When planning your stories, consider what sort of emotion you are trying to get your readers to feel. Just because you’re writing romance it doesn’t mean you want a romantic mood on every page. Love stories have just as much pain, anguish and upset as any thriller.
So, you might, for example. want a foreboding mood, or a heart-breaking scene, or even something sinister. So how is this achieved through your writing?
Well, you could drop in little hints of troubles to come; or create darker scenes through your narrative. Dialogue could include a character’s worries and concerns; you might pile on the layers of difficulties to add to that overall sense of foreboding or sadness through your description, narrative and dialogue.
The same applies if you’re trying to create a sense of intrigue and mystery. Let everything you write go towards that mood and atmosphere. Or perhaps you’re writing about the grandeur of something, a royal palace, a sumptuous banquet, so you want to create a sense of occasion. Again, build up the atmosphere through description, using all the senses.
Maybe you’re trying to write something humorous. You’ll definitely be hoping your readers will have a sense of humour and will see the funny side of what your characters are saying and doing. You’ll no doubt find that the characters themselves aren’t deliberately trying to be funny. The humour often happens through their tragic circumstances, as things go wrong for them.
So, think carefully about the mood and atmosphere in your scenes, know what sort of ‘sense’ you’re trying to get across to readers. Keep that in focus as you write your stories.
Unless you’re writing about a Frank Spencer or Homer Simpson type of character, then your characters should be blessed with a bit of common sense. So that in any given situation, they would use their common sense. And this is worth remembering if you’re not going to irritate your reader. For example, your character might be facing some sort of emotional or physical conflict that could be easily sorted if they just used their common sense.
Try not to let your plot become contrived – if a character’s difficulties could all be overcome if they’d just used their common sense. For example, all would have been sorted if they’d spoken to Uncle George, or opened the letter, or said they were sorry etc. It’s so annoying for the reader when the character doesn’t do the obvious.
If it would ruin your plot for them not to act in the most obvious way, then be sure you have a very good reason for them not to have acted as any normal person would. Otherwise, readers and editors with be groaning with frustration. Look at your plot and make sure your characters do the obvious. It might mean you thinking a lot harder about the conflict facing them, and their situation.
Sensing when it’s right
As writers, we have to use our senses too, especially when trying to work out whether we’ve got a piece of writing right, or whether there’s something wrong with it. Far better to sense that it’s not right and then to work on improving it, rather than thinking it’s great – when it’s not.
So how do you do that? I can only say that it comes with practice and with learning. Writing is a craft that you can learn. If you don’t bother learning the rules of grammar, punctuation, viewpoint, the tenses, adverbs, dialogue etc., then you won’t be able to see your mistakes. Additionally, it’s so important to read. You learn by reading and seeing how other writers create their magic.
But even if you’ve done all that, you still need to develop a sense of knowing whether your work is finally as good as you can get it – or not. This comes with edits. You need to go over and over your work, tweaking, re-arranging, re-phrasing, reading it aloud, listening to the euphony of every sentence, listening for repetitions. Look out for bad writing habits. Know when something jars. Have a keen ear and listen to anything that doesn’t sit quite right.
If you’re looking to create a tear-jerking scene, it should bring tears to your eyes. If you’re creating a dramatic scene, then you should feel anxious as you read it. If you’re creating a humorous scene, it should at least bring a smile to your face, no matter how many times you go over it.
Be critical of your own work, but not to the extent that you’re never happy with it, or you lose confidence in your abilities as a writer. Develop that sense of knowing when something isn’t right, but also develop the sense to know when it’s well written. Learn to trust your own senses.
Narrative in brief
- Always aim to keep the reader reading. Don’t make it easy for them to put your book down, or to put your short story aside before finishing it.
- Don’t let there be a let up from the action. When one trouble is over another one is just beginning.
- When the action isn’t so dramatic or intense, consider using a transition to move the story forward. Also, feed the reader with tasty little morsels or hints of the drama to come.
- Plot and plan your story scene-by-scene, or by chapters so action and/or emotion rises to a crescendo at the end of that scene/chapter. Stop at a point where the reader is desperate to know what’s coming next.
- Don’t be afraid to use cliff-hangers. Let your protagonist be in some sort of predicament – emotionally, physically or both.
- If you have more than one viewpoint character, make them as interesting as each other.
- If a section is feeling even slightly long winded or tedious to you, shorten it, either in content or in the sentence structure. Or consider whether it’s even necessary. Make every word count.
- When describing people and places and things, pick out the most poignant aspects. Always tell the reader something they didn’t know.
- Create characters that the reader will be interested in.
- Use good dialogue to move the story forward. Let characters say how they are feeling.
- Hint at troubles to come though the narrative and the dialogue.
- Adjust punctuation. You can create tension through your punctuation. Add a more breathless feel to a section by deliberately shortening the sentences.
- Occasionally highlight poignant words, phrases or thoughts in italics.
- Always use the senses. Let the reader see, hear, feel, smell, touch and taste everything the character experiences.
- When you want to ‘up’ the tempo of your story, let there be a deliberate switch, something happening in the story that changes everything.
- Plan scenes to give a ‘calm before the storm’ type of feel.
- Make good use of the weather and environment to add drama and atmosphere.
- Show don’t tell: Don’t say a character is afraid/happy/excited etc, show it by how they behave and what they say, do and think.
- Read aloud. You may find that adjusting the punctuation and re-phrasing may turn something mundane into something dramatic.
Happy writing everyone!