How to Strengthen a weak Story

Weak stories aImagere a common encounter in beginning fiction, even when the quest is strong and the stakes are high.

Example of weak story: The protagonist endangers his life to save his best friend’s life, who’s been kidnapped by a gang of organised crime.

By any standards, this quest would make a strong story. The stakes are high enough.

What can make this story weak?

  1. Low or no obstacles
  2. A weak protagonist
  3. An unconvincing villain

No or low obstacles

The way the protagonist solves the quest is dream-like. Everything is his path turns out to be far from a nightmare. The ocean is crystal clear, not too cold and rather fresh and pleasant when he parachutes himself in the middle of the Atlantic on a December night and only a quiet little splash breaks its tranquillity. Afterwards, the skip in which the protagonist hides is the only one to go through customs without being checked as a dog/a bird/a blonde with big breasts distracts the customs officer while the skip goes through.

Memo: when there is a plan in the quest, nothing can possibly go according to it. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong for the protagonist and the circumstances are never favourable, they are always obstacles.

A weak protagonist

What makes a protagonist appear weak is his/her inability to rise to our expectations. A common instance is an anti-hero who happens to have a belt in every single type of martial arts when he’s assaulted, a degree in psychology when he’s kidnapped and a course in baking when he has the sexy character over for dinner.

A weak protagonist is also a protagonist who makes use of favourable circumstances instead of overcoming obstacles. The circumstances mentioned above about the parachuting in the ocean and the skip don’t do the protagonist justice.

Memo: a protagonist gains respect by overcoming adversity and the stronger the adversity, the stronger our awe will be.

An unconvincing villain

In the same way, a plot is weakened by a villain that doesn’t match the strength of the protagonist. The villain is the ultimate obstacle in the protagonist’s quest, so having him or her pose mild or insignificant obstacles in the protagonist’s journey will damage the villain, the protagonist and the story.

Memo: a stronger villain will make the protagonist seem stronger and will also strengthen your story.

For more on improving plot and story, see ‘How can a plot go wrong?’ in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.

Image credit: Con Air © Touchestone Pictures (1997).

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“And Then” vs. “But”

Here’ a piece of brilliant advice on how to build your plot, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon. Don’t plan out your action linearly: she did this, and then she did that and then she did something else and so on.

She did this, but something happened, so she had to do that (completely unexpected). If you can fit “and then” in a scene, rewrite it so you can fit “but”. This works particularly well when you have to deal with those saggy middles, where not much happens.   http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/09/07/arts/television/100000001039812/a-clip-from-stand-in.html

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Is Structuring your Novel a good Idea?

Structure is a good idea when it enriches the meaning of your story, but it comes with its own risks. 

the_luminariesEleanor Catton’s The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Everybody is in awe with the structure of this huge novel. The proof that it is indeed huge? I have just completed my third 1.5 hour cycling session while listening to it and my Audible app informs me I’ve still got 23 hours of listening left.

What’s mind-bamboozling about this novel is not only its size or indubitable literary merit – obviously recognised by the Man Booker Prize judges this year as the best out of some 150 literary books – it’s its byzantine structure.

How does structure affect a novel? Does an intricate structure enrich it or does it risk making it a predictable, if not dull, tale?

Simply put, The Luminaries is organised in 12 parts, each half the length of the previous one. Moreover, each character is linked to a celestial body in a deeply mysterious way. For any writer, this structuring will have to be so accurately planned, I fear it might impact on creativity and many reviewers have pointed out the reins with which the characters seem to be held in place at the disadvantage of creativity and narrative flow. (As well as the self-conscious and highly strung connection to the Victorian literary style and Wilkie Collins in particular).

Structure is important in Catton’s novel because it is part of its rich symbolism. The whole story, including setting and characters, are linked to astrology and the zodiacal signs. So Catton didn’t structure the novel the way she did just because such a door-stopper is easier to read and certainly easier to write according to a predictable map. She did it to add to the meaning of the whole story.

This has a certain appeal. A construct so accurately built it could compete with the structure of a mathematical formula. But, as an author, if you plan to structure your novel so rigidly and attach this structure to a very intricate system of symbols – such as linking character traits to zodiacal signs and trusting the reader to understand the similarities and make the connections – there is a definite risk that you will make your novel so esoteric, many will miss the meaning of at least some of your messages.

The Luminaries has been described highly experimental because of its structural aims, but so what? This year we have the proof that an experimental novel (‘the kiss of death for any publisher’ in the words of Jonathan Cape’s editor, Dan Franklin) can still win the Man Booker Prize. The precedent has been reset for the army of experimental writers. Heaven help us from now on!

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Plot and Story

visual-1After a few months off the blog, during which I wrote a two-page monthly column on self-editing fiction in Writing Magazine, I am now ready to resume the instalments with new content on how to edit your own fiction manuscript.

This month, we’ll go back to where we left it. It’s all about story. Here I discuss some of particularly common shortfalls I encounter in editing fiction manuscripts at the level of plot and how to avoid them.

In most fiction and especially in genre fiction, the story in your book will be determined by a plot. Get the plot wrong and you got the story wrong. Get the story wrong, readers will find it hard or impossible to follow it.

The plot is the way you structure your story. Having a clear idea of your plot is crucial to developing a compelling story.

How can a plot go wrong?

The list below is a collection of particularly common shortcomings I have personally encountered in fiction manuscripts submitted for assessment.

The conflict is not strong enough. My local free paper could break records in no-story headlines. The last time I’ve ever opened it, the front-page headline was “New Home for abandoned Moggy”. Out of curiosity, I read the first paragraph. A local couple that always wanted a cat have found an abandoned kitten by the Manchester Ship Canal and took it home. A huge photo of the smiling couple holding what looked like a pretty relaxed and happy kitten was next to the headline. Could you use something like this in the story? Yes, as part of your backstory or characterisation. A character finding a kitten he or she always wanted could add enormously to his or her characterisation, could move the story forward if used effectively (it could be a clue, an alibi, a reason for further development in the story etc). It would be beyond silly to use it as the main plot in your book. Does the protagonist’s quest in your synopsis sound strong enough? It is worth pursuing? Could it change someone’s life?

The story doesn’t suspend disbelief. Suspending disbelief enhances the reading experience, it is an integral part to an immersive experience, so count on this when you make your story extraordinary in every way. However, even if not everything in your story would make sense in the real world, it should in the universe of your story.

The conflict is not escalated. If the obstacles are easily overpassed, the conflict needs to be developed further. If the solution to an obstacle seems too convenient for you as the author, it’s the surest sign you need to ditch it.

The story is not believable. If your main plot is too far-fetched to convince anyone of its plausibility, it needs changing.

The main plot is delayed unnecessarily. Here you’re simply taking too long to introduce the quest into your story. You’re concerned with too much setting description or character introduction. Example: Don’t use a really long dinner scene if it doesn’t add to character development. In fact, please don’t use a really long dinner scene at all (unless you’re Alan Hollinghurst of course). If you choose to let the readers know the quest in your story by the end of the first chapter, you’re pretty much on the safe side.

Plot Holes

A loose or weak plot results from plot holes. Sometimes the metaphor is extended when critics refer to plots as being “watertight”.

Too many red herrings. Cluttering the story with irrelevant details, causing confusion for the reader is a particularly common inadequacy in new writing. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” (Anton Chekhov, Letters). Remember this piece of advice from Chekhov every time you use any object at all in your story. Nothing in your story should be random. If it’s in the story, readers will expect it to be used at some point later on. That’s why writers have called this extremely effective plot device Chekhov’s Rifle. When you read your manuscript again, keep a very close eye on any objects being mentioned along the way. Are they used later? If not, exclude them or replace them with something characters can use. In Joanna Price’s Eeny Meeny Miny Moe, a mystery we have published last year at Aston Bay Press, the protagonist goes for a run at sunset and she takes a deodorant can in her pocket, knowing there is a vicious rapist on the loose, targeting local women. She gets back home safely, but the forgotten deodorant can in the pocket of her coat plays a major role in the story denouement. This device is valid not only for objects. An event or detail of any type can work just as well, as long as the reader is made aware of it in advance, before it gains any importance at all. Example: In a science-fiction manuscript we have received for assessment, the protagonist hides from a group of rioters in the ventilation tunnel of an underground mine. Just when we think he’s safe, out of rioters’ sight, the electricity is cut out, stopping the oxygen supply in the ventilation tunnel. This is a superb twist, especially if used as a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter, but it would work even better if readers were made aware of a threat to the electricity supply earlier in the story or if the incident has happened before, during an important event, thus suggesting that there is a problem with the electricity. When it happens again, this time with potentially devastating consequences, it doesn’t feel as forced in the story for the sake of suspense.

As an editor, I’m mildly obsessed with randomness. I find details such as “12:43:47” as the time on an email heading in a novel completely annoying. I would appreciate it adds to the realism of the email, but if there is no reason for the time to be exactly 12:43:47 and not one second later, this kind of detail really should not be added in at all. It comes across as childish and attention-seeking for the wrong reasons.

Becoming aware of the potential power every little thing has in your story will help you dispose of any unnecessary objects or scenes that don’t move the story forward.

Inconsistencies, also called “Homeric nods” (after Horace’s annoyance in The Art of Poetry at Homer’s “nod offs”), are particularly common plot holes too. A detective that’s mentioned briefly as working on the case, when he was known to be on holiday (unintentional “nod off” on the author’s side).

Example

For the last four pages, Jim travels through a third world country. He loves it. He loves the people, the happiness of the children dancing in the street and so on. Four pages later, bang, ‘Jim was grateful to have escaped the city and spend some time in the mountains. The air, the bad smells and the general misery around him had almost driven him crazy.’

Deus ex Machina. Your characters need a hand from God, fate or coincidence to complete their quest. When you decide to use this device, you accept that your plot can’t work on its own, hence it needs rethinking. Example: Jim the detective meets a psychic who tells him the name of the killer.

A random or matter-of-fact ending. Think about your ending as the conclusion of all your characters’ efforts in your story. Would the story end the way it does anyway (i.e. even without the characters’ input)? An example would be a detective novel in which the killer is revealed not through the investigation carried out in the novel, but by a completely new character who makes a phonecall four pages before the end of the book and tells the Police he witnessed the murder and reveals the killer by name and surname. A novel’s ending needs to be meaningful – the ending simply makes sense and we can easily see why it ended in A and not B, C or D – and satisfying – we are convinced by the necessity of this ending can easily anticipate what the characters’ lives would be like after the end of the story. Necessity is a powerful attribute endings need to possess. If you story could go on for another one hundred pages or, worse, could have ended one hundred pages earlier, your ending needs improvement. The more necessary your ending comes across, the more it resonates with the reader’s sense of justice.

Loose ends. Think of everything in your book as part of an arc: it starts, it raises and it discharges. This applies to everything, from characters to plot. If a character arc can be perfectly symmetrical or almost linear, in a minor character’s case, the plot arc would be slightly asymmetrical, with the climax closer to the ending.

The Sequel Trap. When you intend to write a sequel to your book, you must ensure you end the story of the first book at the end of the first book. This means the plot needs to close and the characters must solve the main quest. It’s not fair on the readers to ask for their time for hundreds of pages only to have them find out that they need to buy the second book to find out how this story ends. If you want a tie-in with the second book, consider adding a minor background storyline towards the end of the first book and leave it open, a storyline possibly to become the major storyline/quest in the second book. A love tension between two major characters that doesn’t completely discharge by the end of the story seems to be a preferred choice among writers.

Exercise

Write a very detailed synopsis of your book (not suitable for agents and publishers, as we’ll see at the end of the series). Having a clear outline of events in your book will help you focus better on the quest to be solved. Read your workshop synopsis to a friend and take the “lazy student test”. The lazy student is the student pestering everyone in the half-hour before the exam with the question, “What happens in this book?” We’ve all been there. If they’re unlucky enough to have, say, Marcel Proust as the topic for the exam, the hard-working students can find themselves a little stuck. But if they have James Patterson, they can talk.

The lazy student’s reaction to your synopsis can give you clues about your story. “Is that it?” means your story doesn’t suspend disbelief and is too weak; “Give me a break!” – not convincing, too far-fetched; (interrupting you in mid-flow and checking watch), “OK, so what happens?” – the story is too delayed; “Hang on, but you said…” – the story is inconsistent; “What happened to the detective’s father, who was dying in hospital?” – loose ends; “The cheat!” – the sequel trap.

Once you’re happy that your plot is 100% watertight and the ending works perfectly, please visit the Workshop section of my blog, http://www.self-editing.net, and share with like-minded writers fragments from your manuscript before and after self-editing.

Next month we’ll talk about narrative and the tricky-to-master skill of creating perspective and point of view.

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How to Handle Criticism on your Fiction Writing

Feedback on Writing Fiction

As a writer and especially as a writer of fiction, you’re likely to crave feedback. It’s only natural. Exciting stories and plots take place in your world, complicated and impossible quests are resolved by amazing characters. It’s nothing if not worth talking about.
The only way to handle criticism in every area, not just writing, is to put it to good use. Your best friend has just informed you, “Your point of view is all over the place.” Ouch! It hurts, OK, but what can you do next? Try asking for details. Why? Where? That’s how criticism can be easily turned into a precious resource for improvement.

Some criticism is simply nasty and it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. You are likely to receive this type of pointless feedback on online forums and so-called “writing groups”, where no one knows anyone and strangers find gratification in insulting other strangers. If you find a particular feedback has been given just for the sake of criticism, i.e. with no arguments and no details, the best thing to do is stop taking notice and move on.

It also makes sense to ensure you’re dealing with fair-minded parties when you get feedback on what you write. Especially after best-selling crime author R J Ellroy admitted to reviewing positively his own books and very negatively his competitors’ on sites such as amazon.co.uk. He wrote on his Facebook page: “Over the last 10 years I have posted approximately 12 reviews of my own books, and I also criticized a book written by Stuart MacBride, and another by Mark Billingham, both of whom had done nothing to warrant such criticism.” If this happens to you, it’s likely to hurt more than the cross-eyed point of view.

Stephen King recognised that bad criticism can be damaging in his On Writing. As a teenager, he wrote a horror story, designed a black and white cover on an A4 paper, printed it out in a few copies and sold it at his high-school for a profit. A teacher, Miss Hisler, told him it was “trash”, made him reclaim all sold copies and refund all the kids’ money. As a result, Stephen King spent many years being ashamed of his writing.

He says: “I think I was forty before I realized that every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

You can turn this instance into a precedent every time someone will try to make you feel lousy about what or how you write.

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Plot writing: And then vs. But

Here’s a piece of brilliant advice on how to build your plot, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon.

Don’t plan out your action linearly: she did this and then she did that and then she did something else and so on. She did this, but something happened, so she had to do that (completely unexpected). If you can fit “and then” when in your scene, rewrite it so you can replace it with “but”.

This works particularly well when you have to deal with those saggy middles, where not much happens.

http://nyti.ms/SW6eMO

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Self-editing videos

We now have a YouTube channel and our first self-editing video is up and running. Quite apart from the fact that I chose the wrong microphone, everything else about it seems acceptable.

Please visit our new Videos page (see left hand side) for quick tips on editing your manuscript. Until next time, have a look at our first video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTnxwBAHeV4

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