Category Archives: Writing fiction

What makes stories work?

To succeed as a fiction author you need to write stories that work so well that readers enjoy them and recommend them to friends. But what are the components that make a story work? Let’s take a look at six I find particularly important.

1 At least one main character that readers care about
It’s vital that readers care what happens to the main character in your story as that’s what keeps them turning the pages. That doesn’t mean the character has to be perfect.  In fact, it’s often better if they’re not, because readers like reluctant heroes and characters with flaws. However, you’ll find it hard to make them care about someone who is totally unlikable. 

2 A problem that the main character needs to solve
A character with a problem lies at the core of every good story. It’s important that the problem  is one readers can understand and relate to so you need to choose it carefully to suit your target market. For instance, the problem of something being lost is universal but under 5s will relate to a story about a lost toy, romance readers will be interested in lost love and sci-fi fans may prefer the mystery of a lost spacecraft.

3 Plenty of Jeopardy
The more that’s at stake, the more the reader will care about your character’s attempts to solve the problem. So make sure that failure carries high consequences: death, the triumph of evil, unjust imprisonment, loneliness, separation and loss can all work.

4 Rising tension
The tension in a good story rises steadily from beginning to end with a few slight lulls along the way.  As a result, a graph of the tension in a good story  looks like a  series of peaks and troughs with each peak being higher than the one before as they build towards the final climax. Your character’s unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem can provide some of  these ups and downs and so can the arrival of new complications.

One of the surest ways to make sure those peaks keep getting higher is to set a deadline: your couple have to get together before one of them marries the wrong person, the bomb has to be defused before the timer hits zero or the murderer must be caught before he strikes again. The resulting time pressure guarantees that the tension will rise as the deadline comes closer and closer.

5 A black moment when all seems lost
Your readers want your character to succeed, but they don’t want that to happen too easily. Make the most of that time pressure by giving your character one last failed attempt just before the deadline – a failure that makes it look as if all is lost. Now there are no more options left. As the clock ticks on, the bride is walking down the aisle with the wrong man, the bomb has reached the final countdown or the murderer has already captured his next victim. Your reader is on the edge of their seat, holding their breath as they turn the page to find …

6 A climax where the main character solves the problem
After all those failures, the main character finally achieves success against all the odds, preferably in a way that’s not too predictable. To make your climax work to maximum effect, two things are vital:
a) The main character (or characters) must solve the problem themselves. This is not the moment for the cavalry or anyone else to ride to the rescue unless their arrival is a direct result of your main character’s behaviour earlier. So, if the problem is lack of money, it’s better if your character receives some as a reward for bravery rather than by winning the lottery. 
b) The climax mustn’t depend on your characters using powers the readers didn’t know they had. If your character’s success depends on being able to fly a plane or use karate effectively, you need to have dropped that information into the story earlier, at least once, even if you choose to do it in a very subtle way. Your aim should be for readers to think “of course”, not “what!” or “that’s not fair”.

It’s easy to think that the last component is the most important of the six – if you get the climax wrong. you’ll leave your readers feeling dissatisfied so they are less likely to recommend your book to their friends. But even a perfect ending is no good if readers give up earlier in the story because they don’t care what happens.  To make a story work well, you need to weave all the components together with skill.

Diana Kimpton

 

 

 

 

Using a step outline to create a plot

A step outline is a list of all the steps in a story. It sounds simple, and it is. But it’s also a powerful tool for creating plots. I always use one when I’m writing a novel because it helps me gather my thoughts together and see the shape of my story before I start to write. It’s much easier to sort out potential problems and plot holes at this stage rather than wait until the book is finished. And once the initial plotting is finished, the step outline also provides a guide to the writing process, a bit like a road map. Because I know where I’m going, I can concentrate on the intricacies of the particular scene I’m writing.

I didn’t understand how to use a step outline properly until I read How to Write for Animation where Jeffrey Scott takes the reader step by step through the process he used to develop an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That opened up a whole new way of working to me and helped turn me into a successful children’s novel writer. So, to pass on that knowledge to you, I’m going to talk you through the process of developing the storyline for one of my children’s novels. But before I do that, I’d better make two things clear:

  1. A step outline is not a chapter list. I don’t worry about chapters at the plotting stage and only put them in during the writing process.
  2. A step outline is not set in stone. I can, and often do, adapt it while I’m writing the book.

You don’t have to write a step outline from beginning to end. You can go from the end to the beginning if you prefer, or jump around putting in steps as you think of them. You can even write different step outlines for different threads of the story and then weave them together. That’s what I did when I developed the plot for Princess Ellie’s Christmas.

Cover of Princess Ellie's ChristmasWarning – spoilers ahead. Stop reading now if you’re under ten, mad about ponies and haven’t already read this book.

When I was commissioned to write this book, I knew it would be the Christmas edition of my Pony-Mad Princess series. That meant readers had expectations I had to fulfill. The story had to feature Princess Ellie and her best friend Kate, the cook’s granddaughter. It had to involve at least one of her ponies and, of course, it had to be about Christmas.

Initially the step outline was completely blank. I hadn’t an idea in my head, but I knew this would have to be a little different from the standard Christmas stories. Those always include snow and I’d already written a snowy story that depended on the fact that it never snows where Ellie lives. Also there’s no magic in this series so there was no chance that Santa could fly in with his reindeer.

After a lot of thought about what makes a royal Christmas different, I suddenly remembered the Queen’s Christmas message. Suppose the King, Ellie’s dad, decided to do a Christmas broadcast live from the palace on Christmas Day. That would mean there would be a TV crew that  could trigger lots of humour and story ideas, and maybe I could involve Shadow, the Shetland pony, by making him pull a trap carrying Santa (but not the real one because of the lack of magic). At this point, the step outline for this thread of the story looked like this.

  1. Live Royal Christmas broadcast
  2. Batty TV producer
  3. Final scene with Shadow carrying someone dressed as Santa in his trap.

That was a beginning, but I still needed to involve Ellie. I decided I wanted to make the story about giving rather than receiving presents so I started another step outline for this thread of the plot. It was rather short.

  1. Ellie wants to give Kate the best Christmas present ever.

To turn that into a story, I needed to give Ellie a problem but I wasn’t sure what. So the next version of  the step outline was rather vague.

  1. Ellie wants to give Kate the best Christmas present ever.
  2. Something goes wrong
  3. She manages to do it anyway.

Now I had to play around with various possibilities until I came up with something that worked. To do that, I used the fact that Kate’s parents work abroad so they would have to get home in time for Christmas.

  1. Ellie orders a present for Kate
  2. When it arrives, it’s wrong but it’s too late to change it.
  3. Ellie is distraught. She’s failed
  4. Kate is distraught too – her parents have missed the last plane home. They won’t be back in time for Christmas.
  5. Ellie arranges for them to fly home in the Royal plane
  6. Kate’s parents are the best present ever.

With that thread almost sorted, I went back to the original step outline about the Royal broadcast. I was already fascinated by special effects and had written a book about them. Suppose there was a special effects team with the TV crew. Could they make the story end with a snow scene after all? But for that to make a satisfactory ending, it had to somehow be tied into the story. So I made Ellie wish for a White Christmas – a wish that couldn’t possibly come true completely because of the lack of magic.

  1. Ellie wishes for snow
  2. Batty TV producer finds out
  3. Live Royal Christmas broadcast
  4. Final scene with Shadow and his trap carrying someone dressed as Santa through a winter wonderland created by the special FX team. Surprise for Ellie.

That sort of worked, but it had a flaw. Ellie didn’t solve her own problem (the lack of snow) – the producer did it for her – and that’s a sure fire way to come up an ending that’s not quite as good as it could be. To make it more satisfactory, I needed Ellie to do something to trigger the snowy scene, and I settled on her doing a good turn so the snow was her reward.

  1. Ellie wishes for snow
  2. Rehearsal for Christmas message is boring
  3. Ellie suggests someone dresses up as Santa and arrives in Shadow’s trap – a surprise visit that no one else knows about
  4. Grateful TV producer finds out about Ellie’s wish.
  5. Christmas morning. No snow. Ellie’s wish hasn’t come true.
  6. Live Christmas broadcast.
  7. Final scene with Shadow bringing Santa through a fake winter wonderland. Surprise for Ellie.

Now I was sure both step outlines worked, I had to weave them together. Then, once I had the basic outline of the whole book, I was able to add intermediate steps and extra detail to make the story even stronger until I was finally ready to start writing. (The final version had 48 steps for a 7000 word book.)

Diana Kimpton

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Handling backstory

When I was asked to judge a writing competition, I was surprised how easy it was to divide the entries into two groups: the possible winners and the also-rans. So I looked at the entries again to find out why. The task was to write the opening chapter of a novel and what divided the good from the not-so-good entries was the way they handled the background information to the story.

Technically that’s called exposition, but don’t worry about the word if you don’t want to. What matters is the skill involved in telling your readers the information about your setting, your characters and the situation that they need to know in order to understand your story.

NEEDS is the crucial word in that sentence. You may know that your main character is 32 and loves the colour blue, but do your readers need to know that too. If neither of those facts are crucial to the story, the chances are that they don’t.

Only give your readers the background information that is absolutely necessary, and don’t even give them that until you’re sure you have to. The skill is to include just enough facts in your opening chapter to let your readers identify with the main character’s situation while leaving enough intriguing gaps to keep them turning the pages to find out more.

As an example, suppose you start your story with your main character hiding under a hedge from marauding soldiers. The danger will immediately capture your readers’ attention, but you’ll lose it again if you suddenly cut from the action to an info-dump – a section explaining who your character is, who their parents are, where they grew up and why they are in this mess. To keep your reader involved, stick with the action and weave the most vital facts into that.

For the opening of a novel, the vital facts are the ones that help the readers know enough about the setting to start making pictures in their heads.  If that character under the hedge hears horses’ hooves, we’ve probably got a historical drama. If he hears the shrill cry of a dragon, it’s fantasy and if the ground shakes with the pounding feet of robot warriors, you’ve got sci-fi.

If you want to see how the experts do it, I recommend that you read the first few pages of Back Home by Michelle Magorian and Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. If you haven’t got those books to hand, follow the links to Amazon.co.uk and use Look Inside to read the openings. You may even get hooked enough to read the rest of the stories. 

Aim to use the same degree of skill in your writing, weaving the background information into your story so subtly that it’s almost invisible. If you need to get over a fact, try to work it into a scene that also moves the story forward.

 I stood on tiptoe, struggling to reach the diamond.

“Let me help” said Dave. He stepped forward and pulled the diamond from the statue without having to stretch and without checking for trip wires.

“Idiot!” I hissed as the high-pitched shrill of an alarm cut through the still night air.  

We know both characters are in trouble. But we’ve also learned that Dave is the tallest of the two.

Dialogue is a useful way to impart information, but it must sound natural and it shouldn’t involve one character telling another something they already know.  So avoid speeches like:

 “Well, my son. As you know, you have an older sister and I enjoy woodwork.”

Make a scene instead.

“Let me do that,” said Dad, reaching out to rescue his best saw.

Sam tightened his grip on the handle. “I can manage. I’m not a baby.” He hated being the youngest in the family. Even Emily tried to mother him, and she was only two years older than him.

That scene gives us the same information more subtly and also helps build Sam’s character.

The temptation to include more information than necessary is particularly strong if you’ve done a large amount of research into the background of your story. But your readers have chosen to read a story, not a textbook, so don’t bombard them with facts about oil exploration, strain gauges or nuclear energy just because you’ve made the effort to learn them. As with all other information, only include it if it’s crucial to the plot.

Pace your information and work it into the story at the speed your reader needs to have it. But don’t hold it back too long. Your reader might feel cheated if your character only reveals he’s a black belt karate expert in the final fight. It’s better to introduce that idea earlier without making a big deal of it.

The reverse can be true too. If you give your readers what sounds like an important piece of information early on, they will assume it has something to do with the plot and expect you to use it. So, if you do tell them the main character loves blue, they’re likely to want to know why that matters.

Which brings us neatly back to only giving readers the information they actually need.

Diana Kimpton

 

 

Writing a series

There is no doubt that series sell. Once readers have enjoyed one book about a character, they are likely to want another, and ebooks make that next book just a click away.

Before you can create a series, you need a really strong idea. Take time to get this right and make sure you have the two essentials: Continue reading