Essential writing skills: grammar – the writer’s playground

It was Winston Churchill, I believe, who once insisted that ending a sentence with a preposition was something up with which he would not put.

Wright_Typewriter2As any of us who have dragged through High School English know, grammar is often touted as the basic building block of writing. Which, in many ways, it is; you can’t write things that scan properly without it. It’s there for a reason.

The onus is on authors to get it right, though that doesn’t mean losing perspective. Grammar is a tool, not an end-goal. The so-called ‘grammar Nazis’ who nit-pick authors for any technical glitch that they can attribute to the writing don’t achieve much other than showing themselves up as small-minded.

It happens though. Some years ago a book reviewer – not someone writing the reader commentaries one gets on Amazon, but a journalist commissioned to prepare a discursive article about one of my books – took a ‘point off’ for my use of ‘impacted’ as a verb. I’d done it deliberately, and it’s correct to do so. ‘Impact’ began life in the early seventeenth century English as a transitive verb. It’s still such today, though it is more often used as a noun. A fact that gives due context to the remark – which was, of course, an attempt to put me in my place; simple bullying of a kind that, alas, happens quite often in this sort of book review. (‘I can’t write books myself but I will trawl your work for anything I can claim proves that you are incompetent and ignorant as a book author’).

So the point about grammar? Just like musical rules don’t constitute good music alone, grammar alone doesn’t constitute good writing. There has to be a dynamic to written style – something that isn’t contained in the grammar rules, but which exploits them, perhaps even bends them. Advertisers and journalists do it all the time – how often do you see sentences that start with a conjunction?

This doesn’t mean being ignorant of grammar. You have to know the rules in order to break them. But once you have them down pat you can play with them. For stylistic purposes, the rules to bend are typically those associated with words – like, don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

Actually, judiciously, you can. It means finding a balance; bending the rules enough to be interesting, without being blatantly egregious. It’s a skill, but one that comes with enough practise in writing. It’s as much an essential skill as any other – giving your writing what, in due homage to Frank Zappa, I always call ‘writing eyebrows’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: what Lucas and Tolkien show us about the hero journey

Sorting out a viable character arc and hence plot for your story is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of writing to get right. But it’s also the most important.

Like all writing, it’s a learned skill – practise makes perfect, and you can’t play games with the structure until you’ve mastered it. For beginning writers perhaps the best way to approach that is to fall back on the fail-safe story – the three-act hero journey. This is absolutely classic structure and character arc, used and re-used by writers old and new, experienced and novice.  It’s the literary equivalent of the four-chord rock song. But that doesn’t mean every writer who uses it ends up with the same story – far from it. In fact, the onus is on you, as the writer, to make an original tale around that structure.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in ‘Prince Caspian’.

To show what I mean we need go no further than two classics, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and George Lucas’ Star Wars. On the face of it, they’re radically different tales – different settings, different genres. But they’re both based on the hero arc. Check this out:

  1. We meet Bilbo/Luke in their normal world. They are set in their ways, but something niggles them – something is missing in their lives.
  2. They meet an older mentor figure (Gandalf/Obi-Wan), and a dramatic event pushes Bilbo/Luke, forcibly, out of that normal world (Bilbo’s ‘unexpected party’, Luke’s discover of his murdered uncle and aunt).
  3. Bilbo/Luke at first flounder; but the mentor offers guidance, and they begin to learn how to handle themselves. There is a first test away from the mentor (Bilbo vs the trolls, Luke sent to look for Leia in the Death Star while Obi Wan is dealing with the tractor beam) .
  4. Bilbo/Luke gain confidence from their experiences.
  5. There is a pivotal point at which they are stripped of their mentor (Gandalf departs to deal with the Necromancer, Darth Vader kills Obi Wan) after which the hero has to find their own strength (Bilbo versus the spiders, Luke leading the attack on the Death Star). Tolkien had a lot more space to explore this side of the arc than Lucas – Bilbo’s hero growth in The Hobbit was multi-dimensional and the Lonely Mountain sequences focussed on his ethical journey after he’d found his personal heroism.
  6. Bilbo/Luke achieve a great victory on the back of their new-found strengths (Bilbo uses the Arkenstone to try and reconcile the crisis over the unguarded dwarven treasure, Luke uses the Force to hit a small target and blow up the Death Star.)
  7. The story ends; the character arc is complete.

So there you have it; the hero arc – an arc which must be entwined with specific plot points to work. If done right – and both Lucas and Tolkien nailed it – the drama flows from the character development, and the narrative of the plot matches the essential pivot points of the character arc. That one-two punch keeps readers on the edge of their seat.

And if you need another example, go check out The Wizard of Oz. Same story.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the core of novel writing

One of the many challenges beginning writers face when setting out to tackle their first novel – or their second, or their third – is the fact that ‘good ideas’ often come as snapshots of particular scenes, or a setting, or a scenario.

Wright_Typewriter01Characters – and the essential character arc – usually take second place in the planning and writing process. It’s a classic issue. The reason why it happens, in part, is because we are fed entertainment in ‘scenes’ and ‘settings’, around which part of the emotional pull is grounded. Some guy has a blue Police phone box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside and can go anywhere in space and time. Coooool!

The problem is that this isn’t the whole story. The structural priority in fiction writing – and, for that matter, in any writing – is the emotional journey on which the writer takes the reader. This is always based around the character arc, and always demands movement, a direction. More, in short, than a static scenario. The problem with a succession of snapshot ‘ scenes’ is that they often don’t link to that directional character arc.

The answer is to step back, reverse the whole process, and start with the character arc. Jot down notes about those cool settings and scenes on a set of cards. What is the appeal of that setting to you – the emotional pull? This could give insights into the kind of character that would inhabit it. Then start working on the characters. Focus on one character only to begin with. This is your lead character. Forget the setting. What does the character NEED to develop, to grow? What is their journey?

Once that’s sorted out, look back at the scenario and setting. Does that fit? Will it work with the character? The priority MUST be the character journey, from which all else follows. That’s because this is the core of the novel – the means by which readers are captured and then held. Narrative plot events, cool scenes, and cool setting all play a part. But they are the background – secondary to that character arc, around which all must pivot.

Want proof? Go check out that show about the guy with the blue box. The stories aren’t really about his TARDIS or the neat places you can go in it. Are they?

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: ways to build a real character for your novel

One of the ways to transform a ‘character’ in your story into someone ‘real’ is to start with a good foundation. What makes people tick?

At this level, people are simpler than you might think. One powerful motive is self-validation – feeling worthy and valued, even to themselves. This can produce all manner of outcomes, because there are so many different things people identify with – and so many different ways they validate themselves.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Let’s take one example – imagine a university Professor who, for better or worse, validates his self-worth by the status he imagines he has in his field of employment. What does that produce? He will see others – who ‘compete’ for the same status – as taking away his self-worth. This sounds ridiculous but it’s actually fairly common in the field – this is why academics end up fighting over what, to those of us in the real world, appears to be nothing. Would such a character have the confidence to confront someone they viewed as a threat? Perhaps, but let’s suppose they mix this with a fundamental underlying insecurity.

That opens up story narrative. When affronted by someone who they imagine has taken away their self-worth they respond not by confronting their supposed assailant, but sneakily through back-channels, a cowardly back-stab that means this Professor character doesn’t have to actually introduce himself to his targets. And if confronted; why, he is a Professor – how dare anybody question his status or authority?

What else can we add, to make a point of difference in character? Laziness? A sense of entitlement? And so we begin to build up a picture of a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist. A Professor, perhaps – someone, perhaps, who feels entitled to position and status, who does not work particularly hard but who draws validation from the little they achieve, presenting as ‘puffed up’ to any they work with.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdStereotypically, one might also imagine a character of this nature to be physically lazy and over-weight. Of course, all this is purely to show the thought processes that might go into a character. I’ve deliberately portrayed a cliche – a classic bully. Such a character, you have to admit, is at best a pathetic one-dimensional caricature. Not compelling for readers – but by going to the extreme I have, I hope, given something of the basic mechanics of how characters might be developed.

The trick is to be a lot more subtle – to build from a strong skeleton, mixing and matching the surface elements to produce that most elusive of literary creations, Hemingway’s ‘real’ person. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: understanding points of view and other novel-writing puzzles

The other week someone asked me how many points of view it’s possible to have in a novel. It’s a tricky question. The best answer – certainly for novice or learning novelists – is ‘one’. That’s the simplest.

Wright_Typewriter2It’s simplest because the author is dealing with but one major character arc, and a single point of view can be handled from various writing angles – first person singular (‘I’), as if the novel was a personal narrative. The reader only gets to see what the narrator sees. It’s closely related to ‘third person singular’ – which is the same as first person, but where the author steps back and refers to the lead character as ‘he’ or ‘she’.  But they don’t reveal anything that anybody else sees.

Both angles offer differing advantages, depending on what the author has in mind. With first person singular, for instance, it’s possible to play with styles. The classic, to my mind, is George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, written in first person singular in the style of a ‘found’ nineteenth century memoir, to the point where one reviewer thought it actually was. Brilliant. It’s harder to produce that sense with third person singular, where the writing style is more independent of the content. But that independence may be what’s desired.

Handling multiple points of view – in effect, treating every character as a lead – is possible but quite tricky to accomplish well. It virtually dictates that the novel has to be written from ‘third person plural’ perspective – ‘he’ or ‘she’ perspectives, covering multiple people. It’s possible to play with styles and voices to give a different feel to each narrator. But it carries structural complexities – the multiple ‘lead’ character arcs have to be very carefully planned so they mesh properly around the plot, as just one challenge.

Great novel writing definitely includes multiple POV. But I would not recommend this for novice authors. Nor would I recommend it for a contest like NaNoWriMo – it’s too time-consuming to get multiple POV right. I can be done, of course – but don’t forget, what I’m talking about here isn’t just how to write fast. It’s how to write fast with quality. Some forms of writing – well, they impose speed limits. And multiple POV is one of them.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: what Ebenezer Scrooge teaches us about character arcs

One of the key things all novellists have to master is the character arc. It’s fundamental to the nature of the novel  – the reason why readers become emotionally engaged. Usually, the arc of the main character dictates the fundamental plot structure of the novel.

Wright_Typewriter01So what is a ‘character arc’? At basic level, it’s the journey a character takes as a person. They learn something. They develop. They change. The plot and events of the novel will always be about how they make that change. What does the character need to learn? How can they discover the better person they probably already believe themselves to be?

Take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s all about Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal character arc – his transformation from a mean-spirited Grinch into a kind and generous man. The whole of the plot is subordinated to that goal. So how does Dickens handle it? Very, very unsubtly, broadly as allegory. That, of course, is why this tale is such a great way of exploring the integration between plot and character arc. Several key points emerge:

  1. Scrooge doesn’t know how to find his own joy. So the key tension of the character arc is going to be one of self-discovery. Undoing self-delusion is one of several possible character arcs.
  2. The plot of the story takes us on a journey through that character arc – it is designed to show first how Scrooge has insulated himself from Christmas joy, then how he is made to discover himself. It’s not subtle – nor did Dickens intend it to be. When the transformation is complete, we are shown how Scrooge has become a different man. The narrative ends there because there is nothing more to say about Scrooge’s transformation. The story is over.
  3. Dickens didn’t ‘pad’ the story with any unnecessary events. Everything was subordinated to defining Scrooge and taking us on a journey through his character transformation.
  4. The drama came wholly from within Scrooge – driven by that internal transformation. It didn’t rely or need external crises, adventure or other setting. And that’s the best way to develop story drama.

If you deconstruct other stories you’ll often find much the same thing – Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for instance, which is the classic hero journey.

Plot and narrative, in short, all swing around the needs of the characters. Something writers have to bear uppermost in their minds when plotting out their novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Finding the balance between writing well and writing weird

Here’s a thought for you as you prepare for NaNoWriMo or that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Archaeologists recently discovered a wind instrument, a bone flute, on which it was possible to play the Star Spangled Banner. The holes in the instrument had been spaced in a way that matched a modern scale.

Wright_Typewriter01Sounds ho-hum, but this instrument was 30,000 years old. It had been fabricated at the height of the last Ice Age, which means that the musical intervals that sounded pleasing to its makers were the same as the intervals that sound pleasing to us.

The same, it seems, is also true of stories. Humans are story-tellers. Three-act stories seem to be part of every culture around the world, cultures that are rich and diverse within themselves, but which all build their story-telling around the same basic structure.

We write in three-act structure, in short, not because it’s dull and conventional, but because it works. Like our sense of tone, we seem to be hard-wired for stories that have a beginning, middle and end. Sure, there have been efforts to change that from time to time – avant garde thought experiments – but they have never quite grabbed and captured in the way that the classic form does.

That’s an important point when constructing a novel – and especially when building one that has to be knocked through in thirty days, like NaNoWriMo. Although that doesn’t mean being boring. The trick is being different enough to be interesting – without dislodging the essential structure that readers identify with, expect and which – as I say – appears to be a fundamental part of human nature.

More soon – check back for regular posts on writing structure, writing technique – and writing inspiration, coming up through October and into November.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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