Saturday, December 24, 2011

Conveying you world in flashes of detail

For me, the first major issue I come across is figuring out what the hell is going on in my story. I do plan the plot out before-hand, because it saves me from having to do four first drafts, but my planning is more like:

Needs to establish relationship and find out about Otherkind.

So there's no character notes, no description, nothing. I know where the plot is going, but not much else. For me, the first draft if figuring out secondary characters, scenery, dialogue, emotions - the tendons and muscles that go on the bones of plot.

As the story progresses, it gets easier, because I'm using the same characters, or similar scenerary, so I don't have to go and invent everything. I know what everything looks like, and how everyone acts.

Inevitably I end up writing an awful lot of drivel, just so I can figure out what the hell is going on.

And the second draft, for me, is condensing all this knowledge down into moments and flashes.

The human brain is a remarkable thing. Perhaps you've see the chain email or text, where all the letters are rearranged except the first and last letters of each word. You can still read the paragraph - your mind fills in the blanks.

To me, a writers job is to give that first and last letter to the readers. You need to give the reader flashes and moments that their brain can take and extend. This may seem like it's less work for you, but it's not. Because when you write half a page of description, you're conveying facts. And people can't make up facts, so you have to cover them all.

When you describe in flashes, you're conveying mood and emotion. That mood is tacked onto a couple of facts, and the reader is able to fill that description with all the images they have associated with that mood.

One example I have was when I was describing the neighbourhood that my main character grew up in. I described a train ride through the city, the slums, the houses, the way the roads went. That was fine when I was writing it for me.

The second time round, I described the train station - a hunk of concrete sitting in the middle of the rubble of last year's houses. I described that the dirt-track roads, with the occasional brick lain down - testament to a fools attempt to civilise the area. I described the rotting carcass of a dog, which underneath the preparation area for a street vendor who sold street food.

These are details that show you things. They show you the area is run down, hobbled together, a place that has lost a great deal of it's hope. A place where people don't care about food poisoning, because they're probably going to die of starvation in a week anyway.

Those descriptions took up a paragraph when clumped together. But it took time to think them up. I had to sit down and write a list of what I needed to convey about this place to my readers. Facts, mood and emotion had to be conveyed in a couple of details.

It takes time, but it's well worth it. So when you've written down the facts of your world, contemporary or otherwise, go back and look for the mood and emotion. Look for the facts you need to convey. Combining them in details gives the reader flashes of your world that they can extend. This makes for readers involved in creating your world - and there's nothing better than that level of involvement.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tying your Antagonists Together for Greater Impact

I'm not a fan of planning things out in minute detail. If I do that, by the time I get to the writing, I'm already bored of the story. It's never worked out well for me before.

But I was looking at the basic notes and the first few chapters of my story the other day, and I realised that I didn't really have much in the way of antagonising forces.

As someone once said - the cat sat on the mat is description. The cat sat on the dogs mat is a story.

So if conflict makes a story, then does it follow that there must be an overarching antagonistic force? I'm not necessarily talking a blood and bones individual antagonist here. For example, look at Harry Potter. The main antagonistic character is Voldermort - but he doesn't truly show up until the last chapters of the first two books, and doesn't even make an appearance in the third.

Instead, often what Harry is fighting for is to be accepted. That's all he wanted from his adoptive family, that's all he wants from school and friends. So anyone making him stand out, either by antagonising him, or making him out to be bigger than he is, or forcing him to be a hero, is a driver of that antagonistic force.

Voldermort is part of that. So is Draco, and Snape, and Ron's jealousy. Individual antagonistic events, but they're all connected by this. As the books go on, Harry's motivations change - revenge, anger, love. While there may be many antagonists, they all contribute to the antagonistic force that he is pushing against.

So without an overarching antagonistic force to push against and worry at my main character, I had antagonists, but they were all over the place, and thus, they didn't have much of an impact on my character. They may have been hard for him to defeat, but they didn't force him to change, or weigh him down mentally.

I finally figured out that it was because they had no connection to each other. These events were just the shit he had to get through on a weekly basis. Difficult, yes. Memorable, no.

So I had to think about what my character wanted - to become a doctor and serve his community. Great. But why did he want that?

He wanted that because his brother had bled to death in his arms and he was sick of the fate that was granted to those in his community. So what did he want? He wanted to cheat fate.

And then, suddenly, all my antagonistic forces tied themselves together. Still the same events and people, but if they reminded my MC of the fate he was trying to avoid. They hammered home the message that he would never get out, that his fate would follow him everywhere, stop him from getting his love interest, stop him from achieving his freedom from his fate. As such, these events had a much greater impact.

As individual events, they made things difficult for him. But unless one totally defeated him (in which case it'd be the end of the book), they weren't going to effect much. They were basically scenery. Interesting scenery, but scenery none-the-less.

Tied together, they not only made things hard for the MC, but they shaped the story and how it evolved.

So if you don't have one individual making things hard for your MC, figure out what your MC wants, not just on the surface, but really wants. Your overarching antagonistic force will be that which is in conflict with that foundational need. If you can then adjust all the forces that work against the MC so they reflect, in some small part, this overarching antagonistic force, your conflict will have a much greater impact on the reader. It'll be like he's being constantly hammered by something that doesn't want him to succeed, rather than just having hammers thrown at him.

There is a difference - one is personal, the other is just part of the landscape. And while both are interesting, the personal always has a better effect.

Happy Writing,