Saturday, 29 April 2017
The success of a first chapter – grabbing the reader’s attention and keeping it - is dependent upon a number of things, all of which play a crucial part. It’s especially important if you are targeting agents and publishers, because then it’s not just the reader you have to impress.
First chapters can be daunting for some, not because they are necessarily hard – where do you start? – but because they are the foundation on which the entire novel will sit and some writers are not sure how to begin.
The name of the game, of course, is to entice the reader, to grab their interest and to maintain it from start to finish. What could be easier?
There are no hard and fast rules, but the advice is quite universal – for first chapters to be successful, they have to include certain elements, they must perform certain functions, or they just won’t work.
But before a writer commits one word to their story, they first need to establish a number of things in order to help make the entire process easier.
If you haven’t yet outlined or planned your story, consider it. Whether it’s a detailed breakdown or just a simple checklist, whatever your approach is, make sure you know your story, you know your characters, you know roughly where it will start and what it needs to achieve.
Decide Your POV and Tense
It’s surprising how many writers get halfway through a novel and have a meltdown because they’ve chosen the wrong POV. (This is why planning is always helpful and avoids such hair-pulling and time wasting).
Decide if the story is First Person present, first person past, third person present, third person past or third person multiple.
Once decided, do not switch POVs within the writing, otherwise the entire novel will fail. That doesn’t mean that novels can’t switch from third person to first person, because they can, but it takes practice and it needs to be done carefully, because whatever the POV, it has to be clear, seamless and never confusing.
Decide the Starting Point
Have a rough idea where the story will start; at what point in your main character’s life the story should begin. This helps to pinpoint the best moment to start. Often this start may be changed at editing stage, but in order to begin any story, it first has to have a starting point.
Aspects of your first chapter that must be established:-
Introduce the Main Character
Readers need to know whose story it is and why. If they don’t get to find out until chapter two, then any initial interest will be lost. The quicker you introduce the protagonist, the quicker the reader can establish a bond with him or her so that they will care what happens.
Don’t be tempted to introduce the character and then spend the next two pages describing what she looks like and detailing her backstory. That’s not necessary. A writer has an entire novel to drip feed the reader with all the information and description the reader needs. Throw the reader snippets. Be a bit stingy with detail. For now. It’s a great way to lure the reader. The less they know about someone, the more they want to find out.
Set the Tone
Why is this so important?
The tone of the story helps the reader to become immersed in the story. It tells the reader immediately what the story will involve, whether it’s a light romantic story, or a heavy, tension filled thriller.
If you begin your horror story with a happy party full of children laughing, it doesn’t help to establish the tone. Conversely, if a romantic novel opens with a grisly murder scene, it gives the reader the wrong message and reader will become confused by the tone of the story. That’s why it’s important to set the tone at the outset.
Establish a Main Theme
Any story can have multiple themes, but usually there is a strong main theme that is prevalent throughout the story. The opening chapter should hint at what this theme is by using visual prompts or subtle hints, dialogue, even brief visual descriptions that give the reader a clue of the underlying current.
Show the Main Character’s Goal
It’s the reason the main character is part of the story. He or she has a main goal, something that needs to be done to resolve the situation, which all relates to motivation, conflict and emotion.
He or she wants something, and somehow, by whatever means, he or she will achieve it, whatever the price.
You don’t have to go into huge detail on this. A few words, a sentence, a hint…that’s all that’s needed to show the reader where the opening chapter is taking place, what time frame it might occur or what period of history it is.
It’s another way of giving the reader information in a subtle way that helps them build up an entire picture, just from the opening chapter.
Conflict is the story’s lifeblood. Writers don’t have to go into huge detail on what the conflict is, otherwise the opening chapter can become burdened by exposition and backstory and pages of boring information that reader doesn’t yet need to know.
Never miss an opportunity to tease and lure the reader. Hint at the tension and conflict that bubbles beneath the surface. Show subtle clues to the emotions of the main character, the thoughts they have, because emotions are a brilliant way to see beneath the façade of a person’s character.
At the heart of conflict lies emotion and need. Someone wants or needs something and someone or something prevents them. That’s the simple structure of conflict.
In Part 2 we’ll look at other ways of making first chapters successful and how this can be achieved.
Making First Chapters Successful – Part 2
Sunday, 16 April 2017
What is meant by contrasting description?
In this context, contrast is all about complimenting the underlying story with different, opposing aspects. It’s a literary device that provides the light and dark shades to description, but one that is rarely thought about.
Contrasting description isn’t just about being vivid in order to draw in the reader. It creates a different tone and atmosphere by allowing the reader to imagine those subtle differences and therefore hold their attention. It is also a way of uniting two separate concepts, for instance if the writer describes abject stillness contrasted with lots of movement, or utter silence contrasted with overbearing noise. These are interesting contrasts that can be layered within the main description, for example:
When the din finally stopped, when it seemed all had stopped, a strange kind of hush crept in, like a fine mist, and rendered the muddy, bloody landscape in a silence that he felt all too deafening, and for a moment he held his hands to his ears to shut out the screams in his head...
The contrast here lies in the way the quietness of the scene creeps in, (following the noise of a battle), to the character trying to diminish the screams that can only be heard by him, despite the silence around him. This allows the reader to see through the main description to the emotion hidden beneath; that this man is emotionally distraught.
In this second example, the contrast uses colour as concepts layered within the description, rather sounds or perceptions:
Dmitry should have been appalled, but he wasn’t, because the soldier’s death was nothing like the poppy red puddles he’d seen glistening on pristine snow, spewed from his mother in her last moments, but instead the soldier’s blue-eyed expression remained unmoved the snow unsullied, despite the blade sticking out of his chest...
Here, the character, Dmitry, feels disappointed that the soldier’s death is nothing like his mother’s death, and it uses the distinction of ‘poppy red’ puddles on ‘pristine snow’ to separate the ‘unmoved’ and ‘unsullied’ death by contrast, and it achieves that by neatly weaving these two concepts within the description. It makes it more interesting for the reader, and really focuses their attention on that moment.
Sound and colour are just two ideas that are often contrasted. Dickens contrasted best and worst of times, and wisdom and foolishness in the opener to A Tale of Two Cities. It’s subtle – a blink and you’ll miss it moment – but it’s still contrast nevertheless. Shakespeare uses contrast in almost all of his work. The most used example is Sonnet 130, where he contrasts the features of a mistress – her eyes are nothing like the sun, lips not as red as coral, her breasts are not as white as snow, and hair like wire – to show how ordinary she is by comparison to these things. As the reader, we imagine the mistress to be rather plain and unattractive.
Writers often like to contrast the weather, or light and darkness to underpin themes of good and bad. Themes and ideas can also be subject to contrast. Love and hate are universal themes, as found in Romeo and Juliet, tension and travesty are contrasted in many descriptions within To Kill A Mockingbird, but the way writers are able to contrast them within their descriptions makes all the difference to the depth and meaning of that description.
Writers can use contrast in almost anything – sound, colour, theme, sensations, perceptions, people, ideas, surroundings and emotions...things that can provide the reader with more than just pretty words, but rather something more meaningful and rich.
But what about characters?
Characters are often contrasted; however, writers should be careful not to create cliché here. The reason for this is because contrasting characters have largely been done to death – the kind of stuff usually seen in movies tends to be regurgitated in novels, for example the good cop, bad cop pairing, or the brilliant character and the stupid character who team up, or the black guy with white guy who settle their differences by working together. This is the same for pairing male and female characters or kids and adults and so on. They may not seem it, but all of these are cliché.
If you contrast characters, make them unique and different in a way rarely seen before in order to avoid the hackneyed ones we so often see. Contrasting characters doesn’t have to mean ‘opposite’, but rather it can mean ‘complimentary’. Writers just have to think differently about it.
Description is a valuable part of our writing, but sometimes we can weave different elements within it to make it more interesting and thought provoking for our readers. By creating contrasting description, we give readers more than one layer to peel back; we give them many layers to help transport them from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Next week: Making first chapters successful
Saturday, 8 April 2017
Every story has an antagonist, in some form, whether that’s human, a corporation, a government, an animal, something environmental, something elemental, mechanical, robotic or even other worldly.
But how important is it to have a clearly defined antagonist?
The role of the antagonist is to thwart, impede or cause all manner of problems in order to stop your main character reaching his or her goal. Antagonists come in all forms and usually represent the immoral, negative side to the often moral, ethical and positive side of the protagonist. They are often portrayed as evil, nasty and villainous, but they can also be none of those. An antagonist doesn’t have to be evil, but he or she should be well drawn out and realistic in his or her behaviour.
That means they also have a goal to reach within the story, which will bring them into conflict with the main character. Why and how is important for writers to explore and cultivate, just as they would do with the main character. These characters revolve around each other and the plot.
Often stories have a gamut of leading characters and it’s not always easy to figure out just whose story it is, because they haven’t clearly defined those characters. This is a common mistake by writers. The reader has to know whose story it is, who is involved and why. This alone is good reason to clearly define such characters – clarity is so important in fiction.
And just because your hero gets star billing doesn’t mean you can leave the antagonist in the shadows. They have a story to tell, too, which is always linked to the main character somehow. They have to leap from the page in just the same way your protagonist does. They must therefore have motivation – reasons why they do what they do or behave in certain ways – and they should also have goals and backstory. And just like the hero, they, too, must develop and evolve throughout the story. That’s what makes them real. But it also marks them from other secondary characters that inhabit your story.
These things define your antagonist.
Without an antagonist, the story may lack depth and structure, since the protagonist won’t have much to do in the way achieving his or her goal if he doesn’t have someone causing problems and obstacles at every turn. Without such a character, where will the conflict come from? Conflict is so important in any story, otherwise there isn’t a story to tell. How can conflict arise if there is no antagonism?
Antagonists are often the very reason readers become so invested in a story, because they want the hero to overcome the bad guy, they want some form of comeuppance, they want the satisfaction of seeing the antagonist defeated. That’s one of the reasons that keep them gripped to the story.
Develop your antagonist as much as you can. Make them as complex, formidable and multidimensional as your hero. Make him or her real enough for your reader to provoke reaction and emotions from your reader, especially when he or she gets the upper hand over the main character and seems unstoppable. We desperately want the hero to fight back, to regain control, to overcome all obstacles to defeat the bad guy.
Antagonists should stand out from the secondary characters. They should be introduced early within the story develop in all their antagonistic glory. They must appear real to the reader, in everything they do.
Love them or hate them, they have place within our stories and a vital role to play, so yes, it’s important they should be clearly defined. If not, your story won’t be a strong as you think it is.
And neither will your hero.
Next week: Creating contrasting description
Sunday, 2 April 2017
In part 1, we looked at the editing during the writing process, and the problems it might cause to the overall flow of the story. In this second part we’ll look at editing after the first draft has been written, and whether this process is more suited to a polished, finished product.
Editing After Writing
Most writers separate the two tasks of the writing process – writing and editing –and treat them as such. The first part of the process is the writing, getting the bare bones of the story written and laying the foundations with which to build a brilliant story. The second part of that process – editing – follows a short down time which allows the writer to come back to the story refreshed, with new ideas and a clear understanding of the plot. This down time separates the writer from the story in an objective way.
Writers do a read-through prior to actual editing. This gives them an idea how the story actually reads, however, the constant tweaking of editing as you go means this is just not possible.
Unlike the start-stop process of editing as you write, leaving this process until the story is written allows for an unfettered storyline that is more focused in detail and ideas, even if it is the first messy draft. That’s because the story has been allowed to happen without interference.
Not only that, but it will have taken less time to write because there is no constant back and forth trying to constantly edit everything. The argument here, of course, is that the editing process is just as long anyway, so how is this way more efficient?
It’s more efficient because the first draft, followed by the first edit - as two separate processes - is much quicker than the first draft being editing from day to day, tweaked, changed, then written, then tweaked, then written and then finally finished, only to have the same proper editorial process applied anyway, because even though the writer has edited during writing, it will not be ready for publication. It will still need editing properly. So the process takes twice as long as is necessary.
Mistakes that have been made in the first draft are much easier to spot during a proper, focused first stage edit, and that’s because the writer has taken some time away from it and therefore doesn’t fall into the trap of “not seeing the wood for the trees”. It’s also much easier to spot more complex errors in the characterisation, the plot or the continuity of the story and its events. That’s because the whole of the story is being observed, rather than in snippets.
Plot flaws, sub plots problems, cohesion of story, flow, pace, chronological events, continuity...all these are much easier to spot than they would be if editing as you go. And because there is no “interfering” of previous chapters during the writing process, then it stands to reason that the latter part of the story – the most important part of the entire thing – actually makes sense because earlier events tie in with concluding events as they should. Writers who edit as they go miss this cohesion, which is why their stories meander unnecessarily or lose focus.
By “seeing” the whole story from start to finish, it’s much easier to see what elements have worked and which ones haven’t. This just isn’t possible if you edit as you go, because of the constant changes. With the whole story, some things can be cut, some added, and some changed to make the story much better and stronger. It’s also possible to see story flow, correct pacing and correct continuity errors.
Of course, the best thing about editing after you’ve written the story is that you can add metaphor, similes, motifs and symbolism, foreshadowing, character motives, themes and other complex aspects to certain scenes or chapters, characters and situations that you can’t do if you edit as you go.
Pros and cons aside, the general advice is to leave the process of editing until the whole story is written. Of course, writers can do as they please when it comes to their writing, but there is general advice and certain guidelines in place for a very good reason.Next week: Is it important to have a clearly defined antagonist?