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Dialogue can be used to develop characters and progress plot but also needs to be dramatically necessary: characters need good reasons to impart information. Characters’ voices need to be differentiated. Dialogue injects energy; too much reported speech and action saps it. How to deliver information through dialogue without it feeling artificial. The value of what is not said and what stands behind the spoken words. The significance of silence. The constructed nature of ‘realistic’ dialogue. The debate over ‘said’. A guide to conventional and unconventional ways of punctuating dialogue. Managing accent and dialect. The problem of ‘other world’ speech. Managing a character’s thoughts.
‘If dialogue in fiction faithfully reflected speech in real life it would often be boring – full of repetitions, non sequiturs, digressions, irrelevancies, trivia and hesitations; it would also take up far too much space. The writer’s aim is to make dialogue appear authentic.’
Who is telling the story and how are they telling it? The difference between the author and the narrator. Respective advantages and disadvantages of first- and third-person narrative voices. Varieties of first-person narrative. Unreliable narrators. Varieties of third-person narrative. Multiple narrative viewpoints. Direct address to the reader. ‘Other world’ narrative voices.
‘Most stories pivot on the question of which character knows what and – crucially – what your reader knows and when you let them know it. The choice of narrative voice and point of view defines how much the reader can know.’
Publishing short stories: writing websites, print periodicals, competitions. Submission tips. The relationship between agents and editors. How editors make decisions. Targeting and pitching a novel. Understanding and getting value from rejection. Holding your nerve. The writing life: a place to work; a time to work; keeping a notebook; finding a community of writers. Writer’s block and how to avoid it. Set achievable goals. The pleasures of writing.
‘If we believe we’ve said everything we want to say we may as well give up writing. Everything we write is an adventure, an attempt at mastering what we might never quite conquer. You’ve finished when you know you’ve done everything you can to make it as true and good as it can be.’
Knowing when to stop: define your parameters. ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ – take no small detail of everyday life for granted. Start broad and shallow; later go deep and narrow. The big story and the little story – keeping the balance right. Keeping research unobtrusive. Historical fiction: checklist of areas for initial research and suggested sources.
‘We’re not looking for historical truth but for fictive plausibility, on terms the writer must establish with the reader. A better question than ""Is this true?"" is “Have I made this seem plausible?”’
What does ‘write what you know’ mean? The bedrock of human experience is essentially the same in any age and this is part of what writers ‘know’. We bring imagination – and sometimes research – to our own experience when we write. Everything we have lived through is potentially valuable material; writing involves transforming this material. Even inspiration comes from within. The need to top up our own personal reservoir of experience. All ideas begin ‘What if…’ The importance of pushing beyond what we know we can do easily: creativity thrives when we are outside our comfort zone.
‘The magic isn’t out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered: the ingredients are in you right now, in your experience and in your imagination, waiting for you to make the unique connections that will enable you to discover it.’
The function of the beginning of a story. You don’t have to get the opening right before you can make any progress. Different kinds of openings. Starting with exposition. Starting in medias res. The necessity of having a sense of an ending while writing. Judging when to stop. The importance of how the story lands, rather than where it ends. The role of tension in a story. The cliffhanger. Arousing the reader’s curiosity. The importance of pace and how to sustain it. Methods of interrogating your writing for tension and pace.
‘Each chapter needs a narrative function. If you can’t summarise the purpose of a chapter you would be wise to check that it really does have a function. The other way to interrogate your writing for pace and tension is to ask yourself: What does the reader want to know at the end of this chapter?’
Character and plot are inextricably intertwined: characters make plot. Methods of introducing character. Investigating the respective usefulness of ‘showing’ and ‘telling’. A well-drawn character accumulates in the reader’s mind rather than springing fully fledged from the first page. How ‘showing’ character aids the creative process. Individualising characters. A character wants something; motive drives action and action drives plot. The relationship between narrative voice and character. The problems of too many characters. Managing minor characters. Believable characters are not always consistent; characters are fluid and flawed. Over-planning characters can be dangerous, limiting their potential and removing their ability to evolve.
‘For our characters to approach the texture of ""real"" people the writer, as well as the reader, needs to be curious about them, and that is impossible if we have removed their capacity to surprise us.’
Blending skills and strategies. Editing techniques. Getting value from a critical reader. Editing in response to notes. Trouble-shooting. Interpreting and addressing the causes of problems.
‘Identifying the problem isn’t the hard part. The hard part is finding the courage, where necessary, to revise radically. People often assume the editing process is about cutting bad writing, but it’s just as important to be prepared to cut good writing that no longer serves the narrative.’
Theories about plot structure and the extent of their value. ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ (Christopher Booker). Five-act structure (Gustav Freytag). Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Tsvetan Todorov’s five stages of action. The inevitability of plot. Kenn Adams’s story spine. Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes. ‘Seeding’ conditions in order to make later events believable. The use of more than one timeframe. The risks inherent in confounding reader expectation.
‘You have a broad trajectory for your story when you start writing because you know the beginning and have a sense of an ending, but this trajectory will not be a straight line – the most direct journey from A to Z, where everything goes right, is the least interesting and probably not worth writing about.’
Addressing the barriers we put in the way of our writing. The need to be prepared to experiment: all landmark fiction has tried something that hasn’t been tried before. Understanding that ‘failure’ is part of the learning process. Don’t listen to inhibiting inner voices: there is nothing you’re not allowed to write and you can always edit later. Allow yourself substandard drafts – then you have something to build on.
‘Accept the difficulties, expect things to be initially unsatisfactory, and start writing.’
The difference between literary language and flowery prose. Checking adjectives and adverbs are really doing a job. Detail implies significance: description needs a reason. Description should produce an effect rather than draw attention to itself as an effect. Why clichés endure – and why we should beware them. Metaphors and similes – keeping them real. The debate over modifiers. Muscular verbs. All description comes from a particular standpoint. Describing place. When detail is relevant and how much is too much. Chekhov’s gun. Telling details. Showing instead of telling.
‘We all know, deep in our egotistical little hearts, when we have written something that has no function in the text other than to show off what good writers we think we are. We have at this point stopped communicating with the reader and are being self-indulgent: we have stopped doing our job and are doing something else.’
The short story is not just a story that is short: the short story generally differs significantly from the novel in terms of scope, timeframe, number of characters and locations. How details acquire priority in short fiction. The relationships between the short story, flash fiction and poetry. The challenges and pleasures of short and very short fiction. The usefulness of short form writing to the developing novelist in the scope it offers for experimentation with narrative voice, characterisation and dialogue, as well as its value in its own right.
‘It is a complexity of afterthought, a psychological or emotional residue, that we seek to leave with the reader following the intense experience of consuming a short story.’