Thursday 16 August 2012

Why Oh Why Oh Why...?

Don't panic - this isn't some Points Of View-style whinge, just a writing tip inspired by a short story I read online recently.

I'm not going to link to it, because that would be mean. It was interesting and well-written, but it was one of those stories that I got to the end of and felt something substantial was missing. I read through it again and realised that if I had written it, and somebody started asking me questions about it, I would come unstuck at some point.

I'd be okay if they asked why I'd chosen that particular character, as the first-person narrator was an interesting type of guy in a challenging set of circumstances. Likewise with the setting - although it didn't add a great deal to the story it was authentic and stopped everything from happening in white space. But what if they asked, "Why this? Why now?"

You see, the story I read was one of those where the main character does something they're accustomed to doing and afterwards, at the end of the story, they're right back at the beginning and ready to do it all over again. Nothing's changed. You'd have the same story if you told your readers about the next time, or the previous time, or the time before that, and so on. A story needs to be about a unique moment. If it's too run-of-the-mill, then why bother to tell people about it? If I was down the pub with friends and I got them all to quiet down and said, "The other day, right, I went to work; I had a couple of meetings, I wrote a few emails, I ate my lunch, then had another meeting and wrote some more emails," I think the best response I could hope for would be for them to say, "Yeah? So what?"

It doesn't really matter how interesting you think the stuff that happens in a story will be to the reader, because the reader experiences the events through your characters' eyes. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because you've made your main character a racing driver or an intergalactic warlord or a paramedic, it automatically gives you an interesting story. If you're recounting just another day at the track, or dodging black holes and plundering far-flung planets, or tearing through the city with the blue lights flashing, then - at its heart - the story's going to be no more riveting than my slice of office life above.

A story should be a special insight into a character's world. It needs to revolve around an extraordinary moment. Give your readers a glimpse of something that's never happened before, and show them how it affects your character. Make sure that at the end, even if you deposit your character back where they started, it's clear nothing's ever going to be quite the same again.

Ask yourself why you've chosen that particular moment to write about. Ask why the events you're describing are important in your characters' lives. If you can't point to the answers within the text, get the red editing pen out. You probably haven't written the story you meant to.

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