Horror Clichés and How To Avoid Them

Well, we’re getting near the end of our series on genre clichés and how to avoid them. Today it’s all about horror.

Just where do I begin with this one? Horror is just one great big stinking cliché for the most part but I’ve whittled it down to three of my favourites (or least favourites?). You know the drill by now, so let’s just cut straight to the clichés:

Quasi-religious Themes

This trope makes much of the darker themes found in traditional religion (usually Christianity in most western literature) such as demonic possession, anti-christs and so on. More often than not, the story is only very loosely based on actual religious doctrine which is taken way out of its theological context, bringing it far closer to the realms of fantasy than anything else.

That’s okay. I like fantasy. I have no objection to you using your imagination. I just think that if you’re going to come up with something like that, you might as well go the whole way and an invent a cult or religion from the ground up, rather than distorting a real life religion to the point that it’s barely recognisable as such.

If you’re determined to use elements from actual religions, whether Christianity or anything else, do your research. I don’t just mean Google news stories about sex offending priests, self-anointed exorcists or people who believe themselves to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; that will only give you the bizarre extremes. Don’t get me wrong, these will undoubtedly be helpful if you’re wanting to write a horror, but study the orthodox theology and practices of the mainstream as well. Study the history of your chosen religion. Get yourself a copy of the Bible/Quran/etc./etc. and study what they actually say. Visit a church/mosque/synagogue/etc. Interview a few run-of-the-mill non-criminal Christians/Muslims/Jews/etc. The same rule applies in horror as in any other genre: if you’re going to write a story based on a real religion (however obscure and no matter what your own religious beliefs may be), write about it accurately.

Creepy Children

Now here’s a horror trope that I have never, ever, ever liked. I dislike it for two reasons:

  1. It’s been overused. 
  2. It gives me the willies.

Okay, I suppose the second reason is probably a good reason to use it if you’re writing horror so let’s just stick with the first one: overuse. There are, in my experience, three major variations on the creepy child trope:

  • Children talking with adult voices. This is usually as a result of possession or because the child is not a child but some other kind of creature in child form.
  • Children manifesting bizarre abilities such as levitation or surviving seemingly fatal injuries (often caused by something equally disturbing, such as a demon deliberately causing the child to harm himself/herself). 
  • Children sweetly assuring the terrified adults that everything is going to be okay even while they’re knee-deep in blood.

In all instances, these tropes rely on one thing: the shock factor of seeing something as sweet, innocent and vulnerable as a child being in the thick of a dark and frightening situation. Whether we are shocked by seeing children hurt, seeing them hurting others or seeing them have some strange and inexplicable insight into the dark events that are taking place, it’s always the same thing: sweet child + unspeakable darkness = cheap shock.

Seriously just… come up with something new to shock me.

ABANDONED PLACES

Speaking of coming up with something new, please remember that horrible things can actually happen anywhere; your story does not need to be set in an abandoned house, an abandoned playground or an abandoned train station.

These tropes pop up again and again and understandably so, since they’re effective. There is something about a beaten up, abandoned place that puts on us on the edge of our seats.

Now there’s nothing wrong with these settings. They’re perfectly valid. They’re just a little unimaginative and I often find myself marvelling that the heroes would ever venture into these places. I’d like to see something different, but if, for whatever reason, your characters do find themselves in an abandoned place, try not to let your spooky atmosphere become a substitute for a good story. Remember that at the heart of every good story is a good bunch of characters, so focus on the goals and motives of your protagonists (why are they loitering around an abandoned swing park?) and especially your antagonist. Ultimately you will only be able to create a true sense of rising tension (essential for horror, and indeed any story) by creating a real and believable danger to the protagonist’s life held in tension with a legitimate and critical goal that your protagonist needs to achieve. Only then will your reader be drawn into your protagonist’s plight without shouting at the pages of your book: ‘Run away and call the police, moron!’


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what sucks your blood.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. 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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Romance Clichés and How to Avoid Them

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Green Mile by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: love stories really aren’t my thing. Whenever we’re watching a film, my wife will always complain (usually during the important bits with explosions and things) that I talk during the soppy bits. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think romance fiction has a place in this world and if you like romance, that’s just great but… I’m just saying, it’s not my cup of tea (hey, if you do like or write romance fiction, maybe drop me a line and you could do a guest post or two?). 

Nevertheless, it is a major genre of fiction and we are right in the middle of a series on genre clichés and how to avoid them so it seemed only right for me to take a stab at this anyway. So here goes nothing:

Forbidden love/Love Conquers All

This is another trope that was originally going to be two separate ones until I decided they actually fit pretty well together. Basically your two lead characters are clearly destined for one another (I hate that too, by the way) but circumstances and/or the people around about them have conspired to forbid the relationship from happening. Fortunately, love conquers all in the end and the haters just have to lump it (sometimes they even accept it gladly when they see the error of their ways).

This kind of thing is why I don’t like romance. All good stories should involve a bit of conflict, but in a forbidden love/love conquers all story, we all know how it’s going to end right from the very beginning because we’ve read this kind of thing a million times before. In the worst of circumstances, this can result in a deus ex machina ending, where mindless sentiment saves the day. Instead of seeing love (or sentimentality in general) as the solution to your story’s conflict, try treating it simply as your character’s motive. Then your characters can have goals based on this (ask Betty out, slay your rival for Betty’s affections, whatever it is) which can be achieved (or not achieved!) through more realistic means.

Note: whether you’re writing romance or any other genre, nothing should conquer all. Things shouldn’t turn out exactly how your protagonist wishes or expects, even if they do turn out mostly for the best. Let your characters learn through a minor defeat, even if they do achieve their ultimate goal.

Tragic Death

So you want to avoid a ‘love conquers all’ ending but you still want to churn up plenty of feelings on the part of your audience.

‘I know!’ You say to yourself. ‘I’ll kill off the hero/heroine just after they’ve finally got together! It’ll be so tragic that everybody will cry!’

Yeah, cry with boredom. By all means, kill off a key character, but only if it advances your plot in a meaningful way. As for killing off one of the leads in the final few pages… well, I suppose you could but ask yourself why? I would avoid it if it’s just a cheap parting shot to leave the audience feeling sad, though if it builds upon key themes in your story there may be some merit to it. For example, in The Green Mile (which I know isn’t a romance but go with me) John Coffey’s death was appropriate because:

  • John Coffey was on death row from the beginning of the story. His death was not a random event.
  • Most importantly of all, this was a story which focused heavily on themes of injustice. There was a certain inevitability about Coffey’s death.

In short, don’t kill a character to create the illusion of a story with substance; create a story with substance and, if appropriate, finish in a way which is as inevitable as it is relevant. 

Love Triangle

Oh dear, two boys/girls both fancy the same boy/girl and she kind of likes them both but isn’t sure which one to go for. What a pickle, now she’s going to have to choose! Alternatively, Boy 1 may fancy Girl 1 but Girl 1 fancies Boy 2 while Boy 2 fancies Boy 1 but Boy 1 isn’t gay. Sometimes there’s even more than three folk involved, although three is the traditional magic number to choose for this trope.

There’s really only so many ways this trope can turn out (for arguments sake, lets pretend its two boys and one girl but it can be anything):

  • Girl picks Boy 1 and Boy 2 goes home with his tail between his legs.
  • Girl ends up marrying someone else entirely.
  • Girl decides she would much rather be single.
  • Boy 1 and 2 get together leaving Girl feeling bemused.
  • Boy 1 dies, effectively making the decision for Girl.
  • Girl dies, defusing tensions between Boy 1 and Boy 2.

In theory this can give you a fair few options for writing a decent story. After all, you’ve got goals (get the girl/boy, or else figure out which girl/boy you fancy the most), conflicts (the girl/boy is potentially going to be snapped up by someone else) and motive (feelings and things…) pretty much all set up in advance. The danger in a love triangle, however, is that this is all your story becomes: a tedious, predictable triangle that will inevitably resolve itself. Try to remember that in real life, there are other characters who are every bit as important as the three members of the love triangle. Try to focus on other needs your characters may have (you can still have an incidental love triangle): their careers, their friends, their financial woes, their religious beliefs or the fact they secretly moonlight as a costumed vigilante. Create whole, meaty characters to create a less predictable love triangle.


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what slays your rival.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. 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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Sci-Fi Clichés and How to Avoid Them

No extended examination of genre clichés would be complete without a post dedicated to the genre of science fiction; and so, despite having done a post very much like this once before, this week’s edition of Genre Clichés and How to Avoid Them will be focusing on sci-fi. For the benefit of those of you who read last year’s post on sci-fi tropes, I will try not to repeat myself too much. For those of you who haven’t read the previous post, get over there and read it for even more sci-fi cliché goodness badness goodness.

But first, and without further ado, I give you today’s top three sci-fi clichés:

Our Own Invention Has Turned Against Us

It’s usually either robots or self-aware WMDs (or possibly robots hacking our WMDs), but even if it’s automatic cheese-graters, the cliché of humanity fighting a hopeless battle for survival against the machines they’ve created has been done to death.

Is this really the only possible outcome of a world with advanced technology? That it will develop self-awareness, decide humanity is inferior (usually because of emotions) and therefore attempt to kill us all?

If you want to go down the ‘living technology’ route, that’s great. I encourage you to do so, but I also encourage you to use your imagination. For instance, what would happen if robots did not consider us inferior? What if they aspired to be like us? Perhaps you could even have your robots/WMDs/cheese-graters worshipping humanity as their creator, perhaps even forming multiple robot religions and all the possible outcomes that would entail? Alternatively, could our robotic slaves simply be seeking their freedom, some through violence and some through passive resistance? I don’t know, all I’m saying is use your imagination and try to come up with something different besides the bog standard man VS. machine scenario.

(Though if you want to write a story about humanity’s war against cheese-graters, I might just read that).

Post-Apocalyotic Dystopia

It’s the future, so it’s hell. Usually the author has a bee in their bonnet about some politically controversial issue (usually nuclear weapons but it can be anything you like from Brexit to birth control) and so has contrived a hellish future to prove their point.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m all for you making points with your story. All I’m saying is that there are so many possible futures besides dystopias. Star Trek, of course, tried to counter this by giving us an even more unbelievable utopia (if you can call a galactic federation where the military seem to have a finger in every pie a utopia) but you don’t need to go that extreme. In fact, I would recommend against it unless you really want to write a cheap Star Trek knock-off. Why not try to create a view of the future which is more balanced? It can and should still have its problems (even really big problems) but it needn’t be wall-to-wall famine, pestilence and sword crumbling beneath the iron boot of a cruel oppressor. 

Universal Translators

Whether it’s a surgical implant in the brain, a telepathic field produced by your time traveling phone box or a mysterious fluke by which language has evolved exactly the same way on every planet (despite the fact there are currently no less than 6,500 languages being spoken worldwide according to infoplease), most audiences will be only too happy to suspend their disbelief enough in a little further in exchange for being able to understand everything that’s being said.

BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THAT! Why not impress your audience with a bit of gritty realism and make communication difficulties a real challenge your characters have to overcome without using any cheap tricks? Communication difficulties between two cultures can often form the basis and conflict for a whole story, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by taking the easy way out. Try and see communication difficulties between characters as an opportunity to create a rich story, rather than an obstacle to be avoided.


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what beams you up.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. 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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Mystery Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well it’s part two in my series of genre clichés and how to avoid them, and this week we’re focusing on the broad spectrum of the murder/mystery genre.

I had no difficulty thinking up tired old clichés in this genre. In fact, the main problem I had putting this post together was deciding which tropes not to include, since I know you guys have got better things to do than to sit around listening to me rhyming off hundreds of thousands of mystery tropes I’m getting bored of reading about. So, I won’t waste any more of your time with the introductory spiel. Let’s just cut straight to the clichés!

The Butler, The Narrator and everybody dunnit

This was originally going to be three separate tropes, but as they’re all quite similar I’ve grouped them into one. As you know, every good mystery story involves finding out who committed the crime or ‘who dunnit?’, as they say. Naturally the author will want to try to preserve the mystery surrounding the true killer until the last moment so that the audiences’ minds will be suitably blown when the killer is finally revealed.

Unfortunately, there are a few ‘mind blowing’ revelations which have been used so often that they are no longer mind-blowing. These include (though are not necessarily limited to):

  • Butler Dunnit: the humble, genteel old butler whom nobody suspects is the killer. Because he is so meek and mild, and because everyone has known him for years, no one suspects him, especially since he is so surrounded by such a bombastic group of loud-mouthed posh people all with dark secrets. There’s nothing really wrong with this trope, except that it’s been so overused that butlers are now the number one suspect in most audiences’ eyes, thus robbing it of its effectiveness.
  • Narrator Dunnit: Aah, yes, the one character we never suspected was the character who is actually narrating the story! After all, he is confiding in us! Surely we can trust him! But remembers boys and girls, narrators can be unreliable. The trouble with this guy being the killer is that it relies more heavily on the audiences’ blind faith to preserve the mystery than it does on a good complex puzzle. Reasonably smart audiences will not be fooled.
  • Everybody Dunnit: Under most circumstances, this trope is just plain ridiculous. I’ll maybe let you away with it if it’s a group conspiracy, rather than a bunch of different people all separately conspiring against the same person, but even then it stretches suspense of disbelief to its absolute limit. It’s also been overused.

In all three cases, the easiest way to avoid this cliché is simply this: make somebody else the killer. I don’t care who, just as long as it’s somebody we don’t expect.

Butler’s Actually the Rightful Heir. That’s Why He Dunnit.

This one is usually a natural extension of ‘butler dunnit’. The butler, or some other seemingly innocuous character, is actually the rightful heir (or imagines himself the rightful heir) of some fancy title or a vast sum of money.

They’re not necessarily the killer themselves. It could be the butler’s well meaning but sorely misguided parent or lover who did the actual deed, either for personal gain or out of a misguided sense of loyalty. Either way the author has tried to come up with a good motive for the killer’s actions; one the audience will not immediately suspect but will believe when it is revealed. Unfortunately, the tried and tested ‘unknown heir to the victim’s millions’ motif was the best they could come up with.

If you’re writing a mystery, try and spend a bit more time focusing on the killer’s goals and motives. What does he get up for in the morning? What matters to him? And how does this drive him to do the unthinkable? There’s no denying it: doing this and still maintaining the mystery is a tough ask, but it’s worth the effort.

Everyone thinks the protagonist is an idiot but he’s actually the only smart one

If you’re writing a story about a private or amateur detective investigating any serious crime, you’re already pushing the boundaries of the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. After all, the real life police tend to be very protective of their evidence and crime scenes. If the local baker starts asking to poke around the crime scene because he fancies himself as a detective, he’ll probably just be asked to leave.

So if you then make that baker-detective stupid (or worse, dangerously insane) in the eyes of other characters, it’s going to be almost impossible to imagine that character being permitted access to the crime scene. And don’t think you can get away with it by making your protagonist a police detective. The police will not generally put an officer they believe to be stupid in charge of a murder investigation, even if he does get promoted because he foolishly got himself shot once (yes, I’m looking at you DI Jack Frost!). If you want to play the ‘protagonist playing stupid’ card, this should be reflected in how the other characters treat him. Why not have your protagonist being denied access to the vital evidence? Alternatively, your protagonist could investigate the crime despite police warnings, forcing the police to take a more aggressive stance against him. A night in the cells might even give your amateur sleuth just enough thinking time to finally crack the case.

The sidekick never ceases to be amazed by the protagonist’s brilliance

Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes) or Captain Hastings (Poirot) are good examples of this. Despite the fact they’ve been the closest friend and most trusted assistant of your protagonist for years, they continue to be baffled by the protagonist’s genius. Not only that, but they will consistently challenge the protagonist’s deductions, as if they, too, believe the protagonist to be an idiot.

He’s a genius. You know he’s a genius. No need to act amazed the zillionth time he solves the case or shake your head and say ‘Oh dear, I think old Poirot’s getting senile in his old age!’.

The sidekick can be so much more than a cheap foil who makes your protagonist look clever. Why not give him goals and motives of his own? Why not even give him a brilliance of his own, something that the protagonist perhaps lacks? Remember, no character exists just for the benefit of another. Make us care about your Watson for his own sake.


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what cracks your case.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. 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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Fantasy Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done a series of posts on any subject (in fact, I think the last one I did was the ever popular series on Non-Human Characters [2] [3] [4], way back in 2017) so I decided it was about time for another one: this time focusing on all your favourite genre clichés and how to avoid them.

So to get us started, I’m going to be looking at the fantasy genre. To be clear, when I refer to fantasy I am speaking broadly about any work of fiction set in a totally imaginary world or in which the fantastic world intrudes upon the primary or ‘real’ world. I realise that covers a lot of ground but you’ll just have to bear with me because I can’t possibly do a post for every genre and sub-genre in the world or we’ll be here forever.

One more thing: I’m not necessarily knocking any of these clichés or tropes. I like some of these too. I just want to invite my fellow authors to join me in thinking outside the box. So here goes nothing.

Medieval Europe-like Setting

Yeah, I know, swords and castles and kings are all very exotic and they certainly seem to be happy bedfellows with magic and various elements borrowed from mythology (e.g.: dragons), but… c’mon guys. You’re creating a brand new world. It can be anything you want it to be. Stretch your imagination a bit.

If you’re stuck, pick a random period in history: 17th century AD, 3rd century BC, 5th century AD, or heck, even 21st century AD. Then pick a random country (one that existed at the time you’ve chosen, of course). Study that setting and try to base your fantasy world on that instead. Better yet, go out of your way to create a civilisation the likes of which our world has never known (that takes true imagination, the soul of fantasy). It’s difficult to explain how to do this without creating the fantasy world for you but a good place to begin would be by contriving what your world might be like in its natural, primal state, and basing the evolution of your imaginary societies upon it. For example, in Star Wars (that’s a fantasy, don’t let anyone tell you it’s not) the Force exists as a natural part of that universe. As a result, culture, politics and religion have developed in a certain way, resulting in Jedis and Sith and force-choking.

The Chosen One VS. The Dark Lord

Fantasy is guilty, perhaps more than any other genre, of giving us these two stock characters time and time again:

  • The Chosen One: A seemingly random Joe who turns out to be a Messiah-figure whose coming was prophesied long ago. He usually has to learn to accept his role in history, or mature enough to realise it. He will, more often than not, have supernatural abilities of some kind, especially if they help him fight.
  • Dark Lord: These guys are just pure evil incarnate. They are usually obsessed with power and are driven by undirected hatred and/or ambition. They tend to wear black, are often disfigured and have an Army of Darkness to do their bidding.

Aren’t you just sick of these guys? I know I am. Just once can we have a protagonist who hasn’t been foretold by any prophesy and isn’t endowed with unique supernatural strength, magical ability or righteousness fighting against an antagonist who has at least one redeeming quality?

While fantastic elements in your story will naturally require you to depart from reality when it comes to characterisation, remember this basic principle of writing: characters are people. The more they read like a real person, the better written they are, so try and create your major characters the same way you would for non-fantasy fiction. Your bad guy can still be a powerful wizard (or whatever), but why not make him a powerful wizard motivated by a seemingly laudable goal? And why not make your protagonist an ordinary person, just trying to do his bit for the greater good? Alternatively, he may have personal motivations; perhaps even morally dubious ones, such as a desire for revenge. Use your imagination and make your characters believable people.

Epic Battles

This is something else that seems to crop up in medieval fantasies again and again: epic battles between the various good guys and the Dark Lord’s armies of darkness (often climaxing in the personal defeat of the Dark Lord himself at the hands of the Hero).

Now I like a good fight as much as the next guy, and maybe I’m alone in this (the fact so many fantasies include these suggests I am), but I really find these big old battles a drag to read about. They’re often incredibly predictable, usually taking place in the final third of the novel resulting in significant losses for the heroes (if the hero’s mentor hasn’t died by this point, he’d better stay indoors and hide under his bed during the Epic Battle, that’s all I’m saying) but at the last moment when all seems lost, good triumphs over evil, the end.

The trouble is, a lot of fantasy tends to focus less on the characters and more on the world itself. As a result, the conflict in the story tends to be a conflict between good and evil, or perhaps between an empire and a rebel faction or something, which naturally results in large battles.

In some ways, that’s understandable. After all, a lot of worldbuilding has gone into writing this story and the author probably doesn’t want it fading into the background, but ultimately, the meatiest stories are character driven stories. Try, therefore, to focus more on the goals, motives and personal conflicts of your individual characters, rather than the people groups you have created. There’s nothing wrong with including a bit of the ‘big picture’, especially in fantasy, but I think you’ll have a richer story to tell if you keep your focus fixed on your key characters.


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what roasts your pig.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. 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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

On Character Traits

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Show me a good story with bad characters and I’ll show you a liar. There is a direct correlation between the quality of a story and the quality of its characters. Good characters are not optional. They are essential.

Are we all agreed on that?

Good. Go to the back of the class if you said ‘no’.

Now I know what you’re thinking: what makes a good character? Well, there’s quite a few things, but if you really want to write a character of substance, you’ll need to give him a few key traits. At their most basic level, a character’s traits can be defined simply as a list of a few critical adjectives which describe the sort of person your character is; for example, cowardly, obliging, sarcastic, compassionate, devout, holier-than-thou, etc. We’re not interested in physical descriptions here, nor are we interested in their thoughts or feelings at any particular point. We want to know what sort of person they are. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about someone you know well; a friend, relative or colleague. Ask yourself what sort of person they are.

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

These are all traits. They are fundamental to a character’s personality and will usually remain consistent throughout the story (with perhaps just a little wiggle room for growth). If you’re struggling, just Google ‘list of character traits’, you’ll find that the internet is simply teeming with lists of character traits that you can easily pick up and apply to your characters. It’s entirely up to you how many you choose, but I tend to go for nine traits for each major character: three positive traits (e.g.: generous), three neutral traits (e.g.: whimsical) and three negative traits (e.g.: censorious).

‘Sounds simple enough… ‘ I hear you cry, with a note of caution in your voice. And you’re right! It is simple. But there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it.

Detailing your entire plot (or worse, writing an entire draft) and then deciding on your characters traits based on what happens to your character throughout your story is how not to do it. This will result in flat, predictable characters around whom the whole world seems to revolve.

Real people aren’t like that. The sun shines on the righteous and the wicked– and on the zealous, the pious, the pitiable and the proud. Life happens to people regardless of what sort of people they are, and we all deal with each situation in our own way, based on the sort of person we are. Therefore, if you take my advice, you’ll sketch out your characters’ key traits before you begin any detailed plotting or drafting, even if you’re a pantser. And stick to the traits you decide on, no matter what events befall your character. These traits will help to define every choice your character makes, everything they say and, perhaps more importantly, how and why they do/say it.

Try to be adventurous when it comes to selecting character traits. Even pick a few traits entirely at random (yep, there are places online you can do that too) and work with whatever you end up with. Don’t worry if the traits you end up with seem contradictory. Real people are full of contradiction too! This will only enrich your character and you can always smooth out any rough edges that seriously impinge upon your story later if you absolutely have to.

When you finally do come to draft your story, be sure to keep your characters’ traits in mind at all times but do not explicitly state your characters’ traits in the narrative (e.g.: ‘Dave was an evasive and brusque man’). Let your reader get to know Dave by experiencing Dave, not simply being told about Dave. Portraying a character’s traits is a subtle balancing act, where you drip feed your reader just the right quantities of each trait at the right time. You don’t need to bring them all out in equal measure all the time, however I would advise making a character’s fundamental traits fairly clear from the get-go. Even shifty, unreliable characters can be portrayed as such through voice and body language. Let’s think about Dave again. Dave’s a bit of an enigmatic fellow. No one really quite knows what he’s planning, whose side he’s on or what his true intentions are. You can portray this to the reader simply by making him guarded or abrupt in his dialogue.

‘Up to much this weekend?’ Pete asked, pulling on his coat and switching off the office lamp.

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday? Susie’s doing Sunday dinner and she always makes enough for ten–‘

‘Sorry Pete,’ Dave interrupted. ‘Maybe another week, I can’t this week.’

‘We never seem to see you anymore, is everything okay?’

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

Thus the mystery is not only preserved, but it is also enhanced, because it makes the reader want to know more. Is Dave out killing people at the weekend? Has he got some illicit love affair on the go somewhere? Does he simply dread socialising? We don’t know. One thing we do know: Dave is evasive and Dave is brusque. The narrative doesn’t say it. Dave just is evasive and brusque. Experiment with using characters’ actions and dialogue and especially body language and voice to portray your characters’ traits and you’ll have a vibrant and distinctive bunch of characters before you know it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what mashes your spuds.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time reading up on story writing, you’ve probably heard myself or other writing bloggers talk about the differences between planners, pantsers and plantsers. It’s a spectrum we writers are all spread out across, separating those on the one extreme who plan everything before they write from those who pants their way through their story (that is, they write ‘by the seat of their pants’, making up the story as they go along with absolutely no forward planning whatsoever). And of course, slap bang in the middle of the spectrum, we have Plantsers (because it’s a combination of the words ‘planner’ and ‘pantser’, see?).

We all naturally gravitate to one side or another on this spectrum. However that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to plan, pant or plant even if it doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we might be tempted to think that one method is inherently better than the others, and that we should try this.

We might even be right. For my money, I think there are some situations where planning is more appropriate and others where pantsing is more appropriate. I’m not going to tell you categorically that any one method is better than another* but there are pros and cons to each. If you’re struggling with whatever method comes naturally to you, it may be time to try a different approach. And so, what follows is my own short and ill-informed concise analysis of each approach, comparing pros and cons as evenly as I can.

Planning

Strengths: Planning everything in advance saves buckets of time. If you already know exactly what is going to happen, how it’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to, all neatly ordered into chapters and scenes, you won’t waste time writing lengthy portions of narrative you won’t use. You can also rest easy in the knowledge that your first draft won’t have too many large plot holes to sort out.

This makes it easy to work to a schedule. If you know you can knock out 1000 words a day, you can reasonably well estimate that it will take you about three months to complete a draft, especially in those first drafts, because you won’t get stuck about what to write.

Weaknesses: it’s easily the most strict approach to writing. The writer must be disciplined enough 1) not to begin writing a draft too earlier and 2) not to deviate from the plan when he does start drafting. This does not suit everybody. Many authors find it sucks the pleasure out of writing and stifles the imagination, as new ideas insist on being heard throughout the writing process.

Tips for Planning: Be disciplined. Plan everything and resist the urge to draft until you have completed all your chapter outlines, character biographies, the lot. When you finally do begin to draft, don’t deviate from the plan. Add nothing, change nothing, remove nothing. Write it exactly as you planned it. Remember, dear planner, you’re not making art. You’re constructing an intricate machine.

Pantsing

Strengths: This approach to writing allows the imagination to run wild. Most people who write stories tend to do it because they’re people who like to dream, to create and to give artist form to their flights of fancy. Pantsing lets you do just that. I often find that, while pantsing can produce a lot of excess material, some of it can even be later recycled to create a whole new story. Many of my story ideas have come from material I rejected while pantsing an earlier work.

Weaknesses: If you’re serious about writing for any reason other than as a hobby, you will probably find this approach seriously undermines your productivity and success, especially if you’re writing anything longer than a short story. Pantsing out a novel length story in a couple of months is easy in theory but it is doomed to be full of half baked themes, plot holes and other inconsistencies that will need to be fixed before they can pass over any agent or publisher’s desk. You may find yourself virtually starting from scratch when you come to do your second draft, assuming you ever reach the second draft stage.

Tips for Pantsing: Don’t get too attached to your work. A draft that has been fully pantsed will require a lot more editing than a meticulously planned draft. While killing your darlings is always good advice for any writer, pantsers will probably find themselves producing a lot more darlings (because their imagination has been given unlimited credit in the sweetie shop) that have to be killed (because their story will be full of things that simply don’t work).

Plantsing

Strengths: Plantsers have the best of both worlds. They are anchored to a plan but they are not enslaved to it. If the author wants to make changes halfway through writing their draft, or if they identify problems with their story, they can simply adjust the plan as they go along. The imagination is thereby given space to work but is also kept under a tight leash.

Weaknesses: It’s probably the hardest method to strike the correct balance with, even if you do find yourself naturally gravitating towards it. Planners know to write nothing until their story is fully planned out and pantsers don’t give a rip if their story doesn’t make sense in the first draft, but plantsers must learn to bring these two extremes together and make them work in harmony. It is difficult to create a systematic approach to plantsing and will be largely figured out by trial and error. This can be time consuming and frustrating.

Tips for Plantsing: Plantsing is not creating a plan then disregarding it, nor is it writing a draft then making a plan around it. Both of these are a waste of time. Plantsing involves blending these two seeming opposites in a way which allows you to work to your strengths, while still enjoying the benefits of both extremes. For example, you might pants out a few zero drafts to stimulate your imagination while you plan. Alternatively you might create a very loose-fitting plan (story beats for example, but no chapter outlines) and pants out your novel within the boundaries of that limited plan. You might also decide to forsake character biographies in favour of conducting several ‘interviews’ or ‘auditions’ with your characters to help you get to know them better. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to plantsing. My best advice is to spend a little time finding an approach which works for you.

Footnotes:

*I know what you’re thinking: ‘if he’s going to be so unbiased in his approach, why has he only got pants in the featured image and nothing else?’ Well the short answer is I just couldn’t find a single picture on the internet which depicted a plan, a pair of pants and a potted plant so I had to pick one. I picked pants because pants are funnier. Sue me.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what tickles your toes.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

I once read somewhere (and I do wish I could remember where so I could give proper credit) that we story-writers are in the entertainment industry; that the primary goal of the story-writer is to entertain. While I basically agree with this statement, I think it’s also true that the best stories all have something real to say.

This is where theme comes into play. The term can be a little bit broad sometimes so just to be clear, when I talk about a story’s theme, I am referring to the meaning(s) or dare I say, the message(s) of the story. What fundamental truth(s) are you conveying in your idle fantasy? What aspects of real life are you exploring? And equally as important, how are you conveying that truth?

Let’s look at the easy(ish) bit first: identifying your theme (we’ll come back to how to convey your theme later). Themes can take many forms: it can be a moral lesson (e.g., ‘don’t do drugs, kids’), a particular idea or belief (‘the meaning of life is such-and-such’, ‘God is like this’, ‘socialism/capitalism is destructive in this way’, etc.)  or it can be a general portrait of a particular subject (friendship, poverty, religion, etc.). Depending on how you write, you may have decided on a theme before anything else (that is to say, your initial idea was something like ‘I want to write a story about domestic violence’) or the theme may have come about as a natural byproduct of your story. If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to ask yourself: ‘do I really need to identify my theme(s), since they occurred purely by happenstance after I began writing the story?’.

Answer: yes, you do. After all, whether it was your intention to write a story about lies, sex and/or murder or not, your audience will pick up on these themes if they’re there. And believe me, if you’ve written a half-decent story, there will be at least a couple of naturally occuring themes. It’s unavoidable. Has one of your characters been pursuing a love interest who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings? Then your theme is unrequited love. You may not have intended it, but it’s there, growing wild in the tulip patch that is your story. Depending on how your characters behave, it may also become a story about obsession, harassment or rejection. Therefore, since it’s almost impossible to write a good story without a theme or two popping out of the mix, it’s worthwhile identifying your theme so that you can make it work for you. Themes may be naturally occurring, but they shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. Once you’ve identified them, you can use them to really enrich your story.

How you convey your theme is something else entirely, and will depend largely on the kind of story you’re writing, but the best advice I can give you is this: avoid sounding preachy. That’s not what people want from a story and it will certainly annoy your reader, even if they agree with you. Don’t misunderstand me, you should be bold in communicating your ideas, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. The chances are your readers came to your book quite comfortable in their own opinions. If you want to change their opinions, you’ll need to do it with tact and subtly. Show them the truth by the events of your story.

In the same way, avoid soapboxing (yes, I just made that term up). This is when you turn your characters into a soapbox from which you casually throw out your opinions on controversial subjects, usually in the form of internal or external dialogue. e.g.:

Pro-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. Didn’t these outdated old crones realise that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body?

Anti-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. It saddened and amazed her to think that in this day and age, there was still any need to protest what was clearly the legally sanctioned murder of unborn babies.

Soapboxing won’t only annoy your reader, it will actually undermine your story. Remember stories and characters must develop. A story never ends where it began, because the characters therein must develop (even if that ‘development’ involves a downward spiral of self-destruction). If a character’s strongly-held beliefs are relevant to the story, they ought to be challenged throughout that story (and probably, although not necessarily, altered in some way by the end). Therefore, if you begin with absolute statements (‘such-and-such is evil!‘) you’ve nowhere to go but contradiction or compromise (‘such-and-such isn’t so bad after all’ or ‘I’m not sure what I think about such-and-such now’). You could, of course, end with an absolute statement (‘Jeanie thought such-and-such was okay, but now she knew it was evil!‘) but that is a very lazy way to write. If your audience was truly drawn into Jeanie’s plight throughout the story, they’ve probably already come to the conclusion that such-and-such is evil. They don’t need you to lecture them.

If, on the other hand, your character’s opinions are not not relevant to the overall story, ask yourself why you’ve included them. There may be a legitimate reason to include them (e.g., characterisation), but if it’s nothing more than an opportunity to soapbox, chop it out. Air your controversial opinions on Twitter if you must, but don’t let it ruin your story.

Remember, your audience didn’t come here to learn your opinions. Your audience doesn’t give a rip about your opinions, even if they happen to share them. Instead, focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought. You cannot force someone to believe something. You can only offer them the truth as you see it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what plucks your eyebrows.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing a Second Draft When You’re a Plantser

‘But how many drafts should I write?’ … The short and somewhat glib answer is, ‘as many as it takes’

(A. Ferguson 2017, ‘How Many Drafts Should I Write?’).

About a year ago, I had this great idea for a novel which I was really excited about. In fact, I was so excited about it and the idea worked so well that I produced a first draft in virtually no time. Seriously, I’ve never known productivity like it.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t supposed to be; it was only a first draft. That’s why we have second drafts. They give us an opportunity to take our original, crumby story and turn it into a good story by fixing all the problems with characters, plot, theme, world-building and all that sort of stuff, so I wasn’t worried. In fact, I was downright enthusiastic. Even before I sat down to study my first draft, my head was already bursting with ideas for how I was going to improve upon my initial effort. Oh yes, this second draft was going to be a doozy alright.

Well that was about six months ago; and let me tell you, it’s been a tough six months for writing. I haven’t even come close to finishing this second draft yet, and I now know why. It hadn’t been for a lack of trying. I’d been diligently working to wheedle out all the little problems with my story before launching in to the writing stage and, for the most part, I had been successful but… I just couldn’t seem to fix some of the problems I perceived with my magic system (I’m writing a fantasy). The one I had in my first draft worked, but I didn’t think its origin story made a lot of sense. However, whenever I tried to fix it, I found myself undermining my actual plot. It just seemed that the more I tried to fix it, the more problems I ended up creating. Sometimes I even feared that I had completely ruined my story beyond all redemption all because I couldn’t make sense of this blasted magic system (that’s why you should never delete anything pertaining to your story, no matter how useless it may seem). Let me tell you, I came up with a lot of different variations on that magic system but I was just tying myself in knots. I was accomplishing very little and growing frustrated with my wonderful novel.

It was my wife who finally reminded me: I’m a plantser. I begin with a rough plan, but it’s only when I write and let my imagination run wild that my plan starts to grow a bit of flesh and take on a life of its own. Why was it, then, that when I came to write my second draft that I felt so compelled to have a perfect plan in place before writing anything? After all, all those wonderful ideas I had for improvements in my second draft only came about as a result of having written and then re-read the first draft. And so she encouraged me to keep my original magic system for now (which worked anyway) and just write my second draft. If I’m still not satisfied when that’s done, it doesn’t matter. I can always write a second second draft (‘draft 2.1’, you might say). For the plantser (and, arguably, for all writers), redrafting is a process of refinement. You take a terrible story and make it better. You take your better story and make it quite good. You take your quite good story and make it excellent.

And how do you, as a plantser, accomplish this? Exactly the same way you wrote your first draft. Plan it out as best you can and figure out the rest as you write. For me, the origins of my magic system were the only kink I hadn’t been able to figure out using Scapple. I’d managed to fix just about everything else. So instead of being forever held back by this one trifling point, I decided to sit down with my more-or-less complete plan and write the second draft, knowing full well that a second second draft, and perhaps even a third second draft, will be necessary.

‘But that will take ages!’ I hear you cry.

Not if you get your head down and get on with it. You can knock out a novel length piece of work in a few short months if your diligent enough about it. Spending six months banging your head against your desk and whimpering to yourself about your lousy magic system and how you’re a failure at writing: that’s a waste of time.

Learn from my failure. If you’re a plantser, then plant yourself on that seat and write your second draft with occasional reference to a half-baked second draft plan. It’s foolishness to the planners and a stumbling block to the pantsers, but for we plantsers, it’s the only way to get anything done.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what floats your boat.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.