Character Goals: the Key to Great Conflict

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Character motivation is the key to great stories. If you think about the stories you love, chances are they’re great because everyone in them has clear goals, dreams and desires. The clashes between these goals, dreams and desires creates conflict.

For example, in Game of Thrones, every character has a clear goal. These goals make each character seem more lifelike. They also give readers a reason to root for each of the characters, which is an impressive feat considering that each book in the series features 10+ point of view characters!

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Using the 6 Types of Conflict to Create Pitch-Perfect Tension

Conflict is the lifeblood of stories. However, most of the time we think conflict can only happen between characters.

This isn’t the case. In fact, there are many other types of conflict writers can create. But before we get to those, let’s define conflict.

Conflict = result of a force stopping a character getting what they want …

… Which creates tension.

Most of the time, this opposing force will be another character. However, this force could also be a whole bunch of other things. Let’s look at the different types of conflict:

Continue reading “Using the 6 Types of Conflict to Create Pitch-Perfect Tension”

Improve your Prose by Varying Sentence Length

Whatever you’re writing, there’s one sure-fire way to make your prose more engaging:

Vary the length of your sentences.

Rather than explain why this is important, I’m going to give an example:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

 

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important. – 100 Ways To Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost

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How ‘Pro Writing Aid’ makes Editing Easier

Editing transforms crappy first drafts into polished stories. To be a good writer, you must be a good editor. I’ve written extensively about how to edit your story, but today, we’re doing something different. Today, I’ll show you a program that does the editing for you. 

It’s called Pro Writing Aid.

Since I brought Pro Writing Aid seven months ago, it’s become essential to my editing process. ProWritingAid is a piece of automatic editing software. No, it won’t write your story, but it will plug into Word and run over 20 types of reports on your writing. Continue reading “How ‘Pro Writing Aid’ makes Editing Easier”

Understanding (and Conquering!) the 4 Parts of Writer’s Block

‘Writer’s Block’ is basically writing-related procrastination. This means that overcoming procrastination = overcoming writer’s block.

In ‘How to be a Knowledge Ninja,’ productivity expert Graham Allcott claims procrastination occurs when we find something:

  1. Difficult
  2. Undefined
  3. Scary
  4. Tedious

Fighting writer’s block comes down to fighting these 4 concepts, which have the handy acronym of DUST. If you can deal with DUST, you can beat writer’s block. Continue reading “Understanding (and Conquering!) the 4 Parts of Writer’s Block”

Why Threatening your Protagonist ISN’T the Best Way to Create Suspense

We often think that suspense = dramatic stakes. The higher the stakes, the higher the suspense. Thus, threatening the character with whom readers have the most connection should create the most suspense, right?

Wrong. Yes, threatening your main character will enhance suspense. However, you’ll never achieve super-high levels of suspense because readers know you won’t really kill your hero halfway through the novel.

So, by all means – threaten your main character. But to achieve even more suspense, don’t threaten your protagonist: threaten the things your protagonist values.

Why You Should Threaten Values:

As I said before, readers know your hero’s probably going to survive. This limits the suspense you can create by endangering your main character.

However, readers don’t know if your hero’s best friend will survive. Or his/her loved one. Or his/her prized 1950s sports car. Or his/her cat.

It doesn’t just have to be people’s lives in danger. Suspense can come from readers not knowing if the protagonist will make it to his daughter’s piano recital on time.

Readers believe valued things could be destroyed much more readily than the protagonist themselves. Thus, suspense increases when you threaten things the protagonist values.

The Two Ingredients of Suspense:

Suspense is really about two things:

  1. Dramatic stakes (i.e. threatening two people is more suspenseful than only threatening one)
  2. Believability of consequences (i.e. it’s more believable that the hero’s best friend will die rather than the hero themselves ->)

Most people only consider number 1 when crafting suspense. I hope this article encourages you to consider the second point as well.

What are your thoughts on suspense? Do you think believability is a key part of suspense? Can you think of any other essential components of suspense? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Photo credit: krystian_o via Visual hunt / CC BY

Becomming a Better Fiction Writer using Passive Learning

The single best way to improve your creative writing is to do lots of creative writing.

However, it can be hard to make time to write short stories, poems or even novels. That’s why you should include as much writing-related passive learning into your day as possible.

Passive learning is essential learning to do a task by performing other similar (yet not identical) tasks. For creative writing, passive learning is a bit like sneaking vegetables into a brownie – it won’t feel like you’re writing fiction, yet your fiction writing will improve.

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How to Create Effective Character Names

Names are an important part of all good characters. Names can be brave, funny, or menacing, and are an essential part of character creation. Personally, I always need a name for my characters before I can flesh them out, and that’s why today’s post will provide guidelines for crafting memorable, powerful and effective character names.

Consider Character Traits:

Is your character a tad meek, and maybe a little hopeless? If so, name them Neville Longbottom!

Is your character a tough, competant, I’ll-do-it-alone kinda guy? If so, call them Han Solo!

A character’s name is a reader’s first experience of that character. Thus, it makes sense to use names to reflect a character’s personality.

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Editing Tip #6: Prioritise Macro Edits over Micro Edits

Not all forms of editing are created equal. While any type of editing should improve your story, some forms of editing are more powerful, effective and less time-consuming than others.

Macro and Micro Editing:

This is where the idea of macro and micro edits come in. Macro edits refer to big-picture fixes. For instance, re-writing your climax, adding a new character or even changing your whole plot are examples of macro editing. In short, you’re editing your story on a large-scale.

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Why Realism is Essential

If your story lacks realism, readers will be disappointed.

Why? Well, good novels encourage readers to suspend their disbelief; to believe that the story is real, even though it’s obviously fiction. Without realism, readers will find it hard to think your story is, well, real.

Now, coming from a guy whose most recent story was about spaceships, you’re probably a little confused. Does the need for realism impede you from writing about anything you can’t see or experience?

The answer, of course, is no. Stories about aliens, superheros, or medieval vampires can all be 100% realistic, because realism isn’t about stories being true to our world. It’s about stories being true to themselves.

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5 Tips for Writing Effective Settings

After character, plot and theme, setting is arguably one of the most important elements of a novel. ‘Setting’ refers to the location for which events occur, and can be used to:

  • Establish mood, tone or theme
  • Reflect character
  • Enhance suspense
  • Foreshadow/provide clues
  1. Use the 5 senses to Immerse Readers

The most effective settings are those that plunge readers into a story’s world. By vividly portraying a setting’s sensory experience, readers’ imaginations will flourish, allowing them to feel like they’re inhabiting your story.

When using the 5 senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell), focus on touch, taste and smell. Too often, writers over-focus on sight and sound. This can come from trying to write as if your book was a movie, which has a strong reliance on these two senses. Continue reading “5 Tips for Writing Effective Settings”

5 Reasons To Have a Likeable Antagonist

When most people hear ‘antagonist’, they think of a moustache-twirling megalomaniac who kicks puppies in their spare time. While there’s certainly a place for antagonists that are pure evil incarnate (Darth Vader in A New Hope is a great example), here are some compelling reasons to make your antagonist(s) a little more sympathetic:

  1. ‘Antagonist’ does not equal ‘bad guy’

A common misconception is that all antagonists must be villanous. This isn’t always true. An antagonist is merely a force that opposes your protagonist. Yes, this means it could be an uber-evil villain (like Darth Vader); but it could also be the hero’s parents, who don’t want him joining the army. In this example, the hero’s parents are not ‘evil’ – what they are doing, however, is opposing the protagonist, which makes them antagonists.

Antagonists don’t even have to be human. Non-human antagonists could be:

  • A vicious guard dog that attacks your postal-worker protagonist.
  • A thorny bush your detective-protagonist has to crawl through.
  • A hail storm that damages your taxi-driver-hero’s car.

Antagonists are usually human (because this provides maximum opportunity for conflict). However, there are lots of stories where the primary antagonist is non-human. Castaway, with Tom Hanks, is a great example. Likewise, plenty of survival-style stories feature nature as the main antagonist.

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4 Essential Elements of an Effective Love Interest Character

Last week, we looked at how character triangles are a great way to increase the complexity of your characters’ relationships, and how most (good) stories use triangular relationships to increase tension, interest and conflict.

This week, we’ll be looking at the love interest character. Love interests are a staple of some genres, and just like character triangles, they add extra depth to a story – provided they’re well-crafted. Here are 4 essential elements of an effective love interest character.

1. Character first; love interest second

The biggest mistake most people make with writing a love interest is that they create love interests as just that – a source of romantic fulfilment to the main character. This leads to a shallow, uninteresting and one-dimensional character.

By creating a compelling character first – and making them a love interest second – you add realism and depth. Readers will better connect with the love interest – which gives writers plenty of opportunities to hit them right in the feels.

Continue reading “4 Essential Elements of an Effective Love Interest Character”

Why Character Triangles Work (Or: Why Good Things Come in Threes)

The love triangle may be one of the most abused elements of contemporary fiction (particularly in the YA genre), but that’s for a good reason. The reason is this: good things come in threes. Beginning, middle, end; the Three Musketeers; birth, life, death; Ego, Superego, Id; past, present, future. It’s natural to structure elements in 3s, but there’s also a compelling mathematical logic for having three primary characters* in your novel.

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How to Kill a Character (in fiction, not real life, you bloodthirsty villains!)

Killing a character isn’t as simple as it seems. From readers not caring about a dead character to awkward deaths that contribute nothing to the plot, it’s easy (as with everything in writing) to screw up. What’s more, there’s no one right way to kill a character. There are, however, some story elements that are more or less universally effective when it comes to literary homicide:

1. Make readers care

Making readers care is a writer’s toughest, but most important, job. If readers are emotionally invested in characters, their deaths (the characters’ not the readers!) will matter. The death of an interesting, three-dimensional and compelling character will hurt far more than an undeveloped character’s demise.

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8 Ways a Notebook Can Supercharge your Writing

I started using a writing notebook in 2014. Since then notebooks have become an essential part of my writing process. Whether it’s an idea for a whole story, a scene, or just a cool-sounding sentence, my notebook is my second brain. I’ve currently filled 3 and a half notebooks (about 900+ pages – you can see my collection in the above header image), and I can’t imagine life without them.

Obviously, I’m already sold on notebooks. By the end of today’s post, I hope you’ll be just as hooked on them as I am. So, here are 8 ways a notebook can supercharge your writing.

1. Writing ideas helps you develop ideas

When I was thinking about this post, I only came up with 4 ways a notebook helps you write. However, the act of writing this post’s outline in my notebook let me come up with another 3 ways. This is a common occurrence. Whenever I have a 1-sentence idea for a scene, character or story, it usually turns into a whole-page affair once I start writing in my notebook.

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There Are Only 3 Types of Stories

When broken into their fundamental elements – theme, plot and character – the thousands of novels, movies, short stories and television movies that exist can be grouped into basic, fundamental organisational categories. These categories are called genres. Understanding genre is crucial to crafting a good story. However, there’s an equally important organisational element – some would say a higher form of genre – that is just as crucial to creating a compelling story.

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The Toy Story Guide to Using Theme

Theme. It’s a vague, mystical concept discussed in the halls of universities and remarked upon by literary critics worldwide.

Theme is more than fancy window dressing to make your story ‘culturally relevant’ or of ‘literary merit.’ Theme, in fact, is a tool for writers – a tool that organises your story’s scenes, characters, tone and plot.

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4 Essential Elements of an Effective Twist

A good twist can amp up your story’s suspense, engage readers and help construct an interesting plot. But before I continue, it’s important to realise that not every story needs a twist(s). While appropriate for some genres (thrillers, action and other plot-driven stories come to mind), twists can be out of place in others (although that’s not to say you can’t make it work!). With that warning done with, here are some guidelines to writing an effective twist.

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6 Reasons to use Chapter Titles

Chapter titles won’t magically make your story a bestseller, but they can give your novel extra depth. Here are 6 great reasons to use chapter titles.

1. They show off your creativity

Chapter titles are an excellent chance to show off your wordsmithing. Creative, interesting and fitting use of chapter titles will set stories apart. For example, The Shipping News, a story with strong maritime elements, uses knot-related chapter titles like “strangle knot,” “love knot” and “a rolling hitch.”

Having interesting chapter titles is also helps create a good beginning to your story. Combined with a gripping story title, an interesting opening chapter title (as opposed to ‘chapter 1’) gives you more chance to hook readers and show them why your novel is a special snowflake.

2. They establish theme

Chapter titles are a golden opportunity to establish the mood, tone and atmosphere of the following chapter. Light-hearted, jokey and comedic titles will set a different tone to gloomy, dark and despairing titles, to give one example. For instance, a chapter titled ‘the pram on the cliff’s edge’ could serve as a metaphor for your hero’s captivating struggle to save their kidnapped son.

As a side note, this can be a good way to write a chapter title if you’re stuck! By brainstorming your chapter’s tone/theme/mood of your chapter, you’ll have a thematically resonant pool of phrases – hopefully letting you pick a good title.

3. They can foreshadow …

A chapter titled ‘A Death in the Family’ makes readers expect a character’s going to shuffle off this mortal coil, pronto. While your foreshadowing doesn’t have to be this blatant, chapter titles do provide a unique, non-narrative (i.e. external to the story) means to set up reader expectations.

4. … And they can misdirect

The flip side of foreshadowing is misdirection. Maybe ‘A Death in the Family’ chapter isn’t about an actual death, but about a man declaring his hatred for his brother. An even sneakier way to use this technique is to ‘foreshadow’ something readers will interpret one way … but it really means something else instead. Either way, chapter titles let you program readers to expect something. Whether you give them what they expect – or serve up a dish of something completely different – is up to you, the almighty author.

5. They make your chapters more memorable

No one says ‘hey, remember how cool chapter twelve was?’ Sure, if your chapter about a cybernetic cockatoo swooping tourists in the countryside was a ripper, readers will remember it – but they won’t have a nice, snugly-fitting container to store this experience in. That’s what your chapter title is: a container to act as shorthand for readers’ memories. Think, for example, how much better it sounds to say ‘remember that Rampage of the Cyber-Cockatoo chapter?’ compared to the formless ‘remember chapter twelve?’

6. They make readers curious

An interesting, gripping and provoking chapter title spurs readers to keep reading. In the same way your story’s title made readers want to pick it up, each chapter title is a chance to re-hook readers, encouring them to keep your novel in front of them as the night’s hours tick away.

Final Thoughts:

Chapter titles aren’t for everyone. Done poorly, they can distract readers from your story. However, chapter titles open up countless creative possibilities, give you another narrative tool and let you show off your writerly flair. Give it a shot!

What are your thoughts on chapter titles? Do you use chapter titles in your novel? What are some good reasons to not use chapter titles? I’d love to hear how you deal with them!

Photo credit: NickiMM via VisualHunt / CC BY