How to Write Fiction by Gurmeet Mattu - HTML preview

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INTRODUCTION

Is the pen mightier than the sword? Can words have so much power?

Consider the Bible, the Koran, Das Kapital, The Wealth of Nations. Only words, and yet they have moved nations and destroyed empires. Words are powerful beasts and the ability to control them makes the writer a potent foe. If you are a writer you are a dangerous entity. If you are a good writer you are a positive menace.

But just as anybody can wield a sword, not everybody can be a master swordsman, and not everybody can be a great writer. But with instruction and practice you can improve your skill.

So, this creative writing course doesn’t teach you how to write, it teaches you how to be a better writer.

Welcome to an adventure I hope you’ll find enjoyable as well as educational. The aim is to take your innate talent and teach you some skills and techniques that will make you a more confident writer. Remember that word, confidence. I can’t make you a great writer and I certainly can’t guarantee that you will be a great success, but I can promise that if you take on board what I give you in these pages you will be a much more rounded writer and one that is not afraid to tackle any subject in any format and thrust it in front of any audience - a confident writer.

The 14 informational Modules are structured, but in a fairly loose way and you will be subject to my digressions at points. Bear with me on this, everything has a point, if only in letting you get to know me better. The Modules vary in length, but all are equally important in building your skill set. Take your time and try to absorb what I’m trying to tell you and why. If you put up barriers against learning you can’t expect to gain anything from the Course.

Performing the Exercises is not mandatory but I’d recommend that you have a crack at them. Reading what I write is easy, but doing the Exercises gets your mind working on a different plane and builds good habits.

There may be points where you think I’m stating the obvious or, alternatively, that I’m being over complex, but this is inevitable with the nature of this Course. I have no way of knowing at what stage in your writing career you are, or even how bright you are. A certain level of intelligence is no doubt necessary for any writer but the art of writing is such a broad church that genius status is not required to achieve. I’m proof of that.

The final Module is the Tasks and you should really be able to tackle these by that point.

Enjoy the process, it’s the best way to learn.

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MODULE 1 (Non-Fiction or News Writing)

Why non-fiction?

Because if you learn to master the art of writing or reporting on reality you’ll find the creation of fiction much easier.

Having said that the journalist or reporter is rarely a writer. They act more as detectives, gathering information which is then collated into readable prose by sub-editors. We all learn to write as very young children, but somehow many never manage to master the techniques of producing basic understandable prose which transmits the writer’s message clearly and concisely. Any brief browse round the internet will prove that. Websites abound with grammatical and spelling errors and yet one assumes that those who post this material are at least computer literate.

So what differentiates writers from non-writers? Writers write and non-writers don’t. Seems simple, but in writing, the competent writer learns and enhances his ability.

You can too.

I’m not here to teach basic spelling or grammar, that’s a task you must assume yourself. The only comment I’ll make is – don’t trust spellcheckers because they know nothing of context. To them ‘their’ and ‘there’ are both correct spellings, but only in the correct place. By all means run a spellcheck over your material for glaring errors. But you must do a personal check to pick up what the machine’s missed.

So, let’s get to it.

The first thing the young journalist is taught is how to structure a news story. Remember that word

‘structure’, you’ll be reading it a lot.

Here are some facts -

Johnny Wilson is dead.

His mother is divorced from his father.

They live in the Kingston area.

The bus was traveling at forty miles per hour.

Johnny was 11 years old.

Johnny’s mother’s name is Kathleen.

The accident happened at 11.15.

Mrs Wilson has two other children.

The driver of the bus was Mr Abdul Kareem.

There was snow and ice on the road.

There were no witnesses to the accident.

Johnny was going to the local shops.

The bus skidded at the corner of Hearn Street and Forest Avenue.

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Sgt. Thomas of the local police said “Our enquiries are continuing. No one has been charged.”

Mrs Wilson works in a local factory.

Let’s turn this into a brief news story, suitable for a local newspaper, using the following formula-What happened?

Who did it happen to?

Where did it happen?

When did it happen?

How did it happen?

Why did it happen?

We should end up with something like this.

An 11 year old boy was killed by a skidding bus at the corner of Hearn Street and Forest Avenue yesterday morning.

The boy was named as Johnny Wilson who lives locally. He is survived by his mother and two sisters.

Johnny was visiting the local shops when the bus, driven by Mr Abdul Kareem, seemed to skid on the icy roads and hit the boy. The local police are investigating the accident.

That transmits the vital information of this tragic accident by a simple process of editing. Follow up stories may well dwell on Mrs Wilson’s divorced state and her occupation in a factory, but at the moment they are irrelevant.

I’m telling you this because good writing is not writing it’s rewriting, or editing. If you can’t take your raw material and structure it you’re wasting your time. Admittedly, anyone reading the basic facts as given above would have been able to establish the events, but the writer makes it easier by turning them into an easily digestible narrative. The same principle is used by fiction writers, but in their case to generate an emotional response, whether terror, humour or whatever.

And these same principles apply to all writing in spades. Burn this into your brain – STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE !!!

But we must carry this theory of structure down a level into the very paragraphs and sentences your prose consists of. And if you think that’s carrying structure a little too far, be glad we’re not structuring individual words.

Don’t look upon structure as your enemy, claiming that the creative muse is stifled by such constraints. Let it help you in developing your argument by submitting your material to analysis.

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You’re better doing the analysis yourself and finding the flaws before somebody else does it for you and saddles you with unwanted criticism.

Imagine the events in your story actually happened in real life and were to be reported in a newspaper. How would it read? I’m asking you to get involved in a process of reverse engineering, where the news story comes before the ‘events’. Having created the structure with the news story, your fiction should then just require you to fill in some extra details (and some flair!).

If this sounds too mechanical, don’t worry too much. I’m only putting you through this because you have to learn to walk before you can run. Once this process becomes second nature you will be not only able to run, but fly.

To take the news-writing analogy one step further I want you to step into the world of the TV news reporter to help with your visual sense.

Filming of the actual event would be brief and distressing but the reporter, without access to this, has to set a scene and convey information and an impression.

Nowadays TV news crews are fairly small units and the reporter will instruct the cameraman on what shots he wants. Let’s work this:

Opening shot - Reporter direct to camera.

2. Cut to: Bus

3. Cut to: road junction

4. Cut to: Interview with mother

5. Cut to: Interview with policeman

Closing shot - Still photograph of victim

This is a fairly traditional format and conveys the story the reporter wants to tell. It passes no comment, because that is not the reporter’s job.

You, as a fiction writer, may question whether the boy had been sniffing glue, or whether he was shoved in front of the bus by one of his friends, playing a daredevil game. Of such things are fiction born.

It’s also a nice hook to present your story with a bare news report and then subject it to analysis as it opens up and other facts emerge. This is particularly useful in crime fiction.

News, however, is not as impartial as it would have us believe. The old headline ‘FOG IN

CHANNEL, CONTINENT CUT OFF’ tells us about the insularity of the English. Analysis of other news headlines tells us not only what happened, but also the socio-political views of the writer, his editor and publisher. All news is slanted and even the legendary impartiality of the BBC can be questioned if subjected 8

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to analysis. Some of the more honest journalists do attempt to be as objective as possible but human nature being what it is, personal bias cannot help but creep in.

You, as a fiction writer, have a choice in this matter. Do you espouse your own views or simply tell your tale?

You have to consider why you write and what the purpose of your writing is intended to be.

You have to consider the views of your readership. It’s doubtful if anybody espousing fascist dictatorship, unless for comic effect, will find many readers.

I would imagine I’m a fairly left-wing, liberal kind of person but can I imagine the thought processes of a right-wing bigot? Because I can’t write him unless I know him. I once interviewed Lord Chalfont who was a Labour MP who’d drifted right and was now promoting the lifting of sanctions against apartheid South Africa. I knew my argument was right, but he ate me up. He had the facts and he was ready. I wasn’t.

But it taught me to prepare and know what my enemy knew. Whether Chalfont believed in what he said, I do no not know, but he put it across with the skills he had gained from his years in politics. In the end run it didn’t matter, he could have been an actor mouthing lines and I hadn’t learnt my part.

Take the interviews with mother and policeman suggested above. They could be scripted because neither the mother or the cop are going to say anything sensational. They are going to mouth the platitudes they are expected to. Life is like that. Don’t forget it, even in your wildest flights of fantasy.

EXERCISES

Your Exercises for this Module are in 2 sections

(1) Go to the website of a major newspaper. Find a news story. Copy and paste it into your word processor. Now, in no more than 1,000 words, turn this news report into a short story.

You are not permitted to change any of the basic facts, though you may create dialogue between characters.

If the report does not come to a conclusion (eg verdict in a court case) you may invent one to give your story an ending.

(2) The Russians were first on the moon in 1969, beating the Americans. Write a 500

word (approx) news report detailing this achievement.

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MODULE 2 (Research & Analysis)

The fact that the writer must read is a given, to check out the opposition if nothing else. But the writer, in order to learn his craft, must also read with an analytical mind, avoiding the narrative’s attractions so that he can see the methods the author has used in creating his piece. The best way to do this is to avoid reading what we enjoy - harsh, but unavoidable. Whatever type of fiction you’re into, its joys are not for you for the moment. So, western readers, turn to science fiction, and romance fans to detective thrillers. Pick authors who are good and popular, though these may be contradictory.

What you’re looking for is the techniques the writer has used. Ask yourself questions such as -

What is the average sentence length?

Does the writer vary this by much?

How much description does he give when introducing a new character?

Does his dialogue flow?

Does he describe action well?

Do you get any sense of an ‘act’ opening and closing?

Later, once you see what there is to be learned from such analysis you can return to your favourite authors and subject them to the same tests. You may be surprised at the results. You may find yourself wondering if that’s all there is to writing, the application of formulaic techniques.

Thankfully, it is not, there is an art.

We are blessed in living in the age of the internet where research on any subject is almost laughably easy. I growl at the way what could have been a global library has become instead a global marketplace, but as a research tool the web beats trudging down to the library on a wet Tuesday hands down. Most of the classics are available on the Gutenberg Project. Track them down and delve into them, because every little you learn has value.

You’ll note that I’m not giving you any links to follow to find this site. This is deliberate. That’s what search engines are for, and research is an art form in itself and one you should get used to.

It’s going to help you write about being a spy in Istanbul when you failed the MI5 entrance exam and you’ve never been to Turkey.

It is imperative that you look at what other people write, whether it is in newspapers, magazines or books.

Each publication, like every writer, has a different style and you must be able to identify them and ultimately copy them. Even comic books have a value. Someone had to sit down and write the captions and the contents of the speech balloons and that someone had to be a wordsmith of the first order, because space is extremely limited in a comic book panel which is going to be devoted mainly to the graphic.

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Later, you should dig out some of your own writing and subject it to analysis. Has your writing improved over time? How? And why?

Okay, let’s get down to as close to destructive testing as a writer can get without physically ripping a book apart. Note down the results.

Pick a novel. Preferably not too long as you’re going to have to go though it a few times.

How many pages does it have?

How many chapters does it have?

How many words? (Count the number in one average page and multiply by number of pages.) How many major characters?

How many secondary?

How many minor?

How many settings are there?

How many interiors and how many exteriors?

Are the descriptions of settings adequate for setting the scene?

How much internal dialogue do the characters have (assuming the novel is in the third person)?

Write down the first sentence of each chapter.

Do they differ or are they similar?

At what point in the narrative could you see the denouement coming? (Be honest!) At what point in the narrative do you think the writer is ‘locked in’ to where he has to go? Quarter of the way through? Half way?

From that point could you change the plot to make a better story?

NOW

Do the same thing again for a different novel by another author.

Now, these are not set Tasks for this Module, but the analysis above is merely to give you an example of the lengths and techniques you must go to to learn your art. Becoming a good writer is not just a process of sitting at a keyboard and tapping out your story. You must know the whys and wherefores of what you are doing, just as any tradesman must be comfortable with his tools.

I don’t expect you to go through the above process on an ongoing basis. Once is probably enough if you have an open and enquiring mind. What I’m trying to impress on you is the need to know your work. Why does a character exist within the story? Is his existence totally necessary? Why does he hate/love this other character? Why does he say this or that? Each element must justify its existence. For now you must justify all this in your own mind at every turn, but later it will come naturally and you will be on the road to becoming a confident and fulfilled writer.

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These, I know, are the dull days of this Training Course, but I believe them to be absolutely necessary.

You’re not a writer, and you never will be, unless you learn what good writing is, and what makes it so. It’s not enough to say, ‘I know nothing about art, but I know what I like’.

Let us digress for a moment and consider art and music. Could Salvador Dali draw a good likeness of your mother? You wouldn’t think so to look at his abstract work, but Dali knew his craft before he started experimenting with form.

Similarly, when I first heard the guitarist Jimi Hendrix I was not impressed by his reliance on feedback which sounded like no more than screeching. It was not till I saw a TV documentary on this genius, after his death, sitting on a stool with only an acoustic guitar and making it sing that I came to appreciate that this man too knew his craft before he created his art.

This is what you must learn, the craft of writing, the nuts and bolts that hold a story together. Later, if you have that muse, you can apply your art to your craft and create what you like, but at this point I would suggest that you begin every piece you write with the words ‘Once upon a time ...’. No builder starts without a plan and you cannot write without a sound grasp of the storyteller’s craft. Admittedly, later in the Course, as we discuss building characters, writing dialogue, or setting a tone, I will be leading you by the hand through the actual process of writing. But you can pre-empt me by doing a lot of homework before we get there.

Try this -

Find a page in one of the novels you analysed above, and read it. Now pick a line of dialogue in the middle of the page and re-write it in your own words.

Without referring to the book, write the next paragraph.

Is it the same as the book? I doubt it, unless you have a photographic memory.

Does what you have written take you in a radically different direction from the original author?

I don’t think one paragraph is enough to take you too far away from the original author’s intent, but if you’d continued to the end of the chapter, you’d probably find it very hard to get back onto the author’s plotline.

Why does this happen?

Because no story is set in stone.

Did you mange to capture the author’s style? We’ll be going into this in much greater depth in the Style Module, but it’s always an interesting game to try and match another writer’s prose style.

You’ll have to rely on a third party to differentiate between the original writer’s work and your own, but if you can find a piece of work that the third party is familiar with and insert your own work without them noticing it will be a major feather in your cap. The ability to mimic or ape another’s work is another brick in the wall you’re building.

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The greatest analytical tool is also the most unquantifiable, because it requires you to exhibit a modicum of ESP. What I’m asking you to is read another writer’s mind. Read his work (you’re allowed to use your eyes for this) and try to work out how his mind was working as he wrote the words. Try to imagine his motivation for characters, dialogue, setting and plot.

Another interesting game to test your ESP is to read the first chapter of a novel, or long enough for the main character and situation to be established. Now, put the book aside and, on one page, plot the rest. Now, return to the book and read to the end. How close did you get in predicting where the writer would go? This is really easy with John Grisham novels, but look at the money he’s made.

Is Grisham a good writer. In my opinion, no. He’s a trained lawyer and he writes about what he knows, therefore he displays a lack of imagination. His characters struggle to reach two dimensions. He has no style and his dialogue is, at best, adequate. Yet he is wildly successful.

Why?

Because his writing does not make any demands of the reader. It is aeroplane fodder, designed to be served on a plastic tray, an easy read.

I’m not blowing the trumpet for high literature here, but Grisham’s books rarely stay in the memory. ‘I don’t care’, you may say, ‘I want to be a successful writer like Grisham.’

Okay, but we’ll learn to be writers first, shall we, and then decide in which style you want to write and if that leads to popularity and success, good for you.

Remember the way this works -

You have the ability to write

This Course gives you the techniques and the confidence to progress You write till you drop

God smiles on you

That’s all we can hope for.

EXERCISES

Your Exercises for this Module are -

[1] RESEARCH. Go to an internet search engine and look up the Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of independence. Write a 500 word discussion document on the comparisons and differences between the two.

[2] ANALYSIS. James Bond is a well known fictional character. From what you know of him, write a 500

word piece, ostensibly autobiographical, where Bond explains the drives and motivations of his life.

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MODULE 3 [Finding Your Voice]

The writer’s ‘voice’ is vital but is generally misunderstood. What it essentially means is the tone and style that the writer writes in. The novice writer struggles to find his voice because he lacks the confidence to nail his colours to the mast. To say, this is what I write, love it or loathe it. To find your voice you must experiment with many different voices till you find one that suits not only your style of writing, but one that you feel comfortable writing in. Once you find it, you will slip into it as easily as your shoes and have no fears of facing the keyboard.

Look at the style in which I write this. My aim is to be informal, chatty and perhaps light-hearted because I believe that is what the teaching/learning process requires. For other projects I would adopt a voice that best suited the material and the potential audience. The good writer must therefore have a selection of voices from which to choose, but always one that is his own true voice.

How then does voice differ from style?

It’s a question of semantics. Your voice, in truth, is your internal thinking put on paper, whereas style can vary pace, tone and other attributes. For instance, I could describe a leafy garden in a slow, highly graphic manner, picturing every blade of grass. With this I would be lulling the reader into slowing their reading, whether to attack them with some shock revelation or to set the tone for a relaxed, perhaps romantic, read.

But with the same voice I could hit the reader between the eyes with high colour writing that would have him on his toes. Possible? Let’s try it.

There’s a small lawn area, where she used to lie during warm summers, and by the hedge the flowerbeds lent their hues to honour her. Colour would be too simple a description for there was a give and take, she gifting the flowers beauty, while they reflected on her creamy skin and added their perfume to her scent.

OR

See the green, it’s grass, it’s wet. And that’s all it could be. Earth’s verdant carpet? No, it’s food, we eat the grasses like the cows. And her, as if she cared, sucking the sun in her tiny bikini that brings whistles from the builders..

With a seasoned eye you’d see the differences there. In the second version, shorter words and sentences, a staccato style. Neither of these is my voice, they are adopted for effect. The first version is too lazy for my liking, whereas the second is more likely to alienate an audience unless it was a style they were looking for.

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Your written voice is therefore like your spoken one, variable.

So, how do you go about finding your voice?

Well, first of all you should do a lot of reading and find authors who write with a voice that you enjoy.

Copying them may be your route to finding your voice. Discovering authors you positively hate should also tell you in which direction you shouldn’t head. Once you find something you’re comfortable with you have to try and copy the style. This can be a lengthy process, but the only way you’re going to find your voice is by writing. Page after page, chapter after chapter. It may become tedious, but in the end you will find a tone, a pace and a style - your voice

EXERCISES

The only way to find your voice is to write and experiment. Your exercise for this Module is to write a 1,000 word short story in 3 separate style or voices.

You might find it easier to have a different character tell each version of the tale, or see it from a different viewpoint, to achieve this.

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MODULE 4 [Plot & Narrative]

So what is a plot?

In its simplest terms it is a plan of action, and where the writer is concerned it is the sequence of events which make up his story.

Here is a sequence of events :-

George woke up that morning.

He showered, shaved and brushed his teeth.

He ate the breakfast his wife had prepared.

He dressed and drove to work.

At his desk he checked his emails.

He processed some orders his company had received.

He ate lunch in the local pub with his friend Bob.

In the afternoon he presented his monthly report to his boss.

He visited the factory and checked output with the foreman.

He drove home and played with his two kids.

He ate dinner with the family.

He watched TV.

He went to bed.

Fascinating? A day in the life of? No, I’d expect you’d say it was boring. Why? Because nothing out of the ordinary happens. There is no plot, or at least none that would interest a reader. So rule number one of creating a plot must be that something happens. Let’s look at that again.

George woke up that morning.

He showered, shaved and brushed his teeth.

He ate the breakfast his wife had prepared.

He dressed and drove to work.

At his desk he checked his emails.

He processed some orders his company had received.

He ate lunch in the local pub with his friend Bob.

Bob told him he loved him.

In the afternoon he presented his monthly report to his boss.

He visited the factory and checked output with the foreman.

He drove home and played with his two kids.

He ate dinner with the family.

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He watched TV.

He went to bed.

Well, something certainly happened there. George discovers that his friend Bob is gay and is in love with him.

Does that make this a story?

Not to my mind. What we have is an incident, with no consequent resolution. What are the options?

George is disgusted and breaks off his friendship with Bob.

George admits his own homosexuality and returns Bob’s love.

George tells Bob he knew he was gay but, as a heterosexual, cannot return his love.

This addition of complication starts the process of creating a plot. How much further complication we add is down to the writer. The reader expects a certain level of complexity, but not so much that he loses track of events.

At this point I’d just like to emphasise that physical action is not necessary to create a story. The entire sequence of events could take place inside George’s head. His motivations, desires, fears and thoughts, if portrayed in a logical sequence, would make for a perfectly acceptable tale.

Classical storytelling techniques require a protagonist (the hero) and an antagonist (the villain).

With a three act set-up we create a conflict in the first act. In the second we resolve it, In the third we find that the resolution is not adequate and further efforts on the part of the hero are required to reach the denouement.

Can good storytelling be reduced to such a simple formula? The answer is yes and no, but in essence it always boils down to these elements.

If you think this is very restrictive look at the variations that can be injected into the above. There can be more than one protagonist (the hero often has a sidekick). The antagonist can also have one or more henchmen. The problem posed which leads to the conflict can be anything from a missing baby’s rattle to the theft of a nuclear weapon. And, within the confines of a story arc that means conflict-effort-resolution we can add as much complication as we can imagine.

Why doesn’t the Bond villain just shoot Bond when he has him prisoner? Because it would make a lousy story. How believable the villain’s motivation is for keeping Bond alive (and thus allowing him to escape) is entirely up to the creative skill of the writer.

There are rules, but they are not hard and fast. They can be played with and modified, but it is essential that you know they exist. Let’s get creative again.

George’s wife, Sally, is driving home from her evening class.

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On a lonely country road she is stopped by a terrifying sight, a UFO.

The aliens from the UFO kidnap Sally.

The aliens are a species called the Darg, who are collecting specimens of life from across the galaxy.

So far, so X Files. Where would you go next? Because there still isn’t a story, all we have is a situation. Is this Sally’s story, telling of how she attempts to escape from her abductors? Or is it George’s, as he tries to rescue his wife? Perhaps it is the chief Darg’ story, as he learns to appreciate humanity. The variety is almost endless. Maybe George doesn’t want Sally back, because he’s run off with Bob. Hey, that’s two stories, Bob’s and Sally’s. Wouldn’t that be interesting? It’s called running dual plots and is a common way of fleshing out a story. The denouement of both tales here would probably require Sally’s escape and Bob’s realisation that she is his true love to coincide at the conclusion.

I’m only trying to poke your creativity here, to let you see what possibilities lie in creating characters and running with them. You don’t know where you’re going to end up, or do you?

Here sits a basic problem for new writers, whether to plot in advance or simply to start writing and see where it leads. There are some who will laboriously detail each character and each event before they begin writing. If it works for them, fine, but I find the process boring.

The alternative is to have the kernel of an idea and to start writing immediately while full of fire. The flaw with this system is that you can often end up in blind alleys in your plot and can’t find a way out. Every decision you make as to how your plot develops will have consequences. You can’t have Bob being gay and then running off with Sally without some very sharp explaining that your readers will accept. That’s when unfinished novels get thrown into a drawer.

So, what’s the answer?

For me, it’s this.

I have an idea.

I might take a few swift notes, a rough guide to plot and the main characters.

No more than a page in all.

I begin writing the piece, enjoying the freedom to create.

But I know that danger lies ahead. With every word I write I am locking myself down as to the directions I can take. I also know that the original enthusiasm and inspiration can disappear quite quickly.

So at some point (perhaps 5,000 words) I stop.

Now I do the drudge work. The character sketches, the plot development, the relationship arcs.

How does that work?

If you recall the Non-Fiction Module you’ll know what’s required. A dissection of what you’ve got so far.

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Write a synopsis of your idea. It should be no more than 200 words at this stage.

List each character. Give them a brief physical description together with what type of person they are.

Cross-reference them, noting their relationship with each other, even if it means saying something like

‘Sally doesn’t know Bob.’

Note the situation your characters are in. Where they live, what they do, how they think.

Return to your synopsis. Is there enough story there to fill your story length (short story/novel). If not, what believable complications can you add to flesh it out? Add this to your synopsis. Does your denouement make sense? All your story and characters arcs must conclude here, so don’t leave any loose ends. Under no circumstances can you write, ‘George awoke and realised it had all been a dream’, unless you have a very valid reason for doing so. That does not include being unable to find your conclusion. Your options are to continue writing till the conclusion presents itself, or to go back in your narrative to the point where you got locked in to the story you eventually wrote, and change it. Characters have a habit of taking on their own life and often the most densely plotted narrative can be thrown off course by a line a character utters or an action he takes. You, as the writer may feel that you are in control, but I have my doubts. When this happens, just keep writing, let the buggers sort it out for themselves.

You’ll find this at times, that it’s not actually you doing the writing, that the characters take over. You don’t need to fight this, it’s a good thing and will lead to some of your best writing. I’ve seen me return to stuff I’ve written years ago and recognise it, but not the fact that I wrote it. This is the subconscious taking over and allowing you to write on autopilot.

Some people call this being taken over by the muse.

EXERCISES

Okay, here are a bunch of characters :-

Joe (42) A joiner

Louise (38) Joe’s wife. A hairdresser

Tom (14) Joe and Louise’s son

Martin (24) A professional wrestler

Sandy (19) A female student

Jack (60) A retired dentist

Des (30) A soldier

Mandy (25) A barmaid

Write the synopsis for a plot (500 words) that brings these characters together in one place.

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MODULE 5 [Characters]

For me, this is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing, because the creation of characters to populate your tale is when you can be at your most creative.

To make your characters interesting, avoid the obvious. All heroes need not be square-jawed and not all heroines beautiful. Look for the flaws in people, that is what makes them interesting.

You have plenty of raw material, unless you’re a hermit, you’re surrounded by people. Use them, but with caution. Basing a fictional character on someone who actually exists is fraught with danger. Not only is there the chance of being sued, but as a writer you’re locking yourself into a reality which may not serve your purpose.

By all means take elements from people, a way of looking, a mode of speech, but play mix and match to create something new. As I stated in the previous Module if they have an internal life they will take over your plot anyway. If they don’t, if they’re flat and two dimensional you’ve got a huge boulder to shove up a mountain.

There are two elements to your character, their physical appearance, and the workings of their minds. Let us deal firstly with physical appearance. This can be done with broad brush strokes. A few short descriptive sentences will set up your reader with all the information they need to picture the character. They already have a library of types in their mind and will merely recall that this character sounds like Uncle Harry, though he may dress like Elton John. If you wish to use some specific physical characteristic (a scar, perhaps, or a limp) to delineate your character, try to ensure that it has some relevance to the character or plot. Don’t just put it in because every villain has a scar down his cheek. How did he get it? In a duel? A car accident?

Is this what made him become an evil criminal? Does it flare crimson when your character is angry? Does this warn the hero that there is trouble ahead?

The same goes for dress. Telling your reader that a character is a bank clerk has already set him up as a staid dresser, so there’s no sense in describing his dark gray suit, navy blue tie and black, polished shoes, unless his dress plays a part in the plot. However, if our bank clerk is an outlandish dresser we would have to mention the fact, even if it played no part in the plot, because it tells us something about our chap’s mind.

Modern writing tends to pare description to the bone, so we don’t have the leeway of a Sir Walter Scott. It is essential, therefore, that with your limited number of words you achieve the maximum impact.

A method I’ve previously used is to cut out photographs of people from newspapers and magazines. Not well known people, but just the ordinary man or woman in the street. I then base my character descriptions on these photographs. The trick is to begin with quite a full description of several paragraphs and then whittle it down to a couple of sentences. But ones which capture the essence of my character.

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Dealing with personality is a much more difficult proposition.

We must accept, firstly, that no character can be defined as totally good or totally bad. This would make for bland personalities and these do not appeal. The hero cannot therefore simply represent good and the villain bad. They will have opposing points of view and it is down to the reader to decide which character they identify with. If you have written them well the hero will appear more sympathetic and only the sociopath will plump for the villain.

You must understand that your baddie does not believe himself to be an evil person. He has his own internal logic which justifies his deeds. Perhaps he blames his behaviour on an unhappy childhood or his financial circumstances, but he must be able to justify what he does. Let me give you an example of what I mean. I knew a shoplifter once, a perfectly reasonable chap who regarded theft from major stores as a profession and not a crime. He justified himself by claiming that he did not steal from other working class people but from faceless monolithic businesses, who would be reimbursed by the insurance companies anyway. The fact that the insurance companies would then charge the stores increased premiums which would reflect in the prices the stores charged was too far removed to affect him. He dutifully got up every morning, dressed and went to work, which meant stealing women’s clothes from department stores. He would complain about the hours he had to put in and his working conditions, just like any other working man and couldn’t accept the fact that if he turned his talents to legitimate work the police would stop throwing him into jail. That was just another perk of the job.

Was this a bad man? He was married with kids, but he was a career criminal, even if the career wasn’t as high flying as he might have liked. But he wasn’t evil, not Hitler evil. But Hitler can’t be written as a fictional character because nobody would believe in him.

Oh, and the reason he stole women’s clothes is that they were easy to sell to drunk men in pubs who were trying to placate their wives when they got home (even if they did get the wrong size of garment).

Pathetic? A loser? Maybe, but a character worth writing.

And the good guy? Well, we’re all good guys, so we just write about ourselves surely? Uuh, you really that good? A few flaws maybe? Okay okay, you’re human with all the consequent failings and that’s perfectly acceptable because it’s the flaws that make you interesting. The hero’s function, you see, is not to utter heroic statements and perform heroic deeds, though he can certainly do this. What makes him the hero is the requirement the plot makes of him to face up to its conflict, whatever that may be.

And remember as well that the protagonist and antagonist (hero and villain) need not even be human. They can be organisations, countries, animals or even machines. Readers will relate to the human elements of these, but there’s no reason why your hero can’t be the US Marines and your villain Bambi.

Writing characters isn’t a precise science, some work and some don’t. As with everything else in the writing world the only way to discover the truth is to write it.

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EXERCISES

Write 200 word character sketches of the people below. Description of both appearance and personality.

Good tradesman?

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Who is this girl? What is she reading? Why is she reading it? Where is she reading?

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Could this man be a professor of philosophy? Why not? What’s he wearing under the fetish gear?

Does he like eating pasta? How often does he brush his teeth?

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MODULE 6 [Dialogue]

The ability to write good dialogue can make or break a writer, yet there is only one requirement, that it be believable to the reader or listener.

For the dramatist who writes to be heard rather than read, dialogue is of course vitally important. But it is amazing the number of writers who imagine that because they can converse, they can write convincing dialogue.

Dramatic dialogue is not written conversation, as any reality tape recording will prove.

Conversation relies on gestures and visual hints, together with pauses for reflection and long periods of silence. Though the dramatist can include such reinforcement to increase the reality of his work, prolonged usage will prove excruciating to the audience. The art of successful dramatic dialogue is in the balance between the transmission of information and the dramatic effect it has.

Every piece of dialogue must have a purpose. Does it move the plot forward? Does it explain a character’s motivation? Or the relationship between two characters? Characters in a drama cannot just chat, they must drive the drama forward in some fashion.

It is important too, that each character has a distinctive voice which differentiates him from the rest of the cast. These differences can come in many forms, accents, vocabulary range, pitch of voice, all valuable markers for the audience. Vital in radio writing, they are also useful in visual media because the audience can ‘log on’ to a character if he adequately delivers a well-written line. “The name’s Bond, James Bond,”

carries authority and self-assurance even when delivered with Sean Connery’s Scottish slur. Or perhaps because of it.

So how does the writer learn to write good dialogue? Of course he must listen, but with a writer’s ear, and reading his written work is never going to be an adequate trial to assess the worth of his dialogue. It must be read aloud, preferably into a tape recorder and listened to with an objective ear. Get your partner to join in the fun and enjoy the experience. You might not be actors but you’ll get a better sense of how it’s going to sound to an audience. Eventually your ear will adjust and you can forego the pleasure of casting your beloved as a mass murderer, but until such time listening to your own work is a useful tool.

Try not to trip up actors with over-complex dialogue, they are simple folk and should be helped at all costs.

Most importantly know the style of the people you are writing, the cockney barrow boy speaks much differently from the Montana cowboy but you must avoid clichés. Try having the cockney say ‘Howdy’.

Accents and dialects are useful but you can test the value of the dialogue by trying it in different styles. I was once paid to translate an English play into Scots dialect. This mainly consisted of turning ‘your’ into

‘yer’ but the Scots actors insisted on it as it made their job easier.

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In listening to other people’s speech patterns try to make a judgment call on the situation you are eavesdropping. Are these two lovers, Or two drunks about to come to blows?

Mastering dialogue puts you in the driving seat with opportunities in stage work, radio, TV and cinema.

Remember the great lines, the great bits of dialogue you have heard. What made them work? Who said them? Where? Why?

Okay, time for me to bore you with some of my material. The following is the opening scene from a radio sit-com pilot called DOC. Note that in this, I have to pass on a lot of information about the characters and situation to a cold audience, but in an entertaining way.

SCENE 1.

THE WEST-END BAR, EARLY EVENING. IT IS QUIET AND A JUKEBOX PLAYS WEARY TUNES.

DOC AND BILLY ENTER AND COME TO THE BAR.

DOC: (SINGING) Happy days are here again! Yo there, Flora. Lagers for me and the boy.

BILLY: I don’t want a pint, Doc.

DOC: Listen, young Bill, when I’m paying, I decide what you’re drinking, and this is National Lager Day.

FLORA: Every day’s National Lager Day for you.

DOC: That’s just a rumour, I’m partial to alcohol in any shape or form.

FLORA: Aye, you’re nothing but a sad old bugger.

DOC: I love it when you talk dirty, Flora. (HE DRINKS NOISILY) Nectar! First today!

FLORA: You’re a liar, Ken told me you were in at lunchtime.

DOC: Half-pints, they don’t count.

FLORA: You had fifteen of them, Doc.

DOC: Well, it’s warm up in the work, you develop a thirst.

FLORA: Billy, have you discovered what he does up in that hospital, because he’s certainly not any kind of doctor I can think of, despite his nickname.

BILLY: He sort of wanders about in a white coat, trying tae look important.

FLORA: Just as I thought, a waster.

DOC: Hey, I went to college for five years to learn that.

FLORA: Aye, but what is it precisely you do?

DOC: It’s like this, my lovely. When you start up in the hospital, they hand you a chemistry set. If you drop it, they make you a porter like Billy here; if you pass the responsibility onto somebody else, they make you a doctor .....

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BILLY: ..... and if ye chase nurses all the time, they make ye a senior lab technician like you.

DOC: Heyy, that’s my line!

BILLY: Well, you keep tellin’ me you’re teachin’ me the ways of the world.

DOC: Fair enough. More drink, Flora!

FLORA: Do you not think you should have something to eat before you get into a heavy drinking session?

DOC: If you’re going to treat me like a husband, I’m going to demand my conjugal rights.

FLORA: Money!

DOC: What, are you charging for it now?

FLORA: (REALISING) For the drinks !

DOC: You had me worried there, there’s still room in this capitalist world for the enthusiastic amateur, y’know.

FLORA: You have a one-track mind.

DOC: I’m a romantic, Flora, as you well know. Listen, Billy, she’s got ‘Property of Doc’ tattooed on her left buttock.

FLORA: I have not !

DOC: Sorry sorry, right buttock. The left one’s got the list of previous owners.