From Story to Novel

typewriter

M.L. Davis has a great post on learning to write short stories from the perspective of someone more used to novels.

This post is about the other side of that. I’m more familiar with writing short stories (even like this tiny boye), and had to learn a few things before I managed my first novel.

Giving Characters Space

The main thing was finding the right approach to planning for me.

The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.

Novels are big. Readers will be hanging out with the characters for a much longer time, and plots become more multilayered and sprawling.

Different approaches to planning work for different people. You need to find your own balance, giving yourself enough structure to keep things on track while also giving the characters space to develop and use their own initiative.

Ultimately, the plot is what the characters do. When you’re working with words by the tens of thousands, and with many more plot points than in a short story, it will become more glaringly cruddy if the characters are shallow puppets with the plot imposed on them. And more gripping if characters take control for themselves.

Life Doesn’t Have Chapters

This is another shift in mindset that helped me. In early novel attempts, my chapters were too strictly episodic. One plot sequence happened, then jolt into this one, jolt to the next, and so on, each a bit too compartmentalized. They didn’t connect smoothly.

Chapters and scenes are very important for the writer and readers. A satisfying story will have its rises and falls, building tension and resolutions, driving action and reflection in well-paced balance. After a battle scene it may be good to have a steadier chapter with more reflection, dealing with the aftermath. So, as writers, we start on a new chapter with that in the back of our minds.

As far as the characters are concerned, their life is a continuous stream. Not a set of episodes. They, the ones doing the plot, continue acting in line with their motives just as before. Unless this is metafiction, none of them see Chapter 14 flash in the sky when the other side surrenders. They only know the battle is won, they’re knackered, and people are dead and injured – and act accordingly.

Deeper Worldbuilding

As Coffee Stars Books said:

I like to start with worldbuilding before character and plot because I think it influences both of those things a lot. I tend to find that my plot is very character driven, and in turn my characters are formed from their own experiences and upbringing and the world around them.

Particularly for something like fantasy, you need to know more about the setting, culture, and magic and technology. If you add magic to a world, that should have logical impacts throughout society, down to shaping the lives of your characters. Writing a novel gives you a chance to get into much more detail with all these things than a shorter form allows. It’ll be fun!

Of course, excess exposition will be one thing to edit out later on – it’s okay to know more than you include.

One Step at a Time

A novel is a lot of words. A number like ‘90,000’ can be disconcerting. Set a non-scary target – mine was 500 words – and try to do that every day. If you can write 500 words, you can keep on doing that until it all adds up.

Some days will be easy, in which case it’s fine to keep going past the target. Others will be hard, in which case embrace the trash – bad writing is what editing’s for.

If a whole section is a struggle, keep at it. Forget about phrasing everything nicely, and be open to the characters veering off your plan. At some point you will know what’s going on again, and any tricky editing that needs doing is future-you’s problem.

Whenever you finish a day’s write, a chapter, a section, you’re achieving something. The end goal is the sum of all those steps along the way, so take heart in your progress.

An Eye For Fictional Accuracy

antique-blank-blur-269825

Oran’s critical review of Jim Murphy’s Christadora got me thinking about the type of accuracy that works in details in fiction.

In trying to place things in a specific sense of place and time, for example, he tells you things you don’t need: “Mateo parked his car 100 metres away” as opposed to “Mateo parked his car nearby”. If you wanted an example of accuracy and not specificity “Mateo parked his car a few streets away”. It’s a kind of detail I would naturally track which is why the specificity of 100 metres is weird. This might seem innocuous but when the book has these details I don’t need, I am pulled out of the story. And it happens quite a bit. Here is another example: POV character is coming home from work with pizza and she finds out her kid is in hospital because they were bitten by a dog. This is verbatim what she does:

“… put her pizzas down on a handsome, high-backed wooden bench in the lobby, pulled out her cell phone …”

This is exactly the kind of information I don’t want. Like I want to know what happened to the kid. She can put the pizzas down, sure, but with the detail she seems unpanicked, unhurried, wanting to gently place her delicious steaming pizzas on this handsome, high-backed wooden bench before at last pulling her mobile out and dialling her partner.

Murphy has a journalist’s background. He has a well-honed eye for accurate details, but what works in journalism isn’t what works in fiction.

The aim for details in fiction isn’t to be factual. It’s to be true to life.

Details should be chosen for particular interest, such as narrative relevance or significance to character. If a detail is noted in fiction it’s marked out as something with implications – which is why it’s distracting to specify the exact distance of the car, and why describing the bench in detail right there suggests the character isn’t that worried about her kid. The reader’s mind is being pointed in an irrelevant direction.

It might be factual for the car to be 100m away or the bench to be high-backed. But in the story, this use of detail isn’t true to life. Good description is active, it bounces off everything else. It’s not just there, it does something: implying importance, imbuing subtext, portraying character, reinforcing points of the setting or themes. An unnecessary or ham-fisted detail cuts against the grain of the scene, distracting readers.

As far as a realistic character is concerned, the car is ‘nearby’ and the pizzas are ‘thrown on a bench as she pulls out her phone, hands shaking’. Now, if Mateo were parking his car for a heist or assassination, having a specific distance planned might work. And if the character with the pizzas was supposed to be cold or even abusive, implying a sedate response to their kid being in hospital could be powerful, striking a disturbing note.

Does this specific detail matter? Would it change something if this were different? What does it imply? Does it fit the tone, the character, the scene? What will the reader want to know right now?

Slice and Dice

editing stuff

In my latest round of editing I focused on chopping out anything calling for cutting.

Here are some of the things I’ve noted deserving of the axe. If you’re looking to make your work in progress a lean mean reading machine, it might to helpful to have an eye-out for:

Scenes that can be told, not shown

In On Writing, Stephen King wrote about his wife’s critique of the main character’s back story in the early Bag of Bones:

There was also a two or three page section about Mike’s community-service work in the year after his wife dies[.] Tabby didn’t like the community-service stuff.

“Who cares?’ she asked me. […]

“He has to do something in all that time, doesn’t he?”

“I guess so,’ Tabby said, “but you don’t have to bore me with it, do you?” […]

I cut down Mike’s charitable contributions and community functions from two pages to two paragraphs.

‘Show don’t tell’ is a useful pointer, but don’t go overboard. Just because an event or bit of backstory needs to happen doesn’t mean it needs to happen as a blow-by-blow account. Is it particularly interesting in its own right, or is it only a thing that needs to be mentioned somehow?

Exposition – worldbuilding, magic systems

It’s easy to bog things down with lore about the world you’re excited to have made, and the details of the magic system you worry readers won’t understand.

It’s a novel, not a textbook. I know what my continents are called and the migration patterns of the world’s humanoid species through them, but who cares? It’s completely irrelevant to a story taking place in one city thousands/millions of years later. It’s okay to know more than you include – not every detail is interesting, relevant, or necessary.

In the case of magic systems, lectures about how it works can be a sign of lack of trust in the reader. It should be fairly clear what the rules are from seeing it used. And metaphysical rambling about the underlying mechanism is only needed to the extent it ties into plot, theme, the culture, and character.

If characters are discussing something not because they would, but because ‘the reader must know’, that’s a red flag. Imagine writing a story where two characters, born in London in 1990, talk about what a phone is and how it works.

Choreographing

I.e., belaboring exactly how characters are positioned and moving.

It’s good to use gestures to show emotions rather than telling them, and dialogue is better when it’s not bodiless voices in a void. But over-egging the pudding on that score adds pointless clauses here and there which slow things down, and add up over the course of the work.

For example, I had a line where a character ‘opened the door, stepping back to let him in.’ In context, that’s too much choreography for such an intuitive action. It’s not as though she was a paranoid character whose door had special bolts, or a criminal trying to push an illicit item under the bed with her foot at the same time. So I cut the phrase down, to having her simply: ‘let him in.’

This isn’t a script for an animation or a brief for an artist – unless the fine detail of position and movement matters for something, let readers fill in the gaps intuitively.

Overstating

Repeating information at various points in the text, past the point needed to make it memorable, or past the point where anyone cares.

Excess small talk

When writing dialogue for the first time I try to let the characters speak for themselves, with a loose idea of where it’s heading. Once in the zone, their voices take charge, coming up with in-character comments I hadn’t planned that can significantly change what was going to happen.

But that leaves behind lines of dross that, while perhaps realistic to actual conversation, are boring to read, confusing, not that valuable for showing personality, and don’t lead anywhere. Cut.

A few other tips:

  • Listen to the inner critic. When writing a first draft, try to ignore it and Embrace the Trash. When editing, it’s time to let it in. When the first-draft-mode voice whispers justifications for keeping something, listen to the other whisper still saying, ‘nah it’s crap’.
  • Keep the original separate, so you feel less worried about losing something and later realising you need it.
  • Cut-paste in another document to sort through large edits, so you can fiddle around without getting lost in the whole manuscript. This makes it easier to do things like stripping a chapter down to 50 words and inserting them six chapters ahead.
  • Use chapter summaries. Short chapter summaries can help you recognise where something is complete fluff.

 

Good Writing and Woke Realism

drinking in bar
incredibly unrealistic

V.E. Schwab recently posted about it being bad to use a female character solely to show a male character being sad when she dies – with uncharitable, over-sensitive responses from some male writers.

I’ve seen a bit of this sort of thing lately – people, usually guys, complaining about (in their view) unreasonable hoops of wokeness for stories to jump through. They’ll say things like, ‘Just write what’s good for the story! Whether or not it passes the Bechdel Test!’

This is a theme I touched on a bit in my diversity post, but let’s go deeper.

Personally, I think that if a long enough story doesn’t, for example, pass the Bechdel test (two named women talking about something other than a man) this is bad writing, whether you’re aiming for wokeness or not. Why? Because reality passes the test. Go outside sometime. It’s not a difficult hoop to pass through.

What makes good writing? There’s a lot of possible answers there, but one widely accepted one is good characters. And widely accepted components of good characters include complexity: psychological realism.

So, is it realistic for two women, with enough prominence in the story to have names, to never talk to each other about something other than a man? No. Going back to Schwab’s point, is it realistic for someone to be upset about the loss of <generic female figure>? No, people are upset at losing real people. If you want the reader to feel something when a character dies, they can’t just be a prop.

There’s also the issue that violence against women has a context. As Schwab says, it’s not forbidden to ever include this in a plot – but if it’s a cheap go-to where the woman could be swapped for a lamp this (a) isn’t woke, and also (b) is lazy and unimaginative, so be a better writer and consider a wider range of inciting incidents even if you don’t care about wokeness.

On the one hand, it’s woke for your female characters to be meaningfully developed. On the other hand, your characters should be meaningfully developed, you wally!

These sorts of topics are often straightforward extensions of basic writing tips. So why should they feel like awkward hoops sjw’s are trying to make you jump through? Perhaps they feel like that because they counter an unacknowledged bias.

If someone is used to not developing female characters particularly well, it might feel an odd, arbitrary demand to have someone say something like, ‘maybe two of them can have a conversation? About something other than him?’ But a writer who balks at this will have male characters doing the equivalent all the time, without having to think about it. When we’re invited to think about something it can feel unnatural – when really it only means we aren’t used to considering it.

Wouldn’t it be weird if none of the male characters ever spoke about anything other than a woman? Wouldn’t it be weird if there was a pattern of stories using the death of a man with no distinct characteristics as a prop for the female lead’s response? Writers should be imaginative enough to take a step back from the immediate dismay of feeling criticised, ask themselves these sorts of questions, and learn from how people and life actually are to improve their craft.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as unreasonable demands. There are a few people out there who got mad because Freddy Mercury died in Bohemian Rhapsody (‘another gay character killed off!’) even though it’s a biopic and he, um, died in real life. But if you feel a suggestion is unreasonable, and gets in the way of just telling the damn story, maybe it’s worth taking a step back and wondering if you’re missing something.

Variety in Voices

Streetcar - Blanche and Stanley

‘How do they speak: talkative/quiet, assertive/hedging, slang/formal, direct/indirect, what style of humour?’ – Character Archetypes

Writing good dialogue is hard. One of the traps is the characters all sounding too similar, generally like versions of yourself. In real life people sound different from each other. That means not just with their own accents and slang, but with how they approach topics and conversations in line with their personality.

Writing accents phonetically is an approach you can take to set a voice apart – everyone remembers how Hagrid sounds. But this can be cringy and distracting. Arlene Prunkl has some useful tips and examples for showing accent and dialect without relying on excessive misspellings and contractions.

Think about words and phrases that a character might use. A tendency to start a subject with ‘so,’ occasionally saying ‘thingamajig’ while gesturing to the object, in-jokes shared with other characters, calling a garage a car hole, favourite swear words (or avoiding them), punctuating sentences with ‘like’. These things can help set the voices of your characters apart, and are an inroad to showing clues about their background and personal traits.

Then there’s the larger level. How much do they speak? How much do they interrupt? Do they ask questions more or less than others? How are they as a listener? Are they sarcastic? Do they approach topics directly or indirectly? And so on.

This is the level that really requires getting in touch with the character, having a feel for how they’d come across.

When we read A Streetcar Named Desire in school we did some work on how the main characters spoke, and tried writing some dialogue as they’d speak it. Mimicking an existing character with a strong voice can be a good exercise in how variety in dialogue styles works.

Here’s Blanche – neurotic rapid-fire speech, full of imperatives, literary/melodramatic:

Yes, something – ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I’ve seen in – anthropological studies! Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is – Stanley Kowalski – survivor of the Stone Age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! […] God! Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image, but Stella – my sister – there has been some progress since then! Such things as art – as poetry and music – such kinds of new light have come into the world since then!

Stanley would never talk like that – he’s a completely different person.

Another exercise is to write the same dialogue from different characters.

Person A: ‘So… Um, I was thinking. Maybe we should take another look at that thing? I know you said the case was settled, but it doesn’t feel right. I think Paul might be up to something.’

Person B: ‘Hey, we gotta go back there. You said case closed, but I’m opening it. Paul’s dirtier than your laundry.’

Character Archetypes – A Sword Isn’t a Personality

sword

A skim through TV Tropes (warning – enormous time sink) will show that, whatever you do, you’ll follow some patterns that’ve come before. Conforming to the odd trope is fine, because it’s inevitable and things are often popular for a reason.

But if a character is made of pretty much only tropes and gaffer tape, that’s an issue. A character like this doesn’t stand out, isn’t realistic, and isn’t nearly as fresh as the first few times they were written. They aren’t a person, they’re an archetype.

Examples:

  • The strong female character whose only trait is being a badass. They’re not like the other girls – they have a sword!
  • Brooding YA hero.
  • The wise old mentor who dies just before the Chosen One can complete their training.
  • The Chosen One.
  • A cynical hardboiled detective, lighting up a cigarette as they walk out of the morgue into the rain, going into a dark corner of a bar to drink straight bourbon, then musing on the incident (probably a woman’s death) that killed the bright-eyed optimism they’d had when they left the academy.
  • The comedy sidekick.
  • The ‘end the world for some reason, I guess’ villain.
  • Adorkable clumsy cinnamon roll.
  • Mary Sue/Gary Stu.

Characters are liable to become shallow archetypes for two reasons – unrealistic features, and a lack of depth.

Make sure the character has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Real people usually aren’t completely useless, nor can they do everything better than people who’ve been at it for far longer than them. Let them slip up, struggle, succeed occasionally – the plot will be more exciting, and the character will be more real.

Here’s Connie J. Jasperson advising how to do a character sketch. This can help flesh out a person’s motives and backstory. Especially with a villain, it’s important to know what they’re actually trying to achieve.

A meaningful motivation comes from a developed personality. Think a bit about their backstory – how have their experiences led them to be the people they are and do the things they do? Not all of this has to be spelled out in the text. But the more you build an understanding of the character which gives each scene they’re in a distinct motivation, the less they’ll slip into the mould of an archetype.

Give characters features that don’t come in the stock package of an archetype. It’s fine to have a female character be a badass, or a detective be cynical, if they also have other sides that make them distinctive.

Brienne of Tarth is a dank fighter, but memorable for her strong code of loyalty. But more than that – she reacts like a human and says ‘fuck loyalty!’ when there are much bigger issues at play, and has some good bits of backstory adding to her character.

Then there are all the little things that add a lot. Coffee, tea, neither? How do they speak: talkative/quiet, assertive/hedging, slang/formal, direct/indirect, what style of humour? Fashion, gestures, habits, hobbies, music/book/TV taste, etc. It’s a small thing whether someone takes off their shoes at the door and lines them up exactly straight, kicks them off in the hall, or tracks mud over the carpet (unless you have to clean up): but that adds to the overall picture of who this person this.

The point is that a realistic character – a distinct individual with comprehensible motives, and a range of traits that make sense given their life – will tend to be more memorable, and make for a better plot, than a simple archetype.

Franzen’s 10 Rules: You What, Mate?

Jonathan Franzen has suggested 10 rules for novelists. Some of his points are quite interesting, some are more questionable, and some seem to be from fortune cookies. Let’s take a look!

1) The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

OK. This sounds like a good perspective, letting readers have their reactions to the text without swooping in with NO WHAT I MEANT WAS or IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU’RE TOO DUMB TO GET IT. It’s a bit vague though.

2) Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

Well, getting outside comfort zones and exploring topics and styles is a good thing to do. But can we not reinforce the whole ‘starving artist’ thing? Poverty for the sake of art isn’t romantic. Unfortunately, people need cash.

3) Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

Haha, no.

‘Then’ does have a subtly different meaning from ‘and’. ‘The character did this, then did that’ is actually distinct from ‘The character did this, and did that.’ The former places more emphasis on only one thing happening at a time, each being fully finished before starting the next; while with the latter the character could be multitasking.

I take the point that conjunctions can be misused to paper over awkwardness, perceived or real. The solution isn’t to ban certain conjunctions.

4) Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

The nugget of insight here is that a first-person narrative needs a strong voice to bring the character to life. However, POV can’t be reduced to a sentence.

Here’s a whole post I wrote on it. Here’s one by Michael James, K.M. Allan , Marcha,  M.L. Davis, and Meg Dowell.

5) When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

When I’m reading something that obviously had good research behind it, I don’t appreciate it less because the author used google. It would be impressive if they got their research by sneaking into the hidden catacombs under the Vatican, fighting off corrupt cardinals perverting the power of a fragment of the True Cross and the undead Templar knights raised using it… but it doesn’t make the actual book any better than if they got the same information online or in a library.

6) The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Some element of the writer is bound to come up in what they write, but this seems taken a bit far for the sake of a hot take. Probably some of Kafka’s thoughts and life experience are in there, but Anne Frank’s diary or Russell Brand’s Booky Wook is likely more autobiographical than a story about a dude turning into a giant beetle.

It is a cool story – you can read it here.

7) You see more sitting still than chasing after.

confused face meme

8) It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

The internet can be procrastination, yes, but… luddite much? Also, ‘his workplace’. Huh. Either that second X chromosome has the useful ‘no, get off twitter you’re meant to be writing’ gene, or women don’t write, or something.

9) Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

I agree. Verbs pulled from a thesaurus can be a lazy way to try to give an event more pizzaz without actually presenting it differently. The important word here is ‘seldom’ – thinking back to Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions. So long as we don’t go mad here, this is solid advice.

10) You have to love before you can be relentless.

FacebookMinionMeme.jpg

Writing Altered States

drinking in bar

Something I come back to sometimes in my writing, for some reason, is altered mental states and related topics. Drugs are an obvious example, but this can also be relevant to magic and a wide range of other possibilities. If your character just lost a limb in a sword fight, they’re not in their usual state of mind.

I wrote a story in uni about a rocket scientist microdosing LSD. My WIP features some drinking, a fictional opiate, and the state in which mages access magic. I recently wrote a story about a lich in Magicholics Anonymous.

If you want to show your characters drunk, on something, or affected through other means, here are some thoughts on how to address that.

Do your research

There’s a good chance you already know how alcohol works (if not, information will be easy to get). Beyond that, you can find reports on what various substances are like in places like r/Psychonaut, r/Drugs, and affiliated subreddits. The YouTuber Cg Kid has apparently taken everything, and candidly describes both the experience and the dark side.

Similarly, you can look up weird meditative and spiritual experiences, sleep deprivation, shock, the effects of solitary confinement, whatever else the plot requires.

The impressions given in general media tend not to be as subjectively in-depth or accurate as what you’ll get from resources like above, though any source has its bias. Marijuana in films and TV has often been made to look like a psychedelic for some reason, and LSD visuals may be more subtle than the stereotypical imagery.

If you’re making a fictional substance, bear these categories and examples in mind:

  • Depressant: alcohol, marijuana.

  • Stimulant: caffeine, cocaine, meth.

  • Opiate: morphine, heroin.

  • Psychedelic: LSD, DMT.

  • Dissociative: ketamine.

  • Deliriant: datura.

Fight the purple

It’s very easy to slip into purple prose if your character has dropped DMT, or is meeting with an entity from another plane of existence to negotiate a pact.

Overwrought similes and metaphors can just be confusing word salad. Don’t be afraid to do a bit of telling, or trim down some of the detail and give readers space to picture it themselves. If you’re being metaphorical, base the metaphor in relatable physical things so the reader has something solid they can hitch their imagination to.

For example, it’s much better to describe an opiate as a warm, heavy blanket than to write a paragraph about thoughts going quiet.

Down-to-earth details

Well-chosen details, particularly physical, can add great realism and nuance while fighting purpleness. Infinite Jest does this well, including things like itching behind the eyes, saliva, a clinical taste after injecting which addicts end up associating with the high, and so on.

Bringing in the five senses, and mentioning side-effects in a non-didactic way, are ways to make something outside most people’s experience much more real, showing you didn’t just skim the opening sentence of the wikipedia page, while avoiding an excessively rose-tinted stance.

Use external behaviour – what they say, how they move, how they interact. You can write a drunk character without a single word about how they feel.

Use the contrast

Don’t focus solely on how the character feels inside.

This is an opportunity to reveal new facets of your characters, to make them lighten up or to make them get reflective. Show a talkative character drawn into themselves, exposing hidden depths; or a normally careful character losing their inhibitions to explosive effect. Show a seasoned commander unresponsive, a background follower recklessly leading the charge.

Contrasting with the way they normally present themselves will add dimensions to both the altered state and the character in it.

On the level of sentences

Something to consider is changing up the rhythm of your sentences and paragraphs to help paint the experience. This can be quite powerful, and might buy you points from the literary crowd for being ‘experimental’ if you take it far enough.

So a character. In an opium den. Might be nodding out. So short sentences like this. Can help show a sleepy daze. As everything slows down. And it’s hard to think.

Or if they’re on like coke or meth or adrenaline in a battle well it’s going a mile a minute and you’re not going to get a paragraph or much punctuation really for a while there might be multiple strands of thought going back and forth rapidly just freewrite a bit and see what comes this will help you get in the right zone of mind too.

Apply this in their dialogue too.

Do you find yourself writing this kind of thing much? How do you approach it?

The Moral of the Story

Pepe Silvia meme

Your story – what does it all mean? How can you give it a good theme, something for readers to interpret and think about?

Well, it’s okay if a story doesn’t have a moral. It’s fine for something to be fun or scary or sad or whatever simply for the sake of it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism – even, perhaps especially, in today’s crazy climate. You are not obligated to comment wokely on everything that happens all the time.

But meaningful fiction is great and important too.

The big risk with trying to Say Something is that you bash the reader over the head with it. An overwrought attempt at theme can come across as the unholy pretentious spawn of a story and an essay. Hey, why not write some non-fiction then?

In On Writing, in line with his pantser/gardener approach, Stephen King says that:

starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. The only possible exceptions to this rule that I can think of are allegories[…]

This article takes a similar view, but says having ideas in mind from the start can be helpful so long as it’s with a light touch:

if you approach your theme front ways on, it’ll sound crass and didactic, so what do you do? Well, the most important thing is to write well. If your stories, characters and prose are superbly knitted together, you’ll start to see themes forming like a mist rising from a field at dusk. It just happens. Secondly, it’s fine to have some ideas in mind as you write. They should stay towards the back of your mind, though. Stories must be told through character and action, and it’s these things which should occupy your conscious attention. But if those things are at the back of your mind, then they’ll wriggle their way into your work.

Kristen Kieffer takes a more ‘plotter’ approach here. She says that ‘You can make a point of choosing these themes during the pre-writing process,’ as well as letting it develop naturally and emphasizing it in later drafts.

Kieffer suggests building theme by considering the implications of your character arcs:

Take a look at the main character(s) in your current work-in-progress, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is my character at the beginning of the story?
  • What are their flaws, and what holds them back from happiness or fulfilment?
  • How do the events of my story shape my character for the better or the worse?
  • Do they overcome their characters flaws and the obstacles that stand in their way? How so?
  • Who has my character become by the end of the story?

Once you’ve answered these questions, review what you’ve written and try to identify any themes that naturally arise. What are you trying to say about these topics?

This is a more deliberate approach that can be used to plan theme in a first draft. But notice that it still avoids approaching theme ‘front ways on’, to hopefully not be ‘crass and didactic’. This more plotter/architect tactic still takes King’s point about fiction that ‘begins with story and progresses to theme’.

Where King first writes the pure story as a first draft, then thinks about theme while editing, Kieffer’s approach suggests planning character arcs, building theme through that, and then writing a first draft which has both story and theme there from the start.

In both cases the theme arises for the reader through implied points and subtext, from the story itself instead of from a heavy-handed author dropping in to give a speech.

Getting Characters Between Places

adult-airport-arrival-1008155

Since seeing Michael James tweet about finding them difficult, I’ve been thinking about movement/physical transition scenes – showing characters going somewhere, whether from one room to another, or on a journey further afield. This isn’t something I see mentioned a lot. There’s a great deal of discussion about pacing, worldbuilding, planning, all the large-scale stuff. But actually, this smaller issue presents real headaches.

I can definitely look over my writing, especially first drafts, and see points where the characters are going from room to room and it feels like a succession of ‘they went to the kitchen, passed through to the living room, sallied forth into the spare bedroom…’ Wooden, switching up the verbs to try to hide how mechanical it is. Meh.

I have a few ideas for trying to make physical transitions work better, but if anyone has more insight, do chip in.

Skip to the arrival

A chapter ends with a character realising they need to go somewhere distant. Do we need to see their time on the train, plane, or boat? Unless something interesting happens on the journey, it may be stronger for the next chapter to begin with them arriving. You could show the change in climate as they shiver in a thick coat, or the duration through the bushy beard they grew on the ship.

This can work for smaller, room-to-room transitions too. Two characters can meet at the front door, then be talking at the kitchen table. It’s pretty obvious that they walked there, you don’t always have to say it.

Something interesting happens on the journey

Instead of ‘they <verb> to <place>’, make the journey a worthwhile scene in its own right. Long journeys have a lot of potential for important conversations and dramatic events. They can be a moment of calm where something more about the character is revealed, or throw up unexpected obstacles and conflicts.

On a shorter trip, such as between buildings, focus less on describing the route – second left, straight past the dentist’s, blah blah blah – and more on any conversation, thoughts, and observations on the way.

For room-to-room transitions, there can still be a great bit of detail in the description. A nugget of worldbuilding, a small note steeped in subtext. On the way between rooms, a character might overhear half a line of dialogue that ends up overturning the whole story later on.

Tell, don’t show

‘She rummaged through all the wardrobes, then went to the kitchen and tried all the drawers…’

Why not just: ‘She searched the bedroom, kitchen, and the back of the sofa. The locket was gone.’

Instead of showing the character moving about, tell us in a brisk swoop that they either achieved or did not achieve The Thing. Sometimes a quick bit of telling can pack more of a punch than showing every step along the way.

Switch perspective or subplot

While one character is going somewhere, this might be a good time to see what someone else is up to. What is the person they’re going to visit doing to prepare for the arrival? Is there a subplot you haven’t gone back to for a while?

A character travelling can be a natural point to leave them and address something else, coming back to them as their side of the story kicks back into gear.

Is it actually bad?

Maybe there isn’t really a problem. It just seems like there’s one to us, because we’ve read our little transition scenelet a whole bunch of times, actively looking for flaws, doubting ourselves. A normal reader might take it as given and breeze on through without a second thought. Take a break, try to be more objective, perhaps consult other people.