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

 

The Easy Way to Write a Powerful Climax

Nothing leaves a bad taste in a reader’s mouth like week-old pizza a bad ending. There’s lots of ways to write a bad climax, but most bad endings are caused by authors writing themselves into a corner, with no convenient escape through a ladder/window/trapdoor.

Luckily, there’s a simple way to increase your odds of crafting a killer climax: instead of planning from the start to the end, plan from the end to the start

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How to Write Unique Titles that Stand Out From the Crowd

Your title is the first part of your book readers experience – and one of the only cover elements controlled by the author. Take this chance to make a great first impression on readers with these five tips for writing titles that are just as special, unique and individual as your stories:

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How to use Active Reading to Become a Better Writer

The following article was published on ProWritingAid on 13/03/2017. Read the full article here, or read below for an excerpt. 

Authors often discuss how reading improves your writing. However, there’s a big difference between passive and active reading, and if you’re serious about using published novels to improve your writing you must learn how to do the latter.

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Editing Tip # 4: Edit Backwards to Improve your Editing Efficiency

Editing is all about trying to see the story that’s on the page, not the story in your head. You can attain greater objectivity by changing the font or not looking at your story for a few weeks, but when it comes to the actual changing of the words, there’s another trap many writers fall into. The trap is that you’ll simply skim through your chapters, changing maybe one word a page, and reach the end feeling like you’ve accomplished something. In reality, you’ve probably made your story only slightly better. As busy writers, slightly better isn’t a great result for the amount of time you’ve used.

Fear not! There is a better way: Instead of editing the way you read, edit backwards.

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Why you must Remember your Story isn’t Real to Craft True Suspense

Picture this: it’s the middle of a dramatic story and the main character is being lowered into a pit of ravenous crocodiles. Meanwhile, the villain is launching a doomsday device which will destroy the whole world!

Does this strike you as suspenseful? Are your nerves shredded by the metaphorical food processor that is tension? This scene certainly seems to have high stakes, but does it really?

Chances are it doesn’t. Why? Well, will you really kill the main character in the middle of the story? Is it believable that the villain will kill the whole world? Probably not. I’m not denying there’ll be loads of suspense, but there’s more to creating suspense than just having high stakes.

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Dialogue Tags and the Hidden Power of ‘said’:

Writers hate to repeat what’s been done before. This is particularly apparent when it comes to dialogue tags (those things that come after a line of dialogue and let you know who spoke):

“The bit after the dialogue is called a dialogue tag,” he explained.

What’s wrong with the above sentence? The answer is simple: the dialogue tag (‘he explained’) adds no value. It’s obvious that whoever’s speaking is explaining something, which makes it redundant to tell readers that things are getting explained (and as discussed before, redundancies are bad). You don’t need ‘explained’ – you just need ‘said.’

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The Case for Genre: Why Reader Expectations Matter

Believe it or not, one of the best ways to make an original, creative story is to use a unoriginal premise. Sound crazy? It’s not as weird as it seems, and here’s why.

Readers use their knowledge of other stories to form expectations about yours as they read. If these expectations are met with no surprises, they’ll come away viewing your story as bland and uncreative. If you subvert (that is, challenge) their expectations, readers will think your story is unique. Simple, isn’t it?

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Editing Tip # 3: Change your Font to see your Story through Fresh Eyes:

The key to editing lies in being able to read your work with fresh eyes. You can attain emotional separation and thus objectivity in several ways and I’ve written about one possible method before.

However, there’s a ridiculously easy way to boost your objectivity, which is so ridiculously easy that I am likely to be discharged from the Shadowy Cabal of Writers for disclosing such a secret. Prepare your soul, writer, for this tip:

change your font.

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Don’t Aim to Write a Set Number of Words each Day

You’ll often hear famous writers discuss how they try to write a set number of words per day. Setting a word target for your day’s writing can be useful. If you stick to it, you’ll complete your first draft in a reasonable time.

But you must make sure you don’t fall into the trap of writing words just for the sake of writing words. This is an easy mistake to make.

It boils down to this: you want to write 1000 glorious words by the end of the day. But you can only think of, say, 493 words that actually progress the plot. Those other 507 words become padding; bubble-wrap that bulks up your story without contributing any value. Apart from a few hours of popping the bubbles, but let’s ignore that for the purposes of this metaphor.

I made this mistake with the first draft of The Aeon Academy, my work-in-progress novel. I measured my day’s success by the number of words I spewed onto the (digital) page. Sure, this is a good way to get into a writing habit. It will help you finish a first draft. But once you finish the draft, you’ll probably find lots of unneeded scenes. And by unneeded, I mean that you could cut them out right now and the plot wouldn’t change.

So how do we fix this problem?

The solution is simple. Rather than aiming to write a set number of words each day, aim to write a set number of scenes each day. Now, I say scenes, but even one scene a day will get your first draft finished in a reasonable time, although you’ll sometimes take a few days to write longish scene. The details aside, having a scene/plot-orientated goal beats a word-orientated goal, because you’re more likely to write relevant rather than unneccesary stuff.

“Rather than aiming to write a set number of words each day, aim to write a set number of scenes each day.”

Another nice bonus of having a scene-based aim is that your writing gets more concise. Why? Well, you’ll try to use less words to write your scene, because that’ll make it quicker and easier to meet your writing goals! Having a word-based target, on the other hand, bloats your writing as you desperately try to fill the pages of your novel with mind-numbing prose about nothing that just goes on and on and leaves your readers wondering if you will ever stop or if you’re ever going to write something that actually affects the plot and –

Okay, I’ll stop there. See, if I wanted this article to be, say, 600 words, I could’ve kept rambling. But because I just want to finish the article, I’m glad when I fall short of my word target. I hope you’ll feel the same way.

What are your thoughts on scene vs word-based writing goals? Think I’ve lost my marbles? (I haven’t; they’re in a big jar on my desk). Do you have a better way to avoid writing unneeded scenes? I’d love to hear your opinions!

Editing Tip #2: Cut the Redundancies using 1 simple tool

Redundancies are not very useful, make your writing bad and hurt your sentences. It’s easy for redundancies to creep or sneak or wheedle their way into your writing and your stories.

As you can probably tell, I went overboard with redundancies in the above paragraph. Most of the words didn’t contribute any meaning or value. Here’s the same paragraph without redundancies:

Redundancies make your writing bad. It’s easy for them to sneak into your writing.

Fewer words. Clearer meaning. Direct, powerful language. Your prose will be transformed when you cut out redundancies.

Types of Redundancies

Redundancies fall into two categories:

1. Redundant Phrases: 

These are unnecessary phrases which are added to reinforce meaning. For instance, in this sentence:

It’s easy for redundancies to creep or sneak or wheedle their way into your writing

“sneak” and “wheedle” aim to reinforce the sense of intrusion. However, these phrases are redundant because “sneak” and “wheedle” are synonyms for “creep”. Thus, they add no extra value to the sentence.

2. Redundant Modifiers: 

These attach to other words like parasitic blood-suckers, such as ‘absolutely essential’ or ‘armed gunman.’ I refer to Redundant Modifiers as parasites because they’ve wormed their way into the public consciousness. Next time you watch TV keep a count of how many times a product is called ‘absolutely essential’, even though ‘absolutely essential’ is the same as ‘essential.‘ By it’s very definition, you can’t make something that’s ‘essential’ more essential.

Why we use Redundancies:

Redundancies are like clichés. We hear them so often they ingrain themselves into the fabric of language like termites burrowing into an improperly treated 4 by 2. I’ll level with you: I hate redundancies. They’re unneccessary, clog up your writing and ultimately show a lack of creativity.

Chances are your first draft is littered with redundancies. Fear not: it’s easy to eliminate redundancies – provided you know what to look for.

Eliminating Redundancies:

Redundant Modifiers are easier to eliminate than Redundant Phrases, which typically require close editing to identify and destroy. This is because Redundant Modifiers tend to be commonly used, which means that a list of common redundancies will help you find them. I would write a list for you, but why bother when you can just use this list.

To tighten up your writing, pick one of redundancies on the list and use Word’s find feature. This will search through your story for instances of this redundancy. Once you’re done deleting one type of redundancy, pick the next one of the list and repeat the process. It’s a simple fix that requires little brainpower, but will do a lot to take your story to the next level. Happy editing!

What’s your opinion on redundancies? Do you tend to overuse them or are they not a problem for you? Is it ever okay to use a redundancy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

3 Things to do after you finish your First Draft

Completing an entire novel is an amazing achievement, but if you’re serious about getting published, finishing the first draft doesn’t mean you’re finished working on your novel. Here are three things you must do after finishing a first draft.

Step 1: Let it rest.

Like any decent roast, you must let your novel rest if you want it to gain quality flavour. Now, you’re probably wondering how not working on your novel will help. Here’s how: the novel in your head is not the novel on the page. The novel in your head has perfect dialogue, realistic characters and no plot holes. Unfortunately, the novel on the page doesn’t – and that’s okay! By leaving your novel alone for at least 1 or preferably 2 weeks, you’ll gain distance. This will let you edit more objectively. You’ll also be able to see things you haven’t noted before.

Step 2: Read the whole thing.

Once you’ve had a break from writing, you must read your entire first draft. Why, you ask? For the same reason the above step is important: the novel in your head is not the novel on the page. By reading through your novel you’ll know what’s actually on the page rather than just assuming.

After I’d finished the first draft of The Aeon Academy, I didn’t read it. I stupidly assumed that, as the novel’s creator, I knew exactly what happened in it! I couldn’t have been more wrong, and failing to better understand my novel meant the second draft was a tough, drawn-out edit. With subsequent drafts I’ve made sure to read them before diving into edits, and this has made editing way easier.

And if that argument doesn’t sway you, chew on this: if you can’t be bothered to read your own novel, why would anyone else read it?

Step 2.1: Take notes as you read:

As you read, you’re going to find parts you want to change. Take a note so you don’t forget about this when it comes time to edit.

Step 3: Edit

Once you’ve re-familiarised yourself with your masterful or not-so-masterful creation, it’s time to edit. Editing can seem like a chore, but in reality it’s quite liberating. You can edit your novel any way you want and if you find something you don’t like, you can change it!

Focus on one type of edit at a time. Rather than trying to improve dialogue, enhance characterisation or delete needless phrases at once, do each style of edit by itself. This will help keep you focussed and let you be more effective.

Always remember that a first draft is exactly that: a first attempt. Don’t worry if your novel seems bad compared to a published novel: that published novel would’ve gone through several drafts and professional edits. Your first draft is just you shovelling sand into a sandpit. Editing is where you build your castle.

Have you finished a first draft? What are your thoughts on re-writing and editing? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

Why Prologues are Pointless

Full disclaimer: I hate prologues. This isn’t to say I’ll hurl a book into a shark tank if it has a prologue*, but in most cases I’d prefer it if the author stripped out the prologue like the unnecessary husk it is.

(*Mainly because I don’t have a shark tank. Sigh.)

So, why do I think prologues are pointless? Let’s start by defining what a prologue is.

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