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Posts tagged ‘writers’

R is for … Reversal

Warning: this blog post contains spoilers. They will be called out, but the onus is on you to decide whether you want to continue and read a spoiler for a novel you haven’t read.

Now that’s out of the way, what is a reversal? A reversal can take many forms but is generally either a drastic change in circumstances for a character, or a change in direction for the plot. Reversals can help prevent your story from becoming predictable.

You could have a story where a man goes from rags to riches in a short space of time, changing his fortune (Brewster’s Millions), or one where the opposite takes place. Or, where an unreliable narrator turns out to be the ‘baddie’, after getting the reader to sympathise with them through the story.

One of the more memorable reversals I’ve read, was at the end of Lord of the Rings.

SPOILER ALERT

The spoiler will appear after the following pictures, so scroll at your own risk.

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black pen on white book page

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hardbound books

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pile of books

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If you’re still here, you’ve obviously either read the book, watched the films, or you don’t mind spoilers. All right, let’s begin.

For the whole of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the main plot follows Frodo Baggins and Sam Gangee. From the moment they set out from Rivendell, they’re on a quest to go to Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. Yes, there are lots of other plots happening all the way through, but this is the major plot line. One awful thing after another befalls them, but they make it through. At the climactic moment, Frodo stands over the volcano with the One Ring in his hand and … he can’t do it. Wearing the ring and carrying it have affected him to the point where he becomes convinced he can make everything better if he holds on to it. Of course, we know that this is how the ring works, and that if he doesn’t destroy it everything will be lost, but the ring is affecting his judgement and he decides he’s going to keep it. Oh Frodo! What a betrayal.

Then, out of nowhere, his own madness from the ring at the forefront of his actions, Gollum comes shrieking into view to try to take the ring from Frodo. He bites off Frodo’s finger (ring and all) before hurtling to his death in the volcano below. First time readers of the trilogy don’t see that coming.

We have more than one reversal going on here.

  • Frodo’s desire to do good is subverted by the ring, and despite knowing the importance of destroying it, he decides to keep it in the belief that, for him, everything will be different. He, where everyone else has failed, will wield the ring and become a benevolent ruler.
  • Gollum, the most pathetic character in the trilogy, saves the day. However, it’s not altruistic on his part; again, the ring is exerting its influence over him. His need for the ring drives him.

Of course, to make a good reversal work well, it can’t come as a total surprise. You have to lay a groundwork of subtle signs to mark the way for when you reach that point, without making it obvious beforehand. The trick is to make your reader think that the story is going to go one way (Frodo’s struggles to get to Mount Doom and his eventually reaching there), but also drop in enough foreshadowing for the reversal not to be completely out of the blue.  Tolkein does this by having Gollum tracking Frodo for most of the story. He’s seen following them down the river; he becomes their captive at one point, before escaping, so we’re used to seeing him turn up. And then there’s the line where Tolkein foreshadows everything by literally having Gandalf tell the reader what’s going to happen. This comes when Frodo asks Gandalf why Bilbo spared Gollum:

“And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.”

It’s cleverly buried in a conversation where we might not think much about it at the time, but here the scene is set for what ultimately takes place.

In my novel, The Lost Weaver, I have a similarly dramatic reversal take place in the climactic scenes. I’m not going to go into detail because the novel hasn’t been published, yet. You can bet, though, that I’ve both hinted at and misdirected all the way to that moment. I can’t wait to see if readers see it coming.

If I do it right, they won’t until it happens. And then they’ll say, ‘Oh! Of course.”

 

Keeping it simple

I see the advice ‘keep it simple’ a lot, and it’s good advice, mostly.

It’s also often misinterpreted, or misused, when it relates to writing.

Some people say it means using only small words, to be more easily understood. Others recommend small sentences, to avoid losing the reader in rambling prose. Others still, insist that it means to write without embellishment or much description, like Hemingway.

In all honesty, all of the above might work, or it might not. It’s more simple than that. When we say, ‘keep it simple’, all we mean is ‘make it easily understood’.

There’s nothing worse than being pulled out of a story by a writer’s failure to communicate clearly. Re-reading a sentence or paragraph, trying to work out what’s going on, is one of the number one reasons I will put a story down and probably not pick it up again.

It’s not always about vocabulary. You can expect the average reader to know what most commonly used words mean, and if they come across a less commonly used word, you can expect them to look up the meaning. It’s how I expanded my vocabulary, at least. Of course, using a lot of big, or unusual words, where the reader has to resort to the dictionary too many times, might become an annoyance. My advice would always be to use the right word for the job. That word could be ‘noise’ or it could be ‘cacophony’, depending on what you’re trying to convey.

It’s not always about sentence length, either.  In fact, varying sentence length is a good idea – it stops the prose from becoming monotonous. Don’t believe me?

This paragraph is made up of sentences of ten words. Not nine words, or eleven words, but exactly ten words. Count them if you don’t think I’m telling the truth. Tell me, have you noticed anything about the sentences yet. They’re all starting to become a little boring, aren’t they?

If we use sentences of a uniform length in an effort to keep them short, they start to sound the same and it’s harder to keep our attention focused. If we vary the length, it’s less noticeable. We can keep focus for longer. We follow the story instead of noticing the writing.

Sentence length can also be used as a narrative tool. If you want a relaxed, calm atmosphere, you can use longer sentences to convey a sense of tranquility, or of lingering in a moment. Your characters aren’t in a hurry if they’re stopping to admire the scenery and noticing small things like initials carved into a tree, or the way the tips of a willow’s branches brush the surface of the pond, like a caress. If your character is in danger, or angry, then short, terse sentences are key. They carry the action. They set the tone. Fragments work too. Especially. Just. One. Word.

Keeping it simple is not about using less description, either. How much description to use depends a great deal on the story itself and the mood you want to set. If you want to create a picture of a stark room, you’ll use language that conveys that picture. White, unadorned walls. A couple of bare wooden chairs. A cold tiled floor. No curtains, bare bulb, etc.  If you want to create a picture of opulence, you’d probably go into more detail and talk about how the rich fabric of the curtains hung, or the sparkling chandeliers, polished marble, lavish upholstery.

Perhaps we mean the plot? Well, yes and no. Some plots are quite linear, some twist and turn all over the place. Both are enjoyable and both have their good and bad points. What all kinds of plots have to do, however, is make sense. Don’t show the character having a fear of deep water in act one and then have them swim across a river in act two, unless there’s a good reason for doing so (like their arch nemesis has chased them to a river bank and they have nowhere else to go).

So, how do we ‘keep it simple’?

We use the right tools for the job. The right words to paint the picture you want the reader to see. The right amount of description to set the scene, the right sentence length to set the pace. Make it understandable. Read the sentence aloud – if you trip over it, your reader is going to trip over it. Make sure the punctuation is correct. Make sure the word you use conveys the exact meaning you want to give. Make sure that you, the writer, don’t get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell.

I can imagine that you’re reading this and thinking ‘this isn’t simple!’ and you’re right, it’s not. But that’s the trick. We, the writers, do all the hard work so that all the reader has to do is read.

J is for … Journal

penThere’s something satisfying about writing things down. Not typing onto a computer; the act of physically, taking a pen and writing something down. I used to do this a lot when I was younger, before I had a computer, or a typewriter (yes, I’m old enough to remember those). I would sit and write in notebooks all the time. Writing stories, or just my thoughts.

 

Even those terribly emo poems I wrote as a teenager, about love and death, and how miserable life was.

It wasn’t just creative writing. It was a way of taking the emotions I was feeling deep inside and examining them in the light. Why did I feel that way? Was it me? Or was my reaction to something justified? Sometimes, simply writing it all down allowed me to get it off my chest and move on. It allowed me to talk through the things I didn’t feel I could discuss with anyone. Most of the time, though, it helped me to work through my issues and realise they weren’t as bad as I thought, or simply not worth the attention I was giving them.

Somewhere along the line, I discovered that I could write more with a computer because my fingers flew over the keys and I could write as fast as I could think, and that was that. I stopped writing journals. I would write emails or forum posts to the people who made me angry, and then delete them without sending. That became my catharsis. Sometimes, I’d actually hit send, or post. This is never a good idea, because you always end up being the jerk, regardless of how justifiable your anger felt at the time. Nine times out of ten, the other person isn’t trying to wind you up, or deliberately stamp all over your feelings. They’re simply oblivious, and you having a melt down in their inbox, or on a forum, is the first clue they get that there’s a problem.

It’s the same on social media. You say exactly what you think at the time and ‘boom’, it’s out there. Often before you’ve had the opportunity to examine why you feel that way. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. In fact, once it’s out there, it’s out there forever. Even when it’s embarrassing.

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Especially when it’s embarrassing.

 

 

Where was I? Oh, yes. Journals. I’ve started writing by hand again.  I explained my reasoning in this Medium post but in a nutshell, I discovered that writing by hand helped me follow a conversation better while taking notes for work meetings. I then discovered that writing by hand helped my creativity while writing fiction.  I’ve started writing new scenes by hand in a notebook and then transferring them to the computer to edit them there. It’s working well so far, as I plough through a major rewrite of my novel. Where I’d been struggling to keep the momentum going before, I’m writing at a good pace at the moment.

I can write anywhere with a notebook. Sometimes it’s just to jot down a thought before it’s forgotten. Others it’s to write a whole or partial scene. A character sketch. An overheard snippet of a conversation that might work well in a story (or spark a story). Anonymised, of course. Or a reminder of an idea that could turn into something bigger when I get the chance to mull it over.

I keep a notebook with me all the time now, along with a pack of those little note tags, so I can mark the spot where I wrote about a new idea, alongside a spot where I wrote a new scene for the novel.

I have a special notebook at home for writing down those things that bother me. It’s a purpose-made one that a friend bought me and it’s especially for those ‘why are people like that?’ moments. Some days I use it more than others.

I also have a notebook that I keep in my desk at work for work-related things: to-do list, upcoming things to think about, reminders to check for responses to my questions, notes from meetings.

Writing by hand is also having another beneficial effect; it’s improving my handwriting. I’ve been using fountain pens to write with instead of ball-points, and it slows me down and makes me write more carefully. After a couple of decades of typing virtually everything, my handwriting was awful. It’s still not the best but it’s improving all the time.

Being off the computer more, is also helping my peace of mind. Less social media, less procrastinating, fewer opportunities to get drawn into a futile argument with someone I don’t know over something I have no control over. I know things are awful, politically, but arguing with people on the Internet isn’t going to make any difference. I’m not going to change anyone’s political outlook with a pointed tweet, no matter how pithy I think it is. That doesn’t mean I don’t think I can do anything, just that I should focus my energies where I can achieve something.

So yes, I heartily recommend buying notebooks and journals. Take your writing with you wherever you go. Write wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. And get those negative thoughts out where they can’t fester. Examine them honestly and work through them.

Thanks for reading. Now I’m going to go write in the sunshine.

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D is for Dialogue

talking

Dialogue is essential to most fiction. Unless you’re writing a monologue, your characters are going to speak to one another, because – let’s face it – without dialogue to break it up, you’ll end up with pages and pages of narrative, which can be a daunting prospect.

Dialogue needs to carry the story forward just as narrative does, however. Readers won’t stay interestested in people who are just passing the time of day, unless there’s a reason for them doing that. Showing conflict through dialogue is a good way to show the reader who your characters are without spelling it all out in the narrative.

First and foremost, dialogue needs to be easy to follow. So, how do we do that?

Without attributes, your reader isn’t going to know who’s speaking.

“You’re just like your mother.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Of all the rotten things to say.”

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.”

“Oh, well that’s all right then.”

We have no idea who’s speaking, or how many speakers there are. To attribute the dialogue to a particular speaker, we use tags.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said.

“What?” Bill said.

“You heard me,” Jenny said.

“Of all the rotten things to say,” Bill said.

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.” Jenny said.

“Oh, well that’s all right then.” Bill said.

What do you think? It seems a bit repetitive, doesn’t it? That’s because we’re using the same tag for every line of speech. As with every other tool in the writing box, repeated use of ‘he said, she said.’ is noticeable and becomes monotonous.

One mistake that beginner writers often make (I know I did it, a lot, when I first started writing), is to use descriptive tags like ‘screeched’ or ‘bellowed’, or adverbs to qualify how something was said. Again, like all writing tools, they are fine when used sparingly but shouldn’t be peppered in to vary speech.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said, cheerfully.

“What?” Bill said, defensively.”

“You heard me,” Jenny quipped.

“Of all the rotten things to say!” Bill snapped.

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely,” Jenny said, facetiously.

“Oh, that’s all right then.” Bill said, amiably.

What do you think? Did that make you cringe? It did for me. While none of it is technically wrong, it’s not great, either. It’s far better to show the reader how the characters are acting or feeling through what they do and say, rather than using adverbs or descriptive tags.

Let’s change it up a bit and add in some actions.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said.

Bill put down his newspaper and folded his arms across his chest. “What?”

“You heard me.” She began rummaging through the desk drawers so that he wouldn’t see the smile on her face.

“Of all the rotten things to say!”

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.”

Bill grinned and let his arms drop to his sides. “Oh,” he said. “Well that’s all right then.”

As you can see, the mixture of actions and speech tags stop it from becoming a page of ‘he said, she said.’ Also, if you notice, I switched the tags around, using them at the beginning or the end of a line of dialogue, which also helped to break up the repetition.

I also varied the length of the sentences. This is something I try to do in narrative and dialogue. If you consistently use the same length of sentence, it becomes noticeable and uniform, which grows tedious to read.

There were two lines where I didn’t use any tags at all, because I’d established whose mother they were discussing. It was easy to tell who spoke in those instances, so no tags were needed.

We can see Bill getting defensive and then relaxing when he realises Jenny is teasing and means it as a compliment. Using action tags helps to create more of a visual sense of the scene in the reader’s mind than simply saying ‘Bill snapped’ or ‘Bill said, amiably’.

The exchange lets us see the relationship between Jenny and Bill. She is playful and he, while going straight on the defensive, is quick to relax when he realises she’s teasing. They obviously know each other well.

The nuts and bolts

As well as being able to write convincing dialogue, we also need to be able to punctuate it correctly.  Here are a few hard and fast rules.

Always keep the punctuation inside the quotation marks

“Of course, I’m not going to tell you,” he said.

She regarded him from under her lashes. “Well then, I hope you enjoy last night’s cold pizza. Because I’m not making your dinner.”

“Then you’ll eat cold pizza too.” He shrugged.

She laughed, picking up her car keys. “Wrong again. I’m meeting Mary for dinner and drinks in town. Don’t wait up.”

Always start a new line when a different person speaks

Jane and Tania both shopped at the same supermarket. On one occasion, they both arrived at the same time.

Jane held open the door. “After you.”

“Thank you!” Tania said, hurrying through.

“Sucker.” Jane stuck out her foot between Tania’s, sending the other woman tumbling to the floor. “Maybe that’ll teach you not to spread nasty rumours about my mother.”

Tania scrambled to her feet. “You’re Heather’s daughter?” She took a step towards Jane and then appeared to think better of it. “I should have known, you’re just as obnoxious as her.”

“And just as protective of the ones I love. Leave her alone, or next time I won’t go so easy on you.”

Dashes and ellipses

When we’re speaking, we don’t always finish a sentence. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been interrupted, or maybe we’ve trailed off because we can’t remember what we were going to say, or because we realise something as we’re speaking.

To show this in dialogue, we use dashes or ellipses.  Dashes are for when something stops us from speaking, like someone interrupting, or something happening.

Lucy picked up a pillow and hugged it against her.

Danny said, “why do you always have to be so bloody argumentative? I only asked—”

The pillow hit him on the side of the head.

“You asked a question when you already knew the answer, because you knew it would provoke me into an argument,” Lucy said.

Ellipses show speech trailing off.

“Are you going to apologise for throwing that pillow at me?” Danny asked.

Lucy raised an eyebrow. “You really expect me to apologise after you provoked me?”

“Well, yes,” he said. “I could have been hurt. You could have …” He stepped back as Lucy picked up another pillow.

That’s it for this week. Remember these tips for writing effective dialogue and you’ll do just fine:

  • Mix up your tags but keep them simple
  • Vary the length of dialogue lines
  • Start a new line for each speaker
  • Use proper punctuation
  • Make the dialogue carry the story forward

Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything