Getting Better at Getting Better.

A couple of blogs ago there was a request for more in-depth advice so here’s a blog about the things I’ve learned to keep in mind while creating and constructing my stories, in fact, let’s create a hypothetical novel together!

First up, concept. A strong concept is the core of any story, whatever genre you’re writing you want to come up with an elevator pitch, a short, punchy way of selling your story to readers or publishers. You might think it’s early days to be thinking about that kind of thing but (even though it might change in the writing) having that defined core concept that encompasses the theme and narrative of where your story’s going and what it’s about in a concise paragraph can really help you when you get stuck. So, let’s pick a genre, how about… Post-Apoc. As a genre Post-Apoc can encompass elements of Sci-fi, Horror, Thriller and others so it’s a nice catch-all for this example.

Once you have a genre you can pick a setting which will inform the cultures, customs and conventions you’re going to be working with and building around. Now it’s no surprise that Western culture dominates the fiction scene, the English speaking and reading market is huge. But it’s also common for western writers to draw on other cultures as inspiration. It’s also common for western writers to get it horribly wrong and inadvertently insult the very culture they’re sourcing so research is key at this point. Of course you can also distil new cultures from existing examples. This works through fantasy and sci-fi as well. Your setting wants to be distinctive and, whether that’s achieved by drawing on a few choice elements and exaggerating/manipulating them or starting the whole build from scratch, that can be one of the hardest parts.

Once you have a landscape and society it’s time to populate if with factions. Something to remember while you work on the ongoing story is to give some thought to what these groups are doing while your protagonists are following their story arc. The simple fact is that, no matter how wide or tight the focus on the MC’s is there are going to be events taking place outside of their scope that will effect their journey. The widest scope would be the meta-plot, this concerns what will often be background events in the world or wider universe. It could be the progress of a military campaign, viral outbreak or environmental crisis, it can encompass the higher authorities reactions to that situation. Then there are the immediate plot elements. The situation your characters find themselves in and the characters they then interact with to resolve their situation.  These are the events that they face on their ‘journey’ be that literal or figurative. Alongside this there is the inter-character dynamic. Whatever external dangers or stresses the characters face their reactions ought to have some impact on their immediate social group and relationships. Now, no matter how wide-scale or dramatic the plot, it’s how it effects the characters that keeps the audience reading.

No matter where your characters fall in the hierarchy all these events will have their impact (who knew that Luke Skywalker would end up bringing down the Empire?). So, whether you’re following ‘the Chosen One’ or the Chief of the Tribe or the Warlord of the Wastes they should be working against and around both the external and internal influences of these plots and sub-plots. The Chief might be preparing for a war against another, aggressive tribe over dwindling water supplies but that doesn’t mean they don’t also have to deal with rebellious teenage offspring desperate to prove their own worth in the face of the oncoming conflict. The leader of that aggressive tribe ought to have a deeper motivation too. Fun as it can be to have a baddy bad-guy who’s bad because they just are, that’s selling to the Pulp crowd and if that’s you’re market you go at it. Of course, if you want to sell your work to the broader market you need antagonists with a little more motive than that.

So, setting, story and characters are prepared, now you’ve got to actually write it. So, a few notes on that.

  • Voice; whatever page you turn to, whatever you’re reading should be happening ‘now’. Present tense and active voice at all times (unless it’s a recollection from the MC’s PoV).
  • Cause and Effect; It’s always good to include foreshadowing and plot hooks for later but only if they come to something. You may be aiming to write a whole series but that doesn’t mean each book can neglect some form of satisfying resolution. The best multi-layered plots introduce the meta-plot over time alongside a plot-line that can and is resolved over the course of a single book.
  • Pacing; Beginning, Middle and End is all well and good but, as a writer you should be thinking in terms of ‘Exposition, introduction, intensify, resolve, intensify, climax, resolution. The characters meet a situation or peril, find some way to survive or resolve the immediate threat but then an influence from the meta-plot intensifies the danger they face in a different way. It’s about increasing the drama, stepping up the danger and urgency. Think of your book like a roller-coaster, you set-up the story in the first chapter or two, that’s the climb, then there’s the drop and the loops and the brief level sections and slow downs, another climb and then the big loop-de-loop before the end.
  • Your characters are people too; let the story influence them. One of the most disappointing things to encounter in fiction is characters who don’t learn or develop over time. I calls into question the point of the whole adventure/ordeal. Self-discovery is at the core of fiction, by exploring the effect of events upon a character the reader is prompted to ask ‘What would I do in that situation?’

So, external influences, metaplots, character development, cause-and-effect, resolutions and active voice. That’s my advice to step up your writing and satisfy your audience. So, keep at it, stay creative (or don’t, be kind to yourself) and be safe.

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