Throwback Thursday: The Perfect Antagonist

Originally published: 08/05/2016

For me, the antagonist – what we might loosely call ‘the bad guy’ – can make or break an otherwise good story. He is the living and breathing incarnation of the obstacle your protagonist (or ‘hero’, if you insist) needs to overcome. It’s also a good opportunity for the author to create a character who ticks differently from any of the ‘good guys’ and (depending on your genre) you can really let your imagination run wild when it comes to his physical attributes.

Of course, a good author (or even philosopher) will tell you that the good guy doesn’t necessarily wear shining white armour and the bad guy doesn’t necessarily have a swishing black cape… but these conventions do exist for a reason. Just try and imagine what Star Wars would have looked like if Darth Vader had been the hero and Luke Skywalker had been the villain. Picture the scene in your minds eye, if you can: Darth Vader, hanging over a sheer drop and Luke Skywalker standing over him triumphantly:

Skywalker: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Vader: *heavy breathing* He told me enough; he told me you killed him.
Skywalker: No. I am your father.
Vader: No! No! *heavy breathing* It’s not true! That’s impossible!
Skywalker: Search your feelings! You know it to be true!
Vader: Noooo, noooo! *hyperventilating*

See? Ridiculous.

On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean your antagonist should be swishing around in a black cape. What you want is something distinctive that makes your antagonist really stand out. I don’t mean to keep rabbiting on about Star Wars, but before I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I had a gnawing anxiety that no matter how cool the bad guy was, he would never live up to Darth Vader. When I finally saw it, what I got was an antagonist (Kylo Ren) who wore a cape and a mask similar to Darth Vader’s and who used the dark side of the Force like Darth Vader but apart from that, he spent most of the film throwing hissy fits because he wasn’t nearly as good at being bad as Darth Vader was. He wasn’t cool; he was pathetic. One can’t help but wonder if the writer of this film created Kylo Ren as an expression of his own frustrations at the impossible task he had of creating a villain worthy of Darth Vader. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but I think Kylo Ren would have lived up to Darth Vader far better if he had simply not been anything like him.

The most tragic thing about it all is that most of Kylo Ren’s problems were simply cosmetic. Darth Vader was a Jedi who was seduced by the dark side, but Kylo Ren is introduced to us as an antagonist who is drawn to the ‘light’ side. That sounds like the makings of a bad guy who really does stand out from Darth Vader and the Sith. It was little things like the black cape, the shiny mask and the red lightsaber (okay, it was a funky shape, big woop) that made him look like a Darth Vader wannabe. The fact that he really did wish he was Darth Vader didn’t help matters. Personally, I think he would have been a much more compelling antagonist if he had been wearing a bit more colour, no cape, no shiny mask and (dare I say it?) no lightsaber – and definitely no scenes where he is compared to Darth Vader.

Moving on from Star Wars and the outward appearance of the antagonist, another important thing all bad guys must have is a motive for their actions. If you read my Valentines Day’s post about creating a love interest, you may recall how much I underlined the importance of your love interest being a character in their own right, with their own egos, agendas, desires, fears and motives. They are not just there to swoon after the hero. In the same way, your antagonist must be a person in his or her own right. They must have their own beliefs, their own hopes, their own ambitions and their own reason to get up in the morning apart from simply annoying the protagonist. The only real difference with an antagonist is that you might feel a little bit safer in exploring darker motives for doing things, but even then, watch out! Don’t turn them into the sort of bad guy who cackles about how magnificently devious they are and don’t make them bad just for the sake of being bad. Even if they’re mad in some way, there must be something which motivates them; a fear, a desire or a goal of some kind. In the 1993 film, Falling Down, Michael Douglas played a character who had a mental breakdown while stuck in traffic on his way to his daughter’s birthday party at the home of his ex-wife. There’s no denying that his character has flipped. He spends most of the film smashing up various people and places but behind it all, he still has a goal (‘I’m going home!’) and a motive behind his violent outbursts (frustration at the problems, flaws and injustices of every day life). Thus he remains a character in his own right; his existence is not defined by the hero or anyone else.

Your antagonist can be motivated by almost anything. They can be power hungry, racist, misogynistic, greedy, paranoid, psychotic or (better still!) they can even be driven by seemingly noble motives. In the Star Trek franchise, for example, the Maquis are depicted as a group of terrorists but they are motivated by a desire to drive out what they see as alien invaders from certain human colonies. Indeed, even the ‘good guys’ in Star Trek often appear to sympathise with the Maquis’ cause – but ultimately, they oppose them. Having an antagonist who has good intentions can often make for a much more compelling character and it adds substance to your plot. Whatever their motives and however you decide to dress them up, the two most important things you can do with your antagonist is make them unique and make sure they are a fully fledged character in their own right. Give them all the shades of grey that we find in every character and try to avoid clichés. Having said that, I don’t care how cool your bad guy is and I don’t care how much I sympathise with his feelings or his motives…

The bad guy should never, ever, ever win.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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Monday Motivation

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10 Quotes About Writing

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’
– Maya Angelou

‘So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.’
– Dr. Seuss

‘Write quickly and you will never write well; write well, and you will soon write quickly.’
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus

‘Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.’
E. L. Doctorow

‘Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”’
– C.S. Lewis

‘You do an awful lot of bad writing in order to do any good writing. Incredibly bad. I think it would be very interesting to make a collection of some of the worst writing by good writers.’
William S. Burroughs

‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one neither resist nor understand.’
– George Orwell

‘Step into a scene and let it drip from your fingertips.’
– M.J. Bush

‘You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good. That’s just how it is. It’s like learning an instrument. You’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. That’s just part of the learning process.’
– J.K. Rowling

‘This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy and that hard.’
– Neil Gaiman

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Monday Motivation

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

7 Deadly Writing Sins

I’ve never been a huge believer in hard and fast rules for writing. Oh, sure there are techniques which general work better than others, but in general I find that authors work best if they work according to their own set of rules, and within the written work itself, it is sometimes helpful to defy conventions in a way which makes you writing stand out… to some extent.

But if you ask me, there remain some lines we should simply never cross; some crimes we can commit as authors which are just unforgivable. And so, I’ve listed a few of them here for your enjoyment and instruction.

Info-dumping

One of the most frustrating things about writing a novel is the audience will seldom see just how much attention you’ve paid to the little details of backstory and worldbuilding. You know every character’s birthday, their favourite food, their family tree going back at least three generations, where they’ve lived and who they’ve worked for. If you are writing a fantasy novel, you will have done even more work, painstakingly realistic creating a world from scratch, including a full timeline of history leading up to the main events of your novel.

You might, therefore, want to include a two or three chapter history lecture or have your characters discussing the mechanics of your world. But don’t do it. This is info-dumping and it is boring, boring, boring with added boring.

Telling, Not Showing

Broadly speaking, there are two ways an audience can experience your fictional world, characters and the events that are taking place:

  1. As someone being informed about what happened, in much the same way you would if you read a newspaper.
  2. As a tourist visiting your fictional world, meeting your characters and experiencing events for themselves

It won’t surprise you to know, option 2 is the one you should be going for. Use all five senses and especially figurative language to draw the reader into the experience of your novel, rather than just using dry, technical descriptions.

Flat Characters

I feel like I do nothing on this blog but rant about how important it is to have well developed characters and today is no exception. If your characters are nothing more than a name and a physical description, no one will remember who any of them are, nor will anybody care about them. Characters need depth. They need motivation, goals, conflict and a lesson to be learned. They need a meaty backstory (though don’t info-dump it on us!). They need clearly defined traits which govern how they behave. They need all the little surface details like a DOB, home town and occupation. And yes, in spite of what I’ve said, they do need a physical description too (though I would shy away from describing this in unnecessary detail).

In the same way as I want to be shown the places and events of your story, not simply read about them, I want to meet your characters as if they were living breathing people. I want to get to know them. I want to love them, hate them, care about them. Only then will your story be worth reading.

Purple Prose

I love reading books where the author has a clear mastery of the English language. If you aspire to be the kind of writer who writes in elegant, poetic and striking ways then I take my hat off to you, because that’s the kind of thing you should be doing.

However, this does not mean you should write long winded sentences, pile up confusing metaphors or use any word other than ‘spade’ to describe a manual soil manipulator. Remember, your prose should be elegant, not sesquipedalian.

Keep it simple.

Cliché

This one hardly needs any introduction. Sometimes you read a novel and you could swear you’ve read it a thousand times before.

That’s because you have. It just had a different title and someone else wrote it. For instance, how many sword and sorcery fantasy novels have you read about a young nobody who discovers he is in fact THE CHOSEN ONE referenced in some obscure prophesy? I know I’ve read a few. They are all the same. Dull, predictable, boring. And I use that only as an example, but there are many, many other fiction clichés out there across the entire genre spectrum.

While I’m on the subject, I would also be very sparing in your use of clichéd figurative language (‘as fit as a fiddle’) or clichéd sentiments in your main theme (‘love conquers all’).

Deus Ex Machina

There’s nothing worse than devoting several days or weeks to reading a novel you think is really good only to get to the end and realise the author gave up at the last hurdle. Instead of resolving the story’s main conflict in a satisfying way, he simply introduced some previously unmentioned magic, technology or (worst of all) mushy sentiment to zap the conflict away.

And the audience aren’t daft. They know why you did it.

You did it because you wrote yourself into a corner and didn’t have the foggiest clue how to get out of it, so you effectively gave up. But it gets worse. You didn’t just give up. You pretended you hadn’t given up by publishing the novel anyway, tricking everyone into thinking this story was actually heading somewhere, wasting not only your own time but also the audience’s.

The audience despise you for it, and quite frankly so do I.

Intended Audience (Lack of)

I’ve written about this before but it’s more important than a lot of people realise. Most half-decent stories will appeal to some cross-section of society or another. However even the best stories won’t appeal to everyone. If you try to please everyone, you will almost certainly please nobody, because the work you produce will have a nasty jarring quality to it like putting custard on your steak pie.

Instead, decide who your intended audience is and what they want from your novel before you start and write just for them. Don’t worry about if the rest of humanity hates what you’ve written. Write for your own intended audience and you won’t go far wrong.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Take a First Draft and Make it Better

Originally published 24/04/2016

I recently finished the first draft of a novella I’ve been working on for far too long already. It’s been a bit of a slog getting it done, let me tell you. There were numerous times I was tempted to give up. But after much sweating of blood and ignoring the gnawing feeling of ‘THIS IS THE WORST STORY I HAVE EVER WRITTEN’, I finally produced a completed first draft.

It was still the worst story I had ever written. But that didn’t matter. It was a completed draft; a full blown story with a beginning, a middle and an end which more or less made sense. The difficult bit was now at hand: writing a redraft.

After the initial excitement of finishing the first draft wore off, I quickly found myself less than enthusiastic about the second draft. It can feel a little bit like you’re starting from scratch with something you’ve already spent weeks on. However, you’ll find it a whole lot more rewarding and enjoyable to do if you remember that the point of a redraft is to make your story better. In other words, it’s about taking a little time to identify and fix the problems with the first draft, rather than starting all over again (though you should do it as a complete redraft).

If you followed my advice from last week, you’ll probably have realised that this is a lot easier to do now than it would have been if you tried to edit as you went along. The bare bones of the story are already there: beginning, middle and end. So the best thing to do now is print off your draft and sit down with a pen or a few highlighters (or whatever floats your boat) and mark what you have done. Personally, I find it a lot easier to wait a day or two before I do this so that I can look at it with a fresh and hopefully objective perspective. Then I read through the whole manuscript, scribbling notes in the margins and highlighting relevant parts which need to be improved in some way. The idea at this stage is to identify what it is about your first draft that needs to be changed, improved or removed (be ruthless with this; if it doesn’t work, get rid of it no matter how much you like it). Perhaps your dialogue is too rigid and unconvincing; perhaps there are a few loose ends in the plot or things that don’t quite make sense; perhaps you rabbit on too much about the back story before getting down to the actual action. Whatever it is that made your first draft suck, try to specifically identify it. Don’t settle for simply saying ‘It’s boring’ or ‘It’s not very good’. That’s too vague. Why is it boring? What makes it not very good? That’s what you want to figure out just now.

Once you’ve done that, it should be fairly straight-forward to redraft your story. If the main problem with your first draft was something as simple as unconvincing dialogue or sloppy grammar, this shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re a human being, however, you’ll probably find your first draft has a lot more wrong with it, especially if you didn’t plan it out in too much detail before you started. That’s okay, as long as you can identify and fix these problems.

The biggest problem I found in my first draft was my vague back story. Fortunately, I was also a couple of hundred words shy of the word count I was aiming for, so all in all I consider those two problems to be quite complimentary. However, I soon realised that I couldn’t simply sit down with my old manuscript and change the odd line here and there. When you start tinkering with something as fundamental as the back story, you soon find that your main plot develops a few problems too.

So, do we give up now? We most certainly do not! We persevere, just like we did last week.

Having identified where I went wrong in the first draft, I grabbed a nice clean notebook and sat out in the back garden with an ice lolly (summer happened on the 21st of April in Scotland this year) and began to address these problems. The process I used is very simple; all it requires is patience and perseverance. I began by writing down my basic story in no more than a paragraph or two. Then I wrote down all the problems I had identified with it in the form of questions. For example, one of the first questions I came up with was, ‘Why would a pirate be an expert in Ren-Zyti antiquity?’ (yes, I’m writing a space fantasy about magic space pirates).

Now this question (along with the various others I came up with) demands an answer, because it pertains to something in my plot which does not make sense. So I came up with an answer: ‘He used to be a lecturer in Ren-Zyti antiquities before his home-world was destroyed’.

Great! However, doing this raised a few new questions that also had to be answered. As I said, it is a process which requires patience and perseverance but by the end of it, I had a back story which really worked. Not only did it work (without really changing the bare bones of my plot too much), it had also added new depths to my characters and to my fantasy universe almost accidentally. To be certain it worked, I again summed up my story from start to finish in a few sentences, again picking out any remaining questions or problems and fixing them.

Then and only then was I truly equipped to sit down and write up a redraft which I could be sure would be better than the first one. Even if you’re not much of a planner (I know I’m not!), you will find it pays dividends at this stage to take a little time to really pick out all the specific problems with your first draft and decide how you are going to fix them before you write up the second draft. That’s the whole point of a redraft; to transform your silly little story into a good story.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Persevere With Your Idea

Originally published 17/04/2016

I never started writing with a bad idea. In fact, I’m not even entirely convinced there is such a thing as bad story ideas or good story ideas. There are just ideas, some of which are well executed, some of which are badly executed and some of which are never executed because the would-be writer cannot decide the best way to do it, or is unwilling to try (though I feel that in the interests of public safety, I should point out that this only applies to story ideas; other kinds of ideas, like deciding to use Tabasco sauce as an eye-drop, really are bad ideas).

So, why do the marvellous ideas we start with so quickly turn into half-finished manuscripts that we are unable to finish and are ashamed to have even begun?

I’m beginning to learn that it comes down to perseverance (or a lack thereof) and perfectionism. We are discouraged because our super fantastic brilliant idea doesn’t instantly sprout into the super fantastic brilliant story we hoped it would and so we give up. It’s a rubbish story. I was stupid to think it was a good idea but the next one will be better.

This is actually nonsense when you think about it. The problem is probably not your idea; the problem is your lack of willingness to persevere with your idea. Most ideas, when boiled down to their basic elements, are not too dissimilar. Someone is trying to do something; something hinders them; someone overcomes or fails to overcome what hinders them; someone hopefully grows in some way.

Perfectionism is the enemy of the author. It causes you to freeze up and stop writing the moment you start noticing all the difficulties and outright flaws in your idea but if you let this stop you, you’ll never finish anything. So the first and most important rule is this:

Quitting is NOT an option!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your story to be perfect. Who wants to write a second-rate story? But it will never be perfect if you aren’t able to finish it so don’t give up on a story you’ve begun, no matter how badly you feel it is going. You must finish your story before you can truly make it perfect. This boils down simple motivation; ignoring the urge to quit when you see a bad story appearing and pressing on towards the end, knowing you can make it perfect afterwards.

I find deadlines and daily word counts to be invaluable to this end. Anyone who has ever written an essay for school or university will be able to testify that when you’ve got no choice but to finish your essay, you always can. It doesn’t matter how hard it is, how little you’re enjoying writing it or even how much you deplore everything you have said; if you are determined to get that essay handed in on time, you can jolly well do it. It might mean deleting some words, paragraphs or even whole chapters that you felt were very good. It might even mean handing in something that doesn’t meet your impossibly high standards if you haven’t made enough time to edit your work. But it gets finished and the same is absolutely true of story writing.

Deadlines force you to persevere, because you haven’t got time to start from scratch whenever you get stuck or to spend months inspecting the minutiae of your idea before you even begin writing. I’m certain this is why NaNoWriMo is so popular. If you have been commissioned by a publisher then you will almost certainly have a deadline (usually a very tight one!) but if not, it’s a good idea to set one for yourself. Promise to treat yourself to something you enjoy if you reach your goal. Better still, get a friend to hold you accountable to the deadline you set. Make sure you have got a completed draft to show them for the date and time you have agreed, come hell or high water.

If you’re writing a very long project like a novel (and you don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck), you may find it difficult to judge when a realistic deadline should be, especially if it’s your first novel. In that case, a daily word count (say, 1,000 words per day, or whatever you can realistically manage) or even setting yourself deadlines per chapter is a good way to persevere. And remember, you are not allowed to quit under any circumstances. Stick to the story you are on until it’s finished. No matter how awful the story you are producing is turning out to be, keep producing it. You can fix it later.

‘But what if I can’t fix it later?!’ I hear you cry. ‘What if it’s so very terrible that it is beyond redemption?!’

You can fix it. If you are dog-with-a-bone stubborn and refuse to abandon your story until it’s done to your satisfaction, you will fix it, even if it means a complete redraft. You have only failed to fix it when you give up.

This is all very well and good if you’re not working to a deadline set by a publisher or for a competition. Under these circumstances, a little time management is obviously advised. You will need to allow yourself time to edit. The more time you make for editing and redrafting, the more likely you are to submit a good story. But there is one thing you must not allow: do not allow yourself to just miss the deadline. Make sure you have a completed manuscript by the deadline and hand it in. Maybe it will get rejected; maybe it won’t. You might be pleasantly surprised. But one thing is for sure: nothing you write will ever be accepted, critiqued or even read by anyone unless you finish what you started.

And what is the point of writing anything unless someone eventually gets to read your finished work? Persevere and win!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
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Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: What’s Your Story About?

Originally published 06/03/2016

Some would have you believe that there are two kinds of writers in this world: those who plan their whole story out in advance and those who make it up as they go along. To some extent that’s undoubtedly true. In fact, I personally identify far more with the latter. In fact, I haven’t planned this very post out in too much detail at all. But there is one thing I am sure of: what this post is actually about.

There’s a particular quotation we non-planning writers like to throw around to justify ourselves sometimes:

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.

(Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

Personally, I think this needs a little refining (I will admit I have taken it slightly out of context but I suspect a lot of non-planning writers have done the same!). Here’s my version:

‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way if you know where it is you hope to end up!’

Think about it: suppose you’re a successful author who lives in Glasgow and you want to go to a book shop in York to autograph copies of your book (dream big, guys!). You might well be able to successfully get there using only your wits and following the road signs. Even if you get lost, you could probably still find your way again if you keep your head. But what if all you knew was that you were attending a book shop somewhere in the British Isles, with a vague notion that it might possibly be somewhere in the north of England? You’d be driving forever, that’s what! It doesn’t how many people you ask for directions, how many maps you buy or what you punch into your sat-nav; you will never find the place you’re looking for in a month of Sundays.

One of the biggest dangers we non-planning writers face is that you can easily end up writing screeds and screeds of excellent work, only to realise you can’t finish because you don’t know what it is you’re actually hoping to accomplish by writing. This is a recipe for another unfinished manuscript. So, before you write forty odd chapters and suddenly hit an insurmountable wall, ask yourself this question: What is my story about?

You can probably get away without drawing up a detailed plan of what is going to happen in each chapter and all of the other stuff we non-planning writers like to do to convince ourselves we’re writing when we’re really just wasting time but if you can’t answer that simple question, I doubt very much that you will ever finish your story.

My advice would be to refine your answer to that question to make it as simple as possible. Albert Einstein once said, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. Granted, he wasn’t talking about writing a story but I think the basic principle can still be applied here. If you can’t come up with a simple answer straight away, then it’s probably a good idea to start off with a working synopsis (it doesn’t matter if you need to change it later; that’s just how we non-planning types roll) but ideally, you should be able to whittle this down to one or two short sentences which form the backbone of your story. If you’re struggling to do this, ask yourself a few key questions like these:

  • What is the protagonist trying to accomplish?
  • Why is s/he trying to do this?
  • What’s stopping him/her?
  • You might also find it useful at this stage to ask who the protagonist is, but if you’re a hardcore non-planner you might prefer to just see who pops up when you start writing.

Once you have the answers, you should find it a fairly simple task to summarise what you are trying to write about in a single sentence, or  two at the most. For example, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is a very lengthy and involved narrative, I’m sure you’ll agree!) can be reduced to something like: ‘A young hobbit must make the dangerous journey to Mordor to destroy a magical ring’.

I think you’ll agree that this little micro-synopsis (as I hereby define it) gives only the meanest description of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is the backbone of the plot and nothing more. That’s a good thing! It allows the non-planning writer to have a clear idea of what s/he is trying to accomplish without having to restrict their inner artistic flare. If you were trying to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which would be plagiarism by the way, so don’t do it!) using this as your only “plan”, you would probably produce something very different from the original Tolkien narrative. If we continue our driving metaphor, your micro-synopsis ideally should not be a map or even a list of directions; it should be an old scrap of paper with the address of the place you’re trying to get to written on it. But how you get there is entirely up to you. The more simple it is, the less restrictive your Muse will find it when you’re writing.

Once you’ve got your micro-synopsis, write it down and keep it close at hand while you’re writing. If you find yourself getting lost as you make your treacherous midnight journey towards Completed Manuscript Land, refer back to your micro-synopsis and ask yourself if you’re still going in the right direction. Like I said, we non-planning types frequently get lost. That’s okay. If you keep in mind where you’re trying to end up, you’ll soon find your way again.

So… what’s your story about?

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