A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming

Originally published 04/12/2016

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas, in almost any creative sphere, is to get together with a bunch of other folk and brainstorm together. It’s a time honoured tradition of mixing creative, imaginative, rational, critical minds together and coming with and developing a truly unique and superior idea. Unfortunately, writing is a pretty solitary business most of the time. But today, I want to introduce you to one of the most valuable tools I have in my writer’s utility belt; a tool which has allowed me to single handily harness (at least some of) the magic of brainstorming with others:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The Bic 4-Colour Ballpoint Pen*.

Four colours in one pen!

I know what you’re thinking. Ancient technology. Humble. Boring. Run of the mill. You’ve probably got one yourself that you never use. Your kids have probably got one too. But trust me on this, it’s proven a great help to me whenever I’ve been trying to come up with new story ideas on my own (and you can use it during a power cut!).

It’s quite a simple technique really. First, grab a notebook that you don’t mind scribbling all your loose ideas into (seriously, we are not interested in presentation here). Second, grab your Pen of Many Colours. From now on, each colour represents a person in your ‘group’, and these will interact with one another. There are four members in my imaginary group because there are four colours on my pen (although if your pen has more colours, I suppose you could have more. Whatever works for you). In my case, they are organised something like this:

Black – Chairman (doesn’t really serve a creative function; I just use it for headers etc. although you might find another use for it).
Green – Creator
Blue – Questioner
Red – Critic

Now, since there’s not really a group of four people involved in this process, it’s important to remember one thing: you must write down everything that occurs to you. No matter how good or bad it is, you must write down everything or this won’t work.

So we begin by bringing the meeting to order. This is the main time I use the black tip. I write a header, which specifically establishes what it is I am trying to accomplish, to give some kind of focus to the session. I also include the date, but that’s just to make it easier to find again. If I’m brainstorming a brand new story idea, I might also write down other details such as intended audience etc. For instance, my most recent one reads:

‘Untitled Sci-fi Novel – Minor Antagonist Ideas – 30/11/16’

Great! I now know what it is I’m trying to create: a minor antagonist (though you could use it to generate ideas for anything, even a whole new story). Now the other three colours come into play. I tend to flick between the three of them frequently throughout the process (that just means it’s working) so what order they get used in is both unpredictable and ultimately, not relevant. All that matters is that they are all used to their fullest capacity.

For instance, whenever I have a creative idea – good or bad – it gets written down in green. Every single idea without exception, even if I know it is never going to work in a month of Sundays. It gets written down in green. The reason for this is that I usually have multiple ideas and it’s not always clear which ones will work the best, or if any of them will work at all. That doesn’t matter for Mr. Green Tip, however. Mr. Green Tip’s sole function in life is to record every single idea that pops into my head, no matter how awful.

The blue tip has a related, though somewhat different function. It asks questions of my previous ideas and prompts me to come up with new ones. For example, in my most recent session, I had the idea that ‘the minor antagonist could be a friend of the protagonist who betrays him’. Written underneath it says, ‘Why would he do this?’. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the idea but in order to function within my story, this question really needs to be answered. If I can’t answer it at this stage, you can bet your life my readers will be wondering about it too.

Asking this question then prompted further ideas, such as conflicting political beliefs or that he might see the protagonist as a rival for the affections of his love-interest. This prompted even more questions and more ideas.

Another use for the blue tip is to ask ‘what if?’ style questions, again, to provoke ideas. This is a really great thing to do if you’re stuck in a rut. ‘What if the antagonist were agoraphobic?’ for instance or ‘what if the protagonist were thirty years older?’. Asking these kinds of questions pushes your imagination in directions it might not otherwise go.

Of course, with all these ideas flying around, we really need someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is where the red tip comes into its own. It is used to judge every idea and decide what can and should be used. If there are any problems to be found with any of my ideas, no matter how insurmountable or minor these problems may be, they get noted in red. The result of this is that I will either come up with a new and improved version of the original idea or that I will abandon the idea altogether and come up with a brand new one. For instance, underneath my aforementioned idea that the antagonist could be a rival for a love-interests affections, it says in red ‘We’re trying to write a YA sci-fi/thriller, not a soap opera’. I therefore abandoned that idea and went along with a better one I’d had.

I don’t know how likely it is that you will find this exact process useful. I hope you will at least find the basic premise of it useful. Goodness knows I’ve read up on countless approaches to brainstorming, planning, writing and everything else besides and if there’s one  thing I’ve discovered, it’s that no two authors approach writing in quite the same way, so I strongly encourage you to tinker with it until you get the approach that works for you. Maybe you need more colours. Maybe the whole thing is of no use to you. I don’t know. But this works for me, and I hope, dear reader, that you will be at least able to glean something from it to aid in the creative process.

*other multi-coloured ballpoints are available.

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How To Make a Spin-Off That Doesn’t Suck

Originally published 27/11/2016

This week, I had planned to write a blog about my favourite TV spin-offs; ‘5 Spin-Offs That Are Actually Worth Watching’, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I would have called it. The whole idea was blown out the water when I realised I couldn’t think of many spin-off shows I actually liked; certainly nothing that I liked enough to devote several hundred words to raving about. A painstaking trawl through Wikipedia’s ever popular list of television spin-offs did nothing to inspire me. It only confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: most spin-offs suck.

‘Why is this so?!’ I hear you cry.

Good question. Difficult to answer in broad-sweeping general terms, but I think I’ve managed to identify a few pitfalls that a great many spin-offs fall into that makes them suck. Avoid these when writing your spin-off and you might stand a chance of coming up with something that doesn’t make me want to tear my eyeballs out or (worse yet) yawn loudly and start playing with my phone.

Pitfall #1: The Surprising Shift in Genre

In spite of what I said earlier, as a Trekkie I love both Star Trek: The Original Series and most of the subsequent spin-off shows and movies. One of the reasons for this is because you know where you are with a Star Trek show. Whether it’s the Original Series, The Next Generation or Voyager, you know you’re getting a reasonably family friendly sci-fi/drama. The main setting is nearly always a starship (except for Deep Space Nine where it was a space-station, but close enough). There’s always a captain, a first officer, an engineer, a doctor and so forth. There is continuity with the original show, and that appeals to the most important audience you should be targeting with your spin-off: fans of the original.

But believe it or not, there really have been other Star Trek spin-offs on the cards which were mercifully never produced; spin-offs which broke this rule. For example, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator) did have short-lived plans for one Star Trek spin-off which was to be a sitcom about Lwaxanna Troi (the mother of one of the regular characters in The Next Generation). No seeking out new life, no starship, no boldly going… just extravagant dresses and canned laughter (in Star Trek, if you please).

Need I say more?

Pitfall #2: The Surprising Shift in Age Appropriateness 

I’m looking at you, Torchwood, Class, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9 and whatever other Doctor Who spin-offs there might ever be. If you’re going to do a spin-off of a successful show, the chances are your main audience is going to be people who already watch the original. Remember, knowing your target audience can make or break any kind of story, so if your original story is a dark psychological thriller about an axe-murderer, don’t make the spin-off a children’s show about the exciting adventures of the axe-murderer’s 12 year old nephew. Your new audience won’t be familiar with the backstory and the old audience is unlikely to be interested

And for the love of bacon, don’t do it the other way around either. You’ll only end up getting letters from angry parents.

Pitfall #3: The Protagonist is a Supporting Character from the Original Show

Now before I go any further, I want to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with supporting characters in one show becoming the protagonist of another. It can work very well. For instance, in spite of what I said earlier about the Doctor Who spin-offs, I do think Jack Harkness was just as good a protagonist in Torchwood as he was as a supporting character in Doctor Who. After all, characters are people. People make good protagonists. But if you want a supporting character to have the leading role in your spin-off, they need to evolve beyond that minor role and become full-blown protagonists in their own right.

If the original story has a well developed cast of characters, this might be quite easy to do. Torchwood worked because Jack Harkness was already such a rich character in his own right whether the Doctor is present or not, and so he made the transition to protagonist easily. But let’s pretend we were going to write a new Doctor Who spin-off… let’s call it… I don’t know… Roses Are (Presumed) Dead (see what I did there?); a spin-off about the Doctor’s companion Rose, after she got trapped in a parallel universe and was declared dead. In theory it could work quite well, but you would need to develop that character beyond what she is to begin with. Now living in the parallel universe without the Doctor, she needs to have motivations and goals of her own that the viewer can relate to and care about.

Pitfall #4: Writing a New but Inferior Protagonist to the Original

In some ways, writing a brand new character to be the protagonist is probably far easier to do well, since you’re just creating a brand new protagonist from scratch instead of trying to augment a supporting character

However, you must make sure that your new protagonist lives up to the vibrancy of the original one. Remember, your original audience are the main folk you should try to appeal to. Sorry to keep banging on about Doctor Who spin-offs (there’s just so many of them), but one of the many things I hated about Class was that the protagonist(s?) was so rubbish. Boring, often annoying and quite forgettable. Nothing compared to the Doctor, Jack Harkness or even K-9 in my opinion! The best thing about Class was when the Doctor appeared in the first episode (I don’t know if it was any good after that; I couldn’t bring myself to watch another episode), and for ten marvellous minutes, we had a protagonist worth watching.

The only trouble is, the Doctor isn’t supposed to be the protagonist of this show! Don’t just rely on your popular fictional universe to make your story good. Characters, especially the protagonist, are the beating heart of a good story every single time.

Pitfall #5 – The Protagonist is the Same Protagonist as in the Original Show

Once again, there’s nothing really wrong with this. It can work. Just ask yourself, if the protagonist’s story is finished, why are you still writing about him? It can be tempting to drag out a story beyond it’s natural lifespan, especially if it’s been popular, but if your protagonist has done all he needs to do, just let him live happily ever after. If, on the other hand, the protagonist’s story is not finished, why does it need a brand new spin-off? Why not do another series of the original?

A spin-off must require a brand new premise to truly stand on its own, especially if it has the same protagonist as the original. The British sitcom Porridge and its spin-off Going Straight both feature the same protagonist, but it works because the protagonist, who was originally a prisoner of HMP Slade in Porridge, has now been released in Going Straight and is trying to live a crime-free life. Same character; different premise. It’s a brand new story with the potential to be interesting in its own right. That’s what you’re going for with a spin-off, no matter what format it takes. Something that’s both new enough to be stand alone and familiar enough to draw in your original fans.

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3 Types of Distinctive Characters

Originally published 20/11/2016

Just about every story has characters. They are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.

It is, therefore, naturally quite difficult to capture the formula for creating such a character. After all, any examples I can highlight (and I’ve highlighted a couple of my favourites) would only serve to be examples of unique characters who have already been written. You, dear writer, need to think of something new! But I have tried, as best I can, to sort them into three more general categories of the kind of thing you can use to add that distinctive sparkle to your character. Here they are, in no particular order:

1- Man or Woman of Mystery

For me, there’s nothing like a character who doesn’t show you his whole hand. You know there’s more to him than meets the eye because the things he does and says are peculiar. There seems to be method to his madness but you just don’t know what it is. In the opening chapters of The Vagrant by Peter Newman (arguably my favourite fantasy novel of 2015), we are introduced to a nameless and speechless protagonist, journeying to through a hellish fantasy world with a baby, a living sword and a goat.

Who is he? Where does he come from? What does he want? Why does he want it? Who does the baby belong to? Why can’t he speak (or does he simply  choose not to?)? What’s the deal with the funky sword? And where did he get that goat? So many questions!

Of course, the only danger with this approach is that you might make your story boring if the audience feels like they don’t understand anything that’s going on for too long. Fortunately, in The Vagrant Newman manages to keep that compelling spark of mystery alive by tossing us only tiny scraps of disjointed information, little by little. Just enough to keep us interested, but it is only as the story nears its end that we begin to really learn who this Vagrant is, where he comes from and why he’s doing what he’s doing. That’s the trick to making this kind of character work: a steady diet of gleanings of revelation. Each chapter should tell us something, but not everything.

2- Not Your Average Pirate/Priest/Cowboy/Wizard/Secret Agent/Space Cadet/etc…

This type of character is especially useful if you’re trying to create a lighthearted story, though it can be used in all kinds of fiction. Basically, you think of all the typical attributes you might expect your character to have and you reverse them. For instance, the Monkey Island saga is a series of games which follow the adventures of ‘mighty pirate’, Guybrush Threepwood: a slim, blond, mild-mannered, goofy young man who is, nevertheless, a bona fide (even legendary) pirate who sails the Caribbean vanquishing sword-masters, searching for treasure and battling hellspawned demon pirates. Of all the pirates to appear in fiction throughout the years – Jack Sparrow, Captain Hook, Long John Silver and anyone else you care to name – Guybrush Threepwood stands out as unique because he is so not your average pirate. His utter unsuitability to be a pirate is what makes him and his story so unique.

In Monkey Island, this is used to comic effect, but a skilled writer can use it to create non-humorous characters too. In Pale Rider, the otherwise unnamed protagonist is a preacher who rides into town wearing a clerical collar – but this being a western movie with Clint Eastwood playing the role of the preacher, you can be sure he’s more prone towards solving that town’s problems with violence than your stereotypical man of the cloth. Of all the gun-toting ‘shoot-first-and-ask-them-if-they’re-feeling-lucky-later’ characters that Clint Eastwood has ever played, the Preacher stands out as unique because he defies the usual character profile of your average travelling preacher.

3- Me and My “Thing”

I don’t want to rabbit on about Things too much, since I’ve already blogged about it before, but some characters stand out as unique because of a particular Thing they have with them which serves as a kind of trademark. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are many books, films and TV shows out there which include time travellers who use time machines to travel back and forth through eternity, but only the Doctor from Doctor Who travels through time in a British police box. And so, the Doctor is instantly recognisable by the TARDIS (as it is called), which is his Thing. In fact, the Doctor is a prime example of the power of a Thing, because that character often changes both his physical appearance and personality (we’re currently on our thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor, assuming we count the War Doctor) and yet he is always recognisable as the Doctor so long as he is travelling through time and space in a police box shaped TARDIS. If he ever permanently ditches the TARDIS for a time machine shaped like anything else, he won’t be the Doctor anymore.

The one thing you do need to be careful of is that your character’s Thing doesn’t turn out to be nothing more than a cheap gimmick which adds nothing to the story. Remember, everything must help the story to progress. The TARDIS works just fine as a Thing, because it also serves a more primary function – as the Doctor’s only means to travelling from time to time. It doesn’t just add a distinctive trademark to the Doctor’s character; it also plays a vital role in making the story work.

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The End…?

Originally published 30/10/2016

SPOILER ALERT

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

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

‘But when?!’ I hear you cry.

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

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

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

But then, a 5th series was announced.

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

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

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

There are three possible answers to this question:

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

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

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

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

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Your Character’s “Thing”

Originally published 09/10/2016

SPOILER ALERT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Typewriter: An Old-Fashioned Solution for Modern Writers

Originally published 02/10/2016

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

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

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

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

I had a brainwave.

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

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

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

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

Then I found it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Originally published 25/09/2016

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

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Ten Writing Commandments

Originally published 18/09/2016

I’m in a cliché sort of mood today and since I don’t want to burden the novel I intend to work on this afternoon with clichés, I’m afraid I’m going to burden you with them instead. Behold, my Ten Writing Commandments, predictably humorously written in a crude approximation of ‘King James English’ and with helpful expositions of each rule.

Most of these rules are as old as the hills and are probably familiar to you. I am not, for one second, claiming to have invented any of these rules. However, this is a compilation of ten writing precepts, from a variety of sources, that I have found to be particularly useful to me. I should add that the expositions I have included are all my own.

So, without further ado…

1. Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell.

This is what separates quality prose from a technical manual. Allow me to demonstrate with an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

‘They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans…’ (emphasis mine).

This is a well written line. Rather than telling you what happened, it uses imagery to allow the reader to experience for themselves the sight of two men, stuffing their faces with beans.

Here is what that exact same passage might look like if it was all telling and no showing:

‘They sat by the fire and ate lots of beans.’

Exactly the same thing is happening here but it fails to capture the gluttony of the ravening men. The reader is not transported to the fireside to witness the feast of beans. We are simply informed. Boring!

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee unrealistic goals.

Be honest with yourself about what it is possible to achieve. A thousand words a day seems like a small goal, but after only one year, you will have 365,000 words; that’s a trilogy of novels, all because you succeeded in reaching your daily goal. But if you set yourself a goal of 10,000 words a day and fail to meet it, you will never complete anything.

Slow and steady wins the race (I haven’t got these clichés out of my system just yet)!

3. Thou shalt remove all distractions.

I’m looking at you, Facebook. Get rid of anything that might distract your attention. TV, internet, chattering relatives, the lot. Focus solely on achieving the goal you have set for yourself that day. If you find yourself prone to a wandering mind, allow yourself regular but carefully timed breaks to do all the other little things you need/want to do… but when it’s writing time, it’s writing time.

4. Thou shalt not use words in vain.

Waffle is no fun to read… so why it write it?

Oh, I see… you want to ‘pad out’ your story to reach your word limit, so you’re thinking of adding in lots of unnecessary words to make your sentences longer? Well, don’t. All that does is breaks up the flow of your story. Take this phrase for example: ‘The brightly shining sun…’

There are four words in that phrase, two of which (‘brightly’ and ‘shining’) are superfluous. The reader doesn’t need you to tell them that the sun is shining brightly, because the sun always shines brightly by its very nature. It’s never dull or dark. The noun ‘sun’ naturally conjures images of bright shininess all by itself. If the sun was shining dimly for some reason, then an adverb might just come in handy!

If in doubt, remember the rule that every word and sentence you write ought to help the story to progress. Don’t tell the reader what they already know or do not need to know.

5. Thou shalt know thine audience.

Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to think about the commercial side of writing, knowing your intended audience is the only way to know exactly what to write. No story, no matter how well written, will suit everybody; therefore, it must suit somebody. It is only possible to reliably accomplish this if you know in advance who that somebody is.

6. Thou shalt write regularly and often.

Some say you have to write every single day or you are doomed to fail. I think that’s a slight exaggeration but the principle is sound. Depending on your circumstances, it might be more appropriate to write seven, six or five days a week but what really matters is that you get into a habit of writing often (because believe me, good writers practice their craft) and at regular set times to help you avoid distraction. Not only this, but having a regular writing time means you will also have a regular ‘clocking off’ time – because writing every hour God sends is no healthier than being at any other job 24/7.

7. Thou shalt write swiftly…

Planner or pantser, the same applies to both of you: when it comes to writing, the best thing you can do is to make sure words are constantly appearing on the page without stopping to improve (or worse, delete) what you’ve just written. This is not the time for editing or second-guessing yourself. Get your story down in all its dreadful badness. A bad story can become a good story, but nothing won’t become anything. If you really can’t bring yourself to do it, join an archaeology expedition and try to dig up an old typewriter and write your story on that instead.

8. … and thou shalt edit slowly.

Having said that, you still want your story to be perfect. So, once you’ve got your story written down, go over it with a fine tooth comb. Analyse it carefully and in detail; word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Find whatever stylistic or grammatical problems there may be and do not rest until they have all been resolved to your satisfaction.

9. Thou shalt retain professional detachment from everything you write.

What I mean by this is that no part of your story – words, sentences, metaphors, word-play, characters, plot twists or anything else – should be safe from being changed or completely deleted as necessary. What matters is the story. This is especially important for writers of speculative fiction who feel the need to explain every intricate detail of how their fantasy world functions. You as the writer might be very excited about what you’ve created, but the truth is, the reader is not. The reader is looking for a story, so don’t go off on long tangents.

The same is true, however, even in non-speculative fiction. Perhaps you have written some really powerful dialogue or the perfect fight scene… but they have no real function in your story. They will need to go. Therefore, do not become overly attached to anything you have create or else when you come to edit, it will be like having one hand tied behind your back.

10. Thou shalt break these commandments as ye see fit.

I mentioned at the beginning that these were ten rules that I have found to be useful to me personally. The truth is, I’ve come across dozens of books and websites claiming that ‘this, that or the other’ is the most important rule to follow in writing but really… there are successful writers who follow one set of rules and there are those who do the exact opposite. Some write daily; some do not. Some plan; some pants. I remember once on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a particular character commented that you can only write about what you have experienced… which got me wondering what planet (literally) the writers of Star Trek were living on. I’ve said it several times today and I’ll say it again: what matters is your story.

If the only way you know to get words on the page is to do the opposite of everything I’ve written here, then do it with my blessing. Rules are made to be broken.

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A Fight Scene Worth Reading

Originally published 11/09/2016

We all know (instinctively at least) that conflict, of one kind or another, is at the core of every good story. Whatever the protagonist’s goal may be– to get the girl/boy, to vanquish evil or simply to get through the day in one piece –there is always something or someone who will seek to prevent it from happening. In fiction, as in life, conflict between two characters often leads to fisticuffs. It can be an exciting moment in your story where the tension finally erupts and your audience are beside themselves with anticipation of what the outcome will be… Or it can be tedious, pedestrian, predictable and downright boring.

I am thinking particularly of fight scenes in novels, short stories and other forms of written fiction, since fight scenes in film and theatre are (at least to some extent) more a matter of choreography than writing. As a reader, I often find that even in the best books, it is badly written fight scenes that can really ruin my enjoyment of the story, whether it’s a quick wrestling match between two minor characters or an epic battle between ten vast armies of elves, dragons, wizards and goblins. It’s not that I think fight scenes are unimportant (sometimes they’re necessary) or unexciting (well-written ones can be thrilling); they’re just difficult to get right.

So, first things first. Ask yourself if you really need a fight scene. If it doesn’t help the story to move forward in some concrete way then the answer is probably ‘no’. Some reasons you might want to include a fight scene include:

  • You need to kill off a character (‘need’ being the operative word; only kill a character off if it is necessary to help the story progress)
  • You need to release tension between two characters and create a turning point in their relationship. Although it might not be a good philosophy to live your real life by, physical altercations in fiction often help to clear the air between two characters. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Family’, Captain Picard and his brother have a constant simmering tension between the two of them until they have a good old punch-up in the middle of the vineyard. Alternatively, a fight could change your characters’ relationship from restrained dislike to open enmity.
  • Organised violence might be a central part of the story. For example, The Hunger Games centres around an annual televised battle to the death; thus, characters are expected to fight. War and spy novels are also likely to include such fights where violence is ‘just part of the job’, rather than personal.

If you’ve decided that you’ve got no choice and that you must include a fight scene, there’s a few things you should be aware of. You probably know the first commandment of writing: ‘Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell’. Well, if you’ve ever tried to write a fight scene for a novel or short story, you probably know that it is blooming difficult to write a fight scene and fully observe this rule. Even in written fiction, a good fight still needs to be ‘choreographed’: each character moving to attack, defend and respond to the other characters movements. It’s difficult to accomplish this in words without resorting to a simple description of who attacked who and how, and for this reason I would be inclined to keep it as short as possible and keep the technical details to an absolute minimum. Even though it might lack the details of who struck who and how, this will help to preserve the excitement and pace of your fight scene. What you really want to capture is the sense of chaos and brutality involved. Which of these do you think is the most exciting?

Enough was enough. Willy had really done it this time and John was going to teach him a lesson he would never forget. He reached back with his right hand and punched Willy squarely in the nose, drawing blood from his nostrils. Willy said, ‘Ow! Why did you do that man?’ and clumsily karate chopped John’s left shoulder with his right hand.

or

Something snapped inside John. His hand flew towards Willy and touched his nose with a crunch. Blood was on his hand and all over Willy’s shirt. Spluttering with fury, Willy launched himself towards John, his hands launching out aimlessly.

Another thing to consider is the thoughts the protagonist who is involved in this fight. Internal dialogue allows you to maintain that character-driven quality which separates a good story from a boring one and it also helps to break up tedious descriptions. However, beware! In a fight, it is unlikely that characters have time for long drawn out and complex thoughts. The pace of the scene must still be maintained. For example,

John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. A karate chop? Really? What did he think this was, a ’60s TV drama? Doesn’t he realise that in the battle for life and death, one must keep a cool head or else they will be overcome by their rage and will surely be defeated? This is just like that time in high school when I got into a fight with Tom over some girl we both fancied. Gosh, what was her name again? I can’t even remember, I just remember how embarrassed I felt for him, even as we were fighting.

That’s too much internal dialogue for a fight scene. I don’t care if your character is the most introspective and reflective of all God’s creatures; there is supposed to be a fight happening while he’s having these thoughts. Writing lengthy internal dialogue like this makes it seem like either 1) the fight has been temporarily postponed for a moment of reflection or 2) John has become so consumed by his own thoughts that he doesn’t realise Willy is now bludgeoning him to death with a hammer. Instead, something like this would be more appropriate:

John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. His rage was his weakness.

See how much shorter that is – and yet it communicates almost exactly the same idea: John’s confidence that he will triumph over Willy because Willy is ruled by his emotions.

Ultimately, a fight scene is like any other part of your story: it is there to move the plot along by what your characters do and think and say. The reason fight scenes are so tricky is that they are such complicated physical acts with very little rational thinking or dialogue involved and it is easy to make them boring. The bottom line, then, is that fight scenes should be used as sparingly as possible and be sure to keep them snappy. Only include what is necessary and as far as possible, focus on the characters as people rather than a technical blow-by-blow account of the action itself. A good fight scene should be like a pressure valve; quickly and decisively releasing the tension which has already been building up for a long time. Get it right and your reader won’t be able to put your book down, at least for a few more pages.

 

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Presenting Your Characters’ Backstories

Originally published 04/09/2016

I was recently sitting at home with my wife when it occurred to me that if one of my schoolmates (whom I haven’t seen in years) hadn’t gone on holiday to Spain in 2002, I would never have got married more than a decade later. You see, he went on holiday with his family in 2002 and befriended a girl there (not my wife) and some time after this, he introduced me to her. A few years later, I got a job in town and started going out with the girl my friend met on holiday. I would often go to see her straight from work, using a shortcut which took me past a particular college (I didn’t know this college existed before then). I eventually split up with the girl my friend met on holiday so many years before, but a while after this I decided to study at the aforementioned college that I had discovered while taking the shortcut to see my now ex-girlfriend. At that college, I met another girl who was working in the canteen: she who is now my wife.

A leads to B which leads to C, all the way up to Z and beyond. This is what happens in real life. In fiction, this needs to be compressed into a backstory. Where did your character come from? Who influenced them as he was growing up and throughout his life up until this point? And most importantly of all: what is that defining moment in their past that made them who they are today?

For example, like most superheroes, Spider-Man’s goal is to stop the bad guy(s), protect the innocent and generally save the day. He is motivated to do this by the belief that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. However, this belief didn’t just pop into his head. He learnt this lesson in his very first comic book appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 (and subsequent re-imaginings of the same story), when he refused to use his powers to stop a criminal — only for that same criminal to murder his uncle. This single event lies behind everything Spider-Man does from that moment on, even if it is not explicitly mentioned. It is a defining moment in Spider-Man’s life that changed him from a selfish lad who was only interested in using his powers to make money into the crime-fighting hero he became.

The same goes for bad guys. Something made them who they are today. Darth Vader, for instance, wasn’t always a heavy-breathing, Force-choking Sith. Even before the prequel trilogy came out, it is stated that at one point he was a Jedi who was ‘seduced by the Dark Side’ (Return of the Jedi). The prequel trilogy shows us several events in his life which arguably contributed to his conversion into the Sith Lord we know and love from the original trilogy, but the key moment comes in Revenge of the Sith, when he has a vision of his wife dying in childbirth and is convinced by Darth Sidious that he can ‘cheat death’ by joining the Dark Side. However, even if the prequel trilogy had never happened (I’m sure there are many who wish that it were so), there would still remain this implied critical moment in Darth Vader’s life when he became the man in the shiny black helmet (in fact, the very fact that he has to wear all that cybernetic equipment just to keep him alive implies an exciting backstory by itself).

So, backstories clearly are vital parts of characterisation. But now that we (as authors) know them, how do we present them to the reader?

Give It To Us Straight

I think some authors get so excited about the character they’ve created that they just can’t bear to only show you a single portion of their life. Not when they’ve created such a great backstory! And so, instead of implying a backstory, they will give you the full biography of the character they’ve created from the day they were born. Everything is made explicit. Every. Tedious. Detail.

If you must do this, the best approach is probably to try to limit yourself to that key event (for instance, the death of Spider-Man’s uncle) and do not try to cram it all into the first page. Give it to us in dribs and drabs and only as much as is absolutely necessary. For instance, let’s pretend I was writing a Spider-Man story (I’m not, by the way!). My first couple of pages could be devoted to explaining in some detail how Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider, gained super powers, used his powers selfishly at first, let a crook escape, lost his uncle as a result and decided to become a superhero as a result… but I wouldn’t hold my reader’s attention for long. It would suffice in the opening pages to hint at a tragedy and maybe a sense of guilt felt by the protagonist but nothing more until later.

If the backstory is very complicated and really needs a long-winded narrative, then I suppose you could always tell it in the form of flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative, but personally, I hate excessive flashbacking. If the backstory is that important and that complicated that you are considering flashbacks, you might want to consider…

Prequels

Prequels are all the rage. Gotham, Hannibal Rising, Legends of Dune, The Magician’s Nephew, Endeavour, the aforementioned Star Wars prequel and the last few offerings from the Star Trek franchise all give us detailed backstories in the form of a completely separate book/film/show/etc.

The benefits to doing this are obvious: you can present your character’s backstory in all its glorious splendour with the full narrative form that it deserves.

The downside is that if you’re writing an entirely separate narrative, you’ll still need backstories for your backstory, since your prequel is a story in its own right. Darth Vader (or Anakin Skywalker, as he was then known) might have only been nine years old in The Phantom Menace, but even at that stage, he had a backstory; he and his mother were slaves of Watto and that he was believed to have been conceived by the Force. It is also worth remembering that just because you plan to tell the backstory in the form of a separate prequel, that backstory must still exist and be implied within the main story itself. Writing a prequel is no replacement for a detailed and well presented backstory in the main story.

Imply Your Backstory (The Best Way)

We return, then, to the age old adage of good writing: show; don’t tell. Don’t write anywhere in your Spider-Man novel (note: please do not write a Spider-Man novel) that he once let a criminal escape and that criminal shot his uncle. Instead, show me a tragic hero who is climbing walls and spinning webs to try and make up for a mistake he made years ago; a mistake that is gnawing away at his insides; a regret so profound that it would drive him insane if he didn’t wear a mask and risk his life every day to wage a one-man war on crime. Keep me turning pages in the hopes that I might glean the backstory based on what is still haunting his thoughts and influencing his actions today. The more you reveal without stating it explicitly, the better your writing will be.

If you ask me, this is nearly always the best way to present a backstory effectively. Giving explicit descriptions of what happened in a character’s past is not only cumbersome, it also answers most of the reader’s questions too quickly. Writing a prequel might be fun (some of them are even very good), but if you don’t know your protagonist’s backstory when you come to write your main story, you’ll still end up with a shallow and lifeless character, because real people don’t just pop out of the ground fully formed. The circumstances of their lives are defined by what has happened before. Therefore, you as the author must know – and show that you know – what has happened to bring your character to this point if you want to create a believable person.

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