The End…?

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen the ITV TV series Doc Martin, the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, or the ABC TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (season 4) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It can be tough knowing when to call it a day with your fictional creations. Knowing exactly where and how to end your story in a way which is both memorable and satisfying is hard enough (though if you’re a novelist, you probably long for the day you can gather all your friends and neighbours around your desk to set off party-poppers while you write ‘THE END’ at the bottom of your manuscript), but if you’ve created characters and a world you’re proud of, you might never want to stop. You might feel like there’s a sequel, a trilogy or a whole saga of novels/films/TV series still to be written. Sooner or later, however, it has to come to an end – as all good things must.

‘But when?!’ I hear you cry.

It depends very much on your story. Some stories naturally lend themselves to a certain number of sequels. For example, if J.K. Rowling had stopped writing Harry Potter books after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, her readers might have reasonably felt a little cheated. True, that particular story was complete (as it should be; every book in a series should still work as a self-contained story) but the premise of the story – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard and goes to a special school to learn magic – was still left very much open. After all, he still had several years of magic schooling to complete. There was plenty of scope for the character to go on another five or six magical adventures.

On the other hand, the ITV series Doc Martin – one of my favourite TV shows, I should add – is apparently due to have an eighth series in 2017. While I’m looking forward to it, I am, nevertheless, a little concerned that series 7 should have been the last one – and I’ll tell you why.

For those of you who don’t know, Doc Martin is a fish-out-of-water type story about Dr. Martin Ellingham; a grumpy and socially inept surgeon from London who develops haemophobia and is forced to become a GP in the seaside village of Portwenn. Most of the first few series focused on his awkwardly developing romance between himself and a local school teacher, Louisa. For the first four series or so, it worked quite naturally. In the dramatic finale to series 4, Martin and Louisa’s child is born and they resolve to give their relationship another go. It seems like a neat and tidy ending to the story…

But then, a 5th series was announced.

Is this necessary? I wondered. Hasn’t this story now finished?

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by what followed. Martin and Louisa’s baby added a new dynamic to their on-off relationship and series 5 worked as well as the rest. Then there was a 6th series, which focused on their new and swiftly failing marriage. That also worked. Then there was yet another series which focused on the two characters trying to save their marriage – and another happy ending! Mr and Mrs Ellingham were again reconciled and life goes on. Once again, we have a neat and tidy ending to the story. They’ve got together, fallen out, had their baby, got together again, got married, split up and once again reconciled. I’m finding it difficult to imagine what more there is for Martin and Louisa to do that justifies another series that they haven’t done already – much as I love the show and wish it could last forever (and I do hope they prove me wrong once again).

So… when you feel the urge to write a sequel to your story, there is one very important question you should yourself before you write anything: ‘do I need to write more?’

There are three possible answers to this question:

  1. No, the story is complete and there is no conceivable way to expand the story without spoiling it (e.g., Star Trek: Nemesis — the final film in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series — ended with most of the series’ cast leaving the Enterprise for one reason or another. Since the series is so focused on the lives of that particular crew of that particular starship, further sequels would have been impossible).
  2. Yes, because there are still some glaringly obvious loose threads that need tied up (e.g., at the end of Doc Martin series 6, Martin and Louisa were still separated and Louisa was planning on moving to Spain. Is this the end for them? We needed another series to find out).
  3. Maybe. The original story has a satisfying ending, but there is no reason that our favourite characters cannot go on brand new adventures based on the same basic premise (e.g., the aforementioned series 4 of Doc Martin could have been a satisfying way to end it forever, but as it turned out, there was still some life left in the old dog after all).

If the answer is no, then it should be obvious what you must do – or not do, rather. It will all end in tears if you try to expand the inexpandable. The best you could hope for is a spin-off, and spin-offs are seldom any good.

If the answer is yes, then by all means, you absolutely must write that sequel! The last ever episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman ended with a baby wrapped in a House of El blanket, being left on Lois and Clark’s doorstep! That was it! No more Lois and Clark after that! I mean, what are they trying to do to us!?

If, however, the answer is maybe… then think, long and hard, before you write. To carry on a series, your newest offering must be both old (that is, the premise must be unchanged) and it must be new (no rehashing the same old adventures). The reason Harry Potter worked so well as a lengthy series of novels was that by using a school as the main setting and making each novel last roughly one academic year, Rowling was able to write seven very different stories based on exactly the same premise (though I can’t help feeling that more recent offerings, no matter how good they may be, are causing the saga to drag on beyond its natural lifespan). That’s what you need to be able to do, if you plan on writing additional stories for your fictional world. Identify the natural lifespan of your story and work within it. Don’t bombard your audience with extra waffle. I might enjoy a pizza, but if I was fed it non-stop, I would eventually vomit. A good story should end like a good meal; leaving the audience with a big feeling of satisfaction and only a small tinge of regret that it’s over.

Fleshing Out Your Story Idea

Last week, we talked about a few ways to get that initial spark of an idea when you’re starting a new story from scratch. This week, I want to talk about the really difficult bit: turning that crumby idea into a story.

No matter how clever your crumby idea might be, it’s not a story yet. Stories never (well, almost never) just pop into the head fully formed. Even if you are planning on writing a piece of historical fiction and you know exactly whom and when you want to write about (for instance, the death of Christopher Marlowe), you still don’t have a fully formed story yet. You have an idea. A story must have structure to function. It is unlikely to pop into your head neatly structured, and even if it does, it is almost certain to be full of plot holes. Heck, it might not even be as fully formed as that. It might just be a single character, setting or theme you want to explore. Even historical events lack the kind of structure they need in order to make them work as stories, since real life is replete with random events, unresolved problems, and has no beginning and end (unless, of course, you’re writing a character’s entire life-story, but even then… you need structure to make it feel like it’s going somewhere). If you’re like me, you might find you need to polish an idea a thousand times over before it can truly function as a story.

In all probability, your initial idea will be like a newborn; exciting, full of potential but ultimately, not able to do very much right at the moment. No one expects a newborn infant to perform brain surgery the day they’re born. They need to get big enough first, and at this stage, your story is a newborn. Exactly how you go about expanding your idea will vary somewhat depending on a) your preferred style of working and b) exactly what kind of idea you already have, but in general terms, it would be a good idea at this stage to develop your characters, your setting and the important events you want to happen.

Personally, I would be inclined to start with characters, since characters are the driving force behind any good story. They want something and so, they all do something about it. That’s what makes a story happen. So even if your initial idea was a character, it’s still a good idea to get out your notepad and start fleshing out a few of the most important players in your story. At the very least, I would try to develop your main protagonist, antagonist, any important supporting characters and – depending on your story – perhaps a love-interest as well. At the very least, you should try to develop basic ‘demographic’ information for each character (i.e., name, age, gender, religion, date of birth, etc) and – most importantly of all – motivation and goals for your characters. Once you’ve got this, you will probably find a very natural sequence of events flows from the way the characters’ motives and actions interact and (best of all) conflict with one another. Johnny wants to take Jeannie to the dance. Jeannie wants Jimmy to take her to the dance. Jimmy hates dancing and isn’t too wild about Jeannie either. The result is that Johnny asks Jeannie to the dance, but Jeannie says no and tries to coax Jimmy into asking her instead, until it is finally revealed to her that Jimmy would rather eat his own foot so she accepts Johnny’s invitation after all and realises he’s actually a great guy. Thus, from our characters, flows our plot. From our plot, we can also begin to invent a few key settings. For example, is this ‘dance’ a school disco? A work night out? A charity ball? Where do these characters all know each other from? Do they frequent the same pubs? Do they ride the same bus? Do they work in the same office? All of these are potentially important settings.

Once you’ve fleshed out your story idea, it’s time to polish it off. This means clearly establishing the beginning, middle and end of your story and getting rid of any plot holes. To take the above example of Johnny, Jeannie and Jimmy and the mysterious dance… is the dance the climax of the story, where there is one final showdown between Johnny and Jimmy? Or is it just the beginning of the story, where Jeannie decides she quite likes Johnny and the story stems from there? Ultimately, your story must begin with your character having a goal and end with them realising (or not realising) their goal, with the middle part being how they get there. So…

Beginning Jimmy and Jeannie both work in the same office and he fancies her rotten. Unfortunately, he has severe social anxiety and misses his chance to invite her to the office Christmas party.
Middle She ends up going with Johnny instead. Jimmy shows up at the party intending to talk to her, but ends up hyperventilating because of his social anxiety and is carried off in an ambulance.
Ending Johnny makes fun of Jimmy’s social anxiety and as a result, Jeannie realises what a horrible person Johnny is and decides to dump him for Jimmy.

Great! We have structure! Of course, even now there is still much to do. Almost any plot you come up with (and yours will almost certainly be better than the example one I just used) will have a few issues that need sorting out. I find the best approach to removing any plot holes and generally smoothing all the rough edges is to write down the sequence of events as they are supposed to happen in as much detail as you can at this early stage and try to identify any obvious plot holes. The aim is, quite simply, to weed them out. Can they be fixed? How do the changes you have made affect the rest of the story? You may find that using this approach means writing and re-writing your outline over and over again but believe me, it will save you a lot of heartache in the long run when you come to actually write your manuscript.

Obviously this has been a (by no means exhaustive) whistle-stop tour of the kinds of things you need to do to turn your idea into a story. All this talk of developing characters, plot outlines and what-not could quite easily have been a whole series of more detailed blog posts (and I would definitely encourage you to research these kinds of things in more detail for yourself), but hopefully this gives you a flavour of the kind of things you can do to get from your initial, crumby idea to having a story which can truly stand on its own two feet and is ready to be turned into a manuscript. The exact process you use will probably be unique to you, but believe me, having a process that works for you will make all the difference.

3 Ways to Ignite the Imagination

The Parable of the Cars

by A. Ferguson

There were once two brothers who lived in Glasgow, who both managed to get jobs in Edinburgh. This was not a problem, since they both held full UK drivers’ licences, which they had acquired at about the same time and they both owned the same make and model of car. The eldest brother was wise. He set his alarm early in the morning and as soon as he was in his car, he turned on the ignition and drove to work in plenty of time.

The younger brother was foolish. He did not get ready for work until it suited him to do so, and when he finally did make it into his car, he sat there for a few minutes waiting for the ignition to turn itself on – which never happened. ‘Maybe it’ll come on tomorrow.’ he thought. ‘I’d better go back to bed in the meantime.’

He lost his job without ever setting a foot in Edinburgh.

* * *

A common mistake amateur writers make is to believe that they cannot write a story unless an idea – or inspiration – comes to them heralded by a chorus of angels. Like the foolish brother, they have all the necessary equipment (in the writer’s case, a brain with an imagination) but do not realise that to get any benefit from it, they need to make the effort to turn on the engine/imagination themselves.

Now, as we all know, turning on a car’s ignition doesn’t immediately take you where you want to go. It simply starts the engine, allowing for the possibility of motion. In the same way, igniting the imagination (to continue the metaphor) does not immediately give you a fully formed story. It just gives you the idea, allowing for the possibility of a story. Perhaps I’ll talk about turning your idea into a story next week, but this week, I want to focus on that all important first stage: going from having nothing to having something.

There are many different things you can do to spark the imagination, none of which involve sitting down and waiting for inspiration to strike. You can…

Read history, the news or even mythology. Just think for a moment about how long humanity has been around for and how many different things happen all over the world at any given time. Wars, disasters, weddings, funerals, births, deaths, financial meltdowns, lottery winners, crime, charity and a million other events besides. As if that were not enough, most societies throughout history come with a catalogue of myths, legends and fables that you can also delve into. If something from history grabs your interest, you could write it as a piece of historical fiction or you can simply borrow a very small element of it to inspire a whole new story. If you’re into character driven stories like me, and have the patience to do so, I would particularly recommend trying to find old letters, journals, newspaper clippings (particularly advertisements and letters from readers) and other primary sources to draw on because these give a much richer flavour of what kind of people lived in the time and place you’re reading about and what mattered to them.

Try using a resource especially designed to provoke creativity such as Oblique Strategies, Story Dice or even random title generators. If you ask the internet, you’ll quickly find that there are loads of tools out there like these, especially designed to help spark the imagination. Some are especially aimed at writers, some are not; some are very cryptic, some are very clear; some are very expensive, some are free. It can be trial and error finding the right tool(s) for you but they can be a wonderful resources to have when you find the right one for you. However, whether you’re the sort of person who likes cryptic prompts such as ‘change nothing and continue consistently’ (Oblique Strategies) or very precise ones such as ‘in 100 words or less, write a story that includes the following: a poet who always speaks in rhyme, a pill bottle, a luminous feather’ (Writer Unblocked) – or even pictures, like I used to inspire my 6 word stories, it is still ultimately down to you to come up with your own idea. See that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking any of these tools can tell you what to write. They cannot. Even very explicit prompts, such as the Writer Unblocked one I referred to, still leave it very much up to the writer to turn that prompt into a usable story idea.

‘Pantsting’, even if you’re more of a planner can also be a good place to start. If you’ve got nothing, then make up a person – any old person. You might even want to base him on a real person that you know well (though be very, very, very careful about doing this in your final story). Then just write and see where he takes you. Maybe he’s going to the chip shop but… is abducted by aliens. How does he escape? I dunno. Just make it up as you go along and edit nothing. It doesn’t matter if you hit a dead end or if you end up writing a really rubbish story, since this is simply the writer’s equivalent of doodling. What matters is that you keep making stuff up. Most of it will be chucked out but some of it might contain the golden nuggets of inspiration. I once ‘doodled’ a story about a guy who was in prison (in fact, he wasn’t even the main character of this particular ‘doodle’) and now, he’s the main antagonist of my novel and possibly one of the characters I’m the most proud of creating.

This is, of course, only a small selection of things you can try. No doubt if you ask the internet, you’ll find dozens more. Perhaps you even invented a few techniques yourself that you absolutely swear by. Do let us know about anything which works for you in the comments below!

Your Character’s “Thing”

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who still has not seen up to series 8 of the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who (the series 8 from 1971 one, not 2014), is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are Whovians. Recently we’ve been watching all of Doctor Who from the very beginning (the very, very beginning with William Hartnell) and we’re now on series 8. The Doctor (by now on his third incarnation, portrayed by Jon Pertwee) has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. He still has his TARDIS – the space/time capsule by which he can travel anywhere, anywhen – but it has been sabotaged by the Time Lords, who have also put a block on the Doctor’s memory so he is unable to fix it. As such, he’s spent the majority of this series as a scientific adviser to the human organisation, UNIT. The TARDIS is barely seen or mentioned at all in the first couple of episodes.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a show and think Pertwee is arguably one of my favourite Doctors, he seems odd without his TARDIS. The TARDIS is, after all, the Doctor’s ‘Thing’. It’s what makes him stand out as a truly unique character. Many characters in fiction have travelled through time and space; many are aliens; many speak in BBC English but no one else has a space/time capsule disguised as a British police box. If anyone did, we would all cry ‘Plagiarism! A space/time travelling police box is the Doctor’s Thing!’

Almost all of the most memorable characters in fiction have a Thing. It might be a physical object they carry, something they wear or perhaps even something they simply say. When one thinks of James Bond, we imagine a man who carries a Beretta 418 (though in reality, he did occasionally use other weapons) and drinks vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Batman dresses like bat, drives a Batmobile and operates from a Batcave; no prizes for guessing what his thing is. Even characters from history are often assigned Things that make them recognisable when they are portrayed on stage or on film today. For example, one of the first plays I recall ever seeing included a portrayal of Henry VIII, who spent most of the play munching a turkey leg. Whether or not the real Henry VIII ever had an affinity for turkey is neither here nor there; today, it’s become that character’s Thing. A Thing might even be another character; a constant companion (or nemesis?) whom he is lost without. Sherlock Holmes for example is almost always portrayed with John Watson. On the rare occasions where Watson is not present, he is still almost always referred to by Holmes who is clearly suffering for a lack of ‘his Watson’; even if he is loathe to admit it.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy.

– Doyal, A.C. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

In a short, a Thing can be anything but it must be unique.

So, does your character need a Thing? Not necessarily. A well-written character can function just fine within an excellent story without a Thing. What a Thing will do for your character is make them seem more distinctive and memorable. Therefore, it is probably only necessary to give them to your protagonist and maybe your main antagonist; characters you want to make stand out. However, as we have said before, it is important that every element of your story – characters, objects, dialogue, the lot – serves a function in progressing the story. Pointless gimmicks are… well… pointless. I would, therefore, think very, very, very carefully before giving your character a Thing which does not also serve some practical function to move the story along, especially in written fiction where the narrative will be disrupted by your description of the Thing. (You can get away with a little bit more on stage or film. For example, Henry VIII’s turkey leg might serve no practical function, but the story is not interrupted since he simply has to be seen holding it; in written fiction, however, the reader’s attention must be drawn to it with superfluous narrative).

So, before you even think about Things, think about this: what does my character actually need?

In other words, what is required to make the story work? In the case of Doctor Who, a space/time capsule was obviously required, because the whole premise of Doctor Who revolves around an alien who has a variety of adventures travelling to different planets and different points in history. Clearly, he would need some means of transportation, especially if he is bringing human companions with him, as he always does. However, it doesn’t need to be disguised as a British police box. It could be disguised as anything – or not be disguised at all. At this stage, it’s not really distinctive enough to be a Thing, since plenty of sci-fi includes time machines. We’re only interested at this stage in giving our character what he needs to make the story work.

Only once the essentials are in place can we start adding the dressing needed to create a Thing for our character. Remember, that if your story was a five course meal and you were a chef, your characters’ Things would be garnish; not appropriate for every course, and even then, only to be used in tiny quantities as a kind of ‘finishing touch’.

Like all good garnishes, a Thing should discreetly compliment and enhance the character you have already created. The Doctor’s TARDIS, for example, is perpetually disguised as a British police box, regardless of what planet or time it travels to. The fact it travels through time and space is your meat and potatoes, because it is essential to make the story work. The fact it is humorously disguised as a police box is the garnish; passively turning the Doctor’s time machine into something unique, without hindering the pace of the story in any way. It’s unusual enough to make the Doctor (and indeed, the entire Doctor Who franchise) stand out as unique without taking any of the glory away from the story itself. It is everything a character’s Thing should be.

Typewriter: An Old-Fashioned Solution for Modern Writers

We writers all know (or if we don’t know, we soon will learn) that perfectionism is the enemy of the writer. Of course, we all want our novel/play/movie/TV script/comic to be as close to perfection as it is possible to get. There’s nothing wrong with thatSome might even say that it is our sworn duty as story tellers to create the best story we are capable of and to present it in the most pleasing way possible. That’s all very commendable.

However, anyone who has been writing for any length of time will be able to tell you that you will almost never be able to simply sit down and produce a perfect first draft. It is almost guaranteed to be full of errors, typos, weak metaphors, poor dialogue and perhaps even gaping plot holes. An experienced writer knows this to be the case and therefore also knows that the only solution is to write a bad first draft, attack it with the Red Pen of Editing and then write a slightly better second draft. Repeat until you have attained perfection.

Back in the old days, there was no other choice. One could not simply hit the delete key and erase the last couple of words, much less copy and paste whole paragraphs. These days, however, it is tempting to just edit that first draft as you go along and make it perfect. After all, we have the technology. A typo can be easily fixed. Something you forgot can be easily inserted in the middle of the document. Words can be chopped, changed, pasted and tinkered with until it’s just right. The trouble is, nothing ever actually gets finished that way. As we have said before, a bad first draft can lead to a good second draft; a non-existent or unfinished first draft won’t ever amount to anything.

Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience. I am a perfectionist, and as such, I often found it all too easy to use modern technology to help me agonise over the same paragraph for hours or days at a time. Knowing that writing first and editing afterwards is the best way to work did very little to change this (because I’m contrary like that). Until one day…

I had a brainwave.

I’ll buy a typewriter! I thought. I’ll write my first few drafts on a good old fashioned typewriter and only do my final draft on the computer! Oh boy, this is going to be going swell!

For those of you born any later than the mid ’90s, a typewriter was a primitive (usually unpowered) machine with a QWERTY keyboard which printed directly onto physical paper as you typed. Since typewriters don’t have delete keys, copy and pastes or anything like that, the writer is forced to wait until the second draft to make any major changes. I therefore thought it might be the cure for my perfectionism. Unfortunately, the only way I was going to lay hands on a typewriter these days was to break into a museum and even then, I would be spending the rest of my life trying to find increasingly hard-to-find replacement ribbons. It was going to be a lot of trouble and expense when all I really needed was the discipline to not edit while I wrote.

Not to be deterred, however, I decided to search the internet for an app which does the same thing. Since I’m a Windows man and still loathe writing on tablets, I was quite specifically hunting for a typewriter app I could use on my Windows PC.

There aren’t many. I guess there’s not that much demand for word processors with virtually no functionality whatsoever. I found a grand total of three that ran on my PC plus one for Mac called Rough Draft (I don’t have a Mac so I cannot tell you if it’s any good or not. Let me know if you’ve reviewed it on your blog and I’ll maybe reblog it for you). Of those three, one appears to no longer be available except as a fifteen day trial version and the other was a very clunky web-based app that I found needlessly complicated to use. The other problem with both of these apps was that they emphasised the look and feel of a typewriter more than the simple functionality — which is what I really wanted.

Then I found it.

Typewriter – Minimal Text Editor: a very simple ASCII text editor which runs on Java (and thus, will run on just about any computer) and includes absolutely zero editing functionality. Unlike a lot of typewriter apps which waste time by mimicking the sound effects and ugly fonts of physical typewriters, this app still looks and sounds like any other distraction-free plain text editor. The only difference is that you can’t edit.

Delete key? Forget about it. If you make a typo, you’ve just got to like that typo.

Copy and paste? No way hosay. If you want to make text appear on that screen, you’ve got to type it in yourself; and once it’s there, it ain’t going anywhere.

The only functions (besides typing plain text) available to you in this app are:

  • Colour scheme switching (you can have green text on a black background or black text on an off-white background. Whichever one you choose, it will not affect the appearance of your document when you print it, since *.txt is the only file type available to you)
  • Full screen switching (full screen is good for creating a distraction free environment but you might find it more convenient to have this off if you’re doing other things simultaneously… like writing a blog about the app in question)
  • Open file
  • Save file
  • Save file as
  • New file
  • Print
  • View key mappings
  • Quit

That’s it. That’s all the help this baby is going to give you. Heck, you can’t even use your mouse to navigate around these options, since there are no buttons or menus of any kind. All of these functions are only available to you via keyboard shortcuts (i.e., ctrl+O to open file).

This app is not for the faint-hearted. It will show your writing to you in all its unedited ugliness. But if you can swallow your pride and ignore all your mistakes, it will keep you writing right up until you’re ready to print off your work and attack it with that all important Red Pen of Editing.

It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.