Some writers have neither the temperament nor the inclination to spend months gathering information about their projects, clarifying minute details about their characters’ likes and dislikes. These are the pantsers of the writing world—their writing flows better when they write from the seat of their pants.
Yet, even they, I would argue, need to address five essential points prior to commencing their stories in order to avoid stalling later on.
“A blank slate may cause writer’s block in the pantser, interrupting the writing for weeks, months or even years. This can be avoided by understanding the basic connections—statements reduced to single sentences—that arise between the hero, plot and theme, in a new story.”
Jot down the answers to the following questions and keep them close at hand while writing of your story:
Describe the story in one or two sentences. The description should include a beginning, middle and end.
Explain why the hero is compelled to try and attain the goal.
Note the secret the hero is hiding from everyone, perhaps even himself. How is this secret related to the hero’s flaw or wound?
Show how the discovery/admission of his secret realigns his goal, turning his want into his need.
State the theme of the story.
These five questions are enough to give any pantser a great start and keep him from going astray when the light dims, the muse gets Covid 19, and the rocks loom up ahead.
Prepare for the writing of a new story by carefully considering five essential questions about your tale.
How much does your choice of place or location influence your story?
The short answer is—significantly. My advice, therefore, is to write about places you are familiar with in order to retain a sense of realism.
But this is not always possible. Your story might demand exotic locations you’ve never visited, or include character types you’ve never encountered. After all, not many of us have flown into outer space or tangled with aliens.
Thankfully, we have research and imagination to rescue us, because, make no mistake, location deeply influences plot and character. Without an understanding of the physics of acceleration on weightlessness, stories such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, Apollo 13, Space Cowboys, Interstellar, and countless of others, would not have been as convincing.
“The influence of location on your story should not be underestimated. Location shapes the narrative by placing unique temporal and spatial constraints upon it.”
In Before the Light, much of the plot taps into the challenges that space presents to the crew of the space station, Gravity. The story which unfolds in this inhospitable environment, coupled with a seemingly rogue quantum computer, would not be as effective if it took place on earth.
The Great Gatsby required an understanding of 1920’s America, including prohibition, in order to tap into the ambience and motivation of the plot and characters.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula would not work without the cavernous castle in the Carpathian mountains of Romania, or the English setting of the protagonist’s love interest.
In short, write about places and people you know. Failing that, conduct research by visiting the locations you intend to describe, watch documentaries on the subject, or conduct interviews with people who are familiar with it. Your writing will feel more authentic for it.
Since location does indeed influence the story, write about places and people you know. Fill in the gaps through imagination and meticulous research.
Here is an effective way to draw your readers into your stories—infuse your writing with strong emotions.
Strong emotions draw us into intimate situations, allowing us vicariously to experience the characters’ lives as our own. But this demands maturity on the part of the writer. Firstly, to recognise the intricate web of emotions resulting from one’s own life. Secondly, to tie these emotions into a theme or premise. It involves a high level of self-awareness and critical thinking.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered some advice in response to a short story sent to him by Francis Turnbull, a Radcliffe College student and family friend.
“… I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at the moment. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly … It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile …”
”Strong emotions are the key to reader and audience engagement.”
What Fitzgerald is saying is that new writers have a better chance of engaging readers if they relate stories that contain heightened emotions based on personal experience. Characters and events can be adjusted to suit, but emotions should be drawn from strong, ‘lived’ experience. Fitzgerald believes this is the price of admission writers have to pay.
He continues, “the amateur, seeing how the professional having learnt all he’ll ever learn about writing, can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming – the amateur thinks he can do the same.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, then, is to use powerful, personal experience to evoke heightened emotion in readers and audiences, especially when first starting out. Mining smaller, more trivial details for subject matter takes time and maturity to pull off.
Search your life for big, wrenching emotions and distill them into your stories. It will make your characters more authentic and impactful.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt over the years is that successful stories are written from the inside out – plot through character. That is to say that action and plot are projected from the emotional, physical, moral, and spiritual perspective of the protagonist.
The external events of a story are, of course, of great importance—they are what draw readers and audiences into the story in the first place—but without a deep involvement with the protagonist’s obsessive desires, fears, foibles, successes and failures, the story falls flat.
If we don’t care about the characters’ hopes and fears, if we won’t share in his pleasure and pain, we won’t care about his involvement in the plot.
Characters respond to life-threatening challenges in unique ways because they have a sense of ‘felt life’—they have a backstory, a personality, a set of hopes, fears and obsessions. It is these treasures that make a story compelling.
“Plot through character refers to a technique whereby the writer filters the protagonist’s action through her inner life—her hopes, fears, flaws and obsessions.”
In William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral, is a man consumed by the desire to extend the cathedral’s magnificence by building a spire at the top of the existing structure. He ignores the advice of his master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning a place of worship into a building site, with catastrophic consequences. Events are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological sensibility, making his experience our experience, while simultaneously showcasing his folly.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a theoretical physicist obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical problem that could allow for time travel into the past in order to undo an event that cost his wife her life. This obsession prevents him from living the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him. It takes a cataclysmic cyclone to force him to recognise the deeply buried truth about his past—a truth that has the potential to set him free. Or kill him. This climactic event can’t be dealt with externally, at least not initially. It has to be dealt with from within. The process of laying Benjamin’s inner conflict bare, written in the first person present tense, draws us into his world and keeps us immersed in his story.
Filter your plot through your protagonist’s inner life. It will make your story more believable and engaging.
Story magic is conjured through the spell of structure.
Structure shapes narrative events by regulating the flow of information through a series of well-placed twists and turns, counterbalancing suspense with surprise, lighter moments with darker ones, while simultaneously showcasing character.
But how closely must one focus on the nuts and bolts of structure while engaged in the process of writing itself? Surely it’s difficult to be creative while entertaining such distractions?
“Seeking to conjure story magic without a wand is a hit and miss affair. You could have it in you, but you probably don’t.”
The point is that the magic of the story is forged inside the cauldron of structure. So, while it may seem that scenes flow spontaneously from our brains, for most of us, such scenes, spring from a deep knowledge of the craft. We should study story structure at every opportunity.
We all have different ways of accessing this knowledge. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘inciting incident’ and ‘first turning point’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to range over past exemplars to glean how other writers have navigated similar terrain.
A screenplay such as Gladiator did not spring fully formed from the minds of Ridley Scott, David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson. The story was inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book, Those About to Die. The film script itself was first written by Franzoni, but was bought by DreamWorks, and Ridley Scott was signed on to direct the film. Its solid structure, a collective effort, is so deeply embedded in the story that it remains largely invisible to the audience—no doubt one of the contributing factors of the film’s success.
I have previously noted that my own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence—a lack of rhythm, which tells me I may have missed a structural beat, that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.
In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.
Running through the scenes of a story in my imagination, I often jut out an elbow, or thrust out a hip as I try to predict changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance, a kind of free flowing stream that bestows shape through bends, turns—through changes in direction.
Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth—that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not break the spell.
Story magic is conjured through a deep awareness of story structure. Structure shapes the tale but remains invisible to readers and audiences.
A strong theme is the reason we write a story. It is what a story is really about, the essence we most want to communicate. The theme contains the moral core of the tale—it shapes each narrative event that occurs in the story.
A theme is often associated with a specific age group, although at its heart a theme can appeal to any audience depending on how it shapes narrative events.
William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, about boys stranded on an island who revert to tribalism appeals across the board. In some ways this theme has much in common with Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, which shows that left unchecked, men may descend into irrationality, cruelty and barbarity. What differs is how the theme renders each story.
In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger breaks down age groups into the following categories: childhood, teen years, young adult, twenties to forties, fifties through eighties, old age, and end-of-life. Let’s take a look at themes associated with childhood.
“At the core of every story about children is a strong theme of self-esteem, trust, and a sense of belonging. Home Alone, War Games, and E.T. are good examples of this.”
A child embarks on a journey which gradually builds up her self-confidence, resulting in a sense of belonging and self-esteem. This growth is typically achieved by overcoming obstacles strewn in the child’s path by teachers, parents, bullies.
The child can deal with these problems in two ways – she can blame herself, become introverted, lose confidence, and grow depressed, or she can project the problem onto others and become rebellious and delinquent. This can effect the child’s family and friends, drawing them into her problems.
Typically, in an upbeat ending, the child gradually overcomes these obstacles by engaging in purposeful action driven by sustained effort, ingenuity, and courage. The catalyst is usually some meaningful event from the backstory which surfaces at the appropriate moment to help her reverse direction.
Although themes are universal, they are rendered differently for different audiences through the narrative events they express.
So, you have a finalised manuscript. But do you really?
Hemingway believed, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” He reportedlyrewrote portions of The Old Man and the Sea over two hundred times before he had it published.
“Deciding what constitutes a finalised manuscript can be agonising. There are so many potential tweaks and changes that can be effected. A good check-list can make the task a little easier.”
But how do you know when what you’ve written is a finalised manuscript ready to be pushed out into the world? Other than that warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach, which could be the result of that last glass of Merlot?
Margret Geraghty’s, The Novelist’s Guide, offers some suggestions:
Does your story start in the right place? Not too soon or too late?
Is your first chapter or scene riveting and compelling?
Does each scene have structure and purpose?
Do most of your scenes or chapters end on a hook?
Are your flashbacks absolutely necessary?
Have you prepared the reader or audience for surprises through foreshadowing?
Are your characters authentic and compelling?
Does your protagonist have difficult problems to overcome, leading to the final solution?
Does your protagonist solve the ultimate problem by realising something about herself she was unaware of before?
Are your characters’ names right for them?
Do your characters have their own unique voice – idiom, speech pattern?
Are the settings interesting?
Do you invoke the senses in your scenes.
Is your ending surprising but inevitable?
Does it yield the theme you intended?
If you’ve answered no or maybe to any of these questions, return to your manuscript, revise and repeat. If yes, you are ready to publish your story and start on the next one.
A finalised manuscript is one where the fundamentals of theme, character and plot have been identified and revised.
Powerful scenes are the building blocks of successful stories.
Strong scenes bring characters, action and dialogue together. They form strong narrative units that enrich characters and promote plot. As such, we need to master the ins and outs of scene construction. Before attempting to write a scene ask yourself:
Who is the focus character in the scene, i.e. which character has the most to lose?
What does the focus character (usually the protagonist) want to achieve in the scene?
Describe the focus character’s emotional stance at the beginning of the scene.
What is the obstacle standing in the way of the focus character achieving the goal in the scene?
If the obstacle is another character, (usually the antagonist or his lackey) answer questions 1-4 for that obstacle character.
What is the outcome of the clash between the focus character and the obstacle force or character?
What is the emotional stance of the focus character after the clash? How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
Describe the emotional stance of the obstacle character after the clash. How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
How does the result of the clash cause the next scene?
“Opposing character goals generate conflict, the life-blood of powerful scenes. They reveal the motivation of the characters, authenticating them.”
In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage, a television personality, hides behind cameras and microphones to dodge the draft. He is called to General Brigham’s office. He believes he will be covering the Allied attack against the invading Mimics from the relative safety of America. The General, however, wants Cage to deploy with the USA soldiers and cover the action on the ground. Both men have distinct goals at the start of the scene. Their demeanour supports those goals.
After the clash, Cage has failed to blackmail the General into letting him off the hook. He is arrested, stripped of his rank and forced to deploy overseas as a private. His cocky attitude has been reduced to one of protestation and panic. The General’s quiet demeanour, on the other hand, underscores his victory.
The scene follows the structure laid out above. Use it in your own stories. Your writing should perk up substantially.
Powerful scenes display a specific pattern. Study this pattern until it becomes entrenched in your writing.
So, you want to write a great story? Then at the very least you should relate the hero’s character arc to his struggle to achieve his goal.
Causally linking the hero’s inner growth to the quality of his actions will help ensure the authenticity of the story. Importantly, your hero should never act beyond the limits of his current moral, spiritual and physical skills. The quality of his performance at the level of action has to reflect his current ability to achieve it. As the hero grows so does the efficacy of his actions.
But if the hero keeps improving through each hostile encounter, why does he not attain the goal earlier in the story?
”The hero’s character arc, his growth towards moral, spiritual and physical power remains insufficient to overcome the worsening challenges he encounters—until his final confrontation with the antagonist.”
That‘s because the hero’s growth is outpaced by the increase in difficulty of each new challenge. The knowledge that the hero brings to each new confrontation is less than the knowledge required to gain the goal—until the final conflict, where the necessary lessons have been fully learnt. It is only then that the hero is able to integrate the separate areas of growth needed to defeat the antagonist.
in Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage has to die countless of times before he acquires the necessary skill to defeat the Mimics that have decimated the earth. It is only when he is stripped bare of his ignorance, and his ability to resurrect himself, that he finally stands a chance at a permanent victory against the invading aliens.
In the best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, fails to outwit the villain and protect the woman he loves until he realises that he must sacrifice what he wants, to win Emma’s love, if he is to gain what he needs—to save her life. It is a realisation that takes him most of the story to achieve.
The hero’s character arc, his growth towards spiritual, moral and practical strength, lags behind the evolving challenges of the plot, until the end of the story.
One bit of advice we keep hearing is that our stories should feel real—that the characters they describe should be authentic.
But how does one pull this off?
An understanding of human nature does not necessarily mean that you can communicate it effectively in a story. The first requirement rests on observation, study and experience. The second assumes knowledge of the craft of dramatic writing. Both skills are necessary. Both are distinct.
Effective writing requires a mastery of techniques specific to the craft—techniques that allow writers to distill and transcribe their experience into stories that move us deeply. Being able to craft authentic characters is a step in that direction.
Characters who display likes, dislikes, foibles, specific values, and individual memories—characters that feel both unique and familiar at the same time resonate with us because we recognise ourselves in them.
Fear, hope, regret, loss, pain, and nostalgia are emotions we have all experienced at some time or another. Effectively evoking such emotions strengthens our involvement with a story.
“Characters who experience powerful emotions we recognise in ourselves, make for successful stories.”
Who can forget these lines spoken by the HAL 9000 computer as it is being shut down by Dave Bowman, in 2001, A Space Odyssey?
HAL I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.
DAVE BOWMAN: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It’s called “Daisy.” [sings while slowing down, voice distorting] Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.
The pathos that this passage evokes serves to humanise HAL’s character.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, describes his love for a specific cafe located in Mission Beach on Australia’s east coast:
“There is a small cafe off the beaten path near Mission Beach in the north that makes the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. Miranda and I once had breakfast there, as newlyweds, while on a tour across Australia and the place stuck with me; but that was a long time ago.
These days you know the shop is there, even though it’s hidden by trees and shrubs and clamping bamboo that sways five metres tall, because the scent of freshly ground Brazilian coffee can keep no secrets.
The tables, now mostly vacant, are covered with green tablecloths with cigarette burns. The chairs have thatch seats that creak when you sit down, though never enough to spoil the constant stream of blues and jazz on vinyl from a Philips turntable. The walls are strewn with dusty black and white photographs of the town before they found coal, a few kilometres up the road.
Not many people drift into O’Hara’s anymore. They built a pier nearby with the coal money and a three-level shopping centre, with more parking than there are people in the town. It’s filled with glass and chrome restaurants, bars and shops, and the place now draws much of the crowd away. I’m still a regular customer though.”
Benjamin’s sense of nostalgia for a past that has slipped away, his memory of the breakfast he once had here with his wife, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, grants us a heart-felt snapshot of his mental and emotional state – a sense of ‘felt life’, which gives the story its sense of authenticity.
Imbuing characters with emotion is a powerful technique writers use to draw readers and audiences into their stories.