Friday, 5 April 2013

Is craft killing your creativity?

You know why you're here. You have a story to tell. A good story. The pictures in your head are vivid, the characters rich, your life-experiences unique and particular to you. No one can see the world through your eyes. Nobody can ever tell your story but you.

You know this, and yet... when you get it all down on paper it's flat, the character are shallow and nobody wants to read beyond the first page. It doesn't affect your audience in the way you know it should. And worse than that, it's clichéd. You are bemused and anguished but slowly you begin to understand why.

Words are not enough

Mere words are never as powerful as your memories. Stark sentences will never be as locked into your reader's sense-of-self as your imagination is to your psyche. So what do you do?

Discovering craft

You do the only thing that you can do – you discover there is a craft to writing, there are techniques for evoking feelings and responses in your audience. You discover the esoteria of foreshadowing, foretelling,subtext, and defamiliarization. You learn about structure, pace and narrative, the importance of character, the distinction between story and plot. And because you want to write and write well - and because you want it badly - you start to devour all you can about these things to get what you want. You read books, subscribe to lists, consume blogs, buy magazines. You do it for months, maybe even years. You apply what you've learned at your critique group, you re-write your work in the context of all the new techniques you now understand.

Improved writing?

And your writing becomes tight and well-paced, the characters have depth, you have dramatic-irony and realistic dialogue. You sound like a writer. You feel like a writer. You have all that. You have all that but your writing is still shit. Why?

Craft is the means not the end

Because craft is just craft. It's easy to attach too much importance to it because it is known and can be learned. That's why there is so much material produced about it. That is why you can find so much information on the craft of writing on the internet. It's deceptively reassuring. It's very seductive – the idea that if you learn all these things and adopt them, you will become a good writer.

But it's nonsense. Story-telling craft is just the language of story-telling – it's not the actual story itself. It's not the ideas, the characters, the content, the romance, milieu or the plot. Those are the things that make your story great, that make it different to everybody else's. Those are the things that make it your story.

Free yourself

You must learn the craft by all means – in the same way you must learn to walk, to read, to write. But it's only the first step. Don't fall into the trap that craft is all there is to writing. Learn it, master it, then be free of it – because if all you do is focus on it, the best you can ever hope for is to be the same as everybody else.

And that's not why you're here.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

How to write for role-playing games

It didn't take long for the video game industry to cotton-on to the fact that the key to a great game is a great narrative. Sure, gameplay and cool characters are key, but as any creative writer will tell you, if you want to keep someone hooked to the bitter end it's your narrative that will do it.

This is something that the tabletop role-playing game industry has understood for a long while. It's narrative that keeps you in business. It's narrative that keeps people buying – and playing – your games. But that isn't enough to explain the longevity of the RGP industry, particularly in the face of progressively more immersive and narrative-driven video games. So what is it?

It's the very thing that makes good writing for role-playing games so very difficult. It's the opportunity for the participants to play the hero, to be the characters in their very own story – to be immersed in the story events and to effect a change in them. And there lies the problem for the writer writing for RPGs. Who the hell can write a great story without any characters to populate it?

The wrong way to do it is insist that the players run pre-generated characters and rail-road them through a fixed narrative defined in your text. While this might provide a narrative that's great to read, it certainly won't provide one that's great to play. A story-narrative that allows no room for the players to manoeuvre  is no good for a role-playing game.

Here are the right ways to do it.

Let the characters witness someone else's story

Some of the greatest modern novels have main characters who are witnessing someone else's story (Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, The Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and this provides an excellent model for writing a role-play scenario. If you write a story happening to some NPCs (non-player characters) that are closely connected to the player-characters the players will get drawn into that story and become part of it. The fact that you have scripted the story that will happen does not mean that the players cannot impact and change that story. In fact, this is the most likely set-up i.e. a bad thing will happen to the NPC(s) if the players don't get involved and change the course of events. This is a great technique for writing a strong narrative that the players can react to and change, thereby providing freedom of action for the players and yet still allowing the writer to deliver a strong narrative for the scenario.

Let the characters uncover an existing story

This model is the classic ' detective' story. The writer constructs a narrative that has already occurred and it's up to the players to discover what that story is. The trick for the writer here is to write the story i.e. the one that will be discovered by the players – then provide a hook and a trail of clues for the players to follow that gradually reveal the underlying story. This is no easy feat for the writer – but then writing never is. The discovery of the clues and how the players react to them is a story in itself, (which afterall is the whole point - see next section), but it sits on a strong and interesting narrative that provides the back-bone for the front-story of the players.

Let the characters be the story

This is really what everyone is trying to achieve with a role-playing game – a great story created by the players through the characters they have created. This puts a lot more responsibility on the gamesmaster and the players than on the writer (think of a director and actors devising their own piece of theatre rather than working with a text). The work of the writer here is to create interesting and motivated NPCs, stimulating and detailed settings and environments, set-pieces and sub-plots – all of which are provided for the players to create and weave their own story around. Although rather limited in scope this is what the early Dungeons and Dragons scenarios were like (kill monster, find treasure) in that they didn't prescribe a narrative for the players – they had to forge their own.

All of the above

In truth, a great role-play scenario will have all of the above elements within it – narratives to reveal and witness, but most of all one created by the players using the elements provided by the writer.

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Monday, 24 September 2012

Why writing blogs are boring

I've noticed how it works. I've started doing it myself. Take something you think you know about, or something you might have just learned; or something you'd like to know about - or something you know absolutely nothing about - and act like you’re the world's authority. You want to be the part,  act the part.

Then you come up with a ludicrous title that promises the earth, and perhaps more importantly how to attain it - something like 'How to be the best writer in the world ever in 2 days', or '5 ways to be a bestseller without writing a word'. No reader is going to believe that you have the answer to those headlines but they can't resist clicking through just in case you do.

Now you've got to work fast. It's not going to take long before the reader susses you out as a fraud so you've got to go for the sell all over again - you need a quick, punchy opening paragraph that keeps up the promise of delivery and, if possible, also enforces the ludicrous promise of the title. Drop in a war-story for authenticity: 'McEwan laughed at the crit group, and Zadie was reticent, but they laughed the other side of their faces when I blasted them off the bestseller list'.

But you're losing them and you know it, because the bottom line is you don't really know what you're talking about – you don't have the answer on how to be a bestseller without lifting a finger, because, let's face it, if you did you wouldn't be writing a blog. You begin to suspect that your readers don't actually bother reading the main body of your blog post because you never bother either.

Never fear – this is where the trusty sub-title comes in. Aim for five – it's the magic number (or was that 3?). You can guarantee that at least they'll read these just to see if you offer anything like what you've suggested in your title. And even if they don't you'll look like you know what you're doing.

And who cares because you'll have got the click through anyway.

If you still don't get it, here's a quick template you can use for all your writing posts:

Title: How to be whatever in the shortest possible time you can get away with
Subtitle: select five of the following meaningless platitudes applicable to anything:

  1. Work harder
  2. Think better
  3. Exercise your imagination
  4. Find your true self
  5. Work more efficiently
  6. Do different
  7. Think outside the box
  8. Write every day

Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.

Stay tuned for more of the same.

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Saturday, 8 September 2012

How to write great sex

It's the most natural thing in the world. We like to have as much of it as possible and while sometimes disappointing when it's good it's the most amazing experience imaginable. Everybody is talking about it - so why is writing about it so hard and why are there so many bad sex scenes written?

Writer Fear

You can never really know someone until you sleep with them. Sometimes not even then. Writing anything can be a pretty exposing experience and getting over that fear is one of the first hurdles a writer must deal with. Some writers never do. Even if we invent characters a million miles from ourselves in story-lines we could never hope (or want) to experience, our sense of self imbues our characters and our stories. Our world views and sensibilities pervade even our least autobiographical work. Perhaps only we can tell, and perhaps we don't like to admit it, but we always give a little of ourselves away whenever we write anything.

So how can we write about something that the whole world may read when we struggle to discuss it with the people we feel closest to? How can we write about a character's deepest desires when we can't even talk about our own. And what if mum reads it?

Write what you know

If you can't stand it, are not very good at it, or have never done it then the chances are you're not going to be very good at writing about it. This more than anything else. I've never been hang gliding but I'm fairly sure with some online research and a little imagination I could write convincingly about it. Not sure I could do the same about sex if I'd never had it (and I have - honest).

This is because sex is such a deeply personal and intimate experience - it can be tied up with powerful and contrary emotions: love and jealousy, confidence and shame; both empowering and belittling - and sexual desire can take us to places within ourselves we didn't even know existed, and make us do things we wouldn't normally dream of doing.

We give our characters authenticity by lending a piece of ourselves to them. We think 'what would I do if I was this character in this situation?' We look for empathic emotions and feelings within ourselves to project into our characters, and curiously, it's that look inside ourselves that creates universality  in our characters – that 'I feel that too and am not alone' response from our readers. It's that personal projection into another character's sexual psyche that makes literary sex hard to write – but only if we're scared.

Keep it real

Once you get over fear, prudishness and self-consciousness writing a sex scene should be like writing any other scene – you must ask yourself what the purpose of the scene is. Is it to reveal character? Is the scene there to progress story? Have the lovers finally come together after a novel's worth of prevarication? Are they the right or wrong pair? For these kind of scenes explicitness is not always required. Ask yourself if the reader just needs to know it happened, or if they also need to know how it was when it happened. Was it the best sex in the world? Was it a disaster? Who had the most fun? If the story demands those kind of answers then you'll need to take it into the bedroom.

You also need to know what response you want from your reader. Satisfaction? Frustration? Laughter? Titillation? You have to know what it is you are trying to achieve if you ever hope to. There are enough literary sex scenes that are so bad Literary Review magazine can have an annual 'Bad Sex in Fiction Award'. Most of the winning passages use horrendously distancing language which only demonstrates that the otherwise accomplished writer is afraid to engage with his subject matter. There's also the other kind of authorly distancing – clichéd language that produces decidedly cheesy sex scenes – calloused hands traversing creamy-white thighs etc. If you keep your distance like that you're going to keep your readers at a distance and you might end up winning the wrong kind of award. If you want to write a convincing (and sexy) sex scene, then you're going to have to do what you should be doing for all your scenes, asking yourself how your characters would really feel and desire in that situation – and the best way of knowing that is to project yourself into those characters. You might learn something about yourself too. You'll certainly write better sex.

And of course you'll need to do frequent, in-depth and physical research...

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Saturday, 18 August 2012

Why Character And Plot Are Inseparable

Characters are what has happened

Any writer worth their salt appreciates that for characters to be convincing they have to have had a life before they walk onto the page. They have to be motivated, they have to have a reason to do what they do. If your characters are behaving unconvincingly or refuse to do what you intended it’s probably got nothing to do with them being under-developed or not defined deeply enough - it’s because you haven’t given them any reason to behave that way.

Don’t invent some innate trait or neurosis to justify some unlikely behaviour - think of a good reason, an event, that would make them behave like that; make it a reason that people can understand, a reason they can relate to - it is this quality that makes characters convincing. If the reader is sympathising with the character, feeling anger, happiness, fear, or sadness because of the events that have happened to them, they are projecting themselves into that character. Your need to describe the character’s hairstyle, what their handwriting is like, what side of the bed they get out of is unnecessary, because your audience is becoming one with her, they understand her. They understand her because of the things that have happened to her.

A character with a single but compelling motivation will be more convincing than a complex character without one. If you’re struggling with a character, think of the external events that have made that character who they are.

Characters are what is happening

There are character defining events that have happened in the past, and there are character defining events that are happening right now. It’s the difference between the back-story and the front-story. The events that have happened in the past define your character at the start of your story. The events that happen in the story effect change in your character - they signify what your character is about to become or remain - either a reaffirmation of the character or by pushing them through an arc.

Characters are how they react

Characters are not what they say they are. Characters are not what they talk about. Characters are what they do. The real test of a person is how they act in a crisis. Think of all those people at work you think you like until the shit hits the fan - then you really know who you can trust. That’s why every hero needs a crisis. If life was ticking along without any problems to solve, without any need for bravery or for someone to step up, we wouldn’t need any heroes. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing - how does your character react when they burn their toast or when their kid disappoints them in public? This is when you find the measure of people - how they react to a situation when it’s easy to be bad (when no one is looking), and how they react to a situation when it’s hard to be good (have-a-go hero).

Sometimes you don’t really know your character until you start writing - it’s only when you see them in action can you truly get to know them - just like real people.

Similar Posts

Why story beats character every time
Ten questions to ask your characters
Five ways to know your characters before you even meet them

Monday, 23 July 2012

How to create and maintain narrative interest

We all know we need a strong story with drama. We all know we need to make our stuff interesting. After all, we're all hoping people will pay us for our words. So how do we do it? How do we make our writing so interesting that we can convince those elusive consumers to cough up their cash?

Actually, doing something interesting isn't that hard. Drop your trousers or start a fight with a random person in the street and it would be interesting - for a while at least. But the real test for writers is not writing something interesting but writing something interesting for the duration of the work. Now that's real magic. It's also real hard. So how can we possibly achieve it?

Cause and Effect

Buy yourself a pack of record cards and if you have a head on your shoulders it shouldn't be too hard to fill each one with an interesting event. Trouble is, without some causal relationship between those events writing a script or novel around them would end up being the literary equivalent of the conveyor belt in The Generation Game – you might grab interest for a bit but you won't maintain it.

Well, theoretically you could. If you had a strong and likable character that linked those episodes you might get away with it, particularly if those events were really mini-stories with their own cause and effect sequence. This is called the 'episodic' plot, for which you can read - a plot where the writer wasn't able to string their episodes together into a causal chain. But more of that later.

What the cause and effect sequence will give you over unrelated episodes is narrative drive – a reason for the reader to keep on reading in order to see the effect of that cause you just set up. If you give the reader a bite size chunk she may just take that bite then go off and read someone else's book. Cause and effect is more likely to keep her hooked.


Cause and effect is a good start, but it isn't good enough. A story needs an increase in narrative tension from start to finish – from the beginning, throughout the middle and on to the bitter end. The breakdown of story into these three phases seem stupidly obvious but they do indicate a deeper narrative meaning that goes some way to explain the resilience of the three act structure not only in plays but in literature as a whole. Firstly, they imply wholeness. Compare your favourite play or feature-film with your favourite TV series. Most likely the TV series you'll want to keep watching because it never feels like it ends until you get to the very end of the series – and sometimes not even then. This is typically achieved by having an overarching story that isn't resolved until the series finale or by making sure that the stories within the series are not closed before new ones are started – the most compelling series will have a combination of both these devices.

Beginnings typically represent a change in the characters' world – a call to adventure or a unavoidable problem that needs to be solved – what some practitioners refer to as the 'inciting incident'. But the beginning can be as simple as the start of something – the beginning of a new day, the start of a new job - whatever the case it must promise interest, dramatic events, fascinating consequences – a reason for the audience to stick with us.

The middle can often be the hardest part of the story to write. It is the most important part of the story because it makes up the bulk of it and yet is typically the least dramatically significant - the beginning and the end usually offer the most significant turning points. This is why the dramatic question asked by the inciting incident must be powerful and complex enough to drive the entire story – the resolution of that question has to take the entire novel or play to resolve.

The middle is best thought of as a series of complications that lead up to a climax i.e. the events that happen as a consequence of the story characters dealing with the inciting event.  The resolution of that climax constitutes the end. It can be helpful to visual represent the three act structure diagrammatically with 'tent-poles'.

It's this escalation in narrative tension that is the different between stories you just can't stop reading and those you can.


But it's not just about structure. For a story to have emotional significance for the reader it must have an emotional impact on characters that the reader cares about.  It is often mentioned that characters should go through an arc – a process of change – and this should certainly be the case where the story is about the effect that the plot has on the character. The recent Bond films have tried to add substance to an old franchise by developing Bond and introducing an arc for him, particularly in Casino Royale, but there are plenty of examples of compelling narratives where the character doesn't change at all. You wouldn't want Columbo or Inspector Morse to undergo fundamental change in their stories – their characters are the very reason you keep coming back for more.

Complexity can be as interesting as change – the lesson here is that fascinating characters can carry narrative interest for a long time and be the very thing that creates interest across unrelated episodes - but if you can combine a fascinating and likeable character with a great, cause-effect sequence draped over a carefully structured plot you really will have a story that can't be put down. And that can't be a bad thing, right?

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A letter to the playwrights of England

Let’s talk about drama. Remember that? A term that comes from a Greek word meaning ‘action’ which is derived from ‘to act’.

And that’s it. The key to all great plays - if you want drama you must have action. It's the only secret you’ll ever need.

So if drama requires action, what is it? Action is anything of dramatic significance that characters perform, whether as an attempt to effect a change on the world or the people around them, or in reaction to another event. Why is this significant? Because it is interesting. People come to the theatre to be entertained. Being entertained at the very least requires that something is happening, something happening equates to actions being performed.

Something happening is a good start - many plays don't even have that – but if you want to make it really interesting, ramp up the dramatic significance of those actions. What does the making of this action mean for the character making it? What does it mean for those affected by it? What are the emotional consequences of that action? What's at stake? That’s drama.

Drama is not pretty words without substance. Drama is not humour without structure. Drama is not spectacle alone. Drama is character and story intimately entwined – that is your minimum requirement. Anything else is a bonus. Anything else is not drama. Anything else is just a sorry excuse for a play.

Drama does not happen off-stage or in the past. Drama happens in front of the audience. Right now. You are making a show. Showing is the opposite of telling. Showing is theatre’s lesson to all creative arts. Seeing something happen is more engaging than being told about it. Don’t tell your story through the mouths of the characters – that’s not drama, that’s story-telling. That's why the audience's collective heart sinks when faced with a monologue. Monologues can be dramatic but they are not drama. The best the orator can do is tell you a story, he may attempt to show you certain aspects of that story to heighten the impact, playing different characters, leaping around the stage to effect a pale simulacrum of drama – but it's not drama. All he can ever do is tell you: I thrust the knife into a man and people were upset. If the man is on stage while being stabbed the dramatic effect is heightened. If the victim's mother is there it's heightened again. Imagine if the victim's child is also there. This is because the event has dramatic significance. You really have to be there. That's drama. Within drama, telling is simply a device for accelerating the narrative so you can get to the dramatic events more quickly. That’s why Shakespeare had his chorus in Henry V.

Drama is not a backstory revealed or a secret withheld from the audience – these things should only happen if they are in service to the dramatic story events that are happening on stage. To paraphrase Mamet, any scene where characters are talking about something off-stage is a crock of shit. Scenes are not defined by what characters are saying but by what they are doing. I say I love you but the marriage is falling apart. What’s happening is not what is being said.

Characters are defined by what they do, not by what they say. You don’t make a character heroic by giving him an heroic speech, you make him heroic by having him perform heroic actions. There we are again - actions. Stuff happening. Stuff of significance.

It's all so simple, yet I spend so much time in the theatre desperate for the interval, wishing that what I was watching was half as interesting as my DVD box sets. Why must I watch so many ranting characters and soap-box declamations, witty but substance-less dialogue; characters who don't change, stories where nothing happens, boring monologue? Is Michael Billington right when he says that 'few dramatists possess a passionate commitment to the theatre'? Are you all off writing for television?

Perhaps you are out there but the gatekeepers don't recognise you. Perhaps they are too busy looking for an adaptation or a wordy and worthy museum piece. Perhaps the theatre establishment don't care about drama anymore. But you, playwrights of England, you must care. You can do whatever you like with your writing, but if nothing else, you must start with drama. Because if you don't care about drama, no one else will. They'll be off watching HBO.