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Monday, December 10, 2012

GREAT FICTION - LIKE A PAUSE BUTTON ON A REMOTE CONTROL


            There are criteria that writers and scholars use to define great fiction—theories that set rules and raise bars. And although definitions may change slightly with each successive generation, there is a common belief that all great fiction is tied together by a common denominator, regardless of genre or current trend. Author Steve Almond described it best when he said: “Literature is nothing less than an ongoing discussion about what it means to be human. It is intended to awaken compassion within the reader, and when necessary, distress.” (http://www.mobylives.com/Almond_Bloom.html) In other words, all great fiction is informed with emotion. 
             A writer’s most important goal is to make the reader identify with and care about what happens to the characters. Maren Elwood, professional writing coach and author who worked with thousands of writers during her lifetime states in her book Characters Make Your Story: “All art is concerned with the creation of an emotional reaction on the part of the beholder. As one of the arts, a piece of creative writing is entertaining only as it moves the reader emotionally. The reader wants to feel, he does not want to think.”
            Emotions are fleeting and writing, as an art, gives permanent form to the emotional experiences in our lives. Great fiction is like the pause button on a remote control, arresting the transitory so that emotions can linger and be seen. In the introduction to her Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers, Joyce Carol Oats says: “All artists know either consciously or instinctively that the secret intention of their life’s work is to rescue from the plunge of time something of beauty, permanence, significance in another’s eyes.”
            It is only in fiction that truth can be told. The unique experiences as seen through the writers of great fiction can, many times, clarify the emotions that lie within all of us. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

HOW TO CREATE “DOUBLE-DUTY” SENTENCES


A story is increasingly more interesting and enjoyable when the reader is able to visualize what a writer is communicating. Writers use metaphors and similes to make their writing more visual. A Double-Duty sentence does even more, acting like an analogy instead of a metaphor.
You may ask, “What is the difference between an analogy and a metaphor?” A clear description can be found in Bradford Stull’s The Elements of Figurative Language (Longman, 2001) in which he states, “In essence, the analogy does not claim total identification, which is the property of the metaphor. It claims a similarity of relationships.” With this definition in mind, let us look at an ideal example of a Double-Duty sentence.

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English writer who published works on philosophy, ontology, poetry, plays, journalism, public lectures and debates, literary and art criticism, biography, Christian apologetics and fiction, including detective stories. He is best known today for his creation of the great crime solver and Roman Catholic priest Father Brown, who stared in 52 short stories. Father Brown could not be more different than the sharp, quick-witted detectives of the Golden Age. He was a short, plump, round, umbrella-totting, insignificant looking man with plain features and clumsy manners. Yet, he was able to solve crimes using his keen common sense and understanding of human nature. Below is the first sentence from Chesterton’s Father Brown story titled, The Doom of the Darnaways:

Two landscape-painters stood looking at one landscape, which was also a sea-scape, and both were curiously impressed by it, though their impressions were not exactly the same.

This is a Double-Duty sentence because it manifests the truth that each and every person sees the world differently, even when standing side-by-side another person, looking at the same thing. The meaning of this sentence raises it far above a mere description of the first scene of the story and places it on the pedestal that holds the truths of life.
Give your stories greater depth and richer meaning by incorporating a Double-Duty sentence. Don’t overdo it—one per story is enough. You’ll find that readers will take notice and clamor for more.
For further information on G. K. Chesterton and his remarkable life, refer to: http://www.chesterton.org/

Friday, August 10, 2012

DO YOU KNOW THE “BIG FOUR” FEMALE DETECTIVE WRITERS FROM THE “GOLDEN AGE”?


If you’re a writer of detective fiction or someone who loves a good detective mystery, then you’ll want to learn all you can about the “Big Four” female detective writers from the 20s and 30s. Their combined work has sold in the billions. Okay, let’s take the leader out of the picture since her work has sold over 4 billion copies. That still leaves millions of books sold, which means there are millions of fans, which means millions of buyers. That ain’t chump change.

   1)      Number one on the list is Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976). Creator of two of the best-loved detectives, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. She wrote the best-selling mystery of all time and one of the best-selling books of all time, And Then There Were None, selling over 100 million copies.




   2)      Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957). Creator of one of the great detectives of the “Golden Age,” Lord Peter Wimsey—sophisticated, witty and with a high social standing. Sayers was also a translator, translating Dante’s Divine Comedy, and a feminist.




   3)      Margery Allingham (1904-1966). Creator of the detective, Albert Campion, the champion of 17 novels and 20 short stories.






   4)      Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982). She wrote 32 detective novels, featuring Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Marsh loved the theater and it’s not surprising that it is featured in several of her mysteries.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

SO, YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER


You want to be a writer, eh? Okay, then; what will you need to do? Here are 12 ways in which you can begin:

  • 1st and foremost, a writer must understand his/her own language. (We’ll go into greater depth on this subject and those that follow in subsequent blog posts.)
  • A writer must understand that writing is more than simply putting two or more words together to create a sentence.
  • A writer must understand that writing is more than simply telling a story.
  • A writer must understand that all words have meaning, and this meaning will reflect differently to different people.
  • A writer must be fascinated with words, and have a passion about length of sentences, metaphor, simile, rhythm and flow, and the aesthetic appearance of how words appear on a page.
  • A writer must understand originality.
  • A writer must be inventive.
  • A writer must be succinct.
  • A writer may not always hit the center of the bullseye, but he must, at the very least, have the ability to hit the target.
  • A writer must carefully choose words that will make his characters come alive—they should be living, breathing human beings and not representations of.
  • A writer must select words that will create a three-dimensional setting for his characters—a place where his characters can move in and out of easily, and not some place where they can only move up, down and sideways.
  • A writer must use words that will position his reader in the center of the action, making the reader feel as if he/she is a willing participant in all that is happening within the story.


There’s more, too. Still want to be a writer?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

LIN ANDERSON: THE STRUCTURE OF STORY PART III


Today, I'm excited to re-introduce Lin Anderson for Part 3 of her 3-part series on The Structure of Story. Lin has a lot of writing experience, having published eight novels, which feature forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Her books have been translated into several langauages and are in development for TV. Her short stories have appeared in a number of collections, most recently Dead Close was chosen for the Best of British Crime 2011. Also a screenwriter, her film River Child won a BAFTA and the Celtic Film Festival best fiction award. Lin's website is: http://www.lin-anderson.com/ 

In this essay, Lin talks about the importance of the ending and how it relates to all that has come before it. To illustrate her thoughts, Lin has included one of her short stories, One Good Turn.

Part 3: The Resolution

Before you write your resolution I'd like you to consider one thing. What image/thought/emotion do you want your reader to have in their heads when they reach the last word, because that's what will stay with them. That finale image or impression should in some way reflect the beginning. A resolution does not necessarily mean that everything is resolved. What you thought your protagonist wanted may not be what they really needed by the resolution. The tone of your story will help dictate the ending. In true noir, a story ends as desperately as it began. A comedy crime begins and ends on humour. A dramatic piece has a resolution usually based on a form of justice, or morality. The best ending is one your reader didn't expect but when faced with it, realises it's the right one. The sting in the tail.
A short story conceals many stories beneath. We drop into a life, stay a short while and re-emerge, while your character's lives continue. We will always wonder at what might happen next.
To illustrate some of the points raised I'd like you to consider a short story which was commissioned by Victim Support Scotland for a book called Shattered.

One Good Turn

The night bus emerged from Princes Street and turned into Lothian Road. Ben watched it pull up at the previous stop and wished once again he’d walked in that direction. At this time of night the buses filled up quickly. He was first in the queue but that might not be enough.
He stole a glance at the people behind him in the bus shelter. A girl then two guys. The girl looked frozen, her outfit more suited to a dance club than a February night in Edinburgh. Pretty in a cold, pinched sort of way, she was huddled against the glass as far from the two men as possible, as though she didn’t want them to notice her. Difficult in an outfit and heels like that. Ben had already heard their not so discreet comments.
The bus was lumbering up the hill giving Ben the sinking feeling that it was bursting at the seams. He checked his pocket for change, wishing he’d kept enough cash for a taxi. If he had he would be home by now, curled up in his warm bed, with the promise of a long lie tomorrow.
The bus slowed as it approached the stop and Ben allowed his hopes to rise. It wouldn’t stop if it was full. He stepped out of the shelter and stuck out his hand. Already the others were shuffling forward, eager like him to get on board. The bus ground to a halt and the door folded open, blasting them with welcome heat.
‘Sorry, one only.’
A chorus of anger erupted behind Ben as the message sank in.
‘Fuck you,’ the taller of the two guys shouted.
As Ben made to get on, he caught a glimpse of the lassie’s frozen face. He thought of his wee sister Catriona wearing shoes she couldn’t walk in, ignoring his mum’s advice about putting on a coat. He might be frozen but at least he could walk.
‘You go.’ He stood back to let the girl past.      
She hesitated, uncertain how to react. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’ll get the next one.’
The door closed behind her taking the heat with it. Ben saw the girl grip the pole, stumbling as the bus pulled sharply away.
‘Fucking good Samaritan,’ he cursed himself as he watched the tail end of the bus creep up Lothian Road.
The other two guys had given up and started walking. Ben decided to do the same. God knows when the next bus would arrive, and it too would likely be full. He stuck his hands in his pockets and dipped his head into the biting wind.

Stephanie was so intent on finding something to hold onto that she failed to smile her thanks as the bus pulled away. She felt sorry for the nice guy who’d given her his place, but was grateful for it.
As the bus accelerated she widened her stance in an effort to balance on the ridiculous heels, inwardly cursing herself for wearing the silly shoes. The shoes had been a mistake, the outfit had been a mistake, the entire night had been a mistake. Dark despair swept over her. Now that she didn’t have to concentrate on the cold, the horror that had been her evening came crashing back. She should have listened to her friends. She shouldn’t have gone with Gary. Stephanie clutched the pole tighter, her knuckles white.
The bus had pulled up at the traffic lights on the corner of Bread Street. From the right hand window she spotted her good Samaritan following them, walking with long swift strides. The sight made her feel a little better. He glanced in, catching her eye and smiling. The bus took off again, moving towards the right hand lane, heading for Bruntsfield. The guy, already across Bread Street suddenly broke into a run. Stephanie wanted to cheer him on as he chased the bus to the next traffic light. If it was red, he would catch them up.
Stephanie manoeuvred herself into a position where she could watch his progress from the back window.

The bus wasn’t that far ahead. If it met another red at Melville Drive he would catch up easily. The run had warmed him. He was out of breath but not by much and this was much better than standing at the bus stop. As if in answer to his prayer the bus slowed. The light was changing. Ben put on an extra spurt.
The two guys appeared from nowhere slamming hard into him. Ben staggered, his interrupted momentum resounding through his chest.
‘Bastard!’
Ben registered the shout and the fact that the two men from the bus stop were circling him, but he had no idea why. He drew himself up, gasping for breath.
‘Sorry,’ he said, not sure why he should apologise.
‘Aye, you fucking will be!’
Ben felt the sharp point of an elbow bury itself in his ribs. The little air that was left in his lungs escaped with a hiss. A sudden and acute sense of danger told him to get the hell out of there. Never argue. Always run. Before he could obey his own instructions the two guys were away, whooping and hollering, darting across the road, heading down the lane towards Fountainbridge.
Ben attempted to straighten up. The bus was still at the lights. If he could get his breath back he could catch it. Somehow that seemed even more important now than before. He drew air painfully into his lungs and set off again. Shit!  The bus was beginning to move off. He spotted the girl watching him from the rear window and upped his effort.
He was only yards from the bus when his legs suddenly gave way beneath him. He staggered, reaching out to break his fall as the pavement rose abruptly to meet him.

Stephanie tried to peer out of the steamed up windows. Something had happened. He was on his own then there were three of them. Had he caught up with the other two guys from the bus stop?
Now he was on his own again, only yards behind the bus, but something was wrong.
‘Stop!’ she screamed and held her finger on the bell.

Ben wondered where he was and why he was lying down. Then he remembered – he always felt like this after donating blood. Calm and contented, as though seven pints were all he really needed to survive.
He licked his lips, tasting metal. Salty liquid bubbled up his throat and into his mouth to dribble down his chin. He felt no pain just a strange burning sensation in his side where the guy had elbowed him. He knew he should get up but had no idea where he would find the strength. He heard the rapid click of heels on the pavement and watched as the shoes ran towards him. Ben found himself wondering again how she could walk on those heels, let alone run.
She dropped onto bare knees beside him.
‘Are you alright?’ The face that stared down was frightened and Ben felt the need to reassure her, but couldn’t find his voice. Now she was speaking rapidly into her mobile saying something about a stabbing and an ambulance.
Confusion and fear began to devour Ben’s sense of calm.
‘It’s okay.’ She reached for his hand and took it in her own. Ben was surprised how warm her hand felt against his cold one. He looked up at her. Her eyes were a midnight blue. He thought she looked great in spite of the layers of makeup and the daft shoes and wanted to tell her so.
‘You’re going to be alright,’ she said, her voice soft and trembling.
It was good to hear her say it, even though Ben knew in that moment it wasn’t true.

She moved his head onto her knee. Somewhere in the distance Stephanie heard the searing sound of a siren. He was staring at her, his lips moving, but no sound came out. She gently wiped away the red bubble that had formed at the corner of his mouth.
‘It’s okay, they’re coming. Can you hear them?’
Her knees felt warm and she realised it was because she was kneeling in his blood.
She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. She wanted to turn the clock back. She wanted to be standing in the freezing wind watching the bus pull away with him inside.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

JANE ISAAC: THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS


Today, I'm excited to introduce fellow mystery writer and guest blogger Jane Isaac. Jane is the author of the psychological thriller, An Unfamiliar Murder.

Jane lives in rural Northamptonshire, UK. She studied creative writing, and later specialist fiction with the London School of Journalism. Jane is not only a mystery writer, she is also an avid reader, a mum, a dog lover and a traveler. Recently, she has had two short stories accepted for crime anthologies, so please listen up – she knows what she’s talking about.

Here is her fact-filled essay:

The Devil is in the Detail

No matter what genre you write, every book carries some element of research and, for crime fiction, the weight is a heavy one.
There’s not only police procedure, plotlines, areas and events to study, but also people. What’s the secret formula behind the great characters in fiction? Research. Investment into creating and layering our characters gives them the depth to become ‘real’.

As writers we are great people watchers. Aside from interviewing people in our chosen genre, we observe the world around us and pick up little traits: the man in the cafe with the six o’clock shadow, the perfectly manicured mum at the school gates, the child with the tuft of hair that sticks up around his crown – all quirks that help us to build the characters in our fiction.
 
I’ve always been a great fan of studying, a perennial student in many respects, undertaking courses in a plethora of different subjects over the years including law, pottery, even sign language. Consequently, research is one of my favourite aspects of novel writing – a labour of love, one might say.
It’s interesting what directions book research takes. For An Unfamiliar Murder, fire research led me to a wonderful meeting with the former Chief of Northants Fire Service who explained how the structure of our old terraced properties work in the UK, the role of accelerants, and their fire procedures.
I also spoke to endless police officers about their role, their aspirations, the politics of the organisation. Then there are all the books about serial killers and psychopaths – the real case studies that kept me awake at night and haunted my dreams.

Recently, for the sequel, I met up with a former Detective Superintendent, who managed murder squads all over the UK during his 30 year career, for some in-depth research into some of the cases he has managed. Boy, did he have some tales to tell...
The internet can provide a great resource model but, when considering settings, I prefer the hands on approach. I like to visit a scene, if possible, to see what it really looks like, how it smells, what noises I can hear in the background. There are times when you can’t beat touching the cold stone, breathing the air around you. I spent hours trudging over fields examining disused mine shafts, old pump houses, railway cabins, derelict cottages, in pursuit of deposition sites for a body for my first novel. Something my Labrador, Bollo, found particularly enjoyable!

Often such information provides background material which never appears in the novel, or only converts to a couple of lines. Sometimes it’s edited out. But the details we learn provide more depth to our work, allowing us to describe scenes and people from an informed viewpoint. This not only enables the words to flow, but makes it feel more real, which is particularly important for a psychological thriller.
Ever read a book when you’ve questioned an event, a character, a place because it isn’t quite right? Failing to do your research will show. And with the internet these days, it’s easier than ever to make sure we check our information. I’d never claim for my work to be completely factually correct, but it’s certainly not for the want of trying.

Jane Isaac’s debut novel, An Unfamiliar Murder, was published by Rainstorm Press in February 2012. You can learn more about Jane, read her blog and an excerpt from her novel on her website at www.janeisaac.co.uk

Friday, May 4, 2012

A GOOD INTERVIEW IS AN EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE

Less than 1 month ago, I had the honor of being interviewed by Laurie Hanan, http://www.wix.com/lauriehanan/laurie-hanan the author of Almost Paradise and How Far is Heaven, for her blog. Laurie lives in Hawaii. (I know, I jealous, too.) The interview gave me a chance to talk about my books in depth, which is something an author rarely gets to do. It also gave me an opportunity to pause and contemplate my writing. A good interview, meaning questions that go deeper than "how long did it take you to write this book?" forces you to examine your conscience. It is something I recommend for everyone - authors and non authors alike. You may be surprised by your answers. Here is my interview in its entirety.

It is an honor to have with me today the very talented novelist, playwright, artist, and jeweler, Gerard Bianco. He is the author of the award-winning mystery/thriller The Deal Master. His latest book, Discipline: A Play recently won the Editor’s Choice Award. He is a contributing author in Now Write! Mysteries, and was featured in Carol Hoenig’s book The Author’s Guide to Planning Book Events.

Laurie: Good morning, Gerard. Let’s start with your first novel, The Deal Master. Without giving anything away, can you give us a brief idea of what the book is about?

Gerard: The premise of the book is based on a mythological tale that comes down to us from the 13th century—modernized, of course. A serial killer is murdering women with red hair. Detective William Gillette and his team are on the hunt, but their investigation fails to turn up any concrete leads. They are clueless as to the identity of the killer or where he will strike next. Enter a mysterious man who holds information vital to the case, but this man will supply this information only through a series of deals. Gillette, desperate for a lead, accepts the stranger’s terms. This plunges the detective into a game for which he is unprepared. Each deal comes with a price, and Gillette soon finds himself in a predicament he can’t get out of unless he strikes the ultimate deal. Is this master of the deal Gillette’s answer to solving the crimes, or is he the detective’s worst nightmare? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
I should also mention that The Deal Master is a mystery/thriller. The story starts out as a mystery, but then slowly, a subtle, more important chain of events begins to take place, and soon the reader is galloping off into a spine-tingling thriller. This makes for an exciting read where you suddenly find yourself caught up in an entirely different adventure with the same characters. Reading The Deal Master is like getting two novels for the price of one.

Laurie: It sounds very intriguing. Your protagonist is Detective William Gillette. There are many murder mysteries written with a police detective as the lead character. What kind of person is he, and what makes him unique?

Gerard: William Gillette, son of the famous NYC detective Phil Gillette, was groomed from a early age to follow in his father’s footsteps. His youth and rugged handsomeness enhance his talent as a natural leader. He is well-liked, focused and serious. He was devoted to his mother, who was abused by his alcoholic father. He is not afraid to bend the rules, or even break them, to get what he wants.
There are some flaws in Gillette’s character, and this leads him to make mistakes. I am not a fan of a story in which an author presents his/her protagonist as someone who knows all the answers, solves all the riddles and shines brighter than all other characters in the book. When you read The Deal Master you feel Gillette’s anxieties, disappointments and trepidations. You know his exultation when he gets things right and you suffer his humiliation when he does something he shouldn’t—and he does this quite often.


Laurie: How much of you do we see in Gillette?


Gerard: I’ve always found it difficult to separate myself from my characters. There is a little of me in all the characters I create—some more than others. This metamorphosis is what breathes life into the characters. They would be made of wood, otherwise. My characters are real; they are made of flesh and blood. They have wants, fears and desires, like everyone else. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: by putting a bit of myself into my characters I get to live their lives as well. I get to solve the case. I get the girl, too. Most people live their fantasies in their thoughts and dreams, but these fantasies disappear when the dreamer stops dreaming. My fantasies last longer and seem to me to be a little more real because they’ve been printed on paper and are bound in a book.

Laurie: There are no doubt many authors, including myself, who have enjoyed the same sense of lasting fantasies. Do you foresee writing a series based on the same character?

Gerard: I’m asked all the time when the next Deal Master is coming. The fact is, I’ve already written a sequel, but it’s all in my head—there’s not a word of it on paper. Quite simply put, there are other projects I want to tackle before focusing on another mystery.
I love the theater and have always wanted to write a play. For the past three years I’ve devoted myself to this project. Voila! My newest book is titled, Discipline, A Play.

Laurie: Tell us a little about Discipline. It’s a comedy, is that right?

Gerard: Yes, Discipline is a zany, adult comedy. It’s funny and romantic. Paige Lovitt from Reader Views said, “Discipline truly made me laugh out loud.” But Disciplineis also a powerful and serious play. If read correctly, you will see that it is the study of human behavior, injected with meaning where there appears to be none. It touches on subjects such as social norms, sexual overindulgence, society’s treatment of people with an affliction, the role of women in society as a force of good vs. evil and the advantages and disadvantages of a personal belief system.
The story takes place in Manhattan. The main character’s name is Harold Jenkins. Harold is a man stymied by his inability to overcome the outside forces that control his life. Essentially isolated in his apartment, he fights against the powers that be. Lilly, Harold’s lady love, keeps him at bay, adding sexual frustration to his already perturbed existence. New possibilities arrive for him, however, when he is awakened in the middle of the night by a strange man sniffling on his stove. The story continues from there.
Laurie: Do you see Discipline being acted out on a stage in front of an audience?

Gerard: Absolutely. Discipline was published in January, 2012 and already a local theater director wants to stage a performance. You see, the message of the play is timeless and universal, and it is for this reason that I foresee Discipline being performed locally, nationally and even globally. It’s a fun play—light and comical, even though the underlying message bears significance.

Laurie: That’s wonderful. I hope you will keep me informed about the progress. What else would you like to share with us?

Gerard: I’d be grateful if your lovely readers logged onto my website: http://gerardbianco.com to explore more about Discipline and The Deal Master, both of which have terrific book covers, by the way.
Laurie, I want to thank you for this opportunity to speak to your readers. I hope that they have enjoyed this interview and will want to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook fan page at: https://www.facebook.com/GerardBiancoWriterEnRoute




Thursday, May 3, 2012

MAKING YOUR OPENING SENTENCES FLOW


I've spent 6 days on the first two paragraphs of my latest short story. I'm close to getting them the way I want. They're not quite there yet. I want them to flow. I want the reader to slide into the story without realizing he is being taken for a ride. I want him/her to feel as if they are floating with the current on smooth seas, not fighting against it, which means, I want to give the reader as much information as I can, enticing him to continue reading, but not overloading him with too much information.
Let me show you what I mean.
Here are the first few sentences from my story before editing:
One day I came home and found a man lying on my living room rug. Ordinarily, this would have been a delightful surprise, but my discovery was far from normal. The man was dead!
Here is the new version:
I went for a walk one morning, and when I returned, I found a handsome man stretched out on my living room rug. I’m gay, so ordinarily this would have been a delightful surprise. But this incident turned out to be far from delightful. This guy was dead!
The second version gets into far more detail than the first. It explains why the narrator left his house in the first place. (He went for a walk.) It gives a slight description of the man on the floor. (He was handsome.) It lets the reader know that the narrator is gay. (An important point and one that needs to be mentioned early on as it sets the tone for the remainder of the story.)
I hope this gives you an idea of what I find is important in the opening lines of a story. Any further thoughts or comments on this subject would be greatly appreciated. Remember: I’m not through editing and I can use your help!


Saturday, April 28, 2012

LIN ANDERSON: THE STRUCTURE OF STORY, PART II


Today, I'm excited to re-introduce Lin Anderson for Part 2 of her 3-part series on The Structure of Story. Lin has a lot of writing experience, having published eight novels, which feature forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Her books have been translated into several langauages and are in development for TV. Her short stories have appeared in a number of collections, most recently Dead Close was chosen for the Best of British Crime 2011. Also a screenwriter, her film River Child won a BAFTA and the Celtic Film Festival best fiction award. Lin's website is: http://www.lin-anderson.com/



Part 2: The Muddle in the Middle

As I said in my opening piece, human beings intuitively understand when a story works. That’s probably most obvious when sitting in a packed cinema. The collective intelligence of the audience knows when things are going slack in the story. This happens usually in the middle section when the audience starts to fidget and eat their popcorn. They’ve dropped out of the story. They’re back in the real world. Something that should never happen. In the case of novels, it’s where you skip bits you don’t feel engaged with and hope to be recaptured later on. Or even worse you lose interest and stop reading the story altogether!

So what went wrong with the storytelling?

One of the most obvious reasons for giving up on a story is because we don’t care what happens to the people who inhabit the story, particularly the main character, our protagonist.

Because a story is a character in action.

A story should present us with a character we empathise with, who is presented with a situation that propels them into action. Through a variety of escalating challenges they're tested to their limits and emerge usually having learned something about themselves in the process. We have lived vicariously through them.

A story is deepened when we also follow secondary characters and become involved with their lives, but these characters’ actions should always impact on our protagonist’s story. Switching viewpoints and using dramatic irony makes the storytelling dynamic. However, if you tell a story from too many viewpoints you can lose your reader, because we have to buy into a character enough to really care.

As a writer you should ask yourself:

Who is my protagonist?
What do they want?
Why do they want it?
What’s stopping them?
What’s the result?

These questions will eventually present you with the theme of your story i.e what it’s really about. Crime stories usually have a main theme of justice or the restoration of order, but there can be many subthemes operating within the crime story e.g Love, revenge, coming of age etc

The conflict your character faces can be external or internal and is usually both, but it must be big enough to sustain the reader’s interest and for them to want the protagonist to succeed.

We have already considered the beginning and the inciting incident (sometimes called the first crisis.) This is what propels your protagonist into action. Most people would rather have an easy life, so your protagonist may prevaricate, but eventually they must move. Once they do, nothing will ever be the same again.

Once into the ‘muddle in the middle’ the antagonistic forces rise even more against our main character. This is the part of the story where things often go wrong. The story slackens. We lose the reader’s attention. One common error it to make the antagonistic force too strong, too soon, leaving nowhere to go. To prevent the story from going slack, you need to build momentum towards the middle of this section of the story. It’s that old saying that things will get worse before they get better. When our protagonist deals with what some call their deepest darkest cave, you can provide a little respite. Stories differ a lot in this middle section. Some peak around the midpoint, some go on slow burn and peak towards the end of this section. In a short story, because of its length, the 'peak' or 'deepest darkest cave' moment is usually placed towards the end of the middle section.

To keep your story tight and your reader engrossed, it's sometimes useful to timeline it. Mark where each obstacle is met and matched and where exactly the big crisis happens. Also check that the conflict is always on the increase. The pattern of three is often seen here. Try, try, try again is something we all recognise, from nursery stories onwards.

Any secondary stories will also have a three part structure and a character arc. It's good to know that the really big moments in a story occur when a key moment in a subplot clashes with a key moment for the protagonist. Those are the scenes we remember the most.

Next time… the resolution (and the twist in the tail). After which I'll use a short crime story to illustrate what we've learned about structure.