If you wish to immerse your readers into your story, and take them to new and exciting places, then it becomes important to “set the scene”. Our Monday TalkWrite group discussed some strategies and techniques for doing this, along with how much is to much?
For stories set in the contemporary world:
Research your setting: visit it if possible, otherwise, there are plenty of resources available on the internet, both static and video. Take note of a few of the more striking features. Even if these are not included in the story, they will help you get a better feel of the scenery and help guide your character’s actions.
For example: if I were setting a scene in a Market place in Madagascar (picture above from Pixabay), I might take note of the colourful clothing and mixture of fashions, the wooden stalls, the general bustle and noise, and the children and livestock running around. I might also take note of a few of the more unusual goods for sale (ie: sandals made out of old car tyres – not pictured here).
Consider the scene from your point-of-view character’s perspective: is the character entering the above scene a local, or an outsider? One would view the scene a lot differently from the other! Consider their character traits too: would they find the crowds stifling – or exhilarating? And their physical traits: are they tall, short? Each would view the world differently. Also their goals: are they sight-seeing, or seeking to make a purchase? Use this to determine how much information to portray to the reader.
Have your character interact with the scenery: instead of standing there staring, incorporate the character into the scene: dodging through the crowd, ducking beneath a hanging awning, stepping over a sleeping dog. How are the vendors reacting towards them? Do they know the character personally? Or will they view them as an outsider?
Don’t forget the other senses! Don’t just rely on visual descriptions, think of how the place smells, the sounds that the character might hear, how the ground feels beneath their feet. Use only the senses that help paint the most vivid mental image.
Don’t get bogged down by description: a few sentences can paint the scene, but several paragraphs will bring the story to a grinding halt. Pick a few key features to highlight, and let the reader imagine the rest.
For stories set in a fantastical world:
Fantastical worlds can vary from relatively similar to our own, to widely different. If your world has some rather dramatic geographical differences, then you may find a bit more description is required. To properly get a grasp on your world, write out a detailed description of the setting – this is for your reference. You might like to set a timer, and free-write for five minutes, describing the scene in as much detail as you can manage. Once you have done that, select the key features that are the most important to your point-of-view character.
Flora and fauna: creating new species is a great deal of fun, as is revealing them to the reader. If your POV character is familiar with the flora and fauna, I recommend teasing the reader with snippets of description. In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series, there is a creature called an “axehound“. This animal is never directly described, but snippets of detail about its six limbs and antennae inform the reader that this is no canine. If your character is meeting a monster for the first time, describe its most impressive feature first – as that will likely be the first thing the character notices.
How much Description is too much?
The worst thing you can do when trying to portray a scene in the reader’s mind is to bore them with details. Less, truly, is more.
Be aware of:
- too many adjectives
- over-describing a specific item or feature
- this says to the reader “this is important” and may set up a promise that requires pay-off at the end.
- can be used if the item or feature WILL be important later in the story.
- can also be used as a “red herring” to veil another item or feature that you are foreshadowing.
- what is important to your character: for example: a painter will view the scene differently from a soldier.
Exercise: Next time you travel somewhere different: whether it be another country, a trip to the countryside, or even a cafe, note down everything you see, smell, hear, and feel (taste too, if you’re feeling adventurous). Underline, or highlight, what you feel are the most interesting features. Then consider one of your characters and ask yourself, “how would they view this scene? What is the first thing they would notice?”
Anyone who reads fiction regularly will realize that there is an established structure to the plot narrative. You may have heard of the three-act structure, and the seven-act structure, but overall these are both based on the some fundamentals: one is just longer!
This is, of course, not the only way you can structure your novel, and there have been some very creative variations on the theme, but when starting out as an author and learning the art, having a structure can help keep the plot on track.
The traditional three-act divides the story into three parts:
First Act (the Set-up):
This first act should establish:
- Who: introduces the main character
- Where: establishes the world/setting, and what is the neutral (ie: “normal”) for the character.
- Inciting Incident: this is the event that causes a disruption from the character’s normal life and indicates that life may not be the same again.
- For example: in Harry Potter, the inciting incident is Hagrid’s arrival, announcing that Harry is a wizard
- At this point, if the character were to ignore the inciting incident, their life would remain in the “normal” and there would be no story.
- What the inciting incident is for your story will depend on the genre of the story: For a mystery, it could be the finding of a body, or the client approaching the protagonist with the case. For a romance, it could be the first time that she sees him and decides that he is The One. It can be dramatic, or subtle, but ultimately will change the protagonist’s life and set it on a different course.
- First Turning Point: sometimes known as the “point of no return”, this is where the protagonist accepts the inciting incident, which will alter their life irrevocably. At this point, they cannot return to the period of normalcy without suffering in some way (socially, physically, emotionally). It also sets up the situation that needs to be resolved by the conclusion of the story. It makes the end of the First Act.
- For Harry, this is when he first enters Hogwarts.
How long the first act should be is determined by the length of the novel and the genre. Crime thrillers are quite likely to begin with the inciting incident, whereas a literary or fantasy novel may spend more time in setting the scene. Some authors may choose to have the character reject the incident, or may make it more difficult for the protagonist to accept it – think of how many times the Dursleys foiled Harry’s attempts to get his invitation. But generally speaking it should not be drawn out too long, lest the reader become frustrated and set the book aside.
Second Act (Rising Action):
The second act is the longest act, comprising of approximately half the manuscript.
in the second act:
- Midpoint: The protagonist attempts to deal with the situation, but fails and/or makes matters worse, because they do not, yet, have the skills or knowledge to deal with the situation.
- The protagonist must attempt to address the skills that will help them succeed. In Harry’s case, he’s learning magic, and making allies. In a romance, the protagonist may be fighting against self-doubt and their own insecurities. In a mystery, the inspector is collecting evidence and studying the clues that will help them solve the case.
- Do not make things too easy for your character. When they are facing an obstacle, even success should have ongoing, possibly worse, consequence. Always think, will my character succeed? “Yes, BUT…” (there’s another problem) or “No, AND…” (things get worse).
- Tension should keep rising. Use subplots and character relationships to help hold up a saggy middle.
- Second Turning Point: The tension is at its highest level, and the protagonist must make a decision that will – whether they win or lose – change their life forever. It is similar to the First Turning Point, except the cost for failure is much higher.
Third Act (Resolution):
This is the final quarter-or-so of your book, and the point in which you want to keep the reader fully hooked ad leave them satisfied.
- Climax: everything that protagonist has learned and all the obstacles they have faced can help her deal with the main source of conflict.
- Twists: any sudden reveals or twists to the plot should be “surprising but inevitable”. As a dedicated reader, I’ve found that if I spot a twist early in the book and it culminates to be the actual, I feel cheated, but if I unravel it 2-3 pages before it is revealed, then I feel satisfied (and clever). You do not want to leave the reader thinking, “Huh? How did that happen?” but “Of course! Why didn’t I notice that?”
- Character Development: your character now should no longer be the same person they were at the start; the events of the story have helped reshape them.
- Denouement: Untangling the more knotted parts of the story, and revealing (some of) the secrets and tying up (some of) the loose ends. If your story is in a series, you should always leave a few questions unanswered for the reader. Even if it’s not part of a series, it’s always fun to leave some of the “what comes next” to the reader’s imagination.
The three-act structure is frequently used in screenplays and theater. Next time you are watching a movie, see if you can identify the:
- Inciting Incident
- First Turning Point
- Second Turning Point
Where do writers get their ideas? We discussed the theme at our first Monday evening TalkWrite group for 2018.
Inspiration can come from the world around you:
- Locations: a creepy house; an idyllic location can inspire thoughts such as “what happened there?” or “what could happen there?”
- ie: “What if there was a body?”
- Experiences: for a lot of writers, their day-to-day lives may influence the stories they want to write. It might be funny anecdotes around your work, or you might visit a place or have some sort of experience that you wish to share – either through fiction or as a memoir.
- ie: what sort of interesting/weird things could happen at a science fiction convention?
- Something that makes you wonder:
- companies with interesting names
- ie, Merlin’s Couriers (what do they deliver?)
- ie, car advertisement, costs $19,999 plus ORC (What if your new car actually came with an orc?)
- companies with interesting names
- Newspaper articles: often they only tell you the outcome of an event – so what caused it? Why would someone act in such a way?
- Also Newspaper headlines: sometimes these sound more interesting than the actual story proves to be. So, write the more interesting one!
- Conversations: either overheard, or that you have participated in.
- Historic events/people: if you have a passion for a particular period or figure from history, that works as a great starting point for a story and fictionalised stories around real people are quite popular.
- Dreams: keep a notebook beside your bed, and remember, that’s where Stephenie Meyer found Edward.
- Songs: either the lyrics or the general theme of a song can prove inspiration to writing, just beware of breaching copyright by following or quoting the lyrics too closely.
Write the story you would enjoy reading
If you’re really stuck on what to write, sit down and make a list of the things that you enjoy the most in the books you’re reading and the movies you watch. Chances are, you’ll be able to find a shape of a fresh, new story within them. A prime example of this is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. It has elements of Tolkien, Star Wars, and, whilst being somewhat generic, became phenomenally popular and was actually a really good read (although I confess, I never finished the series). Do you enjoy cozy murder mysteries and like to knit? Well, why not combine the two? (This is a surprisingly populated genre).
Twists on Familiar Stories/Ideas
- Retell a fairy tale with a new setting, time period or from a different character’s perspective.
- Write the story of a side character in an out-of-copyright classic novel (ie: Captain Hook).
- Take a fairly standard/cliched plot and twist or parody it
- ie: the standard “quest for the McGuffin” narrative of some fantasy novels
- Social or political commentary can also be used to create a powerful fantasy novel, a heart-breaking romance, a tense thriller, or a black comedy, depending on your personal genre tastes.
Many stories begin with a “What If?”
- What if cats really ruled the world?
- What if my neighbour began worshipping me as a god?
- What if aliens have been amongst us all this time?
Writing Prompts and Word Lists
There are various resources on the internet for finding inspiration. These may work for some authors – particularly those who just wish to ignite their writing fire.
- Images: they do say a picture paints a thousand words. Spend some time on pinterest looking up your favourite themes (or just “Story ideas”), but I’d recommend setting a timer. Find a picture that inspires you and see what questions you can create around it that might be turned into a story.
- Writing Prompts: these are generally a sentence or two about a situation ending with a few questions. Great for getting inspired to write a short story – or possibly taking it all the way to a novel!
- Word Lists: We did an exercise in a writing class where we were given three words (which included “rickshaw” and “encyclopedia”) and asked to write a short story around them. It was fun – and everyone’s story was completely different! Random word lists can be found on the Internet.
- There are also numerous dice and card decks available to make you think and create.
- Rory’s Story Cubes
- The Reckless Deck: to create spec-fic mash-ups
- The Storymatic: Pick up a card and watch the story unfold before your eyes!
- Dixit: Not specifically for writing inspiration, but has plenty of strange and beautiful illustrations.
- Once Upon a Time: Another game that can be used for inspiration, they even have a book available with how to use it to write your own fairytales.
Want to try and write a story based on prompts? Find below a picture (from Pixabay and a Creative Common) and a list of random words I’ve generated using an online generator.
Cemetery, cave, stem, compartment, suntan, candle, solid, rib, courage, constitution
If you write a story based on one, or both, let us know in the comments below!
Or if you have other ways of “finding your story”, we’d love to hear it.
Members of the Christchurch Writers Guild, plus any interested local writers, are invited to attend our monthly Talk Write sessions. These are themed discussions, intended to inspire, encourage and motivate our writers.
When: the second Monday of every month (excluding January) – see specific dates below
Where: McDonalds Merivale, 217 Papanui Road, Merivale
What Time: from 7 pm, themed discussion begins at 7.30.
We can generally be found in the boardroom, but occasionally a double-booking will see us seated at the long table near Papanui Road.
Here is our schedule of discussion topics for 2018:
Feb 12th: Where do stories come from/finding your story
March 12th: Beginnings
April 9th: The structure of story
May 14th: Setting the scene
June 11th: Show VS Tell/Writing deeper PoV
July 9th: Writing multiple PoV characters
August 13th: Mind mapping
September 10th: Putting the fact in fiction
October 8th: Writing creative non-fiction
November 12th: Adding conflict/avoiding the “saggy middle”
December 10th: I’ve finished my book … now what?
Please note: This list is subject to change, and our AGM will be scheduled (on a different date) in May.
These meetings are open to newcomers, and you can attend as many or as few as you wish.
Hope to see you soon!
Hope to se
There is a strong chance that your character will have a life before their story starts. She* will have hobbies, passions, and fill a specific role, or niche, in society. In all likelihood, she will have an occupation, or some way in which she spends her regular, mundane, pre-story day. Under the typical narrative structure, the plot will begin with her living that normal** life, before the occurrence of the inciting incident that will set her on her journey through the plot.
There are some factors to take into consideration when deciding how your character would spend her pre-story days:
1. Intended Audience/Genre
Readers wish to identify with the characters, and although we may read diversely, there is a general trend to write characters that bear some similarity to their readers. This is especially prevalent in children and young adult literature – how many children’s books can you name where the protagonist is an adult?
Therefore, when writing for children, your characters will likely be children themselves. A lot of children’s books are set in school (ie: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants) and even the fantastical ones generally have them learning their skills from a mentor or tutor (ie: Ranger’s Apprentice, Spirit Animals).
Obviously genre will also determine the role your character plays in society. In science fiction, engineers and linguists might be more prevalent than retail clerks or telephone operators. In fantasy, wizards and knights may prevail over accountants and IT consultants. Of course, it’s also fun to break from tradition and do something fresh and original too (just look at Terry Pratchett).
2. Write What You Know
There is, I suspect, a reason why many characters in adult fiction work in bookstores, are authors, journalists, editors or otherwise feature somewhere in the publishing industry; it requires less research for the author if their protagonist’s occupation is something intrinsically familiar to them. Here’s where extra-curriculum study is useful, and a previously unused degree could come in handy.
Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving your character an occupation you are entirely unfamiliar with, bear in mind that you should engage in indepth research, because if you put in inaccurate facts, someone will know – and reviewers are not kind. You can, perhaps, get away with a little more improvisation in fantasy (especially if your character is a wizard) or space opera. Still, tread wary.
3. What does your story need?
This is probably the most important one to consider. Your character will face many trials throughout the plot and may require specialist skills to face them. Whilst a protagonist can never be a Jack-of-all-trades, they should have at least one core level of expertise that can justify them being the main character.
Think about what your story needs: does your main character need to hack computers? Will they be called upon to heal another character? Will strenuous physical activity be required? This doesn’t need to relate specifically to the character’s occupation, she could have attended a first aid course for work. Think creatively too: need someone with physical agility or endurance? Maybe she could be a soccer player or a cheerleader.
In a fantastical setting, she may be required to ride horses, hunt or forage for food, or survive in a hostile environment. Giving her a rural background may make this easier, but there is a certain charm in her being of noble blood, and thus forced into a situation where she is entirely out of her depth.
4. Break the stereotypes
Alternately, you can approach this from the exact opposite direction. Who would be the least expected to face the challenges of the plot? After all, we’ve had a perky cheerleader that fights supernatural monsters, and there are numerous middle-aged women (with no police training) who regularly solve mysteries. So, who’s to say that an accountant cannot save the world from the alien invasion? Or an elderly lady should not fall in love with a rock star?
No-one. So if you want to write it, write it!
5. Who will the plot impact the most?
There are some people that are more likely to be in a direct line of fire from the threat you’re about to unleash. Let’s say, for example, you want to write a story about monsters creeping into the world, possibly through the sewage system. Who is likely to notice this first? Home owners, perhaps, who will call in a plumber to investigate the situation. Supernatural events occurring after dark? What sort of people are likely to be out in the wee small hours? Street sweepers, criminals, someone sneaking home after an illicit tryst. A ‘flu virus has mutated and will begin the next pandemic? A doctor or nurse, or perhaps a laboratory technician or intern, could be the first to make the connection.
6. Give your character a talent or passion
Giving your character hobbies, talents, or interests, or something they are passionate about, all help the reader to connect with your character. These may not necessarily have a powerful impact on the plot, but they will more help cement the character as a “real” person. They can also be used to help the plot in small but subtle ways, both to the character’s benefit or to their downfall.
However, be wary of making your character’s passion so powerful that it distracts from the plot. If she must examine and identify every flower that she comes across, the reader’s interest may begin to wander. She need only identify the ones which can be used later in the story (ie: working out who had the means to poison the bishop), or a couple of others as “red herrings”.
Hopefully these suggestions have given you a goodly basis on where your character may begin. In the next few weeks we will look into personality, family, and the way your character relates to people around them.
If you have any suggestions or feedback for this blog, please let us know in the comments below.
~ * ~
* or he, or they, or whatever pronoun you have selected for your protagonist.
** even novels set in alternate, or dystopic, worlds tend to start with the character in a relative status quo-type situation. It may not be “normal” to us – but it is normal to them.
Characters are one of the defining features that make a novel memorable, and help it stand out from others in the same genre.
As writers, we need to capture the reader’s attention, engage their emotions, and hook them into the tale. We need to create a protagonist that one can emphasize with, or at the very least, feel a connection to.
Do they need to be likeable? No!
Do they need to feel real? Yes!
We will work our way through a series of blog posts on how one can create a character, flesh them out, and bring them to life on the page. One important thing to note though, is the Iceberg Principal. Essentially, whilst you – as the writer – needs to know as much about the character as you feasibly can, the reader only needs to see what is relevant to the story – the tip of the iceberg.
We will begin with names. Now, you may like to leave the naming of your character until you know them a little better, in which case, refer back to this post at a later date, but I think we can all agree that, in most stories*, names are important. And names are more than just “something to call your character by”.
Names can also indicate:
- Social status
There are numerous things to consider when choosing names for your characters, and these will vary according to genre. For a historical novel, for example, you will wish to choose names relevant or typical to that period, a modern name or non-traditional spelling will really stand out. Also, many readers will make a subconscious connection between a name and personality; this can be fun to play with – for example, we have Bill the vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse series – but certain names will generally have specific connotations. This may, of course, vary depending on who is reading the book, and is culture dependent.
There are numerous resources for names, here are a few:
- baby name books: These generally contain the name’s origin and meaning, and thus can be used to subtly reference the character’s personality.
- baby name websites: as above, only digital.
- people you know, or names you overhear. Carry a notebook, note them down. (Be wary of using the names of friends or family though, as they may grow suspicious of your character’s origin).
- the phone book: great for surnames!
- name generator websites: Google it, there are hundreds!
If you are wanting non-traditional names, say for example you are writing speculative fiction, or for non-human characters, then you can have some fun creating your own names:
- portmanteaus are always fun: Sunstar, Rainflower, Goldenleaf.
- look into nature: plants, animals, and minerals often have appealing names that can say a lot about a character (Hemlock for example, is not likely to be someone cute and cuddly).
- colours: ie: Cerulean, Cyan, Magenta, Scarlet, Sable.
- mythology and folklore
- combine together pleasantly sounding syllables (I’d recommend no more than 3 syllables).
Make sure you say your character’s name out loud, to make sure that it doesn’t clash with the character’s intended personality (Annaki, for example, is likely to cause chaos). If you are writing a multi-racial specfic adventure, you will find it extremely helpful to base each different race’s naming patterns on the same distinct origin. That way the reader will be able to immediately determine if they’re a dwarf, an elf, or a specific alien species. Consistency is important.
Some things to look out for:
- character names all beginning with the same letter: this isn’t too confusing but can look lazy.
- similar sounding names: you probably don’t want a Raina and a Riana in your story. Either you or the reader will get the two confused!
- characters with the same name: this is fairly common in real life, but in stories it’s best avoided to prevent confusion.
- unpronounceable or long, complex names. For both the reader’s sake and yours – since you will probably mis-spell them at least once – I’d recommend keeping these to a minimum, or for peripheral characters.
- avoid subconsciously using the name of someone famous or infamous, or someone else’s character. Google it first!
It can be very useful to create lists of names, especially if you are writing in a world with specific naming technique (ie: all from the same cultural origin), so when you need to give the name of a peripheral character you can refer to the list, rather than spend 20 minutes trying to find something appropriate, which will stall your writing.
* there are always exceptions to the rule: in a first-person narrative one can fairly easily avoid ever naming the main protagonist, and you are unlikely to use them in a second-person narrative, and there are of course several famous authors that have never given their characters a unique moniker (ie: The Road by Cormac McCarthy). But you’ll generally find it easier if you have something to call your characters, trust me.