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Posts tagged ‘novel writing advice’

Writing What You Know, by Beth Revis

Probably the most clichéd and oft-used phrase for any writer is the old adage, “write what you know”.

So how did I end up writing a novel that takes place hundreds of years in the future, on a spaceship populated by genetically modified people heading to a planet that might not really exist? It’s definitely not something I “know”.

Typically, we don’t really “know” our stories. Or, at least, I don’t. I’ve never been the youngest person on a spaceship, but I do know what it’s like to not fit in. I’ve never had my parents cryogenically frozen, but I still remember that moment when I realized that I’d grown up and was no longer under their safe protection.

Many times, it seems that people who aspire to write teen fiction are more focused on writing teenagers than on writing characters who behave realistically. They will often do research on the outward appearances: clothing, slang, mannerisms. Very often, this is where they trip up, because that’s not the important stuff. Focus on the stuff you know – the stuff everyone knows. We have all experienced the same things every teen has experienced: first love, first heartbreak, betrayal and fear, joy, sorrow. This is what the writer must know – and if the writer knows this, then everything else: the characters, the plot, the world – will fall in place.

Find the beating heart of the story. Invention is a wonderful thing – a necessary thing when it comes to writing. You need to have invention but, somewhere beneath everything that you create, you also have to write what you know.

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

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Different Types Of Plot In Fiction, by Kate Forsyth

I’m sure you’ve all heard people say that there are only so many possible plots in the world. Some say there’s only three. Some say there’s only seven. For my own amusement and edification, I’ve collected them. Now I share them with you:

Only One Plot:

It is said that there is really only one plot – the resolution of a problem.

This rests on the basic plot structure described in the following, canonical sequence of events: Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action - Denouement

Image

Two Plots:

The novelist John Gardner used to say “There are only two stories: A man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.”

Three Plots:  

In The Basic Patterns of Plot, William Foster-Harris, a professor at the University of Oklahoma contends that there are three basic patterns of plot:

  1. Type A: happy ending
  1. Type B: unhappy ending
  1. Type C: ambiguous or inconclusive ending

Seven Plots:

In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker outlined a theory that there are seven key plots, which may be used in combination with others. This book is one of my own personal favourites, and I recommend it highly. In short, they are:

1) Overcoming the Monster – tale of conflict typically recounts the hero’s ordeals, an escape from death, and ends with a community or the world itself saved from evil.

2) Rags to Riches – Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, David Copperfield, and other stories that tell of humble, downtrodden characters who manage to overcome all obstacles to rise in the world.

3) The Quest – a hero travels on a quest to save his world and secure some kind of priceless treasure.

4) Voyage and Return – The protagonist leaves normal experience to enter an alien world, returning after what often amounts to a thrilling escape. The Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, and Alice in Wonderland are examples of this plot.

5) Comedy – confusion reigns until at last the hero and heroine are united in love.

6) Tragedy - the anti-hero spirals down deeper into darkness and despair, with all ending grimly

7) Rebirth - any story that pivots on the symbolic or actual death and rebirth of a character. Examples include Snow White, and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov.

20 Plots:

The following come from 20 Master Plots by Ronald B Tobias:

  1. Quest
  1. Adventure
  1. Pursuit
  1. Rescue
  1. Escape
  1. Revenge
  1. The Riddle
  1. Rivalry
  1. Underdog
  1. Temptation
  1. Metamorphosis
  1. Transformation
  1. Maturation
  1. Love
  1. Forbidden Love
  1. Sacrifice
  1. Discovery
  1. Wretched Excess
  1. Ascension
  1. Descension.

36 Plots:  

Finally, we have Georges Polti who wrote a book called The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (translated by Lucille Ray). Although I find the following of interest, I think it’s a little too complicated and hard to remember.

Supplication – Persecutor, Suppliant, a Power in Authority

Deliverance – Unfortunates, Threatener, Rescuer

Revenge – Avenger, Criminal

Vengeance by Family upon Family – Avenging Kinsman, Guilty Kinsman, Relative

Pursuit – Fugitive from Punishment, Pursuer

Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune – Unfortunates, Master or Unlucky Person

Disaster – Vanquished Power, Victorious Power or Messenger

Revolt – Tyrant, Conspirator(s)

Daring Enterprise – Bold Leader, Goal, Adversary

Abduction – Abductor, Abducted, Guardian

Enigma – Interrogator, Seeker, Problem

Obtaining – Two or more Opposing Parties, Object, maybe an Arbitrator

Familial Hatred – Two Family Members who hate each other

Familial Rivalry – Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kinsman, Object

Murderous Adultery – Two Adulterers, the Betrayed

Madness – Madman, Victim

Fatal Imprudence – Imprudent person, Victim or lost object

Involuntary Crimes of Love – Lover, Beloved, Revealer

Kinsman Kills Unrecognised Kinsman – Killer, Unrecognised Victim, Revealer

Self Sacrifice for an Ideal – Hero, Ideal, Person or Thing Sacrificed

Self Sacrifice for Kindred – Hero, Kinsman, Person or Thing Sacrificed

All Sacrificed for Passion – Lover, Object of Passion, Person or Thing Sacrificed

Sacrifice of Loved Ones – Hero, Beloved Victim, Need for Sacrifice

Rivalry Between Superior and Inferior – Superior, Inferior, Object

Adultery – Deceived Spouse, Two Adulterers

Crimes of Love – Lover, Beloved, theme of Dissolution

Discovery of Dishonour of a Loved One – Discoverer, Guilty One

Obstacles to Love – Two Lovers, Obstacle

An Enemy Loved – Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater

Ambition – An Ambitious Person, Coveted Thing, Adversary

Conflict with a God – Mortal, Immortal

Mistaken Jealousy – Jealous One, Object of Jealousy, Supposed Accomplice, Author of Mistake

Faulty Judgement – Mistaken One, Victim of Mistake, Author of Mistake, Guilty Person

Remorse – Culprit, Victim, Interrogator

Recovery of a Lost One – Seeker, One Found

Loss of Loved Ones – Kinsman Slain, Kinsman Witness, Executioner

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

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Keep Writing: The Importance Of Finishing Stories, by Andy Briggs

I always feel awkward when I meet a budding writer. Most of the time people tell me they have a great idea for a book or, worse, they have started writing a book. Actually started it. What is very rare to hear is the phrase I have written a book. Everybody can start writing a book. Very few people ever finish it.

It sounds like the most obvious advice in the world to finish your story, but it’s difficult. Try it and prove me wrong.

Perhaps you already have proved me wrong and are clutching your precious manuscript in your hands. If so, have you edited it? Have you been through it three or four times and surgically remove chunks that don’t work and fine-tuned the rest?

Much “How To” advises you to let a friend read your manuscript. I never let them do that. Family and friends are the worst critics and will often let things pass that should have been hacked from your manuscript before another soul sets eyes on it. There are also many services that charge you for reading your work and giving you feedback. Personally, I think you should avoid these. Worst case, they are run by people who can’t get themselves published (or editors who can’t get a job with a publisher), best case, they are driven by opinion. They might not like vampire stories so will tear yours apart, whereas an editor in a real publishing company might be waiting for just that idea.

Or, are you one of these people who has reread your work and changed it time-and-time again? You have been rewriting it for the last 10 years. Well done, you have probably destroyed the very thing that made it unique. I know a few people who fall into this hideous rewriting free-fall and never recover. They have polished their idea to death.

So what do you do with your precious manuscript?

In an ideal world, you will lock it away in a draw (in the days of good ol’ paper), or back it up on a hard drive (preferably more than one, just in case). Then forget about it and write something else.

Then repeat the above steps several times.

Now you have four or five manuscripts. Go back and read the first one. Is it anywhere near as good as number five? Probably not. You would have got better and saved yourself a lot of angst when book one kept getting rejected. Or is book one still strong? In which case, send it off, because you have a solid, well-written story.

The more you write the better you will become. The more you write the more stories you have to sell. The more you write the more professional you will become, regardless of whether you ever publish any of the books.

More importantly, the more stories you write the more you have finished. Finishing the story is the real battle every writer, amateur or professional, has to face.

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Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk

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On Creating Interesting Characters For Historical Teen Novels, by Pauline Francis

For me, an interesting character is somebody who has all the odds stacked against them and has to find a way out. They must have a strong, believable voice that sweeps the reader along.

Just as I was beginning to write historical fiction for teenagers, I went to a conference and wrote down a wonderful quotation from one of the speakers (unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of the speaker’s name). It was: “Characters in history are just like the stars. It takes a long time for their light to reach us.”

The two narrators of my first novel, Raven Queen, were real: Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I. They are strong characters, fighting for their cause. In my second novel, A World Away, I made up my central character, Nadie, a Native American girl captured by English colonists. If I’m honest, she is the least interesting of all my characters because she didn’t really know her path in life (except to find the English boy she loved) and I think this weakened her voice. I’d love to go back and change her because it’s an interesting novel in all other ways. I have begun to move away from real characters to concentrate on fictional characters who find themselves in real-history situations. My new novel (Ice Girl, not published yet) is the story of a girl at the mercy of Spanish colonists who fights back with incredible courage and determination, as well as leading other conquered people to safety.

I’ve just read a novel with the most amazing character. It gripped from beginning to end because the narrative voice is so strong. It’s Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, which has just won the children’s category of the UK annual Costa prize. The agonising story is told in the first person by a fifteen year old boy called Standish (an unusual name). It’s tear-jerking and harsh (there’s very strong language because it’s mainly his thoughts, so the outside world wouldn’t usually hear it).

If you’re having problem choosing a character, try turning a situation on its head. Many Kings from history had mistresses. Sometimes they bore sons who claimed the throne (the term pretender to the throne is from the French pretendre – to claim). What was it like to be a pretender? I decided to make the fictional Francis (in Traitor’s Kiss) a good person. He doesn’t actually stake his claim as Henry the VIII’s son, but he could have. So he’s still a threat. Princess Elizabeth knows this. Francis becomes one of her victims. She leaves him in a madhouse called Bedlam, just in case he decides to make trouble for her. My novel-in-progress (Blood) is set against the French Revolution. It was a time of great innovation medically and my fictional narrator wants to be an anatomy artist.

You don’t have to make a huge leap of imagination to make your characters interesting. Often a small one will be enough to bring your character alive. In Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick, the story of murder and revenge is made gripping because the action takes place in a small log cabin over a few days with the body of the narrator’s father on the kitchen table. It is that dead father who sends a chill down our spine. He is the interesting character. If the story had been narrated by his son in the future, away from that log cabin, it would have become another murder/revenge story.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

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On ‘Killing Your Darlings’ When Revising A Novel Manuscript, by Monika Schroder

“In writing you must kill your darlings.” Many heard this quote, attributed to William Faulkner, relating to the need to delete words and phrases we are particularly proud of. We love the characters we invent and the thought of eliminating them, after we have poured so much work into their creation, is heartbreaking. But sometimes it must be done.

The first character I removed was Uncle Wilhelm, in an early draft of what later became my first novel, The Dog in the Wood. He had arrived at Fritz’s grandma’s farm in December 1945, after the Russian military police had taken Fritz’s mother and left him and his sister to live with the hated grandma. Uncle Wilhelm, a World War One veteran, who had lost his left arm fighting the French, was a jolly old fellow. I had placed him in the story at the moment of greatest pain for Fritz. He was supposed to give solace and help my protagonist get through his hardship. When I re-read my manuscript I realized that it was not yet time for Fritz to be consoled. He had to face the pain and then ultimately find the strength within himself to do something about his situation. Instead of finding comfort in the presence of an old, friendly relative, he had to turn his fear and rage into action. I learned that the main character always has to carry the book’s action.

Deleting all scenes with Mummo, the Finnish grandmother of Wren in my work-in-progress, For The Birds, taught me not to be too preachy. Mummo was full of good advice. I had so much fun putting clever words into her mouth and inventing Finnish proverbs she would use to share her wisdom. But I realized my readers would find her preaching tiresome.

Removing Mummo also taught me another lesson. An eccentric personality can enrich a story but it is hard for a larger-than-life-character to stay in a supporting role. Mummo was overshadowing my protagonist, Wren, another reason she had to go. Instead, I had to give Wren more of the now departed grandmother’s courage and wit. The lesson here: Be careful not to let secondary characters take over your story. Make sure you keep in mind whose story you are telling.

In early drafts of Saraswati’s Way, 12-year-old Akash, who runs away from home and becomes a street child in New Delhi, had more friends. Through my revisions I realized that I didn’t need so many different people to show Akash’s traits and reactions to events. I focused on only one main friend and strengthened the scenes and the interactions between these two characters. The old adage, less is more, is also true for the number of supporting cast in your book.

The ability to remove characters from a manuscript during the revision process is a very important skill for any writer. Open yourself to the possibility. It can be liberating and improve your writing.

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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

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Plot Structure In Novels, by Kate Forsyth

Whenever I teach writing, I always spend quite a lot of time talking about plot structure.

This is because I think that it is nearly always the reason why a novel fails. A book can have engaging characters; a fast-paced, action-packed plot; and a fascinating setting, but still not quite work. This is nearly always because it has a weak structure.

Think of the structure as the framework of your novel, the internal architecture. It is like a human skeleton – invisible to the eye, yet the thing that stops it collapsing into jelly. Like the skeleton, it is made up of small parts, each linked one to the other, each doing their job to keep your novel working at full strength. The structure of a novel should fall into logical divisions, usually called scenes, chapters and sections.

A scene is an incident or event in a novel in which the action takes place continuously in a single place or time. Each scene should follow on logically from each other in a cause-and-effect chain.

A chapter is a division of the novel into regular parts, usually comprising one major scene, but sometimes combining several scenes.

A section is a collection of chapters, bound together by the point of view of the primary protagonist, by the place or time in which the action is set, or thematically.

In children’s and young adult fiction, the structure is usually more simple and linear than in an adult book, but this is a rule that can be broken. For example, The Puzzle Ring begins long after the adventure has ended, foreshadowing what will come.

Chapters aren’t just arbitrary rest breaks in a book. They should be carefully planned to control pace, to advance the plot and to work with the reader’s natural reading rhythms.

I usually aim for a chapter length between 1,500-2,000 for a children’s book (aged 8+), 2,500-3,000 words for young adults (aged 12+), and 3,500-4,000 words for an adult’s book (aged 16+). However, there is no rule – a chapter can be can a single word as in Frank McCourt’s final chapter of Angela’s Ashes: ‘’Tis”

I usually maintain a single point of view in a chapter. Sometimes I will move from head to head, particularly in the final climactic scenes when numerous characters may all be working toward the final denouement.

I will usually finish a chapter either at a point of high tension, i.e. some kind of cliffhanger, or at a moment of resolution. I call the first a ‘peak’ scene and the second a ‘trough’ scene. Having peaks and troughs varies the pace and rhythm of the book, and allows moments of rest before cranking up the intensity again.

I try to make sure each point of resolution occurs after half an hour’s reading for a child, and an hour’s reading for a young adult or adult.  This is so the reader can get off their bus and go to school or work, or turn off their light and go to bed. Most people read in this way. I know I do.

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

Kate Forsyth’s bio page

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Bringing English 101 To Your Novel, by Beth Revis

I love finding meaning in literature. It’s like a puzzle for me – piecing together the symbolic clues the writer has left in the text. My favorite classes in high school and college were the literature interpretation ones.

That said, a lot of times people hate those classes. Some people hate all those literary devices and all that analysis (I don’t know why!).

The thing is, a lot of those things we learned the definitions of in English 101 are really essential to a story. Some of it’s vital and some of it contributes to what I call the re-readability factor, when readers only see the depth of that part of the story on a second read-through of the novel.

Here are some of my favorite literary devices to read and write:

Foreshadow: This one is so easy. I fall into the Kurt Vonnegut camp. Something from the first chapter should reflect the rest of the story. More than that, you should think about making it work for the whole series if you are writing a series. Consider JK Rowling: minor mentions in early books have huge importance in later ones (polyjuice potion, anyone?).

Symbolism: Do not place too much emphasis on this. Nothing kills a story like heavy-handed symbolism. The story is the most important thing here. A few subtle details and symbols can really help make a story important. Think about the movie The Sixth Sense: the color red was subtle, but tipped the viewer into a whole new understanding.

Homage/Easter Eggs: This is my favorite thing to add to a story: little nods and details to other books or movies. They don’t change the story but they can make a reader sit up a little straighter when they notice. For example, in my novel Across The Universe, Amy is frozen in cryogenic chamber #42: a nod to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Circular Structure: Essentially, circular structure is when the story comes full circle. JRR Tolkein did this in The Hobbit - Bilbo starts the novel at the hobbit village and ends the novel there. Of course the characters changed – but there’s a parallel, circular aspect to the story. When thinking of your own novel – particularly if it’s a series – see if you can use circular structure to bring the reader back to the beginning.

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

Beth Revis’s bio page

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Creating A Realistic Story World, by Andy Briggs

I think we’ve all read a book or watched a film and been immersed in a story that had fascinating characters and a plot that takes you on a rollercoaster ride, but you still felt strangely empty once you reached the end. Perhaps that was because the world inhabited by the characters felt flat and slightly unreal. The details were missing.

Personally, I’m a huge believer in research. I read, watch and absorb as much as I can when writing a story. I talk to people who may have had similar experiences to those my characters are about to endure and I travel the world to experience the locations.

The internet is a vast research tool and I use it extensively – but there are many other avenues you should take, because the Internet is just the tip of the research iceberg. Whatever you read on several pages of Wikipedia may give you a basic understanding of the subject but there are probably many books on the same topic, each hundreds of pages long, that give you a deeper insight. They present you the details that could bring your story to life.

I have stood on the edge of an active volcano in the name of research. You can pretty much imagine what it was like – and I could use those obvious details in my story but it wouldn’t challenge your imagination. Things like the smell, the effect it had on me physically, the taste the gases left in my mouth and the soundscape around me all add up to a more detailed picture. These details often stick in a reader’s mind.

Naturally, if your story is about the 15-year-old king of a fantasy epic, then it is difficult to research that and you could write pretty much anything you like. But, again, it’s the details that matter. If you invent things, make them stick in the reader’s imagination. Look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books – a flat word on the back of four giant elephants, carried through space on the back of a giant turtle is very memorable. Oddly, what makes those stories work is not only the wild concepts that imprint on your imagination but the familiarity of it all. The Discworld has its quirks but we can all relate to it. The characters in the books may be wizards or trolls but they all have relatable details that draw us closer to a character or story.

If your story is set in the real world, try to visit the locations. I recently enjoyed reading an adventure thriller. The story took me in unexpected places that I desperately wanted to experience for myself and I turned the pages eager to know how things would resolve. Then the story led the characters to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, a place I had recently been to – but apparently the author had not. I spent the rest of the chapter thinking – no, that’s wrong. That’s not at all what it’s like. How did that happen there?

I was yanked out of the story with such force that the rest of the book felt very lackluster and it made me suddenly question what other falsehoods the author had thrown at me. The author had broken a bond of trust. This detail would have passed over most readers, but for me it ruined a perfectly good book. Perhaps a chapter I enjoyed would have had another reader thrown off track – all because of a tiny bit of poor research.

For me, poor research is akin to insulting your readers. Never treat your audience as fools, especially because most of the time there are readers already a step ahead of you…

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Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk

Andy Briggs’s bio page

***

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Techniques For Overcoming Writer’s Block, by Beth Revis

Writer’s block is a common malady – or is it? I always struggle when people ask me what I do for writer’s block, because I don’t think I’ve ever really felt it. I’ve gotten stuck, yeah, but I’ve not gotten truly blocked. So, on this subject, my first instinct is to analyze what’s wrong. I think, however, being blocked or stuck is individual to each author. For me, when I’m stuck, it means I’ve gone down the wrong path in writing and I need to backtrack and figure out what the story should be. So, the first step is to figure out what your individual problem is. In most cases, however, what’s needed to get over writer’s block is a few simple steps.

1) Identify the problem: In some cases, being stuck means you’re just bored. Find a way to spice the story up – if you’re bored writing it, the reader will be bored reading it. In other cases, being stuck means that your characters have come to an impossible situation – or just the wrong one. Solving this will mean backtracking, possibly restarting the whole novel. Really sit down and brainstorm where things started to go wrong – then you can identify how to fix it.

2) Change methods: I usually write on my computer, but when I get stuck, I switch to a legal notepad and a good pen. Something about switching the method in which I write gets the words flowing. Sometimes I just write out a “mind map” – just ideas, linked with arrows. Eventually, I start writing the scene – and when I get to the point where I can’t write fast enough by pen, I can go to the computer and pick the story back up.

3) Change location: This is my other secret to success. If I’m not writing well, I change location. At home, I tend to write either on the couch or at my desk. If I peter out on the couch, I move my laptop to the desk, and vice-versa. But if I’m really stuck, I will often leave the house entirely – a coffee shop is a safe bet, or, if the weather’s good, I’ll go outside. Going somewhere else to write puts you in the mindset that when you get there, you need to write – and so you do.

Stop writer’s block before it starts: A lot of time, for me, I get stuck because I’m lazy. This is usually when I’m at a hard part to write, or when I feel tapped out. In order to stop myself from getting to that point, I do these two things:

1) Use a timer: When the going gets tough, the tough get a timer. This is a trick I picked up from PJ Hoover, author of Solstice. I use just a simple egg timer – I tend to set it for about an hour. During that hour, internet’s off. The only thing I can do is sit in front of my computer. Stare, if that’s all I can handle. But usually, that gets words going.

2) End mid-scene: Another trick I picked up from someone else (but I can’t remember who!) is to stop writing for the day before I run out of steam. Don’t end the chapter or scene you’re working on – leave it a little bit before you finish. Then you can easily pick back up the next day.

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

Beth Revis’s bio page

***

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Characters With Goals (Secrets Of Narrative Drive), by Sarah Mussi

I’ve been posting on the topic of the secrets of narrative drive for a while now – and you may be thinking that you now know everything there is to know about it, and I can’t possibly have anything else to say – but that’s where you’d be wrong. There’s as much to come all over again. But before we press on let’s take stock of what I’ve covered so far:

1. Create a collision course for your protagonist and your antagonist

2. Relegate ‘literary genius’ to second place

3. Create a promise that something is going to happen

4. Make sure that something matters very much to your characters

5. Be wicked and mean to your hero

So what’s next?

In this post I’m going to share with you …

Secrets of Narrative Drive

Secret Number 6

drum roll…  tada!

For a character to succeed against the odds and overcome their nemesis they must have a goal. 

I mentioned in post one that I believe if the protagonist and the antagonist are after conflicting goals and on a collision course, then we have drama-worth-waiting-for in the making. After that I haven’t said much about goals in general.

Narratives are often the personal journeys of human beings and there is nothing more fascinating than people – especially a person with a powerful longing. So to root for a character and to be curious about what will happen to them, then to turn the pages to find out is a natural human instinct. It shows we believe in our characters and we want them to succeed. Of course, for a character to succeed they must have a goal. A character’s goal can change in a story but their ‘wanting’ must remain. Caring about what a character wants and whether they will get it is what will stop readers from putting your novel down.

How you can use this secret? 

  1. Create a character who has a clear goal – not just an internal longing but something demonstrable like winning the tri-wizarding cup – i.e. a dramatic goal.
  2. Visualise a scene where your protagonist either achieves this goal or loses it.
  3. Focus every action of your protagonist on achieving this goal

If you can do this, you are well on the way to keeping readers turning the pages.

WATCH OUT FOR THE SEVENTH SECRET OF NARRATIVE DRIVE COMING UP IN MY NEXT POST

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Sarah Mussi’s author website: www.sarahmussi.com

Sarah Mussi’s bio page

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The Door of No ReturnThe Last of the Warrior KingsAngel Dust     Rise of the Heroes (Hero.Com)Boys without NamesThe Final Four

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