Advance Your Writing
How do you win the hearts of your readers?
By getting them to emotionally connect and care about what happens to your protagonist. But, how do you do this? By allowing them to live the experience that your protagonist is going through.
Over a series of posts I'll show you ways to immerse your readers in your story.
To transport them.
1. Nail Your Story Structure
Story structure in a nutshell – keep it simple!
A character wants something (Internal – love, acceptance, etc, or External – a new job, be part of a group, etc) and you (the author) torture them by throwing one obstacle after another in their way. Simple, aye?
When planning ask yourself these questions-
What does my protagonist need or want? (goal) The need or want must be strong enough to make them struggle onward, no matter what obstacles frustrates their quest to achieve it. They yearn for it & would give anything to achieve it. What’s their greatest fear if they don’t get this need or want?
Why do they want it? (motive) This is usually connected to a key flaw of theirs – a vulnerability such as being painfully shy or too self-centred etc.
Give your character a core strength – a personality trait that will overcome the key flaw. Need small acts to demo this strength in the story.
A very simple example:
The hero wants to be popular.
Flaw – glory hogging on the basketball court
Strength – compassion for the underdog
Passes off to someone who has more at stake.
How will they get it? (Plan) The essential role of the plot is CONFLICT. Without conflict – there is no story.
Conflict is want + circumstances (obstacles) = problem.
Obstacles can be internal eg self-doubt or external eg lost bus pass. You as the writer must make your character suffer. Each action makes things worse – over and over. Need THREE knockdowns. Raise the stakes each time. The character figures out how to overcome her flaw and uses core strength to push forward.
Tension isn’t in the action so much as the fear of the consequences. The stakes have to be IMPORTANT to the character. Very important and intensely personal.
If you nail the structure of the story, your readers will feel for your embattled protagonist. But it takes more than good planning to get the reader to respond emotionally to your story.
Next time: How to show your character's emotions to elicit a genuine response from your readers.
2. Showing & Telling
In the past stories were told. We had storytellers. But as technology, movies, and television developed, we’ve become used to seeing & experiencing stories. We’re now expected to be storyshowers in books as well.
We write in one of two ways:
Real-time scenes – with specific action, dialogue, characters, a place, a time (Showing)
Summary – where you tell the reader what happens (Telling)
All novels use both to a degree but the balance should always be heavily on the side of scenes. Scenes invite the reader to experience whereas summary keeps readers at a distance.
I should never have taken Aaron’s challenge. Jumping off a cliff into the river was crazy and downright dangerous. Looking down to the river, I was scared witless. I froze. There’s no way I could jump. Aaron asked if I was okay.
What the hell! I’m standing on a cliff, at least eight metres above the Swan River, looking into the mesmerizing, rippling water below. Aaron kept me completely in the dark about the challenge and it was only as I rode my bike along Blackwall Reach in Bicton and saw signs advising against cliff jumping I worked out what he had in store for me.
I’ve driven with Mum past the river along Canning Highway and the Freeway but I haven’t been this close to it.
The water looks dark and deep and you can’t see to the bottom like you can with a pool. Who knows what’s
swirling beneath the surface? My imagination’s going crazy. I mean, the signs say – jumping off the cliff can
cause serious injury or death. Death! They wouldn’t have put those signs up for nothing. I need to get out of
this stupid challenge but how? I’m all for being brave, but this is reckless. I’ve never jumped off anything higher
than a few metres before.
Aaron is beside himself with excitement. When I was little and burning off energy, Nan would say I had ants running amok in my pants. Aaron reminds me of that, now. He rushes to the edge of the cliff, looks over, and whoops at the top of his voice. I, on the other hand, only swim in pools, on rare occasions. I am silent, unmoving. He couldn’t have picked a better challenge to scare me witless.
It’s a magic spring morning with a clear blue sky, a bright sun steadily rising into the sky, and barely a breath of wind. Perfect conditions for jumping off a cliff.
‘What do you think?’ he says and nudges me with his elbow. This is stupid, crazy, idiotic, that’s what I think. I want to drop to my knees and grab hold of the rocky outcrops to stop me falling to the depths below but they’re craggy and sharp, so I brace myself instead. My legs lock and my body tightens.
‘All the kids at school talk about this. I’ve always wanted to do it and now we can. I mean, I can. Can you?’
He is such an arrogant little shit.
I close my eyes and suck in some deep breaths. I let the warm sun and gentle wafting breeze embrace me, calm me. It’s only water. I jump and land in the water. No big deal.
I open my eyes and look out over the winding river and the blue, cloudless sky. Yachts, moored in the shelter of the cliffs, bob lazily with the passing of other boats. The sun is playing, creating its own twirling glitter ball of lights dancing on the water’s surface. Either side of me are the towering limestone cliffs snaking along the edge of the river. Their white jutting pillars, dotted with tufts of green, lookout, like sentinels, over the water.
‘Do you want to go first?’ Aaron asks. He leans towards me. ‘Are you okay? Your eyes are as big as side plates and you’re looking a little pale.’
What a stupid question. I’m not going first. I want to see how this is done and whether he survives the leap.
The Before paragraph is pure summary. It shows us, from a distance and without any real detail, what happened.
The After paragraphs, on the other hand, show.
What makes the difference?
Detail – especially sensory detail, the kind we can see, hear, taste, touch or smell. Also, there’s a definite time and place. Events don’t just happen in white space but within a world that is present to the senses.
In the first paragraph, we are told the challenge is dangerous. In the second, we know it is because of the signage, the boy’s
thoughts/concerns about the height of the cliff, the swirling dark water, and what it could be hiding.
2. Action - Specifics are the key here.
The After shows the boys’ personalities, how they are opposites – Aaron rushing about excited and Leroy rooted to the spot and
quiet. ‘I froze.’ Becomes: 'I want to drop to my knees and grab hold of the rocky outcrops to stop me falling to the depths below
but they're craggy and sharp, so I brace myself instead. My legs lock and my body tightens.'
3. Dialogue – is the third key to showing. If you say, ‘Aaron asked if I was okay.’ you’re summarising.
But, if you say, ‘Are you okay? Your eyes are as big as side plates and you’re looking a little pale,’ you’re showing. We hear what’s
said and the tone etc.
Word of caution – it is a balancing act. You need to write scenes and summaries. More scenes but on occasions, summaries.
Summaries are needed, at times, to transition a character’s routines that aren’t crucial to a story. Habits such as hearing the alarm clock, shuffling to the kitchen for that first hot mug of coffee or tea, getting dressed, and other mundane activities. If you must mention an action and it’s NOT crucial to the story, use a simple summary. ‘She brushed her teeth.’
Scenes - Don’t rush through writing your scenes or try to pack in too many details or cover too much time. Focus on bringing each moment to life.
3. How to Show A Character's Emotions
‘His guts twisted in fear.’ Does this sentence make you fearful? Not really.
Just because you name an emotion doesn’t mean your reader will ‘feel’ the emotion.
Important hint - NEVER name emotions. Eg 'She was scared.' This is telling. You have to show the fear your character is experiencing to your readers.
Many writers lean on a clever trick to describe a character’s physical reactions to emotions – crying, yelling, slamming doors, stomachs twist, hands tremble, cheeks burn, and so on.
The problem with this is:
1) Often overused – it’s cliched.
2) Having a character clench his fist shows he’s angry but more importantly, why is he angry? Is he frustrated, jealous …
Showing your character’s physical responses provokes no emotional response from me.
Using the occasional rapid beating heart, slamming doors is okay but you need to dig deeper.
When you write an emotional scene, connect to your feelings. How you felt when you experienced this emotion in the past. Also, what you were thinking at the time.
Here’s a scene where Leroy is longing to see Jules again.
When I think of Jules my heart swells and beats so fast I fear it’s going to burst out of my chest. I long to see her again.
It’s been five days since I laid eyes on Jules and I have to see her again. She’s haunting my dreams every night and is a constant distraction to me throughout the day. I can’t stop wondering what she’s up to and if she’s thinking about me. I imagine her whispering things in my ear before her perfect lips brush against my skin and her chocolate-brown eyes soften and smile at me. I know it’s stupid, but I can’t stop myself. I text Aaron, making up a reason for me to see him at his place. God, I hope she’s home from school.
What’s the difference?
The Before passage tells us he longs to see her and tries to convince us using his rapid heartbeat.
The After passage puts us inside Leroy’s head so we know what he is thinking and therefore, experiencing – non-stop thinking about her which tells the reader he is longing for her. It shows how smitten he is.
Thoughts lead to emotions and emotions lead to action.
If you show your character’s thoughts and actions, your readers are smart enough to deduce emotions based on what characters think & do
When you have a very emotional scene, slow it down. Let us hear your character’s every thought. Highlight a few details. Show action.
The following scene captures Leroy’s fear - of the actual jump & the humiliation if he doesn’t do it.
Aaron’s stripped down to his bathers. Running his hands through his hair, he steps to the edge, turns, winks at me, and then leaps high into the air with his arms extended and his legs pumping. He hollers as he falls. I shade my eyes and watch him smack into the water before he pops up and slaps the water repeatedly with both hands, full of excitement.
‘Your turn!’ he shouts. ‘It’s unreal!’
How did I get myself into this? Just the thought of it makes my stomach drop and I feel an urgency for the loo. I shuffle back from the edge. I can’t do it. I can’t. Who cares what Aaron says? I want to stay alive.
‘Hurry up. I’m getting tired down here!’
Aaron will win if I don’t do this. He’ll never let me hear the end of it.
I can’t do it. I can’t. There are probably rocks under the water. I’ll be smashed against them.
‘Come on, Leroy!’ calls Aaron, from below. Are those chicken noises he’s making?
I close my eyes, tilt my head back and suck in the hugest breath through my nose. I take off my cap, and throw it next to my towel, shirt and sneakers, and tentatively, I step forward. The razor-sharp limestone digs painfully into my bare feet, forcing me to hobble, bent over, to the precipice. Far below me, Aaron is a black speck in the water. He waves to me. Every sensible nerve in my body is shouting at me to step back. Cowardice is preferable to death.
There’s no going back. I will never live this down if I don’t jump. I close my eyes and let the warmth of the sun wrap around me. I listen to the lapping of the water against the cliff and fall into its gentle rhythm. In, out, in, out, in … I step and fall into nothingness.
Dialogue in a story is really important as it gives you white space. Readers crave white space.
‘Hi Betty,’ I say, before standing and facing her.
Direct speech Speech tag Action beat (bits of narrative that surround dialogue, supporting it or expanding on it in some way.)
Characters DON’T constantly address each other by name.
When the same two characters are talking, you don’t need a speech tag after every line of dialogue.
Always use – / can use and speech tags.
DON’T overuse the others – shouted, cried, etc. ‘Said’ becomes invisible to the reader and allows your story to flow.
Move your speech tags around. Don’t always have them at the end of the dialogue.
Don’t tack on action beats every time but use them to reveal stuff, undermine or push characters into action or add information.
Lay off the adverbs – ‘said softly' The dialogue should speak for itself.
For direct thoughts (as if the character is talking to himself) Comments that sit on the edge of your tongue without being muttered – use italics
Indirect thoughts – don’t offer the ‘direct’ wording of the thought.
‘I picked up the recipe and read the next ingredient: coconut. Over my dead body. I trashed the recipe and stirred more vanilla into the batter. Coconut should’ve been outlawed by the Geneva Convention.’
The last line isn’t italicized because it’s an opinion that reveals the character’s mindset, it isn’t internal dialogue that’s one lip shy of spoken.
A siren’s wail fills the air.
‘Aaron, let’s go, I hiss.
We make a quick dash for the back door and head towards a wheelie bin in the laneway. Quickly, we hide. Every muscle tightens and I hold my breath. My heartbeat thumps in my ears.
Eventually, the siren disappears. We’re safe.
‘Far out Leroy! I thought it was coming for us,’ Aaron says.
‘I know, Aaron. Should we go back and check everything is as we found it?’ I ask.
‘Nah. I’m not going back,’ says Aaron. He flashes a smile at me.
Oh no! I shine my headlamp at his face.
‘Where’s your beanie?’ I ask.
‘Oh, fruit! It was on the desk when I took the photo of the envelope,’ he says.
‘You idiot, Aaron. You must have knocked it to the floor or into the drawer when you put the papers back. Did it have your name on it? Anything to identify you?’ I ask.
‘No. But it’s a school one. Maybe that’ll confuse PM. He might think it’s Tom’s beanie. Sorry, Leroy,’ he says.
‘Well, you’re right about one thing, Aaron,’ I say. ‘You make a crap criminal.’
At that moment, a siren’s wail fills the air. It’s a distance away but getting louder by the second. We freeze like we’re in a game of statues. Aaron’s face is tortured, with a creased forehead, pained eyes, and a twisted mouth. His whole future is smashing to pieces in front of him.
‘Let’s go!’ I say and grab him by the arm as I run to the door.
We are down the passage and out the back door so fast the road-runner would be proud of us, slamming the door behind us. The siren is deafening. Instinct kicks in. Hide. We have to hide. I run down the lane towards a skip bin at the end. Aaron is close on my tail.
We squeeze in behind the filthy bin and crouch low.
Neither daring to breathe.
The siren moves away from us. It’s on Station Street and heading towards the coast.
I wait till we can’t hear it anymore and crawl out like a dirty rat.
‘Far out! I thought it was coming for us,’ Aaron says, with both hands covering his face. He’s visibly shaking. I wouldn’t be surprised to find he’s shat his pants.
‘I know. Should we go back and check everything is as we found it?’ I ask. Did we close the toilet window? Was the backdoor button pushed in so the door locked? We need to check if we have everything we took in there.
‘Nah. I’m not going back,’ says Aaron. ‘My breaking-in days are over. You got a one-off performance. I’m not cut out for this life of crime.’
His broad smile and white teeth beam back at me. Oh no! I shine my headlamp at his face.
‘Where’s your beanie?’
‘Oh, fruit! It was on the desk when I took the photo of the envelope.’
‘You idiot. You must have knocked it to the floor or into the drawer when you put the papers back. Did it have your name on it? Anything to identify you?’
‘No. But it’s a school one. Maybe that’ll confuse PM. He might think it’s Tom’s beanie. We just have to work out how the hell Tom is connected to him. Sorry,’ he says.
‘Well, you’re right about one thing, Aaron. You make a crap criminal.’