Wednesday Writing Exercise: A Question of Conflict

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Tonight, our intrepid Writing A Novel students, who are almost halfway through their time with us, will be discussing conflict: what it is, how to create it, and why it’s important. They’ll be figuring out how to introduce obstacles for their own characters, and how those obstacles can help drive the story.

If you’re struggling with your novel – if you’ve made it past the Shiny New Idea excitement and are now wading through the Baggy Middle – it might be worth thinking about conflict, too. What does your protagonist want? And what is preventing them from achieving it? It could be that another person stands in the way; it could be that a situation does. Or it could be a more internal struggle – for example, a boy who dreams of being a singer but who has crippling stage fright.

Conflict can be both the engine for your story and provide tension; it will help you naturally structure your story too. Here’s an exercise to get you thinking about it:

  • Below are a couple of one-sentence stories. Each has a beginning and an end. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to insert six steps after each beginning, making it as difficult as possible for the characters to arrive at the end. Airline strikes, evil stepmothers, phobias – whatever you like. Just make them work for it.
     
    A woman wins the lottery and marries a bank robber.

    A man loses his job and wins a gold medal at the Olympics.

    A couple fall in love in the supermarket and adopt a tiger

 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Story vs Plot

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The hot topic for our Writing A Novel students this evening is Story vs Plot. Now, despite us pitting them against each other like that, story and plot are actually good friends. They get along nicely. They need each other in fact. And our novels need them both. But understanding the difference is really important, too.

Story is how we sum up the novel in its entirety. It’s the flavour of the thing, the What. What’s this story all about? is the question, and you should be able, at this stage, to answer that in a single sentence.

Plot is the Where and the How. It’s all the individual bits that make up and drive the story from A to B.  Writing A Novel tutor Sarah May describes it as ‘the detailed scenario, event by event, which makes up the story, together with sufficient character motivation to link them logically.’ Sounds simple, right?

Welllll… maybe not. So for this week’s exercise, let’s pull that plot apart. We’ve sort of borrowed this particular one from very clever Shelley Harris, who just happens to be the tutor on our upcoming one day Fiction Skills course on Plot. So she knows her stuff.

  • Get yourself a roll of wallpaper, or wrapping paper, or any kind of paper that unrolls and is super long. Now get yourself two types of Post-It – two different sizes, or two different colours, even fancy shaped ones if you like. On the first type, write down all of the key events (there might even be an inciting incident in there) that happen in the novel, and stick them in order, down your unrolled and super long piece of paper.
     
    There! Your novel has a skeleton. It just needs fleshing out now… So on the second type of Post-It, write down all the things that happen between each of those key events, and stick them on.
     
    Now the thing to do is to look at it. Are there lots of Post-Its bunched up in certain bits, and then only a single one between another two key events? Would it make sense to move some of the Post-Its to other places? Could this thing happen here, to make more sense out of that one? And what is driving the plot? Are all of these Post-Its things the characters are doing, or are they things which happen to them, beyond their control? Could you have more of a balance between the two?
     
    Lastly, are there enough Post-Its? If not, look at your characters. Ask yourself How can I make this more difficult for them? Answers on a Post-It, please.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Dialogue

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Following on from our discussion last week on voice, tonight our Writing A Novel students will be discussing dialogue.

How hard can dialogue be? you cry. We all know what talking sounds like! We all speak words to each other! Every day!

Well, actually, it can be a bit tricky to get right. The key to good dialogue in fiction, a reliable source informed us the other day, is to strike the balance between being true to life, and being Not Boring.

With that in mind, here are two exercises to help:

  • Choosing the correct vocabulary for each character is essential when bringing dialogue to life. Think carefully about each person’s background and lifestyle, the person they are and the person they want us to think they are. Consider who they’re talking to, too – do they speak in a different way when in conversation with their boss, than, say, a friend from home?
     
    As an example, here are a load of words which all basically mean ‘great’. Make a list of all of the characters in your novel, and, for each, choose the word(s) – you can add others if necessary – they’d be most likely to use in conversation. This should help get you thinking about the intricacies of each character’s speech, and how you can make them work harder for you.

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  • Often the most important part of dialogue is the things that are left unsaid; the information hidden in between the lines. There can be real power in such exchanges, especially if the reader knows more than the characters. Adding such layers to your dialogue can also really help with that Not Boring bit, too.
     
    Give it a go: write a short scene of dialogue (500-750 words) between two of your characters, where one or both of them are hiding something from the other.

 

Next week: Story vs Plot 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Finding Your Voice

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Right. We’ve looked at ideas and what to do with them. We’ve talked about narrative and finding the right point of view, and about developing characters and giving them dimensions.

If you’re NaNoWriMo-ing or just soldiering on with your work in progress, this is all great groundwork. Hopefully things are chugging along nicely.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe you’re at that 10k or 20k wordcount, and something just isn’t quite working. Things feel a bit sticky or stilted, and maybe you’re finding it more difficult to motivate yourself to write each day.

As our Writing A Novel students will be discussing tonight, it might well be that you haven’t quite found your voice yet. Don’t be alarmed. It happens to us all.

Voice is a sort of nebulous concept which we hear talked about a lot in publishing. People will sometimes tell you how they fell in love with a novel’s voice, but it’s more commonly cited as a problem: ‘I love the concept, I just didn’t really think the voice worked’.  Sometimes it comes back to that old likeability problem, but more frequently, the issue is that the voice just isn’t believable or consistent enough.

This is important whether you’re writing in the third- or first-person. Even in the third-person, your voice needs consideration – is the narrator completely impartial, an absolute non-being, or do they have opinions and feelings which will colour the way they tell the story?

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If you’ve got a first-person narrator, think carefully about the choices you make with their language: the way they phrase a sentence, the vocabulary they use, the reference points they have. These need to remain true to the voice throughout your manuscript – for example, do they speak in long, flowery sentences for periods of time and then switch to slang? Does it work to have them referencing Homer in one chapter and then Homer Simpson in the next? It may well – we’re all contradictions as people, and that’s what makes us interesting – but thinking about every element of your voice in this way will make it convincing, compelling and something for a publisher to fall in love with.

So, a couple of exercises to help with that:

  • Write a transcript of an interview between you and the narrator of your novel. You can ask them about themselves, or about a particular event in the novel, or their relationships with the other characters, whatever you like (Interview them for a job! Arrest them! Pretend they’re famous and you’re Graham Norton!) – what really matters is to think about the way they speak, the way they would phrase things, the words they would choose.
  • Take your first paragraph – or first page, or even first chapter, if you like – and rewrite it using the voice of another character. Try and choose someone as different as possible from your narrator (for example, you could swap an omniscient third person narrator for the protagonist, who will have a much more personal and closed view on things). Think consciously about the words you’re choosing, the details your new narrator is picking up on, and why you’re making those decisions. Now look back at the original, and think about why you chose those words, those phrases. Are they the right ones?

All of this is also going to come in handy for next week, when we’ll be looking at DIALOGUE.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: How’d You Like Me Now

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Tonight, our Writing A Novel students are being treated to a guest tutor session from acclaimed thriller writer (and Academy alumna) Colette McBeth. Here‘s a really great thing she wrote about unlikeable characters over on Killer Women.

With this in mind, and given that we’ve spent the last couple of weeks thinking about character and point of view, today’s writing exercise is all about creating a character our audience can care for, even when they might not particularly like them.

  • Write a monologue (750-1,000 words) where your main character describes the worst thing they have ever done. How do they feel about it? Would they do things differently now?
  • Now write a shorter piece (500-750 words) about the best thing they have ever done. That might mean the most selfless, or the kindest – or the thing they feel most satisfied about.
  • Finally, write a short monologue (around 500 words), either from the point of view of your character’s best friend or from a third person narrator. What do they think about either of these events?

As Colette says, creating a character we can care for is all about building facets for them in this way. Nobody is all good or all bad, and people behave in certain ways for all sorts of reasons. Bearing that in mind as you go forward with your novel will mean you end up with rounded, interesting and believable characters, with whom we can empathise, even when we don’t agree with them – and who aren’t just there to serve the plot.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Point Of View

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Tonight, our Writing A Novel students are in for their third evening session, where they’ll be thinking about Point Of View.

Choosing a narrator for a novel is one of the most important decisions of the process. Telling a story in first-, second- or third-person can make all the difference, and that’s before we even start thinking about omniscience. And what if you add more than one perspective into the mix?

Here are a couple of exercises to get you thinking about your own novel and its narration.

  • Take a short scene (250-500 words) featuring a single character from your work in progress. If you’ve been writing in first-person, try switching to third; if you’re writing in third-person, give the character’s own voice a whirl.
  • Now think about the closeness of your narration. If you’ve been working in third-person, think about what your narrator knows – is it only what the character does, or do they have more information? And if you’re working in first-person, how exposed are we to the character’s thoughts and feelings? How honest are they being – do we get a sense that this is the whole story, or that something is being held back?
  • Finally, have a go at switching tenses – from past to present, or vice-versa. Which works best with which mode of narration? What different things do you learn about the character and the plot from each combination?

 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Kidnap A Character

On Saturday, our Writing A Novel students came in for their first full day session. And we sent them straight back out again.

The topic at hand was (and still is — they’re back in tonight) Character. So we set them free on a little expedition to find inspiration in the world outside (we’re next to the British Museum; there’s a wealth of amazing characters to be found out there). By the time they came back for lunch, they all had a fledgling character sketch just waiting for his or her own story.

It’s such a worthwhile exercise — thinking about what makes a good and interesting character; thinking about how to build a history and a voice for someone — that we thought we’d share a sort-of-version of it with you.

Here are four people; four potential characters. Pick one (or two or three or four) and write a character summary for them. Tell us about their life, their ambitions, their opinions. Try writing it in your voice first, and then try it in theirs, thinking carefully about the different way the two of you might see things.

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This will come in very handy for next week’s topic: Point Of View.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Ideas And What To Do With Them

Tonight is the second session of our current iteration of Writing A Novel. Last week, the students met for the first time. They introduced themselves, and their novels, and they met their wonderful tutors. Biscuits were eaten. Muses were motivated.

Now the work begins. To kick them off, this week they’ll be looking at ideas, and what comes after them. Should you plan your novel? And how detailed should a plan be? And then how rigidly should you stick to it?

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So, inspired by that — and because next month happens to be the month when over 300,000 people worldwide (including all of us here at Academy HQ) attempt to write a novel in thirty short days — here are a couple of exercises to get you thinking about your story and how to shape it.

What if?

Stephen King famously wrote in his excellent and highly-recommended On Writing that a strong enough central situation made plotting unnecessary (he actually wrote ‘Forget plot’ but we’re not quite sure how we feel about that. Sorry, Steve). He said that ‘the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question’. Like these ones:

What if a plane full of school boys crash-landed on a desert island?

What if the pigs plotted to take over the farm?

What if you lost your memory every time you fell asleep?

If you’ve already got a novel on the go, or an idea for one, see if you can shrink it down to that single question. It’s much harder than it sounds — and it might make you think differently about what the most important element of your plot is.

And if you haven’t got any Shiny New Ideas just waiting to be written, it’s worth keeping an ear out for any What Ifs your brain throws at you as you go about your day. King, by the way, swears by the power of a good stroll for dislodging those million dollar story ideas…

Start small

Not every novel idea can be boiled down to a What if? But how about a single sentence? That’s what followers of the Snowflake Method recommend.

Try and summarise the plot of the novel you’re writing, or want to write, in a sentence no longer than twenty words. Something like:

An orphaned boy’s life is changed forever when, on his eleventh birthday, he discovers he is a wizard

That wasn’t too hard, right?

But now turn that into a paragraph. And after that, into three paragraphs. Keep going, keep expanding, until you have a full page of synopsis. Doing this helps you really focus in on the key elements of the story you’re trying to tell, and the motivations of the characters within it.

 

Happy planning! Meanwhile, the faction lines are being drawn here in the office in the run-up to NaNoWriMo. We have one plotter in the office, one unabashed pantser, and one not-so-sure… Let’s see how that pans out…

Ricardo: A Story In Time

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Meet Ricardo

So today instead of #QuickFic, we are doing something much sillier – we are writing a story together!

This chap is Ricardo. He’s a blue-footed booby on a mission, to publish his life’s work, 10 Rules Of Time Travel. Only two things stand in his way – the evil Gideon Eastcastle, Ricardo’s ex-life-partner & a big-time cormorant in the publishing industry; and the fact that Gideon has no thumbs, and no ready access to dictation software.

How will it play out? You decide! Join us on Twitter and use the hashtag #Ricardo to have your say!

Ricardo: A Story In Time

‘I will have had my revenge, Gideon!’ cried Ricardo. His cry filled the shed. It rebounded off the oaken minarets he’d bought in Isfahan in 1599, and off the synthetic feather from his great-great-grandson’s wing. It pinged off his new Dualit toaster, slid behind his iPod dock, and landed in the lap of Alan Sullivan, who barked paranoidly.

George the Guillemot put out a friendly wing.

‘Hey,’ she said. ‘Come on. So what if Gideon Eastcastle does publish 9 Rules Of Time Travel just to corner the market in bird-written time travel guides and crush your dreams..? I’m sure you’ll outsell him!’

‘No,’ said Alan. “I had this before. I did a YouTube about living with flippers and someone ripped me off and my ad revenue totally bombed. I never recovered. It was really, really, really bad.’

‘Not helping,’ said George.

‘It was terrible,’ said Alan. ‘Really bad.’

‘Look at me,’ said Ricardo. ‘I’m just a sad sack booby in a shed full of junk.’

‘Junk? Who’s junk? I’m not junk. Are you junk? You’re junk! Shut up!’ said Alan Sullivan.

With a sigh, Ricardo pum-pum-dum-bi-dun-dummed out of Skype and closed his laptop. ‘Who’s going to take time travel tips from a bird who can’t even fly?’

‘There are,’ said George dramatically, ‘other ways of flying than through the air. You may not be able to fly, Rick, but dammit, you can travel! Through time! Think about it!’

‘But I can’t go forward,’ said Ricardo. ‘You know that. The 10th rule states very clearly that no chronoflapter should ever, on any account, go forward in time.’

Right then, there was an almighty crash, and the ornate Venetian door of the shed smacked back against the wall.

And in stepped Ricardo.

From the future.

‘Why go forward,’ he said. ‘When I can come back?’

‘Who are you?’ said George.

‘It is I,’ said now-Ricardo and futuro-Ricardo, practically at the same time.

‘Woooooooooooah,’ said Alan.

‘Pleased to make my acquaintance’, future Ricardo announced, stepping forward and extending a wing in a crude approximation of a handshake. Sort of lodged under the other wing there was a sort of box.

‘Everything you need to know is in this box. Everything you do from now on, tracked and charted.’

‘I KNEW IT!’

‘Quiet, Alan.’

To be continued…

 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Writing Backwards

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We’re going to do something a little different today.

We’re going to give you the end of a story, and we want you to work out how to get there.  You can do that any way you like; the characters are yours to play with – as long as, somehow, they wind up right here:

‘No,’ Jenny said, her hand reaching out to grip Arthur’s. ‘No, this isn’t right.’

Arthur found he couldn’t reply. After everything they’d worked for, everything they’d done to arrive at this moment — and here it was, ruined.

‘I’m sorry,’ he managed to say eventually. ‘I tried.’

She turned to look at him, her face pale. ‘Please tell me this isn’t happening.’

‘I can try again!’ he said, but her fingers were already slipping out of his. ‘Jenny, I’ll talk to them! I’ll get it right this time!’

His voice echoed feebly back at him as he watched Jenny walk away, her footsteps thunderous in the empty hall.

She didn’t look back. Not once.

Oh dear, Arthur! What has he done?

That’s up to you, team. Do get in touch and let us know what you come up with!

We have new creative writing exercises for you every Wednesday. And if you can’t wait a whole week, join us every Friday morning for our QuickFic competition – write a story based on that week’s prompt for a chance to win a stack of books.