Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Subplot Trap

Having discussed essential moments in a plot, we can move on to subplots. Subplots are great for adding depth, buffer, and realism to any story. But often enough, this neat little device is abused and ends up disappointing the reader. So what exactly is a good subplot?

Subplot Essentials

Subplot should not be confused with a separate story thread. Sometimes a book will have two separate stories that may end up intertwining at the end. Jacobean plays like The Changeling always have a second story that goes its own way until the end.
A subplot is different. It’s a little tangent that related to the main plot and will end up having some effect or getting effected by the main story.

Subplots without Relevance

The worst thing you can do is have a subplot that ends up having no relevance for the main plot. Jeffery Archer’s Only Time Will Tell surprised me with this because he’s usually such a great author. So, it starts with this poor boy, Harry, getting admitted into a posh school. His best friend, Giles, starts stealing things all of a sudden. Why does he steal? To pin the blame on Harry? Because he’s got some deep psychological need to steal? What will be the consequences for Harry and his friendship with Giles? The answer to all this?
Giles gets caught, his father pays the school some money, and he comes back to school. That’s the end of that. Did it do anything to affect the course of the protagonist, Harry’s, story? No.
"...of the foul German spectre:
the Vampyre"
Frustrating. Not only did it waste my time but it built up so many questions in me and then flipped on its head by seeming to be the most intriguing part of the story to the stupidest. What I call- the punctured tire effect.

Subplots with Relevance

This is just about any subplot of a good story. Jane Eyre has the subplot of Bertha Mason. Had she just been a mad woman that roams around the house, it would’ve created some initial suspense but eventually seemed pointless. Her subplot comes into a direct clash with Jane’s because her existence prevents Jane’s marriage to Rochester.

Wuthering Heights’ subplot of Isabella and Heathcliff’s marriage sets the scene for the second generation of drama. Had it not happened, Linton Heathcliff would’ve never been born and Heathcliff would’ve had no means to gain Linton’s property though young Cathy.
"Your hair don't smell of the heather."
Regardless of how you insert them in a story, your subplots should always have some effect on the main plot. It can be in a large way or a small one, but relevance is key. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

7 Essential Plot Moments

Your plot should be interspersed with certain tear-jerking or awe inspiring moments. Some of these are so powerful, they can determine the course of your entire book while others are the highlight of your work. Here are 7 plot moments so that you can write a plot that packs a punch.

1. Depravity
Dorian’s murder of Basil stood out to me as the single most depraved act in the book. It’s also the part I remember best- the senseless murder of the person who adores you. Evoking strong emotions like shock, disgust from the reader makes for a powerful read.

I Am Evil
2. Love at First Sight
Any Edith Wharton novel milks this moment for all its worth. These days, this moment has become so overused, even using the word “love” feels tricky. I would say love at first sight that comes at a great cost would make for a great story. Man falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a terrorist (I didn’t make that up, I saw it in a movie).

3. Reversal
"For his ambition, I killed him"
This can be a bad person deciding to become good or vice versa. Personally, I think when a good person decides to become bad, it’s more interesting. Readers are expecting the villain to have some humanity deep down in their corrupt little souls, but when a character you’ve trusted all along turns on you, the element of surprise is greater. “Et Tu Brute” is iconic for a reason, he was Caesar’s beloved friend, so his stab hurt more than the others ever could.

4. Fate Worse Than Death
People rely on death way too much when there’s a whole variety of worse fates you can pick from. Back to Edith Wharton, her protagonist tries to kill himself, but only gets injured badly and is paralyzed for the rest of his life. Living in poverty, living with guilt, living in disgrace are as powerful as death. In some ways, they are worse because at least suffering ends with death.

5. Standing Up For a Cause
"Because as long as I was in,
and in for good,
I might as well go the whole hog"
The more difficult the cause the better and best yet if it’s a lost cause. It always reflects the moral strength of the character. Huck Finn deciding to save Jim from the slave owners- many people feel the book should’ve ended at this moment because the book couldn’t get more heart-wrenching than that moment. Moreover, if your character fails the first time he stands up for a cause and succeeds the next time, it will make him seem more real. Only Tintin succeeds in first attempt at…life.

6. To Forgive, Divine
To forgive someone who stole your pencil is ridiculous, to forgive someone after they burnt down your house is beautiful. A compassion that is greater than what we find in this cruel world of ours is always satisfying. When the priest forgives Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables, it makes an equal impact on both the convict and the readers- he becomes an honest man, we rent the Les Miserables DVD.

7. Loss of Moral Code
The opposite of the point above, when a person knowingly ignores his conscience. Amir’s abandonment of Hassan in the Kite Runner is so powerful, the entire novel is spun around it. Even the cover of my copy has the scene of Amir glancing around the corner and watching the evil guy have his way with Hassan. 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Making the Plot That Grabs You

Reading Jane Austen or  Somerset Maugham, I can reach one conclusion: people must’ve had a lot more time on their hands. But think about it, it was the rich who could afford books and were literate. They didn’t have to worry about most things us nine to fivers do. Considering that readers give modern day writers very little time to establish why they should read our book, making a plot that catches their attention and refuses to let go is a must. So how exactly do you do that?

1. Withhold Information
Any Charles Dickens novel you read will have a last minute surprise, giving it a twist that keeps you glued to the book. In Great Expectations, how many of us ever guessed that the convict was Pip’s benefactor? At times misleading the reader can work too. Through most of the novel, Dickens makes us belief Mrs. Havisham is funding Pip which makes the truth even more shocking.

2. Make the Readers Guilty
Conflicting feelings are a good way to keep the readers glued.
Clockwork Orange makes you side with a sociopath murderer and in doing so, you feel torn apart. If something makes us happy, we are content and forget about it soon enough. But something that makes us squirm will stay in our heads and force us to turn the pages.

3. Sense of Helplessness
Run, Forrest, run!
This tactic never fails. I can’t think of an appropriate literary example, so I’m switching to movies. In Scream, remember the scene where Sydney's friend doesn't realize that the Ghostface standing in front of her is the actual killer and she keeps taunting him? Didn’t it make you want to jump out your seat, rush into the television and scream, “Haul ass, you friggin' moron!” If your villain reveals that he’ll kill the hero by tampering with his car brakes and in the next chapter, your hero decides to take a drive, the readers will hate you for making them miss their favorite show and love you for writing such a great book.

4. Don’t Overdo It
Alternate between subtle tension and outright tension. Not everyone has to be screaming, jumping out of windows, and getting stabbed for the reader to be interested. Sometimes the best tension can be two people sitting in the room, refusing to talk. Alternating between different types of tension keeps the reader guessing what will happen next. Will the lovers have a violent outburst or will they simply freeze each other out? 

5. Downtime
Apologies to fans. It was a good film. 
I just watched Star Trek: Into the Darkness, so this one comes straight from the heart. Gives the reader (or in my case, viewer), a chance to relax. With Stark Trek, every second was epic, every minute something crucial was happening. After the first twenty minutes, my reptilian brain went numb and by the time Chris Pine was dying, I turned to my sister, baffled, and asked, “Why’s he talking so slowly?” After something dynamic has happened, let the tension settle down, let the gravity of the situation sink in. Or you’ll leave your readers jaded and wondering why Chris Pine was talking so slow.

So that’s it for today. On a side note, I was disappointed that Benedict Cumberbatch’s entry in the movie was so plain. I thought they’d make it a lot more grand. I guess there’s always the sequel, but I think it’s too much for this reptile to handle.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Establishing The Backstory

We’re anxious to tell our readers all the facts and figures of our story beforehand so that they’re able to get a real grasp of what’s happening. Except that often enough, we ending up listing all the facts- who’s related to who, who hates who, why is it that particular time of the year. The problem is that by the time we get to the juicy part of the story, the readers are worn out. Here are a few mistakes and how you can avoid them:

1. The Documentary Feel
Please don’t get paragraphs of National Geographic narratives. Nothing tires out the reader more than, “Harry was Sam’s brother and worked as a bartender. His wife had divorced him last summer and now he got to see his three kids on the weekends only…”
At the start, there’ll be only one or two facts about Harry that the reader has to know. If you have to list them out, then do so as briefly as possible.

The golden rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” If your protagonist has anger issues, don’t go for a sentence stating the same. Why not get him into a small fight? Shameful that I always take movie references for advice on writing, but here it is. In Supernatural, they never make Sam state, “Dean you’re so aggressive. You are clearly the dominant personality.” But how do we know he is? He always drives the car, he chooses the songs during the car drive, he tends to whack Sam on the head if he’s annoyed.

2. Explanatory Dialogue
If you find your characters explaining your plot, it is a sign for a thorough rewrite. Dorian Gray is my favorite book and some of Sir Henry's speeches put me to sleep. So avoid at all costs as there are more subtle ways to convey your plot essentials than through dialogue. Moreover, dialogue will just sound stilted if it goes like, “Harry, my older brother, I have not you see since you took off in a rage five years ago.”

Listen to how people talk. They give away clues of their personality through everyday speech. For example, I had a story where a girl is talking to her stepbrother and at first I resorted to explanatory dialogue. Except is slowed down my story. Then, I thought about the two characters and how they would perceive their parents. So I made the girl call her mother “mum,” while the stepbrother referred to her as “your mother.”

I would say think of your story as a bit of a mystery. You should give enough clues which the reader can piece together to finish the puzzle. Nothing is worse than making a reader feel like they’re in a college lecture with all the facts written out for them. Then again, The Alchemist does nothing but state facts, so I’m not sure if backstory rules hold true anymore.
Well, for those of us who aren’t Paulo Coelho, I guess we can travel the more conventional route. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Framing Your Main Characters

Create a compelling protagonist and villain and half the battle is already won. That doesn’t mean you make the good guy absolutely good and the bad guy the worst creature to walk the planet. Characters are like people and they grow over the course of your story into well rounded beings. Conversely, not putting too much thought into them, bleeds through the page, and readers will dismiss the book even if the plot is amazing.

How do you frame your characters?

1. Keep Their Bio Data
A Snippet of My List
Before I create a character, I make a list of everything that I feel can frame a great character. Name, nickname, place of birth, favorite catchphrase, interests. You can modify the list depending on your tastes and don’t forget that this list keeps changing as your character evolves.
This list is also a good reference point if you ever feel like your character is getting away from you. Plus, this list is great because every fact feeds the other. If your character has a serious demeanor it will affect the choice of his music, which in turn will affect whether his idea of a good time is a rock concert or a symphony.

2. Decide Their Flaws
This can be part of your list in the point above but it is so important that I needed to give it a separate heading. The type of flaw, perceived or real, your character has makes a world of difference.
Dorian Gray's flaw is creates one of
the most beloved protagonists ever 
Please, don’t create a character who is too perfect to live. The reason I say is this because your readers aren’t stupid. Just because you’re telling them the protagonist has no flaws doesn’t mean they won’t be able to spot any.
I’m not too familiar with the Twilight Series, but from what I hear its protagonist is supposed to close to perfect. Yet you see enough people who rant about its stupidity. That’s what I mean. You can’t fool your audience. Then again, considering the success of the Twilight Series, I might be wrong on that.
In the same way, give your villain a redeeming feature. No one except comic book villains are purely evil and as a well developed person, your antagonist will have a soft side to him as well. Plus, contrast always heightens the thrill. If your villain wants to destroy out of retarded evilness, it won’t be as powerful as if he knows that he’s doing wrong, but sees no other alternative.

3. Times of Adversity
Death Note is all about adversity and its interesting
to see how different characters react to it. Some 
choose self sacrifice, others develop a peculiar habit 
of making their eyes glow red. Plus as far as flaws 
goes, this series does a great job of making flawed 
yet lovable characters.
It’s well known that you get to know a person’s real character in a time of adversity and a book character is no different. Look at the tense parts in your book or make up a situation and consider how your characters would react to it. Who would be the person they help? Who would they leave behind? Would they roll over and weep or would they fight the situation even if they knew they would die?
The situation doesn’t have to be life or death. It could be financial ruin or a break up, but the manner in which the character handles adversity can tell you a lot about him. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Don’t Lose Sight of the Gold

This post is a slightly personal one, but it might be useful nonetheless. From my personal experience, I give this one piece of advice: write for yourself.
In the world of publishing, commercialization, and best sellers list, it’s easy to forget the reason why you’re writing. You.

You are primarily writing for yourself and you must never forget that. When I was thirteen, one experience single handedly ruined my joy of writing. My father noticed my eagerness in writing and told me that I should hone my skills till I could write books worthy of the Booker Prize (European equivalent of the Pulitzer you could say). He kept marking my progress, forced me to show my work to him, told everyone I liked to write, who in turn pestered me about when I would get my work published.

Don't confuse the icing for the cake! 
It took me a good seven years before I realized that my writing had not progressed in this time and it was because I wasn’t writing for myself. I was writing for my family, friends, and for a target audience.
As serious writers, yes, we should keep in mind that a publisher won’t accept some nonsense work that only makes sense to you. But if you find your fear of acceptance getting in the way of your flow, please assess your priorities.

Now when I write, I remind myself that regardless of what anyone thinks of my work, it will first and foremost be my own personal tribute to myself. That may sound a little arrogant, but it’s not. A book is your creation, and let’s face it, if you didn’t think highly of your own work, you’d let the idea stay in your head rather than sending it off to a publisher.

Here are a few tips of how I keep my work MINE:

I never need a reason to add a
photo of a hot guy
1. I often build my characters around my personal heroes and if I’m getting really fan girly, even my favorite actors. You don’t have to go so far as to name your character Jensen Ackles, but yeah, why not add the green eyes? No one else needs to know your choice

2. Don’t forget to have fun with your writing. I insert jokes in my work that only make sense to me. It helps me keep perspective. No matter how much work I put in my book, I need to remember that I am just a spec in the universe and what I work on for my entire life, might be forgotten the minute I die. So I remember to laugh a little and keep a sense of humor when I write.

3. Publishing is Not the Benchmark
At the end of the day, the only person whose
approval you should be looking for is you.
Publishing does not equal quality writing. History is littered with examples of good writing that was ignored, even despised. My favorite poet Keats died a failure. So, remember, that just because your work isn’t published doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Conversely, think of some book did get published, but was absolute rubbish. So yes, in a world where cleverly disguised pornography can become a bestseller, we can go a little easy on ourselves when our book gets passed over for something more raunchy.

Remember above all else: If you’re happy with your work, the toughest battle is won. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Know When to Get Brutal

I wish the makers of Supernatural had been brutal when it came to the show. It would have saved a lot of people pain. Love is a tricky thing and as a dedicated writer, you love your book. However, sometimes it’s best to know when to give it the axe. Not to slash out the entire thing, I mean certain parts that drag on. Most readers aren’t sipping on a cocktail on some beach. They’ve got busy schedules and manage to fit in a few minutes in their day to read your book. So you have to make sure you don’t have any unneeded details that cause your book to move at a snail’s pace. Always remember: your audience is impatient.
Of course, as with anything you’ve created, you might be a bit too attached to realize which parts of your book should be cut.

How to spot the tricky parts:

1. It’s Getting in the Way of Your Plot
This is the easiest way to spot something unneeded. Some characters or scenes just won’t fit in your main story because they’re redundant. In my story, I had added a rather humorous character but at the end when I wanted to wrap up his story thread, it was getting the way of my climax. I had more important things to take care off and giving him a proper ending was ruining the flow of events, that’s when I realized, I had to bid farewell to him.

2. Take an Honest Look
Ask yourself for each scene “Does it give the reader some insight about my character or plot?” If not, pick up the axe. For lack of a better example, I’ll take the movie DrillBit Taylor. He’s a conman who’s hired by three boys who are bullied by a psycho kid in school. Although he’s initially out to get their money, he realizes that his friendship with them is more important and gives the bully an ass whooping (I’ve never used that word before and I now I feel like a poser.) I felt like his love interest seemed rather forced on the plot and was there for no other reason than “because all protagonists end up with a girl.” Could the plot have gone on without her? Yes. Would it have prevented people from taking bathroom breaks when the actress comes on screen? Yep.
No one’s going to take a bathroom break during a boring chapter of your book. They’ll simply put it down and never pick it up again, so learn to get cruel.

3. The Objective Outsider
Sometimes it’s best to get someone elseto read your work. They won’t have the emotional investment in your characters that you do. I realized the value of the outsider when I wrote one of my earliest stories and made my sister read it. When she finished my favorite part of the story, the one that I absolutely adored, she went, “I loved everything but what the hell was the point of that scene?”
The outsider will see boring scenes for what they are. When I ask someone to read my work now, I always beg them to mark the parts that get them bored. It hurts my feelings and improves my work.

Adding flavor and details to your plot is essential and it can hurt when you have to throttle your own creation. I, personally, save my additional details in a separate Word document and keep them for my eyes only. It makes the pain a little less.

So, grit your teeth and pick up your scalpels.