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All Important Groundwork

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Sat Dec 06, 2008 4:48 pm
Jiggity says...



The Basics

Preliminaries: All The W’s and A Solitary ‘H’

The stage before the actual writing begins is perhaps the least fun. For some, this isn’t the case, but for most, we generally skip it. Generally, the questions that you should be asking are – and yes, it should be very obvious:

Who?
What?
When?
Where?
Why?
How?

Who is this about? What is the situation? When is it occurring? Where is it taking place? Why is it happening? And how is it being done?

Obviously, this is the most basic set of questions that need to be answered and from them, spring a dozen others. It’s good to ask them before and after you finish a piece – to see if you reached all your objectives.

Introductions: It’s All About the Integration Baby

These are generally very tricky. In a short space of time, you have to introduce your character, the setting (on the grand scale of ‘world’ and smaller, but more important, immediate surroundings) and give some sense of what’s occurring. The trouble of course, is to make sure you do this subtly, with well integrated action and description, no info-dumping and preferably, seamless transitions.

The amounts of description, action and pacing will usually be determined by the nature of the story itself i.e. if it’s a short story or novel, non-fiction or fiction, etc. There is no need to rush, in either case. Take your time and think it out. Introductions – prologues and opening chapters or paragraphs – need to hook the readers from the get-go. You can do it with artful description, humorous thoughts, straight out action, taught suspense or in any way you choose really – be creative.

Descriptions: When is Enough, Enough? Too Little or Too Much?

Visualising what’s occurring is one of the most important tools available to us. It’s our creativity that distinguishes us from journalists, so don’t be afraid to use it. Generally, as in all things, it comes down to a question of balance. You don’t want too little – it’s boring and unimaginative, thus losing attention – and you don’t want too much; readers want to consume your tasty words but don’t shove it down their throats. They will choke and get teary eyed and generally be very annoyed with you.

Atmosphere is very important. Spend as much time on this as you did the planning of your story; it is critical to how well you engage the reader.

The chains hurt. The ship rocks on the oceans back. All the other slaves are staring at me. I get up, walk over to one girl and sit down next to her.

Or:

The ship sways, tossed on the ocean’s back. The dark timbers groan in pain, stretching and tightening in arthritic motion. The chains bite deep into my wrists; sore, red flesh puffs up around the edges. I was covered in filth, hair matted and mangy. Through slitted eyes I watch the other slaves and they in turn eye me. I get up, slowly and carefully stretching cramped muscles. One girl in particular watches me with avid interest. I walk over and sit next to her. Neither of us breathes a word.

Okay, so in my opinion they’re both terrible but the second has a lot more detail and atmosphere. It’s more tangible and visceral. Integrate action with description – it is the key. In the first example, there was action but too little of it and not enough accompanying description. In the second, it was more balanced.

Quality Over Quantity:

Sometimes I read stories chock-full of yummy description, all grandiose and artful and heavy. Even those that do it well though, would be better off choosing their words with care. Why spend a dozen words describing a tree, when one or two select words can encompass it? Far better to tastefully decorate a room then furnish it to the excess. Often, in such instances, little, wonderful details are lost in the seething mass of description. No one wants to stay in that room.

Too little and it’s uncomfortably plain – there is one chair to sit on, maybe, but there is no view and we don’t want to stay.

If you do it right and the room is furnished nicely and well – we can sit in comfort and enjoy the scene.

Embodying Character:

This, in my opinion, will carry the story. The strength of this aspect of writing can overcome poor or lacking description, weak plot lines, the whole shebang. I’m going to use those two examples above, again. It is not enough to describe the protagonist, one must embody them. In the first example, I describe – poorly and inadequately – the character and the situation.

The chains hurt. The ship rocked on the waves. All the other slaves are staring at me. I get up, walk over to one girl and sit down next to her.

There is seemingly no connection between the sentences.

The ship sways, tossed on the ocean’s back. The dark timbers groan in pain, stretching and tightening in arthritic motion. The chains bite deep into my wrists; sore, red flesh puffs up around the edges. I was covered in filth, hair matted and mangy. Through slitted eyes I watch the other slaves and they in turn eye me. I get up, slowly and carefully stretching cramped muscles. One girl in particular watches me with avid interest. I walk over and sit next to her. Neither of us breathes a word.

Here, there is more of him present – he is tossed on a heaving sea, held in a dark, old ship. The chains hurt, yes, but the pain is specified and the reaction is noted. A description of his filthy appearance and something of his demeanour and the tension between himself and the others is hinted. There is a reason he sits next to the girl.

In both cases, it is inadequate – one more so than the other, I merely want to point out to you the difference between the two, should you put effort into it. Often, in first person narration, you have to try a lot harder. It’s usually held to be the opposite and most people don’t bother; what they end up doing is telling us in fits and starts, what’s going out, what their feeling, etc. I don’t want to be told what’s happening, I want to see it – and you need to make me believe. ‘I got up and did this’ or ‘he got up and did that’ simply isn’t good enough. I want to know why he’s getting up, what muscles are aching, if any, I want to know what he thinks about who he’s with but I want to see it in the way he regards and speaks to them.

In short, you need to make me believe. You need to make me believe there is a real, breathing, hurting, flesh and blood person that is just as palpable as you are.

Dialogue: The Heart and Soul

The groundwork is laid. You know who the characters are, where and when the story begins, what’s happening and the why’s and wherefore’s of the situation. You’ve managed to get the introduction down right and have balanced description with action, in just the right doses. You’ve made the situation engaging and the character wholesome and real.

Now, you have people, in a world, with a serious situation. What next?

Dialogue is the heart and soul of any story. You’re character may well be made of flesh and blood but he does not live until he speaks and in speaking interacts with others and through said interaction, subtly influences events. So, how do you do it well? I’ll admit, in this case, Doctor though I am – my Frankenstein’s don’t always come to life. It’s natures way of reminding us she’s still the boss, we’re still human and not to get too cocky. In any case, there are a few, little things one can do to help dialogue sound better.

Amateur Mistakes: Characters constantly naming one another. It’s unreal, doesn’t happen in real life and is generally a very poor effort on your part to tell us who the characters are. You mistakenly assume that we need to know them and the nature of their relationship straight away. This is a mistake, I’ll note, more often made in scripts. Nor do we immediately have to know their relationship, from the opening exchange.

Bob: Hey, Mary how are you today?
Mary: Oh, hi Bob, I’m good thanks. Gosh, you’re such a darl, saying hey to me every day for the past ten years.
Bob: Oh well, that’s okay, Mary you know how I am!
Mary: So, how are you Bob?
Bob: I’m just swell, Mary.

Okay, so I’m going to stop before I projectile vomit everywhere. Do you see how forced and unrealistic it seems? Ask yourself, how many times do you refer to your best friends and loved ones by name? I honestly can’t remember the last time I had to do it. It’s because, once we know one another, we rarely feel the need to discuss what we already know. The most obvious example of that being our names.

A common tip I’ve heard is to write down or record various conversations you have or overhear. In this way, you’ll have some record of natural dialogue and you’ll notice that everyone has a different way of speaking, a certain lilt, or drawl in their voice; a repetition of certain expressions; or the speed in which they talk. All things one can overlook in writing dialogue. Too often, it becomes a matter of cloning. You’re characters each sound the same. The sentence variation is standard, the expressions common and there is nothing to distinguish them from one another

That never really helped me, but with writing, it’s all relative – what works for me, might not work for you. Best you try every method though. The best advice I can offer you is to try and embody each character as best you can. Let them speak to one another as they will and certainly don’t try and force them to say something for the convenience of plot. At the end, once its done, read it aloud and see if it flows naturally, either in your own estimation, or someone else’s. Maybe even compare it to the recorded conversation.

A good way to make sure they’re not clones is to read the dialogue without any of the accompanying description. Can you tell which is which?

Sequence of Events: Roller Coaster Strolls Through The Park

There is a certain basic structure to every story. A timeline, if you will and following it, or at least knowing where you are on it, is an essential part of pacing your story properly. There are several stages. I came across these in scriptwriting classes but they are universal and apply to all stories.

Normality: The opening chapters, or scene, will set up the world as it is on a day-to-day basis. If this means that pigs can fly and Pat Buchanan is the Master Chimp of Doom, then so be it. It is important for the reader to get a foothold in the story here and a sense of where they are, who they’re with and what they can expect.

Catalyst: This is the event, thought, or action that changes everything and tears away from the initial normalcy. Something different has happened, is happening, must occur.

Sequence of Events: The catalyst sets off a chain reaction of events – usually self-contained sub-plots play out during this i.e. something must be attained, stopped, a right made wrong, a wrong made right, etc.

Turn: The aforementioned sequence of events ends but the result sends the story branching off into a different, usually unexpected direction.

Sequence of Events: That’s right, double trouble baby. This series of actions and reactions however, generally goes for the majority, middle-section of the story and is much longer. It also escalates gradually, finally coming to a peak.

Climax: The extended version of the aforementioned peak. Usually containing the most dramatic, poignant, action-packed, or romantic scene(s), depending on the genre. The climax can go in whichever direction you want.

Resolution: The aftermath, where the loose ends get tied and Pat Buchanan meets his doom at the hands of the Pink Overlord.

Spelling and Grammar: Why Dictatorships Are Better

Microsoft Word, believe it or not, isn’t always right. It can be too much of a dictator, believe me, I know and sometimes we wilfully ignore all those squiggly green and red lines. For you, the beginner, or for anyone really, who has yet to completely master the English language and the written word, its best to just shut up and do as it suggests.

Nothing will look worse in the eyes of judges/publishers/reviewers than bad grammar or easy spelling mistakes. Seems like a small thing but it has a huge impact.

Well, that’s a general, very basic outline anyway. These aren’t all “rules” by the way and you can break them, so long as you know what you’re doing. It generally helps to know where you are, remind yourself of where you’ve been and where you are going. You don’t want to start at the wrong place obviously – the story has to have somewhere to go dramatically and it’s usually up. I find its usually best to start gradual and build upward, but it’s an individual thing and again, dependant on the nature of the story.

It’s now 3.30AM and I’ve spent the past hour and a half writing this. I’ve done this for a reason. In the past seven days, I have done 50 reviews. There are a lot of beginners on this website and sometimes we forget that. This is for you guys and for some of the older folk, too, who have lost their way – myself included. It’s too easy to forget the basics, the groundwork.

I hope this has been helpful in some way,
Cheers,
Jiggly.

P. S – if you use ‘then’ actively in your stories you will go to a very special hell.
Mah name is jiggleh. And I like to jiggle.

"Indecision and terror, thy name is novel." - Chiko




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Sat Apr 18, 2009 4:29 am
asxz says...



It was a little long for me, but it had some good points. Thanks Jiggity!
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Sun Apr 19, 2009 4:54 am
Caligula's Launderette says...



Awesome, Jigster. This reminded me of my old soap box tutorials.

:D

Jiggity wrote:Microsoft Word, believe it or not, isn’t always right.


Ha ha. I always have to tell my students that. Sometimes, they listen; sometimes, they do not.

Ta,
Cal.
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Sun Oct 04, 2009 7:27 am
lilymoore says...



P. S – if you use ‘then’ actively in your stories you will go to a very special hell.


*quickly crosses out every occurence of 'then' every written*

I'm already awaiting a very special hell as far as 'very' goes. I don't want to go to hell for 'then' too. Cause then I just don't know what I would do then.
:D
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Thu Jan 14, 2010 3:59 am
Jiggity says...



:D

Thanks, y'all. Totally forgot about this.
Mah name is jiggleh. And I like to jiggle.

"Indecision and terror, thy name is novel." - Chiko




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Fri Jan 15, 2010 1:57 pm
Merlin34 says...



What do you mean by "actively" using "then"?
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Sun Feb 21, 2010 1:20 am
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Jiggity says...



Then I went and did this. I then ate a fish. And then my stomach hurt.

Things like that. 99.99% of the time, "then" adds absolutely nothing to the sentence or the story. It's clunky, amateur and is indicative of poor transitioning. Occasionally, very rarely, it works or if you use it just the once and it's unobtrusive enough, that's okay.
Mah name is jiggleh. And I like to jiggle.

"Indecision and terror, thy name is novel." - Chiko




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Sun Feb 21, 2010 1:50 am
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Rosey Unicorn says...



A sentence I always remember that uses "then" well was in a historical fiction novel describing the Halifax Harbour explosion. There was a paragraph describing the explosion, and the aftermath (in first person, diary style) and the last line of the paragraph was, "And then the screaming began." That made me stop dead in my tracks, because it was like the world was holding its breath. "Then" was a transition from grave-like calm to chaos. Worked brilliantly. (I read that book something like two years ago and I still remember that line)
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Sat Oct 23, 2010 8:58 am
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Jiggity says...



Ah, yes. That line has been used a lot.

As I said, it's okay so long as it's not being used as the main transitioning tool, all the time. Once for dramatic effect, I've no problem with. For the beginners - the audience of this article - it's best to just stay away from it.
Mah name is jiggleh. And I like to jiggle.

"Indecision and terror, thy name is novel." - Chiko




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Tue Jul 12, 2011 5:04 am
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Apple says...



Thanks so much! This will definitely be helpful for when I start writing the third re-write of my story. I know three but what can you do when a story you like kills you to bits! :D
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