Tag Archives: how to write an interesting story

Pedal to the Metal

I’m about 75% of the way through the fifth draft of ‘Tider’, and still going strong; it’s turning out to be more of a rewrite than a draft, however. I never cease to be amazed by the fact that you can’t just change one tiny detail when you’re doing novel edits. That one tiny detail, much like a snowball rolling down a hill, always seems to turn into a life-changing, book-wrecking disaster by the time you get to the end of the next chapter.

Image: losetheexcuses.blogspot.com

Image: losetheexcuses.blogspot.com

I have to keep reminding myself that, with every tweak, I am making the book better and stronger and more nuanced and ensuring it makes some sort of sense and tying up all manner of loose plotlines (nothing is as dangerous as a loose plotline, lying around). It would be impossible to keep going, otherwise. However it does feel, at times, like you’re going around in circles, making a change one day and removing it the next; I’m looking forward to finishing this draft and then leaving ‘Tider’ alone for as long as I can before going back to it with a fresh eye.

Also, yesterday, I finally managed to come up with an opening sentence that I’m happy with. I’ve been working on ‘Tider’ for nigh-on three months at this stage, and I’ve written and rewritten the book’s opening sentence at least fifteen thousand hundred squillion times, so finding one that I didn’t hate on sight was, I think, an achievement. It’s cruel that the most important sentence in the book, arguably, is the one that you have to write first, and the one with which you’re likely to be least happy. I’m really hoping I won’t look at this sentence again when I start working on the book today and wonder if I wrote it in a feverish, coffee-fuelled fit, and throw it out like so many others before it; I’d like to keep it, just for a while, and see if it grows on me.

Image: health.com

Image: health.com

As well as that, I came across a scene I’d written at one of the more action-packed escape sequences in the book which I can’t believe survived as long as it did. It comes at a point where the heroine has just taken a huge risk with her life and limb in order to get away from a pursuer, and she meets a small, secondary character. They proceed to have a long, pointless, rambling conversation that tells us nothing about either character and completely kills the forward momentum. When I read it yesterday it was one of those head-slappy moments where you gnash your teeth and tear your hair and scream at the sky:

What was I thinking?!?

Once I’d recovered from my melodrama, I rewrote the scene and cut out anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary (which was basically the entire scene). I ended up trimming over a thousand words. One thousand words is a lot of words to have in a scene that are doing absolutely nothing useful; one thousand words of dead weight, particularly all in one place, is really quite silly.

I know the rules – I know you’re not supposed to have so much as a sentence in your novel that doesn’t propel the action forward in some way (at least, for the sort of novel I’m trying to write – if you’re Umberto Eco or Paolo Coelho or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or someone like that, you’re allowed to use beautiful language, just because), and I know you’re supposed to move fast. So why did I have my protagonist stop off, mid-chase sequence, to chat to an extremely minor character about her troubled childhood?

Darned if I know. Image: gifrific.com

Darned if I know.
Image: gifrific.com

It’s strange how, sometimes, we can get lost inside the world we’re creating as we write. I’m glad to know that the character my protagonist meets had a hard life, and is unhappy in her job, but there’s no need to make it part of the story. Also, my protagonist is the type of person who is sympathetic to others, and I think that came out in the scene as I first wrote it. She met a sad, downtrodden woman and wanted to help her – that’s nice, but it doesn’t help the plot, so sadly it has to be junked.

*sigh*

FYI – at last count, my Offcuts file (where I keep all the bits and pieces I’ve snipped out of ‘Tider’) is 54,000 words.

Fifty. Four. Thousand. Words.

I’ll leave you with that nugget of knowledge for today.

Happy Thursday. If you make mistakes today, may they be small, and easily undone.

Writing Stories: Some Helpful Hints!

In honour of it being Friday, and because I’ve been focusing on short stories and flash fiction this week, and because stories are taking over my tiny mind, I thought today I’d blog about some things I’ve learned about story-writing. I wouldn’t go so far as to call what follows a list of rules – far be it from me to lay down the law – but they’re a list of observations, based on empirical evidence. They may be useful; they may not. Either way, writing this post will get them out of my head, which will make my life a bit more peaceful.

That'll be me, there, on the end, with the big smiley head. Image: mindco-consulting.com

That’ll be me, there, on the end, with the big smiley head.
Image: mindco-consulting.com

Ahoy! Off we go.

One of the first things I’ve learned about writing stories is this:

Discard the obvious

Perhaps this isn’t news to anyone, but it was a bit of a revelation to me. You know when you see a writing prompt, or you read something inspiring, and a story starts to suggest itself in your mind? Chances are you’re having a wonderful idea which will turn out to be a fantastic story, but it’s also possible that the first idea – indeed, the first few ideas – which will occur to you are going to be ‘obvious’, predictable, and based, unconsciously, in things you’ve read or seen already.

I don’t mean this to sound discouraging. Write, and write, and write, by all means. But it’s good to be aware that the first idea which will strike you isn’t always the best one to go with. A really good tactic to get around this problem is to write as much as you can, and read widely; but then, I think reading and writing as much as possible is, pretty much, the cure for everything.

Next!

Try writing your idea from the other side

Now, obviously, I don’t mean slipping into the Happy Hunting Ground and writing all your stories from beyond the grave. What I mean is taking your idea and flipping it around. You could try writing the story from another person’s point of view, or taking your main characters and swapping their opinions on something important, or changing the gender/age/race/whatever of your main players. This may not do anything besides reinforce your conviction that you had the story right first time, but at least it’ll be fun. Also, you never know what new ideas might spring from it.

Onward!

Try writing your story all in dialogue

Sometimes, stories written all in dialogue work quite well. Sometimes, they don’t. A key to a successful all-dialogue story is making each voice distinctive, so there’s no confusion on the reader’s part as to who is speaking at any particular moment. In fact, this is an important thing to bear in mind for written dialogue of any sort. However, the reason I think writing a draft of a short story all in dialogue can be a useful writing tool is this: it can help you to really get under the skin of a character. Their dialogue can betray verbal tics, sayings, dialect, accent, education, bias or prejudice – all of which, of course, makes them a richer and more rounded character. You can take these insights with you as you rewrite the story – or, of course, you could choose to keep your all-dialogue style. Either way, you’ve got a cool story.

Forward!

Work on your images

So, you have a story. It’s working well. It’s about a woman having a terrible fight with her husband, we’ll say. The woman feels irritated at her husband’s habit of leaving piles of used tissues all over the house, perhaps, or maybe he leaves little towers of nail clippings in tiny sculptural arrangements on every flat surface, or something of that ilk. (Please note: this is not based on any observations of my own husband. Just in case.)

Anyway. So far, so good, so expected. The story is fine, and well-written, but it’s not grabbing the reader’s attention. Millions of stories exist about a husband and wife having a row over the silly minutiae of life. A way to elevate your story onto another plane of interest is to use descriptive images that are startling, eye-catching, perhaps even a little disturbing – the more ‘everyday’ your story is (i.e. set in the ‘real’ world, featuring ordinary folk doing ordinary things), the more ‘out-there’ your images can be. The contrast can sometimes be intriguing.

It’s very important to note, however, that this approach doesn’t work for everyone. It can, sometimes, lend a sci-fi or ‘magical realism’ air to a piece which won’t work for every story, so use this tip sparingly.

Interlude

It's hard work, this. Phew. Nice cup of tea will sort me out. Image: daisyandzelda.com

It’s hard work, this. Phew. Nice cup of tea will sort me out.
Image: daisyandzelda.com

Right. Refreshed! Back to it.

You don’t necessarily have to have a ‘twist’ – but try to make the end of your story unpredictable

So. It seems to me that sometimes twists at the end of stories can irritate readers. They can sometimes seem contrived, and not in keeping with the rest of the story, if they’re only included for the sake of having them. Also, here’s the scary bit: a reader can always tell if the twisty ending is ‘set up’, and not an organic part of the story. So, it’s important to plan and plot your writing, especially if the piece you’re writing is as short as flash. In 200 words, or 150 words, or 300 words, or whatever, plotting and planning is absolutely vital – not one word can go to waste, so it’s important to make them all work as hard as they can. If you want a twisty, dark, unpredictable ending, then make sure it’s planned from the outset and organically, naturally hinted at and prepared for the whole way through the story. Anything else can seem like a ‘deus ex machina’, which is irritating.

Just my 2 cents, now. Don’t take any of this too seriously.

Remember all the senses

Sometimes in writing it’s easy to get distracted by the sense of sight, particularly in short fiction. You ‘see’ the world of your story through the eyes of your character; you see the other characters, you look at their reactions. But sometimes a smell, or a sound, will tell a reader far more than anything a character can see. Making full use of the senses also helps to create a believable character (this is, of course, if your characters are in possession of all the senses – of course, a lot of very interesting writing can centre on characters who have senses which are different to the ‘norm’); people naturally use all the senses at their disposal without even realising it, so characters should be the same.

Anyway. There’s lots I’ve learned about writing over the past while, but I hope these little pointers will be of use to others. If you agree, or particularly if you violently disagree, with anything in this post, let me have it in the comments. Healthy exchange of ideas is what it’s all about, right?

Happy Friday, everyone. Hang in there. It’s nearly the weekend.