Writing Hack #5: How to stop meandering and write with purpose

Ever find sometimes when you’re writing that you go off on these tangents, introducing plots, sub-plots, even characters that just occur to you in the moment? Sometimes this meandering bears fruit but the majority of the time when you read it back the story’s gone all over the place. You like what you added but it doesn’t seem to somehow fit with the overall structure. Trust me, I’ve done it a LOT.

I was a meanderer. A serial meanderer. I couldn’t figure out why i couldn’t finish a novel, i’d get halfway through and wonder what the hell had happened to my brilliant idea and overall plot. So i’d abandon it, start another one. Then it happened again. And then a third time… That’s when I decided to do a Masters, to ‘tool up’ and learn some craft skills and techniques that could help me stay on track, become a better writer and FINISH. This tip is probably one of the simplest, but perhaps the most transformational to my writing. The advice was this: ‘write to a climax.’ I took this on a practical level to decide what the end of the scene would be first, even to write that bit first. I’d then go back to the start of the scene and write until I reached that climatic moment….Here’s what I found:

  • My writing was more purposeful: it became tight and felt like it was going somewhere.
  • There was less meandering and more economy. More coherence and more clarity.

When you think about it, it makes sense. everyone has read a page turner at one time or another or watched a film with a ‘cliffhanger’ in it. This isn’t a complex idea to grasp. What is a little harder to get your head around is that ‘writing to a climax’ doesn’t mean you have to write huge climaxes; cars crashing through cocktail bars or the mega twist when the protagonist realises they’e drunk the poison they’d intended for another. Climaxes can also be subtle, gentle. It’s the build up that gives the climatic moment meaning in retrospect, so if you write the final moment first, you are more likely to write a killer build up that maximises the payoff of that moment.

Give it a go! Here’s some prompts

So why not try it? You can easily change the ending anyway if you change your mind! If you’ve not got a novel to try it with right now, try with some of these climatic prompts you can use as an exercise.

  • She set down her keys on the coffee table, unwound the scarf from her head and cast her eyes around the lounge. ‘Well don’t just stand there, go and put the kettle on,’ she said.
  • Arms outstretched as if he were an angel, he waded into the howling sea.
  • ‘I love you too.’
  • Her phone vibrated in her pocket, she stole a glance at the screen and her breath caught in her throat. It was him.
  • Matty popped a chip in his mouth, nodded with obvious satisfaction and then took another. It was as easy as that.
  • ‘I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.’

The last two are taken from my People’s Book Prize shortlisted book Orca Rising, but you can make up any number of stories with those end points. Have fun!

CH

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Writing Hack #4 : Making your dialogue 3D using action and internal thought

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In last week’s blog post I talked about creating character depth, and the week before that about dialogue attributions. This week’s post combines a bit of both, developing dialogue further and at the same time bringing some subtle character depth. How do we do this? By having your characters active during dialogue, or in other words, have them multi-task.

“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.” Roddy Doyle

Life Vs Fiction

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In life, things rarely happen one thing at a time; you read the news on your phone while stirring your coffee whilst your stomach grumbles for your lunch. You doodle on a pad while talking on the phone. The contrivance of fiction is to actually tell things one at a time, word by word and sentence by sentence and for good reason. Imagine transcribing onto the page the full sensory experience of a single moment. How would you get across all the thoughts you have in a split second, what you’re hearing, seeing, smelling and touching? As a human you can experience all these things at once, but to accurately convey everything together in a sentence all at once? In the words of Macauley Culkin, ‘I don’t think so.’. 

Using action in dialogue

One way of imitating life and making your dialogue more three dimensional is to use action. Let’s look at an example. First, with no action – just flat dialogue with a bit of scene setting beforehand .

Dialogue, without action

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said. 

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

‘Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

‘All done here.’

Dialogue with action.

Now let’s check it out with some action and internal thought, same intro. 

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’ I ran my hands through it, letting her hair fall between my fingers, as light as sifting flour.

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said, turning the page of a magazine in her lap.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

Leah closed the magazine shut like a book. ‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said and weaved her hair neatly through into another plait.

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

It came out of nowhere and for a second i just stopped what I was doing. ”Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’ 

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

I gave her hair a tug, slightly too rough and wrapped the hair band around the bottom of the plait. ‘All done here.’

White ringed my wrist where the hairband had been to too tight. 

                                                              *

Notice the difference? We learn more about the characters, their personalities through some subtle, and maybe sometimes not so subtle action and internal thought. If we think back to dialogue attributions in writing hack #2, we can also just use action instead of an attribution. For example.

‘Now let me see,’ Danny scratched the back of his head with the blunt end of the pencil, ‘about two-hundred, maybe two fifty quid.’

Also, it’s important not to take one technique – like using action to animate dialogue – and apply it 100% of the time. Imagine reading a book where every conversation was animated with loads of action, it would feel a little laborious I think.  Interesting writing has a variety of techniques in it throughout. It’s the job and skill of the author to choose which technique and when to apply it. Using action in dialogue is just one weapon to have in your armoury.

Further reading: the wonderful science-fiction writer Nancy Kress has three books on writing and written fluently about this topic in particular. Check em out!

That’s us. Until next time.

CH


Writing Hack #3: How to get character depth

Think of your favourite ever novel or TV series. Now think about one or two of the main characters. They’re interesting right? They’re complex, like a real person? If you took that character out of the novel or off the screen and placed them in a setting of your choosing I bet you could predict exactly how they’d behave or react to certain events. That sort of character is called lots of things; a three-dimensional character, a character with depth, well-fleshed out, rounded, complex and so on.

But how do you make an idea in your head become this brilliant character? Of course there are many techniques but today let’s look at one writing hack that for me, makes the biggest difference most quickly.

Three contrasting character traits

Got a character in mind? In your head they are probably already complex. Don’t have a character? Well you can even start with the traits and a character may emerge around them. Let’s pick three contrasting traits and see where it takes us. Let’s say someone is;

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  • Submissive
  • Jealous
  • Hysterically witty

Now i’m imagining a girl with an older sibling who’s better looking, successful but is actually not as clever. Or a guy with an idiot boss whose job he is desperate for but isn’t quite bold enough to get. You’ll now start to see why there is often a debate about whether you can separate out plot and characters as separate concepts. They are intrinsically entangled. To a large extent, character is plot.

Using these three contrasting character traits as an authorial technique, the character has an instant level of complexity borne out of their competing emotions and desires. The key is to have contrasting emotions, one negative and two positive or vice versa. You have three positive or three negative key traits and you get a one dimensional character who’s just good or just bad – BORING.

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Breaking Bad as an example

Let’s take another example, but now someone from recent pop culture, like Walter White from the series Breaking Bad. For those who don’t know the premise, here it is really quickly: Walter is a nice as pie high school chemistry teacher with cancer, a pregnant wife and a disabled son and in some financial difficulty. Worried how they’ll survive after he’s gone, he uses his expertise as a chemist to manufacture crystal meth and enters the murky world of drug dealing to secure his family’s financial future.

Traits change as a character develops but at the start of the series before Walter truly breaks bad, what three key traits does Walter have? For me, he’s a…

  • Family man: Walter loves his family and feels a massive responsibility to safeguard their well being. He would do anything for them, in fact it’s that very thing that gets him into trouble.
  • Downtrodden genius: Walter is an under appreciated genius – his job well beneath his intellect. He also founded a startup that went into the financial stratosphere just after he left. He’s justifiably bitter about it, and to cap it all, he has to work at the car wash to supplement his income and even wash the cars of some of his rich students.
  • Liar: Walter is a pathological liar.

So someone who is a family man is also a liar. From just those two traits you can start to develop plot. He lies to his family. Why? To protect them. Thus we get conflict, intrigue. The third trait adds more depth; not just that Walter has a skill, but also that he’s been overlooked and under-estimated his whole life. Here’s his chance to prove people wrong.

Let’s recap

  • Picking three key contrasting character traits will add depth and complexity to your character.
  • Try to think of two positive and one negative, or two negative and one positive to create friction, conflict and intrigue.
  • Be specific with the traits. Being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ won’t help you. Think about what defines your character traits and ask yourself, why are they like this? In that, there is plot.

Got your three character traits? In next week’s post i’ll talk about how to best reveal  how your character has these traits; with direct action of course.

If you want to support me then grab a copy of my People’s Book Prize shortlisted spy thriller Orca Rising and review it on Amazon by writing something nice and colouring in all the stars 🙂 If you’d like some assistance with your writing why not check out my critique service.

Until then. Adios.

CH

Writing Hack #2: Dialogue attributions.

butlerAttributions should be like butlers, they’re there if you need them, but the best ones go unnoticed.

Here’s the thing. At school you may have been told to avoid repetition, and to use synonyms. While that is sound advice when trying to build a vocabulary, you can ruin good dialogue by following that rule. Let’s take a closer look.

Attributions

Attributions are where you want to ‘attribute’ a line of speech to a particular character. Like: 

‘Let’s go and see that movie,’ said Bill.

‘So you can just sit there and stare at pretty actresses all night? I don’t think so,’ said Carol.

When writing a novel, dialogue aerates the prose so you will end up writing a lot of it. The temptation to jazz it up comes to us all. Can I really just say he said, she said all the time? If you don’t, you might end up writing lines like this.

‘What!’ spat Bill.

‘You heard me and you needn’t look so bloody angry. I’ve seen you looking, don’t think i haven’t,’ Carol retorted. 

What’s happening now is, the argument is hotting up, it’s getting interesting, but i’m drawing a little attention away from it with a technical detail. I’m distracting you with flowery attributions. The interesting thing is the argument, its content and development and NOT the synonyms for ‘said’.

In a simple two way conversation like this between Bill and Carol, it’s actually better to not attribute at all once you’ve established the rhythm of who’s talking. If a new character enters, or there are more than two, you’ll find you need to use attributions more often.

‘When have I been looking? At who?’

‘When we’re watching the telly. When we’re out. All the bloody time. You’re staring at the pretty newscasters. You’re staring at the waitress at Orsini’s. At that trussed up–’

‘Guys?’ Samantha was at the door, holding her headphones, ‘I heard raised voices, is everything all right?’

‘Fine.’ Bill said. ‘Your mother and I were just arguing about what film to watch. Come on now Carol, grab your coat or we’ll miss the trailers.’

 Now you’re more focussed on the dialogue, rather than the attributions. And that’s how it should be. I’ll talk more about dialogue in other posts, like using action sometimes instead of attributions, but for now let’s do a quick re-cap;

  • Keep attributions simple and unobtrusive. He said/she said is fine, and a few variations (she replied/he yelled/she whispered etc. where appropriate.) Remember, attributions are like a butler – the best ones go unnoticed!
  • If you know intuitively who is saying the line of dialogue, either through their speech style or verbal tells, or simply because it’s their turn to speak, then you don’t need an attribution. It’s cleaner without.
  • The job of attributions is to make clear who is saying the line of speech. The reader shouldn’t need to work to figure out who’s talking.  The more people present in a scene, the more attributions you are likely to need. 

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