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Archive for the tag “Story structure”

Can anyone write?

creative-writingIt’s an odd thing. When I mention at a party, or some other gathering, that I occasionally teach creative writing courses, people quite often put a sceptical smile on their faces and ask me whether creative writing can really be taught. Now, I’ve never heard anyone ask whether science can be taught, or dancing, or yoga, or French.

Of course creative writing can be taught. What can’t be guaranteed is that someone enrolling in a creative writing course will become a successful novelist, poet or playwright. Just as taking science or French at school, or even at university, doesn’t mean you are going to become a nuclear physicist or a translator at the UN. As far as I know nobody in my weekly yoga class is aspiring to becoming a Hatha guru. And even though Anne Widdecombe was (eventually) able to master a few dance moves in Strictly, nobody seemed to expect her (or indeed any of the other contestants) to be the next Flavia Cacace.

So what is it that makes people treat creative writing differently? There seem to be two somewhat contradictory attitudes. First is the commonly held belief that almost anyone could write if they only put their mind to it. Several writers I know have complained of people who say things like ‘I’d write a novel if I had the time.’ The second is that the ability to write is somehow innate and no amount of classes or lectures is going to make any difference.

There may be an element of truth in both these positions. It’s a difficult one to prove either way. But I feel that if someone is drawn towards creativity, (just as some people prefer Maths to English,) that interest/talent should be nurtured. It would be a poor art teacher who, finding a child able to represent a 3D figure instead of a stick picture, just said, ‘oh there you go, you obviously know how to do it,’ and then leave them to their own devices. That cavalier approach might work for the child prodigy, but most of us would expect any self respecting teacher to give some advice on form, style, appropriate media etc.

As far as I can see it is pretty much the same with creative writing. Yes, some people may have more natural ability than others, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from some understanding of how to handle story structure, characterisation, tension, imagery etc. Some writers, especially the ones who are also prolific and analytical readers, may glean these skills from other people’s books. But for others a creative writing course, or a good ‘how to’ book would at the very least save some potentially time wasting trial and error, and perhaps some disappointment too. Not everyone is going to win an Oscar for best screenplay, but in my view a few handy building blocks and a bit of helpful advice never goes amiss in any venture.

The importance of endings

book traumaThe current mantra for writers and wannabe writers is ‘If you want to people to buy your book then you need a great opening.’ And yes that’s true, the first few pages are crucial. If you don’t hook your reader straight away as they browse in the book shop or online then you’ve pretty much missed the boat. The early introduction of empathetic characters, an alluring setting, an enticing hook – all these things definitely help to sell books. But there is another reason people buy books and that is because they have recently finished a book by a particular author and they want to read another. So, getting readers to want to read more of your novels is clearly a ‘good thing’.

But what makes them want to read more? Well, all the usual suspects … a compelling idea, a well constructed plot and story structure, characters that live on beyond the page, and, I would suggest, a really good ending.

I often hear people say ‘oh yes, I enjoyed that novel but it tailed off at the end,’ or ‘the ending was bizarre,’ or ‘it had a really disappointing ending’. First impressions are important for attracting readers but it’s the final impression that brings readers back for more (or not).

My least favourite endings are a) when there’s a huge explanation at the end about why everything has happened, b) when the author clearly has run out of steam and it all just peters out, c) when it’s so enigmatic you don’t quite know what’s happened d) when the characters suddenly start acting ‘out of character’ just to get it all finished. There are lots of other examples – I’m sure you can think of plenty too!

So, what is a good ending? It doesn’t have to be happy, it doesn’t have to be dramatic, but it does have to leave the reader with a sense of emotional satisfaction, of completion, of growth and resolution.

And how do you create a good ending? I believe it all comes back to planning, if the author knows exactly where the book is headed before starting to write then the character motivations can be set up right from the start, the clues can be layered in and the theme and purpose of the novel can be focussed and consistent.

As my regular blog readers will already know I am not a fan of the ‘I’m just going to start and see where it goes’ school of writing. For one thing these writers (like Nick Clegg) often never reach the end at all, and for another it doesn’t bode well for creating a coherent whole with a satisfying ending. Writing is a craft – I’m quite sure Michelangelo didn’t walk up to his block of marble and think to himself ‘ah yes, I’ll chip away a bit and see what happens.’

People sometimes say authors are only as good as their last book, I might say they are only as good as their last ending!

Story structure – the missing ingredient

meerkatSo how do you write a really great novel?

Well, you choose some interesting characters, a scenic setting, a fun plot and a suitable period of history, and then you start writing … simples (as the Meerkats say). Right?

No, actually not so right, nor so simple (or simples), and (in my view) not very effective either.

The missing ingredient here is ‘story structure’. Oh no, I can hear you groaning, she’s going to go all technical on us, and here we are, creatively charged, bursting with ideas, fingers poised, ready to pour forth our bestseller …

Ok, that’s great, but just hang on to that motivation a moment while we take a quick taste of the missing ingredient.

Story structure is a concept used widely in film making, in TV reality shows, and, yes, in bestsellers.

Think of ‘Masterchef’, ‘Strictly’ even ‘Total Wipeout’ (a personal favourite) – what is it that makes you keep watching, what makes you switch on again the following night, the following week? Yes, you engage with the characters, but you especially engage with them as the challenges they face become greater and more difficult.

Think of the Grand National or the Horse of the Year Show – neither would make great viewing if the jumps got smaller as the course went on, rather than bigger.

Now think of your novel. Think of your characters lined up at the start, all they can see is the first jump (or problem/emotional issue/hint of danger – depending on your genre). Ha, they think, it’s going to be easy. But when they are over that first hurdle they find it’s not the end, there are plenty more jumps ahead, not just higher ones either, but wider, deeper, and much more tricksy ones too, like water combinations and doubles.

And that’s what story structure is, a carefully arranged series of hurdles and obstacles that your characters have to negotiate to reach the end of the story. The nature of these hurdles will vary depending on the type of novel you are writing. The protagonist of a thriller will face hurdles masquerading in the form of baddies (and often a nagging family issue too), the heroine of a romance will find a range of emotional issues standing in her way (and almost certainly a beautiful rival for Mr Right’s affections), characters in more ‘literary’ novels will come up against issues that challenge their humanity, integrity or even their spirituality. The main characters in my novels soon discover that it is their courage (mental, physical and emotional) that is going to be tested, as well as their loyalty to their friends and family.

So take the time to prepare your course, select your jumps, ones that will really test your characters. Then line them up, check your aim (especially if you are writing a crime thriller) and fire the starting pistol.

That’s not all there is to say about story structure but it will get you (and your characters) off to a good start. Simples. smiling meerkat

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