Sunday, 30 October 2016


When you sit down to write a story - whether that's a novel or a bite-sized piece of flash fiction - you obviously want it to be a quality work. Most of us don't want to settle for an "Mmmyeah, that was okay," from our readers - we want to wow them.

If your story was a movie (don't you tell me you've never imagined how your story would look in movie-form, because I won't believe you) yours would have the best sets, lighting and sfx. And in fact it could, because the budgets for story-movies in your head aren't constrained by piffling things like reality. So you can also go nuts with the casting too - why have protagonists with the acting chops of Tracey and Trevor from the local amdram society, when you could have Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt instead? (Well... maybe not as co-stars, in the light of recent events...) Big stars, after all, bring in the punters.

But with big stars come the big egos. They aint gonna touch your story-movie with a ten-foot pole if they don't like the script. Luckily there's a sure-fire way to make them love it, and that's to make sure that script is all about them, baby. This, as all the writing advice from the greats assures us, is the key to making a protagonist memorable.

But how do we actually do this? How do we make sure our readers are rooting for our main character to triumph, instead of, say, the quirky sidekick or - worse - the antagonist of the piece? We make their participation in the story's events matter. Whatever happens, however brilliantly or badly our main character behaves, they need to stay at the top of the reader's Give a Damn List, above all other characters in that story. And we need to do that not just for the duration of the entire story - we need to do it for the duration of each chapter and each scene of that story.

This is the advice given in a metric tonne of writing how-to books and by many a successful author. And having read many of those books and listened to many of those authors, here is my list of questions I like to ask my protagonist for each scene I write. I expect them to be able to answer these questions - or at least that I can answer them on their behalf - and if they can't, I dig deeper into the scene events and their pysches to find the answers. These questions help me to know where I'm going with my scenes - they might help you too. So without further ado - let's do this!

1 - So... how are things going for you right now?

This is a question to ask right at the start of each new scene, because, unless it's Scene 1, the answer you get will depend on whatever happened in the scene before it. Whether the shizzle that happened was good or bad, their mood will be governed by that, along with their hopes/fears for what might happen in the future. So this question determines the tone and initial expectations for this current scene - and it needs to flow from the previous scene. If your previous scene ended with a nasty argument between your protagonist and her sidekick, you can't just open this scene with them chatting amiably as if they never had a cross word - even if a sizeable chunk of time has passed since then. (Oh, and you also can't cheat and open with some kind of weak disclaimer like 'they made up their argument later on, so by the time the next morning came they were friends again.' As far as your readers are concerned, if the cameras weren't there at the time, it didn't happen.)

With this in mind, if your protagonist ended the previous scene thoroughly pissed off with someone, then not only are they going to still be pissed off with them throughout this scene, but their judgement about anything that same someone says or does is going to be coloured by that - at least until that someone does something to redeem themselves. And that needs to be reflected in the protagonist's attitude and inner dialogue as well as for the mood of the scene.

2 - What's the Plan?

For any scene to have a point, the protagonist must have a goal - some objective she needs to achieve before the scene ends. That can be a proactive goal (taking steps independently to further her progress toward a bigger goal) or a reactive one (doing something to fix or at least stave off what just went wrong in the previous scene.)

(As a side note, this is a good way of picking up pacing issues in your novel; ideally you want scenes that vary between proactive and reactive goals. Several reactive scenes in a row will make the character look passive and clueless, while several proactive ones can overwhelm the reader with a feeling of relentless action without much depth. You don't have to be obsessive about it, swinging equally between the two poles with the precision of a  metronome, but if there are parts of your story that seem to sag or don't feel right, your action/reaction cycle is often a good place to start looking for problems.)

Whether your protagonist's goal is proactive or reactive, it needs to be there and she needs to have made some attempt to achieve it before the end of the scene. Now obviously she won't be aware she has that time limit (heck, she's not even aware she's in a 'scene' at all) but she should have some idea what she wants to get done - if not right at the beginning of the scene, at least well before the halfway mark. It should chime with either her external or internal need (determined by the character arc you gave her) which means it should be super-important to her - even if that's only for the duration of this scene. Oh and yeah, she only needs one per scene. Trying to fix more than one thing at once is often how real life has to work, but in fiction it just makes everything harder in a bad way - for you as a writer and for the reader to try and follow. Keep it simple, so everyone knows where the spotlight is supposed to shine.

3 - Did the Plan work?

At some point between the protagonist executing her plan and the end of the scene we need to know how that went for her. Well duh, I hear you cry. But you'd be surprised how easy it is to forget this - especially if you're a Discovery Writer/Pantser. Sometimes when your mind takes flight you can end up adding in new ideas that potentially take the story in exciting new directions... but don't resolve the initial issue presented at the start of the scene. If that happens, either put the new ideas in a separate Notes section until you can find a more suitable place to slot them into your story, or find some way to connect them to this scene's goal. Either way, once you set up the protagonist's goal at the start of the scene, your next duty is to report on her progress. It doesn't matter if she succeeded or failed, your readers need to know. More importantly, they need to know...

4 - Did it work out the way you wanted it to?

Most often the protagonist will fail to achieve her goal (because that's what keeps the story going.) This might be in very simple terms ('I tried to get this and I didn't get it') or involve a whole new world of complications ('Holy crap, I tried to get this and not only did I not get it, I just made things a whole lot worse!') The second one is often recommended as the better option for creating that page-turning thrill, but going back to the previous notes about active/reactive cycles, having the same level of emotion for scene after scene can make sections of a novel feel samey or over-intense, so don't feel that every failed goal has to end in the worst possible way.

Besides, on the flipside, sometimes interesting twists are created when the protagonist fails in her goal - and it turns out better for her that she did. Something unexpected happens, another character reacts in a way she didn't predict and she realises she might have been wrong to chase that goal in the first place. Of course the other way that can twist is if the protagonist does in fact succeed in achieving her goal - but it doesn't bring the results she wanted, or it brings results she absolutely didn't want.

However it pans out, it's important we know if she's happy (or not) with the result she got - and why. This is because it ties in with her character arc - most often with her external and/or internal need - and anything that feeds this helps the reader to bond more with your protagonist. In order to care about her, we need regular reminders about what she cares about.

5 - So what are you gonna do now?

Once you've got this far through the scene, the game-board has changed. The Plan in place near the beginning has been executed and either succeeded, failed or hella failed, and your protagonist is either celebrating, commiserating or full-on tearing out her hair. And in order to write the next scene, you need to give her something to work with from the start - in short, a new Plan, Stan. Well, maybe not necessarily an actual plan, but she needs to have at least drawn some sort of conclusion about what's gone down that you can carry through to the next scene. Like, what has she learned from this one? It might be some actual new information (a revelation,) either from another character or from some sort of detective work, and that may have been her intended goal or it may have just happened as a by-product of an unrelated goal. Or it may be deciding that her actions in this scene have made things worse/better/had no effect at all, and so she needs to try something different next time (or try the same thing again with other people or in another situation.) Either way, she will be ruminating on either an action or a revelation, (and, as with the active or reactive goal discussed earlier, a good way to keep the reader hooked in your story is to have a good spread of variety between actions and revelations for scene conclusions.) And if you can communicate this information to the reader, not only do you entice them to keep reading, but you've set up a solid starting-point for your next scene.

But wait, I hear you say. What if I've planned the next scene to be a flashback, or to make a massive time-jump? How does this system work with that? Well, it still should. The things we're talking about here - goals, actions, reactions and revelations - are all related to the protagonist's character arc - her external and internal needs - and even with flashbacks and time-jumps these should always be moving forward. Using the flashback as an example, even if the event being described is from the past it should still resonate with the lessons learned from the previous scene in the present day - if it doesn't, it may be that the flashback doesn't belong at that point in the story after all, and would be better pushed back or moved forward in the narrative.

So there they are - my five golden questions. This might look like a lot of work to do for every single scene in your story, but more often than not you'll find you've already done it for most of them anyway without even realising it. The ones that don't may well be the ones that feel flat or aimless, so if you couldn't put your finger on why that was before now, at least this will give you something to work from. It's worked for me, so maybe it'll work for you too,

Saturday, 15 October 2016


Moses: the world's first Beta-Reader.
Life is full of rules. There are the big rules, made by leaders of countries that everyone has to follow or risk spending time in a small room with bars on the windows.There are medium-size rules that will get you banned, blocked or otherwise excluded from venues or activities if you break them. And, right at the bottom, there are the smaller rules - the ones you can do waggly finger-quotes around if you're that way inclined, since breaking them will earn you not much more than some side-eye and a few 'unfriend'-ings on FaceBook.

This is because us humans love rules. It's how we make sense of the world and sort everybody out into their respective tribes. You can't build an IKEA wardrobe without instructions, (sometimes even with them) and rules serve as the instruction manual to the IKEA wardrobe that is our lives. Hammer all those wooden pages in before you squish the two bits together, make sure you put those weird locking-nut things in the right way up and don't, for the love of God, lose the Allen Key, and you'll end up with exactly what you were intending to end up with. Mostly.

So it's hardly surprising that even writers - those free-thinking, creating-worlds-and-people-out-of-thin-air dreamers - decided that the craft of writing needed rules as well. Yes of course everything we create doesn't actually exist outside the pages of our work, so we are in effect trying to enforce discipline on pretend things - but even the intangible must be pinned down and categorised, dammit! We must know what tribe it belongs to, so we can decide if it's friend or foe to our own tribe - because only then can we figure out whether we should embrace it like a brother or chase its arse out of our village with the sharp end of our pitchforks.

And so the Writing Rules were born, and have been with us ever since. If you've been writing for any length of time, you'll probably know a lot of them already. Many are very good, and will most definitely help you to become a better writer. But this is why there are a certain number that keep on coming up, time after time, shouted throughout the writing community as if they were the sacred words of the God of Stories himself.

I'm going to say some terms and phrases now, well-known amongst writers, and see how many of them give you that inner urge to roll your eyes and sigh. Ready? Here we go then:

Passive Voice. Filtering. Show, don't tell. Adverbs.

Are you groaning yet? Sorry about that. I picked these in particular because they're the ones writers seem to get the most froth-mouthed evangelistic about. Somehow, these aren't just rules - they're RUUUUULLLLLEEEESSSS! As in, non-negotiable - you either toe the line on this or you forfeit the right to think of yourself as a proper writer.

Think I'm exaggerating? On many writing community forums you can regularly find long, ranty threads on the above four Rules. Just this week I saw one entitled '17 Words Good Writers Should Never Use' - that's NEVER, as in EVER, AT ALL. The Poster of this thread was serious, with no hint of irony in his message, and vigorously defended his point of view, as did a few others who replied to it. All fine and dandy - until you actually look at some of the words on that list of those Good Writers should 'never' use. Words like 'right,' 'then,' 'while,' and - I'm not making this up - 'was.'

That last one is particularly ridiculous. Anyone who seriously believes they will improve their writing by eliminating every instance of the word 'was' clearly does not understand how English works. You could certainly do it - but the verbal acrobatics you'd sometimes have to employ to still say what you want to say would leave your prose unreadable. Words don't stick around in a language for centuries if they're no use to people, and 'was' has been around for a bloody long time already.

The whole hate campaign against 'was' comes from the both the Passive Voice Rule and the Show, Don't Tell Rule - and there is some merit in the reasoning. Making the subject of the sentence the active element (doing the thing) rather than the passive (the thing is being done by them) does make that sentence more dynamic and help the reader to 'feel' the story more. The same principle applies when a subject performs an action that indicates an emotion (i.e. showing, with body language) than simply saying that subject 'was something' (i.e. 'Jane was angry' is telling.)

But here's the million-euro question: do readers care about that sort of thing as much as writers do?

To answer that question we need look no further than E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy, because it's easy to forget that, actually, it wasn't always branded the epitome of bad writing. When it first hit the (virtual) bookshelves it was a massive hit, and people were raving about it. Celebrities were happy to be seen - even photographed - reading it, and it turned Ms. James into a millionaire almost overnight.

And who was responsible for its initial, runaway success? Readers. As in, people whose first priority when choosing a book for themselves is a darn good story, not how 'well-written' a book is. It's only when the writer-readers - i.e. people who also wrote books themselves or aspired to - bought the book (perhaps to try and figure out what the heck the magic formula was for such phenomenal success) that the tide began to turn against it. Yes, it does break a lot of the 'Rules of Good Writing' and breaks them with repeated (very repeated) impunity. It's easy to see why legions of writer-readers who've spent years honing their craft and beating their writing into shape according to all these golden Writing Rules would regard Fifty Shades as a slap in the face to all that hard work and dedication. Especially when that 'badly-written' thing sells a million gazillion copies, gets made into a movie, has the whole world talking about it for years to come...

E.L. James isn't even alone in being ridiculed for her writing style. Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown are regularly labelled 'bad writers' too - in spite of also writing multiple bestsellers and having millions of reader fans. Heck, even J.K. Rowling gets picked on for her love of adverbs. But what they all have in common is the ability to tell a story in a way that hooks their readers in and keeps them turning the pages. And that's not achieved by obeying all the Writing Rules designed to make your prose technically brilliant - it's a different kind of magic altogether.

Or maybe it isn't 'magic' at all.

Maybe what those best-selling 'bad writers' are doing is simply writing their stories with slightly different priorities to the 'Great Writers.' Perhaps for them, the story comes first, and the 'quality' of the writing comes second. Sometimes, using passive voice is the only way to show a protagonist's feelings of powerlessness in a scene. Sometimes giving your readers a brief summary of certain events (telling) is preferable to making them metaphorically sit through every trivial detail (showing.) And sometimes a well-chosen adverb can add just the right flavour to an ordinary verb, in a way that reaching for the rare and beautiful Super-Verb can't. By all means make use of the Writing Rules - but never sacrifice clarity to do so. Say what you mean to say, in order to tell the story you mean to tell - even if that requires you to break out the 'was'-es  and 'ly'-words.

Story first, writing to impress other writers second. That's how to craft a bestseller.