Tuesday, 30 June 2020

If You Think It, You Can Write It!: The Dramatic Arc

You have listened to, watched and read stories since you were old enough to make sense of the sounds people around you were making. Therefore, the information in this chapter isn’t new to you, which makes it easy to apply it as a template to your fiction. Before breaking down the process and studying it in more detail in the next few chapters, this month’s post is a basic overview of how works of fiction are structured.

The Dramatic Arc

Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. All that that exists, including our own lives, the planet Earth, the solar system, in fact, the entire universe has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you think about ancient myths and legends, folk tales, fables, Greek tragedies, Shakespearean comedies and right up to the modern novel, you’ll find the this same structure exists. In fiction, we call this the dramatic arc, referred to in plays and screen writing as the three act structure.

beginning:     introduces setting, character & conflict
middle:          escalation of conflict leading to climax
end:               conflict resolution

Let’s face it, this not only sounds simple but downright obvious, so why bother to discuss it? Well, although this arrangement was originally described by Aristotle in his Poetics and expanded by Gustav Freyag to analyze plays it is, even today, the perfect framework on which to hang your protagonist’s journey and your story. Look at it like this: if scaffolding is properly supporting the construction of a house, when finished you’ll have a secure home.

Freytag’s Pyramid is an expansion from three acts into five: 

introduction/exposition:  introduces setting, character
rising action:                     introduces conflict, followed by escalation of conflict
climax:                              ultimate conflict
falling action:                    events/reactions after the climax
denouement/conclusion:  wraps the story up and life continues

Writers follow the 3/5 act structure because it works and, despite your best intentions, without it your creative streak may lead you into uncharted waters where you’re liable to sink and drown.

In the world of fiction, struggle and confrontation create tension which grips readers, leaving them eager to know what happens next. The drama can be internal or external, large or small, but each chapter increases the pressure, like the tightening of a screw, leading the reader onward. If your most exciting incident takes place in the first few pages and the rest of the novel is a drawn-out downhill cruise, there’s an excellent chance people will end up comatose instead of enthralled or put the book down and never touch it again.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a great example of how structure works. The book opens with Lennie and George arriving at a new farm for work with a brief reference to why they were on the move; the middle section shown them settling down and making friends with minor clashes and moments of joy along the way. The climax comes when Lenny’s friendship with the wife of the ranch owner’s son culminates in disaster; and a tragic end (linked back to why they left their previous place) reveals that George has to kill Lenny to save him from a worse fate.  

An important point to note is that these divisions are not necessarily of equal length. The introduction is a shorter section; the suspense builds over the course of the narrative to a climatic event, before tailing off in a final shorter section to the conclusion. Kurt Vonnegut creates a humorous visual in this short clip from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBIogLNFkV8

You will read novels where the action is dealt with differently due to the influence of Modernism (1). Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is less plot driven and the action, focusing on one day in Mrs. Dalloway’s life, is more subtle and internal, showing that dramatic arcs need not pivot around a grand sweeping event. The act might be a minor one—yet its effect on a character can cause significant changes. 

The dramatic arc is a tool. Learn how to use it, study how your favorite authors employ it, make it your friend and your novel will not disappoint readers.


Exercise 1: Using whatever method works for you, draw a diagram or write notes, work out the dramatic arc of your novel in as much detail as you can, checking that it corresponds to the analysis above. A visual representation makes it easy to spot weak areas in the plot and figure out where improvements will lift the story.
Exercise 2: (1) Modernism: reading this article will give you an insight into the development of the modern novel.
Exercise 3: Google 'dramatic arc', 'narrative arc' or 'three-act structure' and take your understanding and learning a step further by reading one or more of the large number of wonderfully informative articles on the subject. 
Stay well and stay safe. 
Sending lots of positive thoughts your way. 
Until next month, 
best wishes, 

Monday, 1 June 2020

If You Think It, You Can Write It!: Pantster or Planner

Before I begin Part Two, where the focus will be on structure, I’m taking a brief step to the side, so to speak, because how you approach this endeavor is something that needs consideration. Hence a chapter about this topic before going any further seems appropriate.
Pantster* or Planner
Knowledge of your protagonist's strengths and flaws has grown and you have given some thought to the antagonist and supporting cast. So what next? Maybe you have an idea of how your story starts—someone is falling out of an airplane/off a mountain, looking over their shoulder at the sound of footsteps behind them—you’re having flashes about the storyline, perhaps even the ending? Various scenes are popping into your brain, and you’re itching to be off. Not everything is clear but you’re ready to dive in because the excitement you’re experiencing demands you put what is in your head down on the page/screen now!

Press pause for a second.
The Pantster
For the pantster the journey is writing the novel, and the destination is a complete first draft.
Think of it like this: you decide to go for a day trip to a beach you’ve not visited before. You’re going via the scenic route because, while you have a goal and a rough notion of the route, you’ve also resolved to enjoy the trip. Grabbing your purse/wallet, phone, off you go; you can pull in at a service station for snacks and gas and at any place you choose to appreciate the view. You have no idea of the exact route or how long the voyage will be, but that doesn’t bother you.
The pantster doesn’t use a structured framework, and there are many successful novelists who write using this technique because it allows them to run with ideas as they arise. They relish not knowing where the adventure will take them, the freedom and sense of being connected to their creativity. They can change direction and go where inspiration leads them. The process is spontaneous and they feel closely in touch with their imagination.

The Planner:
In this context planning is preparation, but writing the story is the destination.
Having decided to make your trip, you’re excited but delay it until the next day because you want to find the shortest route and prepare a picnic for lunch. The goal is to have more time at the destination.
Outlining chapters and scenes is a path into the narrative that enables planners to know their characters and their history in more depth. An outline is a tool that maps out the main character’s journey, helps identify weak spots in the storyline and gives a comprehensive overview.
When planners begin their novel, having scrutinized character motivations and plot points, making sure they work, they can devote themselves to writing without having to stop or backtrack (there’ll be enough of that in the editing!). Once the inventive wheels are turning, a map can provide as much detail as you choose, freeing you to concentrate on writing because you already know what will happen.
Nevertheless, simply because you have a blueprint, nothing, other than your own reluctance, prevents a change in direction whenever you feel a character or the plot requires it. Nothing is set in concrete.
IMHO the difference between the approaches are not as dissimilar as they initially appear. I see the two styles as short-term and long-term planning. Both methods require patience: pantsters because they may discover they haven’t figured out all the angles of getting from point A to point B and can spend time with characters, storylines and scenes that, ultimately, contribute nothing significant; planners because taking the time to outline means restraining the impulse to immerse themselves in the thrill of writing that first draft for a while longer.


When I started my first novel, I pounded out the version I had in my head, but arrived at a place when I could see where I wanted to get to, yet it was as if I had to cross a fast-flowing river but no bridge existed. I had to pause and figure out how to bridge that gap then went on to the finish. These days, I plan from the beginning to the end, defining chapters, scenes and emotions. But that doesn’t mean I don’t change my opinion about some aspects once I'm writinghowever, I generally find the major plot points and the protagonist's journey are sorted. 

Ideas for stories can appear fully formed or as small seeds which need nourishment, and we either seize hold of them or let them go. Writing is a process which brings ideas to life through the creation of characters and events, and no creative activity can be reduced to one all-encompassing formula. 

An excellent motto is do whatever works for you. The more you write, the more you learn what suits you and, whether that’s pantsing, planning or a combination of both in varying degrees, that is absolutely fine. 


This month’s homework is reading (and thinking about the pros and cons of each method). 

1: This is an overview of various famous authors’ outlines. Most of these were done before the digital revolution, but the point is having a visual overview serves a purpose. 

2: James Patterson is a master planner. You can watch the video or read the transcript. Whether you read his novels or not, you can learn from this revealing insight into a successful writer’s method.

3.  Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method of Designing a Novel is extremely detailed, but it’s well worth taking the time to read what he has to say.

Stay well and stay safe.
Sending lots of positive thoughts and prayers your way.
Until next month, best wishes

*Pantster: derived from the phrase ‘flying by the seat of your pants,’ i.e. to decide a course of action as you go along.

Photo: Nordwood-themes-EZSm8xRjnX0-unsplash

Friday, 1 May 2020

If You Think It, You Can Write It!: Point of View

I hope the lockdown sees you all enjoying good health, getting out for your daily exercise and having plenty of time for your writing. Your story will demand dedication, but you may also find the world of your imagination is an addicting one.
This month's chapter deals with one of the biggest decisions you'll make about your novel and, as such, is one of the longer chapters. So, let's get started!

Chapter 4: Point of View

The Point-Of-View (POV) you select for your narrator is one of the more important choices you make as a writer because it has a significant impact on how you reveal events, and how readers perceive the people populating your novel.
In literature the term POV refers to the perspective, the lens, through which the story is told and dictates the pronoun. (A point to note is that while you, the author, are doing the writing, the narrator doesn't have to be you, it could be one of your characters.)

There are three POVs: first, second and third person. Let’s have a look at the benefits and complications of these different viewpoints.

First Person 
First-person POV is when the narrator uses the ‘I’ voice. 

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“I cast no shadow. Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count sleepers and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north.” Elmet by Fiona Mozley.
“We were going out to dinner. I won’t say which restaurant because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there.” The Dinner by Herman Koch.

The advantage of the first-person POV is that it gives an immediacy to what the narrator is telling us because we have intimate access to the character’s emotions and thoughts. If it is done skilfully, we feel everything they feel as they feel it. For a novelist it offers freedom to experiment with characterization and language; the latter is normally restricted to dialogue. In other words, you become the single-minded detective tracking the serial killer, the smart-mouthed witch with extra-potent spells, the fierce computer-hacker who struggles with social skills. Alternatively, you can use a fictional version of yourself .

One drawback of the first-person POV is the overwhelming focus on ‘I’  repeated on every page. One way to reduce this predominance is by alternating with descriptions of actions, other characters and the setting.

Another limitation is the partial vision, the one-sided view of whatever is happening which may turn out to be tedious. Including subtle actions and dialogue which contradict the narrator’s version, which they are is unaware of, offer a counter-narrative that readers pick up on, creating conflict and interest.

NB The first-person POV does not have to be that of the protagonist. They can be someone close to the principal character who is relating the events that took place, and how they were affected.

The second-person is the least common POV. In a second-person narration, the main character is referred to as ‘you’, a technique which confers the role of passive actor in the tale upon the reader.

“You want to be somebody else. You don’t know who this person might be; all you know is that she should be confident, beautiful, beloved.” The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella.
“You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.” The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
“It’s all yours. Your hands rise, fingers spread, ready to feel the firm scrape of the football, ready to pull it to you, ready to tuck it safely in.” Damage by A.M. Jenkins.

One benefit of the second-person POV is its ability to draw readers in, quickly engaging them in the character and their story. This POV often works for solitary, compulsive personalities who appear to be confiding their accounts to themselves, and for expressing the reality of a condition or circumstance shared by many.

A downside is that some people find the second-person POV challenging. You’re sad, tears fall, wetting your cheeks. “Nope. It’s a gorgeous day and I’m fine.”
This viewpoint can be demanding to maintain for the duration of the novel and shares the same issue regarding monotony as the ‘I’ in the first-person POV. Many authors who use the second-person POV offer points of view from other characters to provide variation. 

The advice I’ve come across about using the second-person POV is to become accustomed to writing in the first and third POVs before attempting this more distinctive approach. Yet…nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

The final, and most utilized, option is the third person POV which uses he, she or they. Within this category are three approaches you can employ:

Third Person Omniscient: the narrator knows everything about all the characters, events and places, including knowledge unavailable to those within the story.

“‘Good,’ said the boy, for he had no wish to tell the secret to his playmates, liking to know and do what they knew not and could not.” Further on in the same chapter, the following sentence is about another character. “She had tried not only to gain control of his speech and silence, but to bind him at the same time to her service in the craft of sorcery.” A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin.

The advantage is that we learn the ins and outs of all the relevant characters; appearances, likes, dislikes, history, etc., and the narrator can make observations and asides. This comprehensive point of view enables a writer to bring the reader into every aspect of the story.

Shifting Third-Person aka Third-Person Subjective Viewpoint
This strategy is adopted when a novelist decides to bring multiple viewpoints into play. With a reduced use of the omniscient narrator, this gives us access to the minds of two or more characters, showing their challenges and hopes.

“Later, in bed, he said, ‘Fran, there’s no need to worry. I’ll marry you. I said I would and I will.’
‘You needn’t,’ she said, pressing her hand over the place where the baby was. And he didn’t. Gone before the hair grew back. ‘Gareth, what do you want?’
Gareth’s thinking how ugly she looks, with her great big bulge sticking out. He wonders what the baby will look like.” Another World by Pat Barker.

To avoid confusing the reader, each speaker has to have a distinct voice, because changing viewpoint isn’t enough if the characters sound the same.

Third-Person Limited Omniscience: the narrator has full knowledge about the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind, but only reveals information about other people that the principal character possesses.
This is a popular POV used by many novelists because it enhances investment in the main character by revealing their thoughts and emotions, making it easy to identify with their struggles. All other characters and actions are filtered through the protagonist's perception of them.

“The islands just visible through the mist also looked like teeth, Faith decided. Not fine, clean Dover Teeth, but jaded, broken teeth, jutting crookedly amid the waves of the choppy grey sea.” The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge.

Third-person limited omniscience permits the writer to zoom in and expand someone’s internal monologue and to pan out and describe the world around them. 

Third Person Objective point of view: the narrator knows only what is seen externally and recounts it in a neutral, factual manner without bias and has no way of communicating what is going on inside anyone’s head. Every single thing is revealed through action and dialogue.

“It’s a Friday in early March and nothing has happened yet. Everyone is waiting. Tomorrow the Beartown Ice Hockey Club’s junior team is playing in the semifinal of the biggest youth tournament in the country.” Beartown by Frederik Backman.

This point of view works for those who enjoy a concise, less descriptive style of writing, although the impersonal point of view might result in writing that is spare to the point of clinical. On the other hand, this is an excellent challenge for a writer's ‘show don’t tell’ skills.  

I have great admiration for those who adopt first or second person. My favorite is the third-person limited omniscient POV as I prefer to identify with and reveal one individual’s inner self, yet be able to pull back and describe the surroundings and other people.

One essential point to remember, if you don't want to confuse and lose your reader, is be consistent.

As you write you may develop a favorite viewpoint which you then refine. Or you may decide to do something different next time and try out another POV. In writing, there is no right or wrong. There is only the story you are telling.

Exercise A:
Take a section of your WIP with at least two characters and rewrite it utilizing a different viewpoint from the current one.
Exercise B:
Using the same section of your WIP, rewrite it a second time, using multiple viewpoints.

When you finish, take the three different versions and compare them, consider the benefits of each POV and which works best for the character and the story.

My tip of the day: analyze the books you read and study how other authors tackle this subject—learn from the experts!

Stay well and stay safe.
Sending lots of positive thoughts and prayers your way.
Until next month, best wishes

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

If You Think It, You Can Write It!: Round & Flat Characters

I hope you and yours are safe and well and surviving this crisis without too much hardship. I was particularly moved by seeing how people—not just from one country, but from many—are publicly applauding their health workers on a daily basis. These men and women deserve every bit of support we can give, because they are our first line of defense in the war against the corona virus. 

Self-isolation, as many are required to do, is an austerity for a social species, yet boredom is often a prerequisite for creativity. So… if you’ve ever thought of writing a novel, this could be the perfect time to get serious. Check out the introduction and previous chapters and why not get started?

This is the final chapter dealing specifically with development of characters but, as you are learning, they are never far from a writer's mind.

Chapter 3: Round & Flat Characters 

When E. M. Forster used the term flat and round to describe characters in  Aspects of a Novel, he wasn’t referring to Laurel and Hardy; he was distinguishing between major and minor characters.

If the protagonist is a portrait painted with all the colors available to an artist, then minor characters are a simple black and white sketch. In one, the facial features and physical characteristics are defined, some areas are highlighted while others are shaded whereas, in a line drawing, the outline is there, the figure is visible but much less is revealed about them. 

Round characters are the key players in your story and are fully developed, possessing different facets to their personalities. They carry the plot, are central to the critical events and writers lavish hours of thought and deliberation, bringing them to life on the page; the focus is on them because, above all, they must come across as authentic.

Nonetheless, your protagonists and antagonists don’t live in a vacuum and the walk-on roles such as distant family members, garage attendants, doctors, etc., these are your flat characters. The number is as many as your story requires, and even though, these people may only appear briefly, they need to come alive in people's minds.

One method of making less important individuals stand out is to give them a specific detail or two along with an action, if appropriate. When you introduce them, describe in full at least one aspect of their appearance; a flamboyant way of dressing, a lopsided smile, corkscrew curls, a mustache that a man strokes—something which helps the reader recognize them when they reappear.

Charles Dickens was a genius when it came to inventing vivid details for his supporting cast. I still can’t hear the word humble without remembering Uriah Heap from David Copperfield with his repetitious ‘ever so humble’ phrase. Giving a minor character a physical or verbal tic, such as a particular speech pattern or idiolect, is another method of establishing them as memorable.

As readers we identify with the main character: their loves, hates, motivations and their journey. However, being playful with your secondary characters adds that extra dash of spice and flavor, creating more variety for your audience.


Writing Exercise 1: 
Using either the book you're reading or your favorite novel, study one or more minor characters, noting how the writer has made this person stand out.

Writing Exercise 2: 
If your have a WIP (work in progress), check that you’ve given your minor characters a distinct attribute or phrase and see if you can tweak them a bit more. If you haven't yet started your novel, create a minor character and spend five minutes describing them. Give them a definitive physical attribute or phrase.


Stay well and stay safe.
Sending lots of positive thoughts and prayers your way.
Until next month, best wishes

Photo: Fabian Irsara on Unsplash

Sunday, 1 March 2020

If You Think It, You Can Write It. Character: Digging Deeper

In the previous chapter we worked on increasing our understanding of the protagonist; their personalities are familiar, they have a backstory and we know how they look, what work they do, their hobbies, their loves, hates and quirks. In this chapter we'll be delving a little deeper into different aspects of what constitutes a character.  

Hero or Anti-hero?

The classical hero/heroine is portrayed as possessing the better human qualities such as courage, moral strength and idealism. An anti-hero displays a more unconventional set of characteristics: less charming, more idiosyncratic, less bound by the rules—has the appeal of the bad boy, the rebel without a cause.

If you compare Holden Caulfield with Jack Reacher, you find the first is young, inexperienced, gets himself into situations he can’t handle; the other, cynical and older, resolves difficult situations then moves on. Superficially they have little in common, but what they do share is they both perceive themselves to be alone and separate from what they consider to be mainstream society. We regard both as anti-heroes.

An anti-hero has a flawed nature. They may, like Holden, have unresolved issues, have a criminal past as does Jay Gatsby, or take the law into their own hands. The glamour of a Robin Hood, with his means justifies the ends philosophy, even though performing criminal acts, shows their enduring attraction because they also pluck at our heartstrings and win our sympathy. One of my favorite anti-heroes is Alec Leamus, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré, where the main character is a whisky-drinking, introverted and disillusioned spy. The lengths he goes to when serving his country, while simultaneously trying to protect the woman he loves, present a strong contrast to the high level of deception his profession demands from him.

Traditional heroes are bigger than life, yet we are also drawn to the maverick, the loner. The advantage of an imperfect protagonist is that it’s easier to feel empathy for them because we are also flawed and we experience the full gamut of emotions, including negative ones. In addition, as writers, we can take those weaknesses and use them as a tool for shaping a story.

So is your protagonist a hero or an anti-hero? How appealing are they? Do they have to be charming and likeable? Some of the most fascinating fictional creations are complicated, imperfect personalities.

Internal and External Conflicts 

Insider or outsider, we need readers to identify with the main character’s plight, and we do this through their emotional journey. In order to fully engage readers, you need to create an external and an internal struggle—one or the other isn’t enough. A space warrior battling aliens, knowing he might never embrace his wife and child again, faces a dilemma. Does he run to his family and focus on saving them and himself, or does he sacrifice himself for the greater good and never see his loved ones again? A woman on vacation with her best friend has a difficult decision when the friend’s husband tries to kiss her.  Does she reveal what happened and ruin the relationship (he’d deny it; her bestie may assume she’s after her man or envious and causing trouble) or ignore the incident and invent an excuse to end her trip as soon as possible. Exploring your character’s inner turmoil as they face an external quandary and decide which impulse, fight or flight, is stronger, draws the reader in. 

I wrote a short story, Eddie’s War, for an assignment on a creative writing course, but the tutor’s feedback explained how I missed a chance to increase Eddie’s dilemma as I’d only given him an external obstacle to overcome. Based on a real-life story from WW1, a soldier dashed across No-man’s-land and rescued a wounded solder after he spotted the man was still alive. I thought a battle provided plenty of confrontation, but after thinking about the tutor’s advice, I gave the revised version more impact by making the fallen serviceman someone who had gotten Eddie a very unpleasant punishment for a misdemeanor. This meant he had to save a person he had a grudge against, giving his actions more depth. Placing my character in the middle of the battlefield where he was dodging bullets and performing a heroic act wasn’t sufficient; he had to undergo an internal conflict.  

You can read the story on my blog here: https://bit.ly/2FunBow (Yes, I’m plugging myself here, and if you go the self-publishing route and become an authorpreneur, even if you’re an introverted hermit, you’ll find yourself doing the same.)

Think about the characters that made an impact on you.  Were they heroes or anti-heroes? Maybe add a little unpleasantness or self-doubt to your protagonist and think about how that could affect the events they'll experience.  

Exercise 1
Choose a book (or two or more) from the following list to read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_antiheroes  
Study the protagonist with an eye to analyzing their personality. List their flaws, observe how the author used those vulnerabilities to drive the plot and to make them more human. NB Liking the character is not a requirement, but developing a critical eye is well worth the effort. Learning from great writers can only help your own writing. 

Exercise 2
Give some thought as to how you might turn your character into an anti-hero. What traits would you enhance or remove? How would this affect their actions?
If your protagonist is already an anti-hero, place them in a scene or two where they would be forced to behave in a more traditional heroic way.  


Work hard, play hard and whatever you do, keep writing. 
Have a great month and see you all on the 1st - well, seeing as it'll be April, maybe on the second?

Photo: unsplash, Zan @zanilic



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