Want to make your prose more punchy? Try cutting a few of those filler and filter words. Note: these aren’t hard and fast rules. Of course you can use adjectives and adverbs whenever you like. But if you’re editing, it’s not a bad idea to trim as many as possible.
Hello folks. Want to make your prose a little more punchy? When editing, look for those adjectives and adverbs that can really make your writing drag. All those filler and filter words. Find them and get rid of them. For example… Deep breath… “Thought”, “touched”, “saw”, “he saw”, “they saw”, “just”, “heard”, “he heard”, “they heard”, “she heard”… “Decided”, “knew”, “noticed”, “realised”, “watched”, “wondered”, “seemed”, “seems”. That’s one of mine. “Looked”. That’s another one of mine.
“He looked”, “she looked”. “Could”, “to be able to”, yeesh. “Noted”. “Rather”, “quite”, “somewhat”, “somehow”. Although I think these are OK in dialogue, if used sparingly. “Feel”. “Felt”. Now this… this one always starts alarm bells ringing. Don’t just tell the reader that Bob is feeling angry. Try and describe his rage in a way that is unique to Bob. Which is easier said than done, of course. But no one said this would be easy. “And then” — paired together. Cut one or the other. “Had”. If you have two hads in the sentence, one of them has to go. Hads: two hads together… “had had”, which does happen. See if there’s a better way of writing around that. You might have to completely rethink the sentence. “He looks”, “she looks”. “He turned to her and said”, “she turned”, “they turned”… All this turning can make the reader feel dizzy and you can have whole conversations with people turning around and it goes absolutely nowhere. “Supposed”. “Appeared to be”.
“Apparently”. All of these can be weak and they can make your characters feel passive. If you’re writing the first person, these filter words can be doubly harmful. So… “I turned and looked up and saw the elephant raise its foot to squish me” is, well, it’s fine. “The elephant raised its foot to squish me” is a lot more direct. Keep those physical movements to a minimum. All that turning, twisting, looking… Give the reader just enough to animate the action in their own head. You’re not choreographing a musical.
So when you’re editing, look out for these filter words. Do a “find and replace”. Most of the time you’re better off simply cutting them. Other times you might see an opportunity to replace them with something a little more dynamic. What I mean by that? Okay. Add a bit of movement or action or texture. Instead of the “look to”, “turn to”… have them raise their chin, look down their nose, scratch their ear, run their hands through their hair, drum their fingers nervously.
Action that underlines what the character is trying to say or might be thinking. I find it useful sometimes to act the scene out. We’re all writers, spending far too long sitting on our backsides, so a little exercise won’t do us any harm. Get up, move about, film it, film yourself. No one ever needs to see it but you. But seriously, most of the time just cut the buggers. You’re better off without them. Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes we need these words to add clarity to a sentence, but too often I find myself relying on them when I should be trying to be a bit more zippy with my prose.
But hey, that’s editing is all about. Hope you found that useful. Until next time. Happy writing.
I finished the first draft of my novel this week… but what happens next? Jump right in to edit? Or…
Hello, folks, I typed these beautiful words earlier this week… (The End) Of course, this is nothing like the end. This is a raggedy mess of a first draft where three quarters of the way through I realised there were two characters that were completely redundant. So they were left by the wayside. The antagonist had almost completely changed in their nature. And there are several strands that have been left dangling in the wind. Still so far to go. But why not allow yourself this little moment of triumph?
Most people who want to write a book never get this far. So, hurrah! Cheers. I… I don’t drink. So this American champagne will have to do in lieu of actual champagne. But, I hear you cry, if I know what’s broken, why don’t I just go back and fix it right now? Well, those problems I mentioned, those are issues that occurred to me as I’ve been writing. Experience has taught me that there’s going to be a ton of whole new problems that I’ll discover.
And if I were to jump back in now, it would feel like an insurmountable heap of problems and my brain will probably melt in the process. It’s time to take a break from this book, at least. So here’s what I recommend… Leave it for six weeks. Six weeks!? Yup. Especially if you’re new to this. You need to come back at this draft with your eyes as fresh and objective as possible. And you do that by not even thinking about the bloody thing for at least six weeks.
Excuse me. Windy pops. Coke. Fizzy pop. So what to do in the meantime? Read. Read all you can. Refill the tank. Read in your genre, read outside of your genre, read good books, read crappy books. Read to remind yourself what a finished narrative feels like. Also, I’m editing a client’s book… Did I mention that I edit and offer reader reports…? Visit my Writer Services site here.
Doing this, reading another writer’s text in such a way that you want to give them a constructive critique, will exercise all kinds of new synapses in your noggin. Sparking up the same part of the brain that you’ll be using when you come to edit your own text.
It’s good exercise. Limbering up for the main event. That doesn’t mean you have to be like a professional editor or anything like that. This is where you go to any writers you know, and offer your services as a Beta Reader. Ask if they have any finished novels that they need reading, and offer your eyes and brains… In a… Brains, not ears… In a quid pro quo agreement, because you’ll need a beta reader once you’ve finished your next pass. Why not cue one up now?
You’ll learn so much by reading another writer’s work in progress. You’ll see the same kind of issues that you will encounter. You might, even in the process of offering your own notes, come across a solution for your own problems. Happens to me all the time. I’m very lucky in that I have a couple of trusted readers for my stuff and I’m happy to read their stuff at the drop of a hat. It’s a great arrangement, and by the time you’ve read their book — or books — you might get through two or more in those six weeks, you’ll not only find that you’re ready to return to your own work, but what once seemed insurmountable will simply be a bunch of problems to be solved. But that’s a whole new video. Until next time. Happy writing… Or reading… Or critiquing. Cheers.
Six tips for writing engaging action and fight sequences in your fiction…
Hello, folks, as I get closer to the end of this draft and I start ramping up the tension and the stakes and the action and, well, I’m about to embark on a big old action sequence. Here are six tips for writing action in fiction. Number one, don’t just have action for the sake of it. It needs to advance the story. By that, I mean it needs to create change and have consequences. Your characters will have to make choices in the heat of the moment that will affect what comes afterwards.
If you can just take that action sequence out of the story, and the scenes that sandwich it still work together, then maybe the action sequence isn’t earning its keep. Remember, we had two big action sequences lined up for Robot Overlords. A chase in an ice cream van. And later, a chase with our heroes pursued by a new robot called Octobots. And these were fun sequences, but ultimately they had zero effect on our story and characters and they had to be cut.
That said, I’m still keen to try out an ice cream chase one day. I always file these things away for later. Two. Let the reader do the work. This is where, strangely, action sequences have something in common with sex sequences. Don’t feel the need to give the reader a blow by blow account.. Oh, behave. We don’t need every punch, kick, swerve, stab and parry. It gets tedious pretty fast. Give the reader just enough detail for them to create the action in their head.
And if there’s some sort of skill involved with a sword or a gun, then it’s worth doing a little research to make it feel real. Again, we don’t need to know the inner workings of a Glock whatever to know that it goes bang and that bullets hurt people. I rail against a lot of modern thrillers where the author seems to get sexually aroused when talking about guns. In fact, I try to put mistakes in my stories just to wind up NRA members. Ha! Three. Pace.
That is, don’t just give us big blocks of action, mix it up with some dialogue, write in short, punchy (ha!) sentences and keep the internal monologue visceral. This is not a time for ponderous reflection. That can come later. This is a time for panic, fear, anger, fight or flight. Use all the senses, the crunch of the bone, the taste of blood, the sweat and filth of battle. That will really help put the reader in the middle of the action.
Four. Think of the setting. Is it a chase down narrow streets in Paris, or the skies above the Grand Canyon? When your hero falls, is it on sand? Tiles? Stinging nettles? Can they hide in the jungle, or are they exposed in a wide open desert? What weapons are at hand? I love those unconventional fight scenes where Jason Bourne uses a rolled up magazine or John Wick uses a book. Use the setting and its props to make the sequences as fun and inventive as possible.
Five. Give it a beginning, middle and end. I’ve used the word “sequence” a few times already and I find that it helps to think of any action beat as its own little short story with a beginning, middle and end. One where the stakes are continually raised with a growing sense of urgency. Compacting all that story into a frenetic action sequence can make your hero make bad decisions — creating those consequences I was talking about earlier — and it will leave the reader breathless and wanting more. I’m quite breathless myself.
Six. Aftermath and keeping it real. In too many stories, the hero walks away from a fight with nary a scratch, and even if they do get wounded, they often bounce back with superhuman speed. That may be appropriate for some stories, but readers will better relate to characters who hurt, who get the shakes, who mourn the deaths of their friends — and enemies — who regret having to do terrible things. This is, again, where a little research will help as well.
What does it feel like to break your ribs, be shot or stabbed? I bet it hurts a lot more than we might imagine. I speak as someone who stubbed my toe recently. Well, I hope that was helpful. Any questions or comments? Then please pop them below until next time. Happy writing and stop fighting.
Here are five tips for writing exposition without getting bogged down in, well, exposition…
Hello, folks, let’s talk about exposition. I’ve got to the bit in my book where my protagonist figures out what the villain is up to and there’s a ticking clock and she has to stop him before everything goes horribly wrong. Very much that tipping point from Act two into Act three. See an earlier video for tips on tipping points…
The great danger here is that this could turn into nothing more than a big dollop of exposition, also known, delightfully, as an info dump.
You know those moments in the movies where the villain reveals their evil plan, and this is so common that it’s become a trope in itself. There’s a lovely moment in The Incredibles where Syndrome says, “You caught me monologuing”. Basically, we’re talking about exposition. And in this specific case, how will the villain reveal their dastardly plan unless they tell the hero about it? Now, at this point in the story, the exposition is coming in late. As I said, the pivot between the second and third act, which is to my advantage, because if if you haven’t already, you can go back and leave clues for your hero and the reader to piece together what the evil scheme is, or if you want to invert that idea, your hero can think that they know what the plan is…
And then the villain can reveal a wicked, additional twist that they can take great glee in revealing. I think that’s what’s going to happen in my story. In the meantime, here are five tips for writing exposition; One: Have someone get it wrong. There’s a great moment at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the two Secret Service guys come to Indiana Jones and tell him about the Staff of Ra, Abner Ravenwood, and something called the Lost Ark. And it becomes clear that they haven’t got the first clue what they’re talking about.
So Indy corrects their mistakes. This is such an effective way of getting exposition across that we, the viewer, hardly notice. It not only is Indy’s enthusiasm for the subject infectious, but it also gives him agency, and proves to us and the Secret Service men that he is the right man for the job. It’s a great subversion of an old trope because we’re so used to seeing James Bond stepping into M’s office and being told what the mission is, and it can be very passive with a big info dump. But this is a much, much better way of doing it. Two: Dramatise it. As with any essential bit of story information, it will always stick in the reader’s mind if you can dramatise it. Don’t tell me that your hero is a witch. Show me the hero doing some magic and include a few telling details. Is she skilled or does she need more experience and practise? Does she work alone or with others?
Does she use magic compassionately or for her own gain? By creating a bit of action and drama you can reveal so much more about a character than just having someone tell us. This can also be applied to a character revealing a bit about their past. Don’t just have them tell us. Show it in a widescreen, full-colour flashback, or a dream, or a crystal ball. Any bit of drama will be better than a dry retelling. Three: Do it with style.
OK, hands up. There are times when you kind of have to just tell the reader, or viewer, a bit of essential information. So if you have to do it, do it with style. Think of the opening crawl of Star Wars. Lucas pinched that from the old Flash Gordon serials, which had to bring the cinemagoers up to speed in just a few seconds… Or sing it in a song, interpretive dance, beat poetry, or have them tell a story with the kind of zingy and engaging dialogue used by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, Victoria Wood, Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, Shakespeare.
You get the idea if you’re going to tell it, make it good. Really good. I mean, extraordinarily good. No pressure. Four: Parse it out. Don’t feel the need to unload it all at once. Think about what the reader needs to know and when. Your antagonist might be a spy, a Nazi, a sous chef and an expert in kung fu. But that doesn’t mean we need to know all this when they’re first mentioned. Have some fun in revealing these nuggets when — and this is the important bit — when they can have the most impact on the story and the reader. To quote Billy Wilder, “Always allow the audience to add two plus two and they’ll love you forever.” Five: “Or… just don’t bother. You know, I’m old enough to remember seeing the first Star Wars, and not knowing what the Clone Wars were, why Darth Vader was in that suit, or even if Stormtroopers were real people or robots. And it didn’t matter one little bit. You’ll be amazed at how little some exposition matters. And as for BackStory, I’m going to let you into a little secret…
There’s no such thing as back story. There’s the story you’re telling and that’s it. The reader doesn’t care what happened before or after unless it directly affects what you’re telling them now. And if it does, then it will be in this story. If it doesn’t, don’t bore them with it. Tell one story and tell it well. Don’t weigh it down with a bunch of digressions. Honestly, I blame Marvel. Ooh, controversial. Right. Well, I hope that was helpful.
Any questions? Pop them below or drop me a line. Until next time, Happy Writing.
How can you write more effective bad guys? Give them a bigger sword? A more evil cackle? Or could the key to unlocking great villains be in your hero? Shock twist!
Hello, folks, I’ve got to the point in the draft of this book when my traitor is about to be revealed and to be honest, the identity of this villain has ping-ponged back and forth in my head up to now. And it’s only really today I’ve got to know who they are that I’ve decided, yup, this is who it’s going to be. I’m glad to say I was surprised by the choice and that hopefully will translate into a nice surprise for the reader, too.
Of course, this means that for the next draft, I’ll have to go back and make sure it all makes sense and ensure that I leave just enough clues for the reader to allow them to add two plus to slap themselves on the forehead and realise that the answer was in front of them all along. Because that’s what you want from your readers. You want them involuntarily slapping themselves. It’s what all great writers aspire to. And what it did get me thinking about is what makes a good villain.
In earlier videos you will have heard me banging on about how theme is story fuel, how once you figured out what your central dramatic argument and theme is, you can use that to drive the protagonist’s story forward. If you’ve not seen that video, I’ll pop a link in the description below. Knowing what theme is really helps me whenever I get stuck. So for this novel, my theme is — and I always like to post theme as a question — are we better off working with others or alone?
It’s a simple question, but one that can’t be answered with a yes or no. Nothing too mind boggling, but good story fuel. And that question is what I challenge my protagonist Faye with in every chapter of this story. The funny thing is, listeners, this principle can also apply to writing your antagonist. Writing a good villain can be really tricky. You can spend so long focussing on the motives of your protagonist that when it comes to the villain, the temptation is to go,
“Ah, whatever they just abadie dress them in black, make them do terrible things. The reader will get the idea. But there is a way to make your villains much more effective in a way that the reader will find a lot more satisfying. And it comes back to theme. So if your hero represents the thesis of a dramatic argument, your antagonist can represent the antithesis. In other words, your villain can be motivated by the opposite of your hero’s position on a theme.
So if I think of an example, in the case of my book, for example, if Faye thinks she can achieve her goals by working with others, the antagonist might do better by working alone. They might have had a terrible experience working in a team, and have struck out solo to get revenge. Also, having a thematic motivation will add a dollop of dimension to your villain that might just appeal to the reader and your hero. So the hero can’t just walk away from the villain because the baddy’s argument might at some point tempt our hero to jump ship to the other side.
The theme is a connection between the two of them that will make for compelling reading. So they might they might be a mirror of our hero and share many of their values. You see this in a lot of romances, so Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, for example. The villain could be a dark shadow. Darth Vader is exactly what Luke Skywalker might become if it gives in to his anger. Or they might even be their own worst enemy. Think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
There’s countless ways of playing with this, but whatever direction you choose to go in, if you try and make you heroes and villain connect thematically, it will be a much more satisfying experience for you and the reader. Of course, this is all much easier said than done, and I now need to figure out how to make this work in my book. Wish me luck. Any questions on this? Is there anything you’d like me to cover in future videos? Drop me a line or leave a comment below. Until next time, happy writing.
Each scene or chapter in your story should have some kind of tipping point where a decision is made. How can you use these to make give your characters more agency and drive the story?
Hello, folks. I’m now about halfway through the first draft of the third Witches of Woodville book, and I’m still in that muddy middle, that middle act where it’s so important that we writers try not to get too bogged down by wondering what happens next. In previous videos I’ve talked about using theme as story fuel and writing with urgency so as not to bore the reader. And today I want to talk about the tipping points of scenes. And I was recently reading about this in John Badham’s book “On Directing”.
Badham is the director of such classic films as Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout, The Hard Way. A really great director. And this book is a cracking read. I’ve no ambitions to direct film. I’ve directed short films many years ago, and have some idea of just how all consuming directing a feature film is. But as a writer, I like to get different perspectives on the creative process and this one’s been a really refreshing read. And in here, Badham talks about how he and the actors will often look for the tipping point of a scene.
He defines it as the most important dramatic moment in a scene. It’s the moment where, like a seesaw, the situation can tip in favour of one character or another. However, unlike a seesaw where the tipping point is usually in the middle, the tipping point of a scene comes very close to the end as the dramatic argument comes to a peak. And these dramatic arguments don’t have to be major turning points every time in the story. It can be something as simple as deciding where to go for coffee.
What is important is that the characters — and most often your protagonist — is the one making those decisions and driving the story. From the perspective of a director like Badham and the actors that he works with, they’ll spend time looking for the tipping point in the scene in order to underpin that moment. Now, for a film director, that means close ups, or making it clear to the viewer that an important decision is being made. It’s also important for them to identify the tipping point because after that decision has been made by the character… the scene is done. Decision made. Onto the next scene.
That’s not to say the tipping point should be rushed. Badham quotes the writer-director Elia Kazan, who says, “One thing I always do, and I think that’s important in film, is to stretch climaxes.” So don’t feel you have to rush these things. I mean, one extreme is… How many comedies you’ve seen where a character will argue over something, say, “I’m not going on a date with him. I’m definitely not going on a date with him. You can’t make me go on a date with him.”
There’s a beat. You can feel the tipping point as a decision is about… to… be… maaaaaaade. And then you cut to that same person on a date with “him”. And that’s how close to the end a tipping point can be. Coming back to Kazan’s remark about stretching climaxes. Think of all those spaghetti westerns where the gunslingers face off… Staring at one another, slowly reaching for their guns, waiting for someone to make a move. That’s really great tension, really gripping.
And you can have great fun drawing that out for as long as you can. So how does this help you as a writer? Well, first of all, it can really help you with your editing. If you’ve got a scene that’s running too long, then look for a potential tipping point to get out early. Or your scene might be missing a tipping point. Which case does it need one? Can you add one? Or does the fact that it doesn’t have a tipping point make the scene redundant?
Also, try and think of your entire story as a dramatic argument with a tipping point. The central dramatic argument — that’s the theme of your story — shouldn’t be resolved until the very end. Once it is, the story’s over. Roll credits. Turn the page. The end. I hope you found that useful. And until next time, happy writing.
The middle act of a story is where it can really start to lose its energy. So how can we keep writing with a sense of urgency that will keep the reader turning the page?
Hello, folks. As discussed last week, I’m still in the middle act of this novel, still in the muddy middle, and this is where a story can really start to lose its energy. So how can we keep writing with a sense of urgency that will keep the reader turning the page? I mean, part of the problem is our characters might not want to change. They might want everything just to stay the same, keep the status quo. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing for them to want.
But you, the author, have to be an Old Testament God and make it so that they don’t have any choice but to take action and change. Sometimes we can love a protagonist so much we don’t want any harm to come to them. Stuff that. Make their lives hell and do it with a big grin on your face. It’s often only by testing these characters that we really come to love them. We tell stories about people and those stories are about change.
A story where a character overcomes challenges to become a different person is often the most satisfying. Even in a series where the protagonist doesn’t change fundamentally — say a detective series where they’re solving different crimes with each story — that will have some important element of their personality challenged by the kind of crime they’re solving. Change is an essential element of both story and character. So ask yourself whose story is this and how do they change? And also that thing of keeping the status quo isn’t wanting nothing.
It’s a desire to keep things as they are. A stable, safe life, which is totally understandable, but it must be challenged, otherwise why are we reading this story? So, for example, once upon a time there was someone who was perfectly happy, didn’t do anything, stayed the same. The end. Contrast that with Once upon a time there was someone who was perfectly happy, but something threatened that happiness. And so they had to take steps to preserve that happiness.
But in the course of doing so, made discoveries that created a new balance and a new happiness in their life. The end. There’s also a crucial difference between an active and reactive protagonist. One seeks a change in their life and goes looking for a solution, and the latter has change thrust upon them and has no choice but to change. And one of the most important elements for a protagonist is agency, that is they are the ones who, when things go awry, do the difficult thing and make decisions that will mean there’s no turning back.
They can have mentors who advise them. But in the end, it’s the protagonist who takes action. Of course, this all comes with a big, chunky caveat. What I’m talking about here is very much a Western, European, Hero’s Journey, Monomyth way of storytelling. For contrast, if you look at stories from, say, Asian cultures, it can be very different and makes for really compelling storytelling. There’s a couple of wonderful Twitter threads by the brilliant writers, Malinda Lo and Aliette De Bodard on this.
Is it okay if the first draft of your novel or screenplay is a little rough? I like to think so. Here are few tips that will help you get to the end of a messy first draft, not least the one thing you should try and get right first time…
Hello, folks, when writing a first draft, is it OK if it’s, well… a little rough? I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how to do it any other way. My first drafts are rough as sandpaper. And long ago I came to terms with the fact that I’ll probably rewrite a novel or script at least three, four or five times before it’s anything like as good as it needs to be. If this sounds like you, then rest assured you are not alone.
In over three hundred episodes of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I’ve interviewed two, maybe three authors who are happy with their first drafts. The rest of us have to put up with the poor, wretched Frankenstein’s monsters that we will create out of pain and suffering. Here’s a question: with the first draft, what needs to be right and what can be fixed later? Well, what needs to be right? Well, none of it, really. I mean, it can be a complete disaster.
There’s a reason that first drafts are called — and apologies if you’re eating — first drafts are sometimes called vomit drafts. So please don’t overburden your first draft with your expectations. Nobody’s first draft will read like a published novel. The sooner you accept this, the more liberating it will be for your writing. I mean, I still stop myself and fix typos as I go, which is one of the reasons I’m writing more and more by hand, actually, because I scrub it out.
But if you can just burn through, and not look back, the chances of you finishing that first draft increase exponentially. You might be big outliner, but don’t feel that you need to slavishly stick to an outline, as that can create all sorts of problems, not least shoehorning your protagonist into situations simply because the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat says so. Permit yourself the flexibility to change your story when writing. Be open to the story opportunities that will emerge as you get to know your characters.
So I’m currently working through my first draft of my next book now, and there are things that change and evolve in the characters in the story. And the temptation to go back and fix them now is really overwhelming. But… experience tells me that’s a rabbit hole that creates more problems than it solves. If you start tinkering with stuff back there, then you start second guessing stuff that you haven’t written yet, and you end up being dragged into a swirling vortex of despair.
And no one needs that. Not these days, especially. I simply leave myself a little note in the comments and I’ll focus on fixing it in the next draft, because my priority is to finish this first draft, because nothing is more important at this stage than finishing a draft. I can make fixes on the next pass to the one after that or the one after that.
Or… You get the idea. However, if you want to concentrate on one thing and get that right first time round, make it your protagonist. Your entire story hinges on their journey. So if you haven’t figured out what they want and how the journey would change them, then maybe take a second to suss that out. Start with the simple stuff. How do they start the story and how they change by the end? Some of you out there will have heard me say this a million times before, and I’m quoting screenwriter Craig Mazin here.
But if you can figure out how your protagonist goes from “this” to “the opposite of this”, then you have the through line and central dramatic argument of your story.
Now, of course, there are authors out there who write painstaking first drafts that are as good as ready for publication, but they are rare as hen’s teeth. So if you think your first draft is ace. Fantastic. Good for you. But please don’t be discouraged if you feel your first draft is lacking. I think 90 percent of writers out there will be with you in solidarity. You are not alone. I hope that was helpful. Happy writing. See you again soon.
I’ve just hit 22,000 words on my new novel, and this is where things can get a bit sticky. To make our way through the muddy middle of a novel, it helps to understand the basics of three-act structure, so here are a few pointers…
Hello, folks. It’s been a couple of weeks since the last update. Since then, I’ve had a haircut and my first vaccine and I’m just getting over the side effects…
I’m still using the same method to write the first draft of this book, so scribbling in a notebook one day, then switching to the laptop and bringing it to life the next. And it’s been working pretty well so far. I’ve just hit 22,000 words, which is about a quarter of the way through this book. I want it ultimately to be somewhere between 80- and 90,000 words tops. So I’m about to hit what is possibly the most difficult part of the novel.
The second act, the muddy middle. As I said in the first video, and I’ll pop a link below if you haven’t seen it: https://youtu.be/A9u0SFjv3N8 — openings are relatively easy. Everything’s exciting. The world is your oyster. But when you get to the end of the first act, your characters will have started making choices that have consequences. Story consequences. So how do you navigate this? Well, let’s take a moment to talk about the basics of structure. All stories have this in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the three act structure at its simplest, used by the ancient Greeks in their storytelling, still used by Hollywood today.
Now, you may have read all sorts of fancy stuff about four-act, five-act, seven-act structures, pyramids, diagrams, all sorts of stuff. But in the end, it all comes down to these three essential beats: a beginning, a middle, and end. And why are we even talking about acts? We’re writing a novel. Well, this is largely because the language of theatre and screenwriting has seeped into the bigger conversation about narrative. But it really does help to think of your story in these terms, not least because an understanding of story structure will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your writing and enhance your self-critical skills. Here’s a simple breakdown of how the acts work. So, Act One is all about the set up, and that’s what I basically just completed. I’ve introduced my main characters. The setting, the themes, the tone and the rules of the story are established. There will be some kind of incident that will trigger the story and set the protagonist on the path of the story. The First Act usually ends with a turning point that will launch Act Two. Act Two is all about confrontation. Your protagonist will be tested as they strive to achieve their goal, the action rises and rises, leading to a midpoint that then becomes a crisis. The final events of Act Two, which often herald disaster or certain failure for our hero, will trigger the events of Act Three. Act Three is all about resolution. The stakes are raised to the point where we think it’s going to end in disaster. But the protagonist will take the lessons learned by the tests of Act two and find a resolution. They will almost certainly have changed from the person they were in Act one. And that’s it. The building blocks of story.
You can apply this not only to your overall story, but to each chapter which will have its own beginning, middle and an end. So this is what I have ahead of me next. Act Two. This is where I test my characters like an Old Testament God making their lives increasingly difficult. The good news is I have a pretty good idea of how I want Act three and the ending to pan out. So I just need to bridge that gap with some fun shenanigans.
And if I get stuck, then I need to take a moment just to think thematically. I covered that in a previous video… https://youtu.be/vD64WDtWsV8
Again, I’ll pop a link below. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Hmm. I’ve just written a scene where they come to a door and I have only the vaguest idea of who is on the other side. So, yeah, we’ll see. It’s never easy. But here goes. There’ll be another update a couple of weeks and until then, happy writing.
Here are some tips for making the dialogue in your novel or screenplay feel real without the waffle…
Hello folks, one day to the haircut. Right, before that, let’s talk about dialogue. There’s a knack to writing dialogue, and some people have it, and others have to learn it. It’s a bit like playing an instrument. Some people can pick up a guitar and strum chords straight away. Other people, like me, need a little more practise, but that’s fine because soon we’ll all be playing Kumbayah in perfect rhythm.
Now, first thing with dialogue: maybe record yourself having a conversation with someone.
Make sure the other person knows for legal reasons, of course. Make it long enough to forget that you’re recording the conversation to avoid being too self-conscious, then transcribe the conversation. I did this with a friend of mine years ago, back when I first started writing plays, and it was amazing to know just how much waffle and repetition people speak before they actually get to the point. And we’ll discuss waffle in more detail in a moment.
Readers in reviews, they’ll say that they like their dialogue to feel naturalistic and real. But the trouble is, naturalistic and real is waffly, boring and distracting. The knack is to make it sound natural, while cutting out all the excess waffles.
Here are a few pointers; listen to others.
My cousin used to live tweet conversations he overheard on the bus to work and they were always hilarious with phrases that were absolute gems of dialogue. So whenever you hear a colourful exchange or phrase, jot it down in a notebook or your smartphone, you know, send it to yourself, keep a file of them somewhere. You may never use it, but doing this regularly will attune your ear to great dialogue. The more attuned you get, the better and more sparky your dialogue will be.
Cut the small talk.
Every now and then I hear someone complain that, “Oh, people in films never say hello when they pick up the phone. How rude.” There is a reason for that. We cut the unimportant stuff and get to the essence of the stuff that drives the story forward. This comes back to my point about naturalistic dialogue. I’ve literally had conversations that go like this: Mark, it’s your mum. How are you? Good. How are you and Dad? Oh, fine, fine, fine. Oh, good, good, good, good. That’s nice. Everything alright? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s all fine. Lovely, lovely. Good, good. That’s great. That’s lovely. That’s great… Oh your Great uncle died… What!?
You could never get away with that in a novel, unless it was a comedy bit. But the thing is, small talk… If small talk is essential for a character, then maybe fold that into the descriptive prose, you know: Mum called. She made the usual small talk, then hit me with the news. “Mark, I’m sorry, but your great uncle died.”
Next tip: Say it out loud.
I highly recommend talking to yourself. Write the first pass of your dialogue as freely and waffly as you like, go full naturalistic if you want, and then cut out all the fat. How to identify waffle and fat? Well, yeah, you’ve heard of the phrase chewing the fat? Apparently, this comes from small talk that sailors would make when chewing on salt hardened fat while they worked. This kind of chit chat that passed the time, you know. But as authors, we’re not passing the time with idle gossip.
We need to grip the reader. So our dialogue needs to do three things:
One: Move the story forward. Any exchange of dialogue needs to bring us closer to the end. Asking about the weather won’t necessarily do this.
Two: it needs to reveal character. Does your dialogue give us any insight into the character’s feelings and motivations?
Three: Build relationships. Does the dialogue create a dynamic that helps the reader understand relationships? For example, a father might yell at his kids, but be meek around his boss. That tells us something about him. If your dialogue doesn’t meet these criteria, then prepare the cutting snippers, because that dialogue might need to go. And you can get messy.
OK, so while we’re avoiding all the small talk, we can still sound naturalistic with interruptions, overlapping, half-finished thoughts, stammering… All these and more can help make your characters sound distinct.
Now, a quick word on slang, jargon and patois.
Use it very, very sparingly, especially when writing outside of your own experience. There’s nothing more likely to make the reader cringe than, say, a white person writing Jamaican patois, for example.
Some of you might have read the novel I co-wrote, Back to Reality. There’s an Italian character in that, Federica, who has a very distinct way of speaking. But we kept any overt Italian-isms to an absolute minimum to stop her sounding like Super Mario. We also gave it to an Italian friend to read to make sure we weren’t going to be banned from the country for life. You just need a tiny sprinkle of slang, patois to let the reader know the speech patterns, and they’ll hear the voice in their head and create their own accent and rhythm. You know, if you start emphasising it in every sentence of dialogue, it’s just too much. When it comes to jargon — military, police, scientific tech talk, doctors, things like that — use just enough to be authentic and avoid characters telling each other stuff they already know. You know, you get, “As you know, Dr. Smith, we make an incision here…” Use your prose to let the reader know just enough to add two plus two.
Again, I know it’s easier said than done, but it comes with practise. You have to keep the voices distinct as well. How can you stop characters from all sounding the same, or sounding like you? It’s important to make characters distinct. And a fun exercise is to remove all of the dialogue tags in an exchange and see if you can tell who’s saying what. Maybe give it to someone else to read and see if they can tell the difference.
This is where you need to get in character. If you find a character’s dialogue is bland, then, as an exercise, write the scene from their first person point of view, think about any moments of hesitation, frustration, what they really want to say, as opposed to what they actually say, how they hear the voice of others in that exchange. Do they find some people annoying, grating? Are they in a position of power in this scene, or are they having to watch what they say in order to get what they want?
Also, think about word choice. Do they use short, abrupt phrases? Or are they verbose and erudite? Do they use any slang, do they swear ten to the dozen? Think about their background and their world. You know, a working class docker will have very different dialogue to a nun… She’ll swear more for a start. Once you’ve done that, I think you’ll find it easier to write in their voice when it comes to dialogue. And have a think about subtext. You know, having characters blurt out exactly what they mean can be effective.
But mostly we should work with subtext:
Dialogue that defelcts, defends and skirts can be really engaging. Saying exactly what’s on your mind can have terrible consequences. You know, only the cold hearted tell their boyfriend or girlfriend that they want to break up. You know, characters that feel real will do everything they can to avoid delivering bad news. No one likes that. Or they will tailor what they say to the social situation.
Body language is also your friend.
We pick up so many clues from body language that it’s important to pair dialogue with descriptions of your character’s posture and mannerisms. Something like, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with a shake of the hand and a smile, is very different to, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with pursed lips and a withering glare. And tension. Thinking about subtext and body language brings me to how dialogue can build tension. Tension in a story comes from unanswered questions. Will he propose? Will she say yes? And dialogue can really help drive that tension and resolve it. Make every word count, keep the story moving forward, and keep the reader on the hook, which is easier said than done, of course. Well, I hope that was helpful.