"Fiction Writer’s Cheat Sheet."
Anonymous asked: There are quite a few books out now about dystopian governments. Do you personally think, or any of your followers think, a book about a cult would be interesting? The dynamics of a cult are similar but different from a government, so it could be the main form of leadership. It would be a young adult type novel. I’m just curious to see what other people think about the idea or if it would be interesting to anyone else.
Maybe, maybe not.
Plots are vague. It’s very hard to tell whether a story will be interesting based on its plot.
Take Italo Calvino’s story “A King Listens.” The story is about a king sitting on his throne, listening to the sounds of the palace.
That’s it. Not exactly a thriller, I’d say.
But it’s super interesting because of the way it’s told (it’s in the second person, which is fun), and the way the king theorizes about the different sounds around him.
Here’s another example: there are lots of stories about detectives. Some of them are more interesting that others, at least to individual readers. Detectives aren’t automatically interesting, but they can be interesting.
Long story short, your cult story might be interesting. It also might not be interesting. It depends on how you write it.
by Gladstone for Cracked.com
As readers of a site that welcomes and encourages submissions, there’s a decent chance some of you want to be writers. Several months ago, I wrote an advice column on how to go aboutfreelancing for the Internet and magazines, but some readers have their sights set on short fiction or even novels. And right now, some are contemplating education choices like picking a major or attending graduate school to get that MFA.
Let me be clear: Education is wonderful. There is nothing you will ever learn that you will not ultimately use. Conceptually, I am fully in support of a liberal arts education, even when there is no obvious and immediate application of that knowledge to daily life. However, with rising costs in an appalling economy, racking up that debt seems harder to justify, and I find myself agreeing more and more with a column Robert Brockway wrote years ago questioning the need for college. I’m not going quite that far yet, but I have soured on graduate programs — particularly MFAs. (Brock’s still wrong about Nirvana’s cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” being superior, by the way.)
It’s a very personal choice, but consider this: Every important thing I’ve learned about writing I learned from a writer. Yes, one of those writers was a college professor (not grad school), but for the most part, I got all my best storytelling lessons from interviews I saw on TV or read in books. That makes sense, right? Who better to explain writing than writers? And yes, of course many MFA programs employ distinguished writers who can impart these lessons to you directly, and that’s great if you can afford it, but the knowledge is out there. Writers are showoffs who like to talk and give advice, and they like talking about writing most of all. Every one of these tips below can be learned for free, and I promise you, I could never have written my forthcoming novel, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, without them.
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We often have frustrated first time novelists on our courses. They are trying to complete a book, but they haven’t thought about plotting. (See The Top 10 Tips for Plotting and Finishing a Book)
But I’ve decided the most common problem for first time authors is their inclusion of an unrealistic, unworthy, or absent antagonist.
Yes, your hero will always be his or her own worst enemy, but you need an antagonist to help your protagonist realise how strong he or she can be. There is no conflict without an antagonist. There is no reason to write a book if you do not have an antagonist. It would be easier to write a diary or an essay. Imagine watching The Matrix without Mr. Smith. The antagonist provides physical and psychological setbacks. He or she introduces points of resistance and stands between the protagonist and his or her story goal.
The antagonist’s function is to try to prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her story goal. The antagonist raises the stakes for the protagonist and causes excitement, tension, and a plot.
Writing Tip: The antagonist is as important as the protagonist. If you don’t have an antagonist you don’t have a plot. (There are some great tips for writing about antagonists in 10 Essential Tips for Writing Antagonists.)
Alfred Hitchcock said that a great story is: ‘life, with the dull parts taken out.’
A plot is not about:
- contented characters who live a trouble-free existence
- an author / character’s interior thought processes
- an author / character’s philosophy of life
- an author trying to send a message
- a character battling the elements, or society, or a life condition
A plot is about:
- characters whose lives have been turned upside down in a negative way
- characters who act and react
- characters who talk, breathe, eat, argue and interact with other characters
- characters whose actions and words show a story
- a character who takes on another character who may represent or personify, society or a life condition
If you are an exceptional author, you may not need a plot. The rest of us do.
Writing Tip: Remember your reader.
by Amanda Patterson
The inciting incident is the thing that happens somewhere in the first part of a story that changes things for the main character and puts them on the path to adventure (or romance, or tragedy, or whatever).
It’s a pretty well understood element in fiction, and even writers who aren’t aware of it will naturally work it into the story.
However, what isn’t always as obvious is that a story has more than one inciting incident. A lot more.
Anonymous asked: Filler scenes — do or don’t? If do, how to? I have several subplots, but I’m not sure how to or if I should add “fluff” scenes to relax the tension. With a story about drug addiction and poverty, is it necessary to lessen the tension?
(Prepare for much rambling from C.)
Okay, you brought up lots of stuff here. Let’s get started.
- Filler scenes: This is not a real thing. You either have a scene that is applicable to the story and advances it (usually through plot or character development) or you do not. You have a scene that is useful and pertinent and worth the reader’s attention or you don’t. I know which side of the “or” I want to be on. How about you?
"Filler" is a harmful word, in my opinion, because I think that it assumes that any scene which is not advancing a mad dash toward the climax is somehow useless and wrong. This is not so. You can have an interlude. (See? There’s a whole word devoted to this.) You can take time away from the rising action to develop character or setting or theme. It depends on what you decide your story needs. Filler scenes are not real. Weak scenes are real. If you have a weak scene, a scene which you decide is redundant or poorly structured or that misrepresents your characters, then I would suggest either strengthening it or removing it.
Here, read this post for more on this topic.
- Subplots: Subplots are great as long as you have structured the story so that they are each resolved in some way (not necessarily by “happy ending” them, but by offering closure—or not) and related the story to your audience without overwhelming or confusing them.
You don’t need to pad your subplots with “fluff” (I’ll get to this later), but you do, I think, need to make sure there is enough subplot for its presence to make sense when coupled with the main plot (or not).
Why does this subplot exist? How does it advance the main plot? Or does it advance character instead? Or perhaps it advances theme? What exactly happens in the subplot and how is this resolved? How is the subplot woven through the main fabric of the story? How often is it brought up and when and how can you tie each instance of it occurrence in the story into the main plot? Answer these questions (and about a hundred more), and you’ll be well on your way to a successful subplot. If you can’t answer these questions to your own satisfaction, then consider either strengthening your subplot or removing it. The subplot must have a function that makes sense to you, and it must be developed as thoughtfully as the main plot. Otherwise, why include it?
Here, read this post for more on this topic.
- Fluff Scenes: As far as I can tell, when people say “writing a fluff scene”, they usually mean “writing a sweet, romantic scene”. I have no problem with that. In most genres other than the Romance genre, the love story told between two or more characters is a subplot (see above). Since the romance is not the central story being told, many writers believe any scene alluding to it is somehow “fluff”. Stop it. It’s a subplot like any other subplot. Treat it like a subplot, and you’ll be much happier.
If these scenes are part of the main plot and you’re calling them “fluff scenes” because they’re not action-packed, then my advice is to try calling them “transition scenes” and see if that helps you gain a bit of perspective. These scenes aren’t light and calm and sweet when they have no business being so. They’re there for a reason. They create a transition. Now your attention is more readily focused on the function of the scene in your story instead of how “fluffy” it is, which doesn’t really mean anything anyway.
If you’re writing in the Romance genre, however, and you feel your plot is drowning in sweet, romantic “fluff”, then my advice to you would be to add some more conflict. Start and argument between characters. Kidnap someone. Kill off a brother. Whatever. Generate conflict to break up the cuddlefest. That should help with your “fluff”.
Here, read this post for more on this topic. And this one. And this tag. And this forum.
- Tension: This is a big word, and it can be intimidating. Do you need tension? Do you need it all the time or just sometimes and when, exactly, should that be? Should you heighten the tension at all times or should tension vary?
All good questions, and all questions that depend entirely on the story you are writing.
Here’s are my three tips:
Do you need to relax the tension? Maybe! You’re asking someone who hasn’t read your story, but the fact that you’re asking the question at all is a good start. Look inward. Look at your plot. Could it benefit from some slack?
- If you say the word tension, you lose the game. I try not to use the word at all in my writing, because I think that mentioning tension outright (i.e. “Jesse could feel the tension as his hand reached for the doorknob.”) sort of makes the reader aware that there is tension instead of unconsciously feeling the effects of tension. To me, this is telling, not showing. I don’t want to just come out and tell my readers, “Hey guys! There’s supposed to be some tension here. Hope you caught that!” I want them to be wound as tight as Beetee’s spool of wire and be so engrossed in the story that they can’t stop to give that feeling a name. That naming process is pulling someone out of the story and forcing them to examine their own emotions in a not-so-great, simplistic kind of way. What if I’ve failed and the reader doesn’t feel the embodiment of the word tension? By using that word, I’ve just told them how they should be feeling. That’s a big no-no for me, personally. I’d rather show the what’s going on in the story and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. I try to write around the word I mean.
(By the way, you just lost The Game.)
- Failure is key. Or, at the very least, the threat of failure. If my heroine has lost her sword and must find a way to vanquish the dragon without it—well, that could go horribly wrong. Without her sword, that dragon could kill her stone dead. She might have to run away. She might not be able to save someone in the process. She might lose something precious. Whatever it is, the fact that my heroine could fail builds tension for the reader. If she actually does fail, then that raises the stakes in future scenes and builds the tension even more.
In a story like yours where the dragons take the shape of drugs and poverty, failure is just as tension-building and much more relatable.
And little things can build tension, too. It doesn’t have to be dragons. It could be not having enough money to pay for a meal at a restaurant. Or getting into an argument with a dealer buddy because you want to quit doing these drugs but you still owe him money. It could be staring at a picture of your mother and wondering what she’d say if she could see you now. Little things. Little failures. Little threats to the status quo. All of that builds tension over time.
- Pacing is important, but people tend to forget that slowing down can be just as useful as speeding up. It just depends on the story. If your story needs it, bulk up the description to slow down the pacing. Have a scene where the character interaction does more to develop the characters than the plot. Maybe they talk about their favorite holidays instead of drugs and poverty for a scene. That may not contribute to the plot overall, but it does help your audience understand the characters a little better.
And these scenes can build tension, too. You can take a scene to break from the main story and have a birthday dinner, for example. And someone unwelcome could show up. Tension. And the characters could bicker. Tension. And the presents could be crappy. Tension. And the birthday boy could be ungrateful. Tension. Then boom, back to the main plot with the stakes between characters raised even though the main plot hasn’t moved forward much at all.
More on pacing here. We also have a whole tag devoted to it.
Think of your story as a guitar and your main plot and subplots as the guitar strings. When properly tuned, the notes sound just right. But there are different ways to tune to get a different sound out of the instrument. You want the strings to be tight, sure. Too loose and the instrument is useless. But too tight and the strings could snap before you’ve finished playing. The same is true of tension in your story. There’s a balance that must be struck with each individual string-plot; the tension on each must be tuned according to the needs of the instrument. This takes time. You have to pay attention to the process of tuning, of building or relaxing tension, in order to really get it right.
Here, read this post for more on this topic.
I hope that I have somehow addressed your issue to your satisfaction, though aside from defining some terms for you, I think the real answer to your question is that how you handle your scenes and your subplots and your tension depends on your style and your story. I can’t tell you the right answer. You have to dig into the story and figure out the answers for yourself.
Thank you for your question!
Historical Romance - How to add layers to your scenes
by Anthony Ehlers for Writers Write
In terms of historical fiction, we look back. We look back because that is where the answers lie. It is all about context. The research must be fun. It must also fit your story, and lift the narrative.
Show us the ‘personality’ of that era, so that the historical setting becomes almost another character: show the sexual, gender and social politics, the mood of the times etc.
Five ways to add context
- History itself. Who was in power at the time? Why? What was the main trade? What were the marriage laws? Historical detail is a great way to inform or give impetus to the plot, such as the London Season for Debutantes, etc.
- How circumstances affect characters. We must never just lay on historical information, but rather weave into the story and it should ideally be seen through the lens of the character. How does she feel about how society treats women, etc.?
- Sense it. Make use of the senses—the smell of the docks, the latest French perfume, the sight of a new ship or a building, the type of music in vogue, etc. – and tie those to the historical ambience of the world
- Dress it. Make sure you know what your heroine is wearing, what undergarments support it, what was considered appropriate or risqué, and what kind of dress would suit your character best
- Detail it. Go for small details that signal the reader that you’re building an authentic world – the dress, the dinner plate, the food, a cherished pet, an artwork or an objet d’art etc. Other details that may lift the narrative: modes of transport, whether it is a carriage or a horse (what kind?), the architecture, furniture, the literature of the day, details of places of worship and churches, the type of medicine, etc.
We need to go under the surface of the story, to know what life was like in that era and how your character is experiencing it. Remember that your reader may not know anything about the period or time—they need the writer to build the world, paint the picture, give colour, texture and emotion.
The characters don’t live in a vacuum-we need to build the characters’ world through details, sensory description; the world must be believable and entertaining.
Five exercises to help you
- Print images from Internet or collect photocopies from books and create a collage of these for your writing desk
- Describe the interior of the heroine’s bedroom as if you were writing for a nostalgia magazine or for a new experiential museum
- Describe the morning ritual of the hero: how he shaves, dresses, what ritual he may follow
- Create a dinner menu for a typical social meal of the time, and source ingredients for it – imagine the trip to the market
- Imagine a time traveller from the present happens upon your setting —have her write a dispatch back home to describe this extraordinary experience!
Flashbacks are often used to give information about a character’s past. It’s a device used to step away from the current narrative and reveals something substantial about the plot. I don’t like to utilize them much because I find it difficult to pull the story away from what’s currently going on without it feeling out of place. Flashbacks have the annoying ability of sizzling out the tension you created if they’re used incorrectly. If there’s a more effective way to show information about your characters, you should consider it. You need to find what works best for your novel.
Flashbacks, when used correctly, can be great. You have to remember that the scene you are writing about in a flashback is already over, so you need to find a way to make it exciting. It’s important you make sure the reader KNOWS IT’S A FLASHBACK. You can confuse people if you don’t properly explain that the scene they’re reading is taking place in the past. This might take some time to figure out.
Here are some other useful tips—
- Your flashback should never take place at the beginning of any scene. If you’re introducing a character, don’t do it with a flashback. First of all, we have no idea who the character is. We don’t know why or if we should care about them, so why should we care about their past?
- Make sure you have an important enough reason to use a flashback. You don’t want to have your character at work and then use a flashback to tell us what he ate for breakfast. We don’t really care what he ate for breakfast unless it WAS POISON. It’s boring and it’s unnecessary.
- Use the right verb tense. This will help your readers understand that the scene is a flashback and then bring them back to the current narrative. This is important, but a lot of writers forget to do this. It will make your flashback flow correctly and no one will be confused.
- Flashbacks could be used to expose something very important about your character, so think about the tension you want to create when you write one. This needs to be information you MUST tell. If you’ve been withholding information and creating tension all along, readers will be happy to dive into your flashbacks. They must come out of it feeling like they learned something they couldn’t in the present story line.
Flashbacks can add depth to your story, but make sure that you really need them. If your story is great without them and you’ve found a better way to expose a character’s back story, don’t force it. It’s all about what you feel comfortable writing.