Monday, 26 January 2015

Tricks of the Trade 2: Red Herrings

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Although the term red herring is usually associated with murder mysteries, most stories contain an element of misdirection to keep the reader guessing at the outcome. When it’s obvious where it’s headed, even if the route contains interesting obstacles and encounters, you miss out on that feeling of discovery when you realise the answer isn’t A, as you thought, but B (which seemed impossible but now you can see of course it was B, it was always B, sneaky, sneaky B).

In order to create the delight a reader feels when their view of the world (even when it’s a made up world) is spun around 180 degrees and they see things how they truly are you have to first convince them of the way things truly aren’t. 

So you lie to them.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Every Story Is a Mystery

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When we think of a story being a mystery the tendency is to think of the mystery genre. An investigator (usually a detective), a puzzle to be solved (usually a crime), a person to be caught (usually a criminal).

But to all intents and purposes every story is basically a mystery. There is always a burning question that needs answering and someone who is tasked with finding that answer. It’s just that it might not be as obvious what the question is in Looking for Love as it is in Who Killed Johnny?

And if it’s well written the reader’s desire to also discover the answer should be just as strong in both stories. Which is why when that desire isn’t so strong we can use the mechanics of the mystery genre to help work out what’s gone awry in other types of stories.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Tricks of the Trade 1: The Plant

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This is the first in a series of posts looking at common writing techniques that can be both very effective and horribly misused. The focus here will be on how to get the most out of them while avoiding the obvious, hackneyed and contrived.

In most stories you will employ some kind of plant. This is where you establish something early on that will come back to have some significance later on in the story.

It could be an object, a name or an idea. Typically you make the reader aware of it in the first few chapters and when it turns up towards the end the recognition combined with the important role this seemingly innocuous thing/person/concept now plays can be very satisfying. It can also be crass and clunky.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Repost: The Little Reasons A Story Works

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It’s not enough to have something dramatic happen in a story. The reason why it happens is also important.

In terms of impact on a reader, there’s a big difference between a character getting upset about losing their house to the bank and getting upset because their favourite tv show got cancelled.

What happens keeps the reader interested in the short term. Why it happens is what keeps them interested over the course of an entire novel.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Repost: How To Find Your Writing Muse

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If you’re lying awake in bed, and you look over at your sleeping partner with their tongue hanging out, snoring, making odd farty noises, and your heart starts beating faster and you think, “Of course! What a brilliant idea for a horror story,” then congratulations, you have a genuine muse on your hands.

Sadly, that’s not the case for everyone. Having someone who can inspire great ideas and put thoughts in your head that lead to marvellous stories is something we would all love, but the muse as an independent being who feeds out creativity is a rare and unreliable creation.

So where can you go for a refill when your well runs dry?

Monday, 22 December 2014

Repost: Draft Zero: Where Writing Begins

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Whether you’re a dedicated outliner or you wing it with no idea where your story might take you, the first complete draft you produce will have problems.

A lot of the time you will know a section isn't working before you even reach the end of the paragraph. Just not good enough. 

You can stop and fret and worry about how to make it better, or you can keep going.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Repost: Let Characters Be Wrong

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Nobody likes a perfect character. Someone who is super good at everything and gets everything right is annoying. 

Even the most suave secret agents of indestructible superheroes need to make mistakes in order to make the story interesting.  

There are two parts to using wrongness in a story. There’s the actual mistake (which sometimes isn’t known to be a mistake at the time), and there’s the consequences of the mistake, usually forcing the character to deal with powerful feeling of guilt or regret.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Repost: The Reversal

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The Reversal is a technique when things appear to be going one way, but they end up going another. It helps stories avoid being predictable and you can use it to subvert clichés. It also pulls the reader deeper into the story.


In its most familiar form a reversal is a plot twist, usually big and important. You thought the murderer was Dave, everything pointed to it being Dave. But it was BILL!

What you can do though is use it in a more simple, subtle form, to keep a reader engaged and wondering what will happen next. This is especially useful in genre fiction where readers who are familiar with the form start guessing what happens next and rapidly lose interest.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Words, The More The Muddier

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Taking a seasonal break, in the meantime here's one from the vault first posted in October 2012. See you in the New Year.
The idea that the more words used the clearer the meaning becomes is one that trips up a lot of writers.

Not that additional details are always a bad thing, but the ‘a little more information couldn’t hurt’ approach is very definitely wrong. It can very much hurt.

If I want to visit you then there is a minimum amount of info (street and house number), and an optimum amount (best route, which exit to take) that I need. And then there’s an excessive amount (the name of your neighbour’s dog).

On the other hand, what difference does it make if you mention the neighbour’s dog? It’s not going to make the address harder to find.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Parts Readers Tend to Skip

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One of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing was “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Excellent advice that makes very good sense, only exactly which parts are those?

On the surface it would seem obvious—the boring stuff, the longwinded explanations and unnecessary interludes, right? We all know what he meant. But when it comes to recognising the skip-worthy in our own stories it’s never quite so clear cut.

Scenes that are really going nowhere and have no purpose being in the story aren’t too hard to spot, but the bits that are just bland or that we’ve convinced ourselves have to be there for the story to make sense, they can slip through draft after draft.

So how do you spot the skippable parts and skip them before the reader gets a chance to?

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