Throwback Thursday: Are Idea Generators Ever Any Use?

Originally published 12/05/2019 under the title ‘Idea Generators: Are They Any Use?’

If you’re struggling to come up with even the meanest idea for your story, you might be tempted to Google story idea generators to help you out. If you do, you’ll find there are bazillions out there: random plot generators, title generators, character generators, motive generators, setting generators, first line generators and everything else besides. If all that feels a bit too much like stealing, you can also use story dice, random image generators or random word generators or character trait generators to help lubricate the imagination.

But wait a minute…

Do these little miracle makers really deliver the goods?

Most of these random plot generators tend to work by simply throwing up a random selection of story elements, such as a random theme, a couple of randomly generated characters, a randomly generated setting and maybe a randomly generated conflict. Once in a while these might be helpful, but nine times out of ten, they tend to throw up results which are so completely random that I just end up despairing over my failure to write a story about drug addiction in which a pole dancer and an astronaut get locked in the Tower of London.

Story Plot Generator Pro (A.K.A Plot Gen Pro) by Arc Apps is probably the best random generator of this kind that I’ve come across. You have to pay for the full version but even the trial version is pretty decent and produces random elements within a chosen genre. Thus, the results are not quite as bizzare as they might otherwise have been. For instance, when I asked for sci-fi/space story I got:

Location: You are on a small civillian colony that shares the planet with a native species.
Complication: A ship of alien origin approaches: attempting to communicate proves challenging.
Character: Your character has taken someone else’s identity.
Detail: Cloning technology was recently perfected but has not been revealed to the public.


Story Plot Generator Pro

I mean, heck… with a bit of effort, that might actually be usable.

There are, of course, some idea generators out there which produce slightly more refined ideas. My personal favourite is the Story Idea Generator at thejohnfox.com. Instead of vomiting up a meaningless jumble of events, half-baked characters and opening lines, this little beauty presents you with a meaningful scenario and a relevant question to stimulate your own imagination. For example:


A heartbroken husband chases his cheating wife through a child’s playground at night. What does he keep shouting at her, and why doesn’t she want to be with him?


https://thejohnfox.com/2016/05/story-idea-generator/

If used correctly, this kind of prompt should make for a far richer story, as you are forced to think your way through the details of who your characters are and why they do what they do. Rather than giving you a pre-made story (or, to be more accurate, a sequence of meaningless events, as most generators give you), this generator essentially gives you suggestions for what to write about and a couple of questions to get you started but doesn’t actually attempt to write it for you. The specific events that happen, why they happen and the outcome of it all are left very much to the author’s imagination, as indeed, it should be.

Depending on how your brain works, I can see generators of this type working really well for a lot of people. For me personally, however, I find that I don’t usually need someone to tell me what to write about. I often think I do, but whenever I do use a plot generator which produces something sensible, I end up just feeling like I’ve been asked to finish writing someone else’s story. I seldom feel confident enough, or even interested enough, to write it. What I really need is simple stimulation, and usually the vaguer it is, the better. I am, in fact, quite capable of coming up with story ideas myself and a simple word, catchphrase or picture will usually be enough to stimulate my sleeping imagination whereas a plot generator (no matter how good it is) feels a little too restrictive. Thankfully, there are plenty of places on the internet where you can find nice vague stimuli too.

Title generators are my personal favourite. A simple adjective/noun style title generator like this one, will throw up all sorts of interesting concepts that you can take in almost direction. I just tried it out and I got The Incredible Flute, The Last Cottage and The Evil Crow. There is so much potential in those simple ideas that I bet most writers could come up with something unique for every one of them (in fact, please do! Write a story called The Incredible Flute and tell us all about it in the comments. I dares ya).

There are, of course, more complex title generators out there which are mostly tailored to specific genres. For instance, Fantasy Name Generators gave me some really interesting titles such as Wife of Dreams, Faith of Earth and Boy Without Flaws simply by pressing a button (I might actually try writing some of those myself). These can also be refined by genre and there is the option to specify key words you want to include (incidentally and in passing, Fantasy Name Generators boasts one of the largest collections of random generators I’ve ever seen on the internet; everything from story title generators to Quetzalcoatl name generators. Lose yourself on that website for a while).

Whatever kind of idea generator you like to use (including good old fashioned writing prompts), the important thing to remember is this: even the best prompts are no substitute for the imagination. By all means, let them stimulate your imagination (if you find them helpful) but don’t fall into the trap of thinking they’ll do the imagining for you. They cannot and they should not. This also means that you needn’t be enslaved to the details of whatever prompt you use. You might not be able to contrive a realistic scenario where a pole dancer and an astronaut end up in the Tower, but perhaps you can write a piece of historical fiction about someone else being locked in the Tower, or perhaps you can write about an astronaut who does a bit of pole dancing on the side. The possibilities are endless for a fertile imagination.

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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: The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Originally published 19/06/2016

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.


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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: 5 Ways to Write a Terrible Novel

Originally published: 18/06/2017

You might recall, if you’ve been putting up with this blog long enough, that I once wrote a post on how to avoid becoming a writer. Of course, if you are a writer, you’ll know how insistent that little Inner-Writer’s voice can be, constantly banging on about the different ideas he’s come up with that you absolutely have to write. You might find it simply impossible not to write.

But fear not, ye who are enslaved by the urge to write. Your salvation is at hand. If you dread becoming a full time author, but cannot resist the urge to write, there is another solution: write badly.

It’s easy to do. Just follow these simple steps.

1. Use Dry Descriptions; Avoid Figurative Language

How you describe things can often be the difference between an excellent story and a terrible one. I can’t labour this point enough. Using metaphors, personifications and other forms of figurative language can turn even the most unexciting passages of narrative into a thing of sheer beauty, whereas dry descriptions can make even the most intense scenes seem duller than the Phone Book. Allow me to demonstrate using the first few lines of John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold:

All afternoon the wind sifted out of the black Welsh glens, crying notice that Winter was come sliding down over the world from the Pole; and riverward there was the faint moaning of new ice. It was a sad day, a day of gray unrest, of discontent.

Steinbeck, J. (2000), Cup of Gold, Penguin Classics, UK. p. 1

This is what you want to avoid. All Steinbeck is doing here is describing the weather, yet it’s so chock full of figurative and poetic language that it’s an absolute joy to read. It flows beautifully and really makes you feel like you’re there, in the Welsh glens, feeling the cold of winter rolling in from the Pole. If you write like that, everybody will want to read your novel. Instead, aim for something like this:

It had been windy all afternoon in the black Welsh glens. You could tell it was nearly winter. In fact, the river was starting to freeze. The sky was grey and the mood was sad. There was a bit of a breeze and a bad feeling in the air.

Considering the above paragraph is only two and a bit lines long, you’ve got to admit… it’s a tedious read. I got bored writing it! You can be sure your reader will get bored if you write your whole novel that way.

2. Use Stock Characters

You know how I’m always saying that characters are people, and should therefore have all the wonderful complexity and contradiction that make up a real person? Well… forget all that. If you want to write a bad story, you’ve got to make sure your characters are as flat, predictable and stereotypical as possible. So, you might have characters like this:

Johnny Famous (our dashing hero). He’s strong, noble and righteous in all things. He neither smokes nor drinks, has no skeletons in his closet and knows neither fear nor selfishness.

Emperor Zorg (dark lord of all). Wears a black cape and wants to conquer the universe. Thinks love is a weakness. Lives in a black castle, or maybe an underground base.

Daisy Divine (love interest). Stunningly beautiful and serves no function in the story except to be rescued by and fall in love with Johnny. If you must give her a back story, don’t let it be anything that might interfere with her living happily ever after with Johnny.

3. Use ‘deus ex machina’

Even the most well written story can be ruined at the last minute by deus ex machina (‘God in the machine’). This is a technique writers sometimes use (usually when they can’t figure out how to progress the story in a way which is believable and satisfying) which essentially involves a random, improbable or otherwise unsatisfying solution to your story.

Just the other day I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called ‘Twisted’ in which a spacial implosion ring is slowly twisting and crushing the entire ship from the outside in. Eventually the regular cast find themselves trapped in the one and only unaffected room on the ship and are desperately trying to come up with a solution to save themselves before that room also implodes. Finally, they accept that they can do nothing but accept their fate. The implosion ring enters the room and begins to crush the remaining crew…

Then it suddenly disappears and everything is fine. Turns out the implosion ring wasn’t nearly as deadly as it seemed. In fact, it was trying to communicate.

I wasted an hour of my life watching that. Take note: deus ex machina is a great way to make your readers hate you forever.

4. Employ Numerous Cliches

Actually, just between you and me, you can sometimes include a tiny amount of small, carefully camouflaged cliches in a story and still end up with a good story… but as a rule of thumb, the more cliches you have and the more obvious they are, the more terrible your story will be.

There’s an almost endless list of possible cliches you could use to make your story extra-awful, but a few examples include:

  • The Chosen One: Our hero thinks he’s just an ordinary guy but it turns out he is actually the fulfilment of an ancient prophesy and must save the world because it’s his destiny (in a good story, the protagonist will act in a way which is in keeping with their own motivations and desires).
  • Love conquers all: Just when all seems lost and the world is doomed, the bad guy’s evil plans are utterly thwarted because someone performs some great act of love (usually either involving sacrificing oneself for another or just plain old fashioned snogging).
  • The Final Battle: The whole story culminates in final dramatic fisticuffs between the noble hero and the evil dark lord in which, after a bit of a wobbly start which is supposed to make the reader think all is lost, the noble hero inevitably wins.

5. Info Dump

To understand what is going on in your story, your reader must be aware of certain facts. Characters’ backstories or particulars about how your fictional world works, for instance. Good writers feed this information to their readers in small doses and, where possible, will subtly weave it into the narrative so as not to drag the pace of their story down to a tedious belly-crawl.

But you don’t want to be a good writer! You want to write a terrible novel, so make sure your novel reads like a textbook of facts and figures about the history of your characters and the world they inhabit. Ideally, if you can devote the first chapter or two entirely to providing facts and backstory without getting down to telling the actual story, you can be sure your reader will put your book down without finishing it. If that seems too hard, try to info-dump in a character’s dialogue instead. For example,

‘I was born on the 29th of May 1982 at the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital to Jean and Philip Jones.’ said Peter Jones. ‘I lived with them in the leafy suburbs of Anytown all my life until I met Miss Backstory who broke my heart and now I can’t handle adult relationships at all…’

Follow even just some of these steps and I can guarantee you, you’ll never write a good story in your puff. No matter how many manuscripts you complete and submit for publication, you can still return to your tedious office job day after day, secure in the knowledge that you’ll die at that grindstone before you ever have to take the plunge to become a professional, full time author.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that 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: Ready Player One (Book Review)

Originally published 22/07/2018 under the title ‘Book Review: Ready Player One’
SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

‘Enchanting. Willy Wonka meets The Matrix‘ (USA Today). That’s what the little quotation says on the front cover of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

High praise indeed. High enough to make me buy it and read it. But I know what you’re thinking: ‘did it deliver?’

The opening chapters of this novel introduce us to Wade Watts: a super-geek teenage boy living in a dystopian not-too-distant future. He’s bitter, cynical and spends most of his time hiding from his abusive aunt in the OASIS: a (seemingly endless) online virtual reality/computer game. There, he dreams of finding the ‘Easter egg‘ which the OASIS’ programmer created, promising in his will that whoever found it would gain full control of the OASIS and get all of his considerable wealth. There’s also a fairly unremarkable romantic sub-plot thrown in there for good measure (Wade meets a girl on the internet, falls in love with her though he’s never met her, she keeps him at arms length because she’s insecure about something, turns out she’s got a birth mark on her face, Wade still loves her anyway, they meet in real life after thwarting the bad guys, kissy kissy, the end).

In a word, Ready Player One is a good, fun story. Not at all bad for a debut novel. It was a little hard to suspend my disbelief at points, as he breezes through impossible odds just a little too often for my taste (I know he’s smart and I know he’s good at computer games, but come on). Don’t get me wrong though, this book is still a real page-turner. I think geeks, gamers and lovers of retro will probably find it far more enjoyable than the rest of humanity because it is bursting with gaming lingo and references to computer games, TV shows, movies and music from the 1980s, some of which may be lost on the uninitiated, though I think Cline still does a pretty good job explaining everything without too much info-dumping. No small achievement in a story of this kind.

The first-person narrative style was, for the most part, a joy to read and let us get right under the skin of Wade as all good first person narratives should. If I was being hyper-critical about the narrative voice, I would only add that it sometimes felt like Wade spent the whole novel ‘getting the hell out of Dodge’. I don’t know how often he used that expression but… it was a lot. I know people tend to use the same expressions over and over in real life but still…

Anyway, let’s talk bad guys. Innovative Online Industries (led by the unrepentant Nolan Sorrento) are a global internet service provider who are determined to seize the Easter Egg before anyone else so that they can charge people to use the OASIS and use it as an advertising space. Their methods range from the unfair to the downright brutal (blowing up houses, throwing people out of windows and so forth). Absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever as far as I could tell. If you like a bad guy you can boo and hiss at, you’ll love these guys. If you want a bad guy you can sympathise with, you’d better look elsewhere because these guys are b-b-bad to the bone: slippery, devious and with seemingly limitless resources, there is simply no low to which they will not stoop in their quest for the Egg. In spite of this, I actually quite liked them. Yeah they’re a bit two dimensional but… dang, they’re just so much fun to boo at. However, without wanting to give too much away, I will say that I was really looking forward to an epic final battle between Wade and Sorrento and I didn’t really get one. I mean, yes, there’s a battle but it was over before it started. Wade kicked butt, raced Sorrento to the Egg and… got there first. Wade wins. The end. If only Sorrento had had one more ace up his sleeve in that final scene, I would’ve been satisfied but no. He just loses.

Digging a little deeper, I get the impression Cline was trying to build a bit of a theme, paralleling Wade’s search for the Easter Egg with religion; or at the very least, with higher causes in general (for instance, consider the way Wade treats Anorak’s Almanac almost as if it were some kind of holy scripture). I’m not sure if this was deliberate but I think it was. It’s the only explanation I can think of for the lengthy ‘religion-is-stupid’ diatribe in chapter one, and for the devout Christian minor-character who appears just long enough for Wade to compare the Hunt for the Easter Egg to Christianity:

I never had the heart to tell her that I thought organised religion was a total crock. It was a pleasant fantasy that gave her hope and kept her going– which was exactly what the Hunt was for me.

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, ch. 1

It’s either that or he was soapboxing. Possibly both. Either way, it was a good idea for a theme but it could’ve done with a bit of work. It kind of fizzles out without reaching any conclusion that I can see.

All in all, a great story. A little weak on a few technical points, but an enjoyable read and an enthralling adventure all the same. And yes, it is vaguely reminiscent of Willy Wonka and The Matrix.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that 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: Little Thieves Are Hanged

Originally published 22/10/2017

What follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether on print or online, nor do I expect it to be. And so, without further ado, I give you…

LITTLE THIEVES ARE HANGED

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

The junkie was talking before he reached the bus stop. Coming toe-to-toe with another gentleman who was waiting there, the junkie recounted his entire life story, occasionally tapping the gentleman’s stomach; a genial ‘wait-until-you-hear-this’ gesture.

The gentleman put his hands in his pockets. He glanced desperately towards me. I smiled, trying to reassure him.

An eternity passed before a bus finally spirited the junkie away, still talking as he embarked. The gentleman relaxed.

‘I’ve no idea who that was!’ He confided to me as my bus arrived.

I laughed and boarded the bus, fingering his wallet, safe in my pocket.

THE END

 


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that 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: 5 Types of Story Ending

Originally published 17/09/2017
SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck or seen the Doctor Who (2017) episode ‘World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls’ is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Don’t you just hate endings? For me, they’re one of the hardest bits of the story to write, but they’re also one of the most important. Your audience will (usually) put up with a fair amount of uncertainty in the middle of a story but by the time they reach the end, they want their ‘i’s dotted, their ‘t’s crossed and all their questions answered. And who can blame them? They’ve devoted a considerable portion of their valuable time to reading/watching/listening to your story. The least we owe them is a good ending that doesn’t leave them scratching their heads (or worse, venting their hatred for you on Twitter). And so, it is my pleasure to present you with a whistle stop tour of the pros and cons of five common ways to end a story.

They All Lived Happily Ever After

Let’s begin with the classic. It’s been a rough old ride but evil has finally been vanquished, the hero has married the love interest and all is right with the world. In short, the story is over. There is nothing left but a fuzzy feeling that our heroes will now live forever in a kind of literary heaven where nothing ever goes wrong for them.

Pros: It leaves the audience feeling good about the fact that all conflicts have been resolved and all questions answered. The story is undeniably finished and the audience can get on with their own lives.

Cons: It’s not terribly true to life. I can’t think of a single instance in my life, nor the life of anyone I know, where all problems have been resolved in one neat little package leaving not a single cloud on the horizon. It also downplays the significance of any tragedies that have occurred during the story (unless of course your protagonist has lost nothing throughout the story… in which case, I’m afraid you’ve written a guff story).

Word of Warning: ‘Happily ever after’ is the most implausibly clean cut way I know of for a good writer to end a story, so beware you don’t accidentally leave some questions unanswered. Sure, your bad guy has fallen into his own pool of sharks but… what about his armies of darkness, for example? If they really believed in their Leader’s cause, is the world really safe?

To Be Continued…

This ‘ending’ (I use the word loosely), involves deliberately leaving unanswered questions. The story is not completely over. Evil is not quite vanquished forever. A sequel is certain to follow.

Pros: If you’ve done your job right, you’ll probably find your sequel will fly off the shelves a heck of a lot quicker than the first instalment did.

Cons: It runs the risk of also having the opposite effect if your audience wasn’t completely in love with your story. Remember, sequels cost money to buy and time to consume. If they feel like your first instalment was a waste of time and money, they might not want to put themselves through the same ordeal again. I’ve left many a series unfinished because the first book left me feeling underwhelmed.

Word of Warning: Whether you wrote a wonderful story or a terrible one, your audience won’t thank you for an ending that’s all cliffhanger and nothing else. The first instalment of a series should still be a complete instalment. While danger may yet loom on the horizon, hinting at the sequel to come, this instalment is finished. Be sure to complete your narrative and character arcs to give your reader a sense of satisfaction.

What Have We Learned?

This ending focuses more on drawing your central theme or moral to a conclusion, rather than the events themselves. Such endings can involve the protagonist succeeding in their goals, failing in their goals or something else entirely. The point is not so much what happens as what is learned.

Pros: It’s truer to life than most endings, insofar as in real life, one event always leads to another without a neat ending (even deaths lead to funerals, lawyers meetings, grief and the buying/selling of property). It can also leave your readers pondering your story for months.

Cons: It’s not easy to pull off. If you don’t pack a strong enough punch with it, your readers will feel like the story is unfinished and they’ve been left with nothing but a glib moral platitude.

Word of Warning: This one’s not for you, genre fiction. Literary fiction might just get away with it, if the author is skilled enough, but genre fiction tends to be far too reliant on questions such as ‘will good triumph over evil?’, ‘will the hero get the love interest?’, and generally ‘however will they get out of this pickle?’.

Deus Ex Machina

Just when it seems like all is lost and there is no chance for good to triumph over evil… BOOM! God appears and makes everything better, or the protagonist wakes up and it was all just a bad dream or the water lady from the first episode shows up out of the blue and saves the day with Moffat Magic. This is the ending for the writer who wants a ‘happily ever after’ ending, but can’t be annoyed fixing all the problems in his or her narrative that make a happy ending impossible.

bean-plant-2348098_1920
Fig. 1

Pros: It’s easy to do. Just add magic.

Cons: Instead of resolving the problems and answering the questions that make the story worth reading/watching/listening to, all you’ve done is shrugged them off. It’s bad writing and it will make your audience hate you.

Word of Warning: See fig. 1

They All Lived Sorrowfully Ever After

Sometimes a happy ending just isn’t what you want at all. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the two protagonists (Lennie and George) had big plans to set up their own ranch one day. However, in the end, George is forced to shoot Lennie in order to save him the more arduous death he was about to suffer at the hands of a lynch mob. The story ends with the death of one protagonist, and the other has survived only to be consumed (presumably) with regret over his actions and the unravelling of his dream.

Pros: It’s good for creating feels and driving your central theme/moral home in a powerful way.

Cons: Sad endings, by definition, must leave your audience feeling a bit sad. If your audience cares about your protagonists (and they should), they’ll probably have been hoping that they would achieve at least some of their goals.

Word of Warning: In the right hands, a sad ending can be profound. Of Mice and Men is one of my favourite novels. But in the wrong hands, it can be an extra-terrible form of deus ex machina, in that it resolves problems simply by sweeping them aside, only without the warm fuzzy feeling you get with a happy ending. At least the last series of Doctor Who ended with a happy deus ex machina ending but for goodness sake, don’t kill everybody just for effect.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that 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: Figuring Out Foil Characters

Originally published 29/04/2018

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that 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: Keeping a Writer’s Journal

Originally published 30/04/2017

There are a some folk out there who will tell you that if you don’t keep a journal, you are doomed to never, ever be a writer of any kind. In fact, you will probably fail miserably at everything you ever set your hand to, both in business and at home. Others just get very snooty about the ‘right’ way to keep a journal (as if writing something simple like ‘I ate chips for my tea. That’s all I can think of to write’ means you have failed at journaling, and therefore, failed at life).

Obviously, that’s a load of poppycock.

However, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally bothers to keep a journal, you might find it useful as a writer to at least keep a writer’s journal— especially if you’re working on a large writing project such as a novel.

‘Oh nooo!’ I hear you cry. ‘That sounds too hard/time-consuming/pointless’ (delete as appropriate).

It needn’t be. You don’t need to fill it with epiphanies written in flawless iambic pentameter, you don’t need to handcraft your own leather bound volume to write in and you don’t need to write ten thousand words a day (having already written ten thousand words in your actual story). In fact (just between you and me), you don’t need to keep a journal at all if you don’t find it helpful, though I would recommend giving it a bash for a week or two to be sure that it’s not for you.

All that matters is that you do what helps you to write, and in my experience, journaling can be profoundly helpful. How you do it, however, is entirely up to you! You can write in it as often as suits you; it can be long or short; handwritten or digital; illustrated or not; written in all, some or none of the colours of the rainbow and best of all, it can be as messy as you like. No one’s going to mark it. No editor will ever read/watch/listen to it. No publisher will ever publish it. All that matters is that it helps you to write.

For me, I like to keep a written note of how many words I write each day. It’s encouraging to have evidence of daily progress when you feel like you’ve been writing forever and getting nowhere. More than that, however, I find it helpful to express all my thoughts, feelings, ideas and problems relating to my story in some way. Externalising all that stuff once a week, or thereabouts, usually suffices and it helps me to think through it all in a way that sitting staring at my manuscript does not.  If I don’t write it down, I tend to end up boring my wife to tears by talking at length to her about my characters, my setting, my story arc, my word count or whatever else it might be.

If you’ve got a thick skin and are not too worried about who gets to read your journal, you might even find it useful to start a blog (or Twitter account, if you agree the brevity is the soul of wit). While it isn’t why I started Penstricken, my regular readers (God bless you patient and forbearing people) will be able to testify that I frequently do use my blog as a place to rant and rave about things I’ve learned and the problems I’ve encountered and solved while writing. Often the posts I categorise as ‘writing tips’ are aimed at myself as much as they are at anyone else. Another big perk to this kind of public journaling is that you get a little bit of feedback (hopefully from people who care about you, your story or creative writing in general) and it will hopefully serve to motivate you to journal regularly if you have regular readers who will be expecting you to post something every day/week/month/decade.

If you’ve never tried it before, why not start now? To make sure you get the most out of it, take a little time to ask yourself a few questions such as:

What should I write in my journal? Are you wanting to keep a detailed log of your progress (i.e., daily word counts, problems encountered, feedback received and so forth) or would you prefer to use it to express the enjoyment/fear/doubt/despair you experience while writing? Perhaps you might even find it a helpful place to scribble down plot bunnies for future reference.

How often can I commit to keeping a journal? It needn’t be excessively frequent. However in my experience, it is far easier and more enjoyable to keep a journal if you do it on a regular basis. Daily, weekly or even monthly- whatever you can stick to.

What format should my journal take? It’s your journal, for expressing and exploring what’s going on in your own writer-brain. Will it be kept private or will it be online for the great unwashed to view? Will it be in written, audio or video form? Try to use a format that allows you to express yourself as freely as possible – and most importantly, which compliments your writing.

What do I hope to get out of this? There are many possible benefits to journaling: catharsis; developing your skills; tracking your progress; etc. What you are hoping to get out of journaling will probably impact on how you do it. For instance, if you’re using it mainly as an outlet for your self-doubt and frustration with your novel, you probably won’t want to publish it online. It’s not likely to improve your sales figures if ever you do publish your novel.

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you find it helps you to write or do you just find it a big old slog keeping it up to date? Share your insights with the rest of us in the comments section below and we can all benefit from each other’s wisdom!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that 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: 50 Character Motives For Your Story

Originally published 18/08/2019

If you’ve been looking around my blog for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that I often bang on about giving characters strong motives. That’s because it is very important to do so. Motives are what get your character up in the morning and form the basis for all the specific things your character is trying to achieve. For this reason, they are essential for making your audience understand and care about your character’s goals.

Often your character’s motive will be a deep seated hunger, or longing, which your character hopes to satiate by achieving their goals. Alternatively, they may be driven by some chronic fear, past trauma or intense feelings towards another person or persons. Some motives will have obviously dark overtones, while others may appear more positive or neutral. Don’t let that restrict you though. ‘Positive’ motives can still be turned to darkness in the hands of a well written bad guy and the reverse is also true. For instance, a man motivated by love for his family might murder his teenage daughter’s boyfriend. That’s a positive motive gone bad.

I’ve listed a few possible character motives in the image below and I would encourage you to play around with different ways of interpreting and applying them. Most motives (including those not on this list) can be used in a variety of ways, giving you an almost limitless pool of material from which to create character after character, and therefore, story after story.

Have you tried experimenting with any of these motives? What gets your characters out of bed in the morning? Share your own insights and experiences in the comments below!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that 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: Writing Non-Human Characters #4: Mythical Creatures

Originally published: 04/06/2017

Well you’ll be relieved to hear that this will be the last week of my impromptu series on writing non-human characters. We’ve already covered animals, aliens and robots so this week we’re going to finish up with what I’ve very broadly defined as mythical creatures.

When I Googled ‘mythical creatures’ to help me prepare for this post, I was presented with a very helpful list of about thirty different kinds of mythical creature. Gods-and-Monsters.com managed a much longer list of about 72 distinct creatures from mythology. And so writing a single 1,000  word post on how to write any mythical creature is going to be quite a challenge so I hope you’ll bear with me while I go over a few very general principles.

You all know how this works by now. The secret to creating a good non-human character of any kind is to remember that your audience is made up entirely of humans. Therefore, if you want to make your character relatable to humans, you need to endow your character with the right amount and kind of human qualities. You won’t be surprised to learn that the same is true of mythical creatures. I don’t want to harp on too much about that in this post, since most of what I covered in the first and second posts especially applies here too. Protagonists and other relatable characters need more human qualities (while not compromising on the mythical qualities that make them recognisable; don’t have your vampire going outside in the daylight, for example) while there may be some benefit to deliberately dehumanising characters who you want to serve as terrifying monsters rather than relatable characters.

This is where it is vital to know a thing or two about the kind of creature you’re using. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of mythical creatures you might use: “real” mythical creatures (that is, creatures from actual myths and legends, such as dragons, minotaurs and or fairies) and ones you made up for the sake of your story. In both cases, research is vital. You need to familiarise yourself with all the variations that exist on your creature in different myths, legends and even modern fantasies around the world (because believe me, there are often significant variations) and pick out all the differences and similarities you can find. In the case of creatures you’ve made up from scratch, or if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy, this involves researching their place in the history/mythology of your fictional world (click here for more on world-building and research).

For instance, suppose you wanted to create a dragon. You might already have an idea in your head as to what that means. But it only takes a quick peruse of internet to find that dragons come in many shapes and sizes both in terms of their physical appearance and their personalities. Dragons are often portrayed both as ferocious beasts, more animal than person but perhaps more often they are portrayed as being intelligent, rational and even quite wise or calculating creatures. Sometimes they can speak, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they have a lizard-like appearance, sometimes they have feathers. In most cases, there will be myths about their origins you can explore and what function they serve.

Of course, in your own story you can have a little bit of flexibility. I personally have no qualms about making a small number of minor changes to the appearance or behaviour of mythical creatures for my stories, but on the whole you want to be aware of the common defining characteristics of your chosen creature. What makes a centaur a centaur? Is it simply having four legs? Or is there something more that a centaur is simply not a centaur without? Remember, if you’re using a creature that already exists in folklore then you’re not only borrowing someone else’s work; you’re actually building upon centuries of tradition, so don’t go mad when you come to put your own stamp on it.

If you feel more creative (especially if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy), you might want to try and invent your own creature. This certainly gives you more freedom to do whatever you please, but you need to be aware that your audience will have no prior knowledge of your creature and will need to have it spoon-fed to them in a way they wouldn’t with a dragon or mermaid. Try to keep it simple. Combining body parts from unrelated animals is often a good approach and is easy to describe (the body of a lion with the wings of a bee for instance). Also you might find it helpful to weave them in with mythology surrounding big questions such as the origins of the world, birth, death, and so forth.

Once you have established these things, you will find it much easier to anthropomorphise your creature in a way which is appropriate. Remember, the goal in anthropomorphising your non-human characters is not to turn them into humans (noun) but to make them human (adjective) enough so that the audience will be able to relate to them and care about what happens to them. Exactly which human qualities you choose to add will depend entirely on which kind of creature you’re creating, so I’m afraid I can’t give you any specific advice on that. You’ll need to do your research. The important thing is that you correctly balance making your creature human enough to be related to by your human audience but still have enough of those key defining characteristics that make your mythical creature recognisable as what it is supposed to be.

And that’s it for the non-human characters series! Phew! Next week I’ll be getting back into writing my usual sort of weekly individual posts (unless of course I’m inundated with complaints that I forgot a particular type of non-human creature, but I don’t think I did and frankly, I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me banging on about them).

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that 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: