
At some point in a story a character will realise that he’s got to do what he’s got to do. There’s no turning back.
This can happen at any time. On the first page, just before the climax, or anywhere in between—it doesn’t really matter as long as it makes sense within the story. The important thing is for the reader to see this moment so they understand how the character feels and why.
It isn’t enough to just assume the character’s reasons will be taken for granted or accepted without question.
Lifting Characters Off the Page
Sometimes a character is born fully-formed. You know them as well as a member of your family and you don’t need to figure out what they think because they’re more than happy to tell you.
Other times, the character just sits on the page, lifeless and uncooperative. You can write up a biography, have a folder full of background details and still they’re no more alive than a robot.
Creating a character that’s more than just a bag of bones is key to making a story live and breathe. But characters don’t always appear with an interesting personality and unique voice all ready to get the adventure underway. You can give them all the quirky habits and dark secrets you want, but when it comes to carrying the story from your imagination to the reader’s, something feels a little flat.
So, how can you get your characters to talk to you, and how do you make sure that what they have to say is worth reading about?
Three Goals for Every Character
You can break down each character’s goals into three types: professional, private and personal.
‘Professional’ refers to the job that needs to be done. A monster has to be killed, a treasure has to be found, a wedding has to take place etc. This physical goal drives the main story and gives the hero something to do.
‘Private’ is something that characters want for themselves. It may not be the main focus of the story as it doesn’t necessarily affect other characters, but a character that only acts out of pure altruism and self-sacrifice is both unrealistic and a little annoying.
‘Personal’ is more about the psychological needs of the character. Whatever flaws or hang-ups the character might have (and he should definitely have some), there will have to be a resolution or understanding reached at some point in the story. This aspect is often the most rewarding and satisfying in a novel, but also risks being the most clichéd and obvious.
These three elements are often very closely linked and intertwined, but they can also be very separate. Both approaches have their advantages and their disadvantages.
Where Is Your Story Headed?
When asked if he knew the ending when he started a story, E. L. Doctorow said of his process:
It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
Taken in isolation that quote can seem very freewheeling and unfettered. The romantic idea of novel writing often has this sort of outlook: just set off and every time you come to a fork in the road just choose whichever path seems most appealing.
Sounds great but this is a somewhat disingenuous view of storytelling that can lead to dead-ends and pointless detours. Even the most improvisational of writers usually know the ending they’re aiming for (even if they’re not always consciously aware of it).
It’s not often you get in your car without having a destination in mind.
But at the same time, just because you know where you want to go doesn’t mean you know what you’re going to find when you get there. What it give you, though, is a framework to help create a cohesive narrative rather than a random sequence of events that might come together through happenstance and good luck.
The Long and Short of Writing the Middle
For most of us writing the middle of the story is the most difficult part.
The middle is where insecurity tends to rear its ugly head. Is this story going anywhere? Are these characters going to hold anyone’s attention? Is it believable what I’ve got them doing?
Regardless of whether you’ve planned things out meticulously or are winging it, these insecurities usually boil down to one of two concerns:
1) Is it too short?
2) Is it too long?
It may appear that feeling the bulk of the story is rushed or that it is too drawn out are completely separate and opposite problems, but in fact they stem from the same root cause: what you’re writing isn’t holding your interest.
The Best Way To Improve Your Writing
There’s only so much you can get out of preparation.
If you want to teach someone to swim there’s certainly no harm in explaining the basics to them and giving them an idea of what to expect, but when it comes down to it there’s no substitute for getting in the water.
In fact, explaining nothing and giving them a shove is often the best method. Certainly the quickest.
Will they panic and flail around making things worse? Most likely, yes. But they’ll figure it out. They won’t drown (even if it feels like they’re going to).
With writing—and pretty much everything else—preparation only gets you to the edge of the swimming pool. The rest you can only learn by diving in.
The Logic of Illogical Characters
It is often suggested that when writing fiction you don’t want to tell your audience the answer is 4, you want to put 2 and 2 in front of them and let them work it out.
This is a powerful way of getting them involved in the story. If they’re putting things together in their head then they’re participating in the narrative, which is what you want.
But the way logic works once people are involved is not always the same as it works in mathematics.
Sometimes 2+2=5, and when you put that in front of your audience they will want to know what the hell you mean and demand an explanation. And there’s nobody more involved than someone wanting answers.
Using Deadlines To Get That Story Finished
If you happen to be feeling very motivated and enthusiastic about your story, then sitting down and writing it isn’t going to be a problem.
When you’re writing as fast as you can and all synapses are firing you really don’t need any particular structure or technique to your process. You write until you can’t write anymore, and then you get up the next day and do it again.
In a perfect world with plenty of free time and no distractions there would be no excuse for not getting those words onto the page. But things don’t always work out that way and most of us find plenty of reasons to give up and watch TV instead.
One method you might find useful if, like me, you’re not always delighted by the prospect of sitting at the computer with no end in sight, is to set yourself deadlines. Not just one, but many.