How to Write a Good Book – Post 4. Structure

pen4So Rudolph is desperate to guide the tractor on Christmas eve, but his nose won’t glow properly. Erma makes him an enormous apple pie to make him happy and promises him a good night in bed afterwards. She wants that new TV!

How do you you get the structure of your story right?

First Draft

For your first draft, don’t worry about structure. Just get the story down. It will come out chronologically, that is, with the events in the order in which they happen. They may not stay this way, but that’s fine for now. Too many writers worry about writing a blockbuster with their first draft. You won’t. All writers have to write a second draft, so don’t try and avoid it.

Second draft

By now, you will have the basic story written, and hopefully the characters will be starting to interact naturally and seem real. You will also have enough ideas to keep the reader’s interest, but the pace may be uneven and the first few pages may seem a bit bland.

All stories, including those of Tolkien, J K Rowling and plays by Shakespeare, have a beginning, a middle and an end. In plays, these are called the first, second and third act. But they can be subdivided. Your story needs to have this basic skeleton:

  1. Beginning
    1. Hook
  2. Middle
  3. End
    1. Climax
    2. Optionally, a twist
    3. Ending or denouement

What is a hook?

The hook is really what happens on the first page, and probably in the first paragraph or even the first sentence. It is the bit that hooks a reader into wanting to read the whole story. Research has proved again and again that when a potential reader sees your book description, likes that and then decides to read the first page (as they almost always do in a bookshop, or on Amazon), they will decide within a few seconds, thirty at the very most, whether they want to read the rest or not.

That is all the time you have to really grab them! So make your first paragraph, and if possible, your first sentence, really grab them. Make it unusual, even odd, and make sure it contains some emotive words. For instance, have a look at this first draft of the first sentence of our Rudolph and Santa story:

Santa asked Rudolph to meet with him. He then proceeded to tell Rudolph that he has lost his sleigh, so they will have to hire a van. Rudolph says okay but he has to check with Erma, because he told her he should always check any changes to his working conditions with her. ….

That is okay, but it’s not going to make somebody want to read the rest of your book. Let’s try again:

The telephone rang in Rudolph’s apartment.

“It’s for you Rudolph!” his wife, Erma, yells up the stairs. “It’s Santa. Says its urgent!”
Rudolph turned away from the bathroom mirror and ran to the phone.
“My nose will never glow properly again!” he told himself.
“Rudolph! Is that you?”
“Yep, it’s me Santa.”
“I’ve lost my sleigh! It’s Christmas Eve. You know what that means?
“No.”
“I will have to use a van! That means I don’t need you!”
“I can’t pull the sleigh? Okay. Wait, Erma is trying to tell me something.”
Erma tells her husband. “Your union rules say you have to deliver the present. That means you have to drive the van!”

Now this is much better. First of all there is a lot of dialogue. Readers tend to prefer dialogue. They want the characters to show them what’s happening. They don’t want the narrator to tell them. It’s called ‘show, don’t tell,’ and is an important trick for story-telling. Basically people want to work things out for themselves. Good writing should have at least 50% dialogue, or monologue.

You can see also that there is a sense of urgency and tension with the dialogue. And already we can see that Erma is going to be instrumental in the events that follow.

The Climax

How do you write a climax? First of all, you should work out in your head what sort of climax it is. If its action, then you will need to use many more action words like ‘ran,’ ‘desperately lunged,’ ‘screamed,’ ‘screeched to a halt,’ etc. Try to use shorter sentences at this part of the story too; it makes for more tension. By now the reader should have had all the insight they need into the main characters’ emotions and motivations, so you can spend much less time on this. Focus on the action and make the reader anticipate the moment of climax by building a scene of terror or dramatic tension or scenery.

On the other hand, your moment of climax might simply be psychological. If you are writing an emotional love story, it might be the scene when the man finally proposes to his long lost love. Draw it out. Use lots of warm phrases like ‘heart burst with happiness’ or ‘finally she knew she had found true love.’

In our story it might be that Rudolph delivers all the presents on time and gets a big bonus from Santa. Not only can they get a really good wide-screen TV but he can take Erma on the honeymoon they never quite had (due to heavy work schedules at the time).

The Twist

A story doesn’t need to have a twist, but a twist can leave the reader feeling, ‘Wow! That was a great book!’ so you might want to try it.

There is not much I can tell you about the twist, except that you should have planned it from the start and given readers small clues that something peculiar might happen. And then when it comes, it must be as big a surprise as possible. They will feel cheated if they either anticipated it, or if there have been no clues whatsoever that something was coming. Leave them gasping or saying “Wow!” and you have a fan for life! A really good example is the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense and. In our story it might be that Rudolph’s father was actually a farm reindeer, and so Rudolph turns out to be the best tractor driver ever!

The Ending or Denouement

It might seem a bit obvious to say a story needs an ending, but it does need to be structured. It needs to leave the reader with the message you worked into the story (see the Themes tutorial) and don’t forget the character needs to show that they are changed of have learned something. You might also need to explain the twist a bit. But if you know there will be a sequel, you might not want to explain anything, but simply put the twist in the last sentence and leave the reader desperate to read the next book (as I have done in The Synchronicity Code). This is the moment when you want all the strands to come together so that the reader says, “Ah! Ha!”. Then they will be satisfied and want to read your next book.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial, you might need to address other matters of structure during the second draft.

Structural editing

The second draft is really where you take the first editing step; structural editing. If you are paying a very good editor, they will suggest these changes to you. But what is structural editing?

If you have a lot of background and character building to get into the first chapter, it’s going to seem slow to some readers. Other readers won’t even buy the book, unless they get a feel for how good the climax is going to be. Fortunately, you won’t need to worry about this once the reader has read a few of your book. But how do you get round this problem with your first book?

I have found that sometimes it helps to take a preview out from just before the climax and put it in near the beginning or even before Chapter One. For instance, in Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate, the climax is a confrontation between the main character and his arch enemy. Fortunately for us, he has recorded what happened on a tape-recorder, so his wife can set down the events. This is done in the form of a small insert, in italics, at the beginning of each chapter. In this way, I feed the reader a taste of what is to come later, and make them want to read more. Judging by the reviews, this technique seems to have worked quite well.

Take a Tip From the Movies

Lastly, I have discovered some very useful techniques used by movie makers. You might not want to try these ideas at all, but here is the structure for Gladiator. See how it develops the tension and keeps the watcher glued to the screen? You might want to try something similar with your books, especially if they are action adventures.

  1. A film should start with a scene that shows the main character doing what he/she does best
  2. Then comes the opportunity
  3. And then the new situation

Find out more at: http://www.whatascript.com/screenplay-structure-11.html#sthash.nsU1CVMf.dpuf

See you next time when we discuss 5. Varying the Pace.

And if you are wondering about the third draft, this will come later, in tutorial 6. Editing.

Let me know what you think of my tutorials by commenting below.

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How to Write a Good Book – Post 3. Characterisation

writing3Basic Rules of Characterisation

So, in our story about Santa’s sleigh problems, we have Santa, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Erma!

Now how do you create characters for them? There are no hard and fast rules, but be wary of simply writing the story as it comes into your head without setting the characters. If you do this, the most likely outcome is that all the characters will sound like the same person, or sub-personalities of the same person. For instance:

“Wow! I got an egg for my birthday. Thanks Erma. I really love you. It’s exactly what a male reindeer wants!”
“It’s okay Rudolph. Wow! I really love you too. I’m glad it’s what you wanted.”

Can you see some things wrong with this conversation?

  1. The both say, “Wow!” In reality, two people rarely use the same expressions as each other. Erma, being female, is probably younger than her partner (I am being politically correct here!), so she might say, “Dude!” instead.
  2. ‘Rudolph’ is a name of 2 syllables, unlike ‘Erma.’ If they have been living together for years, she would probably have shortened it to save time. ‘Rudy’ is more likely.
  3. She is female, he is male. Males don’t say, “I love you” as much as females. Males usually cover their  emotions so he is more likely to say something like, “You’re sweet,” or, “So nice of you.”
  4. And men tend to say as little as possible in emotional conversations. So Rudy probably wouldn’t expand by saying, “It’s exactly what I want.”
  5. Males tend to be less expressive of their emotions at all times, so there will be less exclamation marks in their conversation.

Now let’s try the conversation again:

“Wow! I got an egg for my birthday. Thanks Erma.”
“It’s okay Dude! I really love you too. I’m glad it’s what you wanted?”

See how the dynamics have completely changed. Now we begin to see their characters emerge. I deliberately left in the word ‘too’ in Erma’s reply because it accidentally adds something Erma might add on purpose; if she wanted to be sarcastic and elicit a further response from Rudolph. Also note that I added a question mark at the end of her reply. She might be uncertain whether she had satisfied him; women are more sensitive to the emotional state of partners so they are constantly probing to find out what it is. They also like to engage in conversation more than men so add cues in this way.

So you have seen how factors like gender, age, race etc. need to be taken into account in conversations between characters. And ALWAYS been vigilant for signs of them sounding the same. If you are unsure, swap the speech round. Pretend that Rudolph is saying Erma’s lines. If it sounds false, then you need to rework it.

But those are only the basic rules. The reader will want to see character development.

What is character development?

When writing any novel, there are certain elements always seem to enhance a book’s appeal. One is that the main character should always be changed by their adventure or learn a lesson from it. In this way, the reader sees that the character grows and the reader can grow with them. Great examples are:

Harry potter becoming more worldly as his adventures progress

Frodo Baggins learning that pity can be a good thing and in general becoming so wise that the Elven folk invite him to go over the sea and into the West with them at the end.

Luke Skywalker growing from a farm boy to a worldly Jedi knight.

As in real life, this is a long process so don’t make it happen in the first few pages. Plan what things will change them and plan the scenes to show this. But in order to do this, you will need a sense of the person’s core character.

The Character’s Core

It may seem a little odd to you but I will come to the character’s physical appearance last. The core of the character is what we are concerned with here. The trap that many writers fall into is to make the main character in their own image. In other words, the main character seems just like the writer. It’s very easy to do, and in fact, almost impossible to avoid completely. You need to develop a good deal of depth for the main character (MC), so it’s natural to draw on your own traits and experiences.

But we all have sub-personalities. We all have a side that gets angry very easily or is prone to love too easily. As we grow, we learn to control these ‘sides’ of ourself. However, writing is a great opportunity to let these people back out into the open again. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I love writing so much!

For instance, my main character in the Ordo Lupus books 1,2 and 3 is an ex-secret agent with the rare gift of being able to see Evil before it happens. He is also incredibly unlucky, but because of his talent is always able to survive and even turn these events to his advantage. I based these characteristics on myself. Although such moods or events are rare in my life, they do seem to happen. Readers seem to recognise these traits in themselves and many have written to me saying how much they identify with the MC.

If you use this technique, you will find endless inspiration in your own life without giving too much away about yourself. If you are writing about somebody in a bad situation, writing about it as a sub-personality will also keep you more sane that writing about your whole self! This technique works equally well if you are writing about somebody of the opposite gender to yourself.

For secondary characters, you could use sub-personalities of your self but I like to use 2 other techniques.

The first method is to think of somebody you know well or have known well in the past. It needs to be somebody with whom you have laughed and cried with, or at least had an argument. Base your character on them, and use the same physical attributes if you like. If you are really bold, you can tell your friend you are doing this as a compliment. But ALWAYS change the name! Don’t embarrass somebody. Also be aware that if your friend knows that the character dies horribly or does something terrible, they may not like it.

The second is to use somebody famous; maybe an actor or actress. This can work very well if the actor/actress is very well loved and has done great emotional scenes in movies or on stage. I have used this technique to good effect in one of my books.

Appearance

I left this until last because in many ways it is the least important factor. But a physical appearance can reinforce a trait and become an effective cue for the reader.

For instance, dark hair or dark eyes can often suggest a malevolent personality. It’s probably a Western prejudice but nevertheless it exists. If you make a baddy blonde, good-looking and blue eyed, be prepared to make him or her really bad to compensate. Two examples that work well are Bond’s adversary (played by Xavier Bardem) in Skyfall and the priest assassin in Angels and Demons.

My MC in the Ordo Lupus books 1,2 and 3 has eyes of a different colour. This not only suggests a weakness but also a strangeness and rare gift of sight.

In general, you should always give a weakness or fault to a main character. Without this, it will be harder for the reader to identify with them. In our case, le’t say that Rudolph’s nose only shines brightly when he has had too much to eat and he is happy. So at the moment it is not shining, which means that he cannot guide the sleigh properly. See how you already feel sorry for him? Or at least, I do!

Lastly, I always keep a separate word file filled with a list of characters’ physical and psychological traits. Not being able to find out whether you gave a character blue eyes or brown at the beginning, and having to hunt to find out can be very frustrating.

So to recap:

  1. Take gender, age, race, sexuality, culture etc. into account when writing dialogue
  2. Use sub-personalities of yourself for the main character(s)
  3. Use friends for lesser characters
  4. Use actors or famous people for lesser or minor characters

In the next tutorials we will look at:

4. Structure

5. Varying the pace

6. Editing

If you want to ask me anything, or have an opinion to express on these tutorials, don’t hesitate to leave a comment:

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping up to date with Lazlo Ferran

Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate - Extended Edition coverHi All
I wanted to let you know that I will only be posting every second Monday from now on. I have to focus very hard on my latest novel and the real world tends to intrude as well so I don’t have to much time.

If you really want exclusive inside information on what I am working on, what is coming up, competitions freebies AND THREE FREE THRILLERS, then you need to sign up for the Lazlo Newsletter.

You will always find a page with the link to the Newsletter in the menu at the top of all my blog pages.

Should a hero be a Brando or a Martin Freeman?

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

Superhero or Everyman?

I woke up this morning wondering what to blog about and I decided the best post would be about the subject of my pondering at the moment; what makes a good hero?

Everyone (well, in the West anyway) will know who Marlon Brando is, possibly the greatest and certainly one of the greatest actors of all time. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins in the recent Hobbit films.

I am as big a fan of Bilbo as anybody and nobody can deny Bilbo is the hero of The Hobbit. What is more, he is an ‘everyman.’ What that means is that everyone can identify with his situation because he is just a normal guy. Brando, on the other hand, rarely plays normal guys; from The Wild One to Superman and Apocalypse Now, nearly all his characters are superhuman or out-and-out rebels; men on the edge of society.

Here are my reviews of two of his films that I watched recently. After you have read these, I will ask the question again:

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

I have been trying to view this 1958 film since my father watched it and recommended it, about ten years ago. He is not a huge fan of Brando and not one to recommend films very often so my interest was piqued. The film proved hard to find; a trip to Virgin and HMV in Oxford Street(at the time) produced nothing and not been able to stream it on-demand since. I tend to watch films when I am in the mood; one day a film might be just what I want, the next day what I definitely don’t want so ordering it from Amazon just wasn’t gonna work for me. A friend finally got it for me and so I was set.

The film starts promisingly enough with Brando, as Christian, a young German ski-instructor, wooing the delicious Hope Lange. But then we are ‘treated’ to nearly half an hour of very mundane acting by Dean Martin (only recently out of his partnership with Jerry Lewis) and a struggling Montgomery Clift. I have seen Clift acting well but for the first hour in this film, he is wooden or overwrought by turns. His tone is so misjudged, I found it hard to watch and Martin is of course not an actor of even Clift’s calibre.

I was beginning to lose hope that we would see Brando on form but he finally reappeared, now as an SS officer in Paris. He meets a friend who sets him up on a blind date with a French girl, whose husband has been killed by the Nazis. “Okay; fireworks! ” I hear you say and you’d be right, She throws the wine Brando just bought her in his face and Christian, with his oft-employed stoic look, listens to her rant without comment for what must be a couple of minutes of screen gold.

Of course he is so tolerant and charming that she has to forgive him in the end and they strike a flame together. Christian has to arrest a Jewish boy but reacts by refusing to make any more arrests and risks a firing squad when ge confronts his commanding officer.

“Ah this is the Brando we love!” I thought. “A rebel within the SS! What a gem!”

His commanding officer takes pity on Christian’s humanity and sends him on an errand to deliver a silk nightie to his own wife, back in Berlin. Brando is happy to get some leave and thus meets the gorgeous and Deitrich-like May Britt. With half-lidded eyes she tells him he can sleep on the couch and help himself to as much schnapps as he can hold while she beds a general.

Christian takes up her offer and later beds her but he doesn’t like her and nor does she care for him.

The strange relationship tension between Christian and his commander weaves a thread right through the film to near the end when Christian has to deliver another gift to Britt’s character in a ruined Berlin. This time, he can’t even find pity for her and takes out his pent up rage about the pointless war on her.

Of course Martin and Clift have parts which run parallel to Brando’s but while theirs is the simple story of all-american-boys making good in the war, albeit a Jewish underdog in the case of Clift, these only serve to highlight just how unusual and complex Brando’s part is. No doubt he worked hard to accentuate this but he hardly needed to; his acting alone lifts the film far beyond what it might otherwise be. He looks the part as the blonde-haired SS uber-soldier but of course he has a weakness in the eyes of his superiors – he is human.

The final scenes play out in, and around a liberated concentration camp. The film is poignant for the inclusion of Clift’s Jew liberating such a horror and Brando delivers a final scene that tops even that (as you would expect) and I am not giving it away.

All in all, well worth a watch if you like a war movie with a little Brando to spice it up! Oh and watch out for a very early performance from Lee van Cleef as a drill sergeant.

The Brave

I watched this 1997 film simply because it is one of the few Brando movies I haven’t seen and it was available on Youtube. I didn’t expect too much from this, the only full-length Johnny Depp directed film to date, although it also has Johnny Depp in the lead role and a cameo from Brando so I expected to at least be competent.

I quickly realised that this film was so obscure and unloved by Hollywood that I could watch it free not because it was bad but because of the subject matter. It’s certainly not an uplifting movie and no doubt the distributors and marketing people had their heads in their hands on this one!

Depp plays a Mexican Indian who is struggling to support his small family on a reserve that essentially survives by recycling stuff from the municipal dump of white people. In and out of jail all his life, he is offered the chance to ‘star’ in a snuff movie for Brando’s McCarthy. He takes the job, knowing it will pay to rehouse his family and educate his children but later regrets it.

The scenes in the rubbish dump are harrowing; Depp’s family sleeping in a tiny caravan, surrounded by waste and his trips further and further up river to find clean water, which he collects in plastic pales hung from a yoke over his back, turned my stomach.

His life is so bad, you can almost understand why he takes up the snuff movie offer… almost … but not quite. When he visits McCarthy in a downtown warehouse he sees the iron torture chair he will be strapped into for the first time. I could barely watch from this point on. Depp underplays his role, playing the stoic American Indian brave trapped in a sick world by uttering very few words, instead using facial expressions silence to communicate his feelings of entrapment.

Brando is incredible! He rolls himself into the warehouse in a wheelchair, while playing a sad blues tune on a harmonica (for real; Brando was a highly accomplished musician, drummer and dancer) and proceeds to take apart the whole concept of death, to the point that he makes it almost sound like a higher-calling. Of course Depp’s character isn’t fooled but he takes the cash and McCarthy tells him to come back in a week.

“Why would you trust me to come back?” Depp asks him (I am paraphrasing here)

“I have a feeling for people; a sensitivity. A man, such as yourself, a man of spirit, is a man of honour.”

This movie is well-worth watching if you care at all about the struggle of some communities to overcome prejudice and inequality. It is heart-breaking to watch what one man has to contemplate in order to provide for his family. I am not very tolerant of pain myself and McCarthy’s answer; “It depends on how much you can take,” when Depp’s character asks him how much he will get, really made me squirm. I simply cannot put this film out of my mind. Of course if you are a person who likes to see the world through rose-tinted glasses, don’t watch this film. But don’t ever look behind you again.

That’s the reviews over. Now back to the question. I am thinking about my next book and it often helps me to think of a Hollywood actor when planning the main character’s role. Here I have got a bit stuck; I see a plot with an old-time Hollywood actor called William Holden. I guess in some ways you could say he is like Martin Freeman in that you probably wouldn’t pick say he was a flamboyant character or would stand out in a crowd.

The trouble is, I worry that such a book would not have a wide enough appeal because the character is not larger-than-life. I get the feeling big epic themes need big epic characters and I wonder if a Brando/Pacino/Russell Crowe type character would work better.

Which type of character do you like best? Let me know by commenting below or @Lazlo_F or on Facebook.

Occult Thriller Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate Translated into Chinese!!

Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate

Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate

Stop the Press! Occult Thriller Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate is being Translated into Chinese

Great news! Yes it’s true. I recently submitted half a dozen of my books to a publisher that specialises in translating books into Chinese and distributing within China and Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate has already been accepted and partially translated. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. I have made concerted efforts to reach the Far East Market as well as the Middle East (which Amazon ignores and in fact in which it positively blocks downloads) but I didn’t know how to reach any Chinese readers.

Timescales are hazy at this point but it looks like it will be available around the end of the year if all goes well. I will keep you posted if I get anything firmer.

I can also confirm that the next Newsletter will go out around the 15th March and in it you will find information on two different ways you can get any of my eBooks FREE! So sign up to the Newsletter today!

Poll Results: Best Vampire or werewolf Acting?

Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire

Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire

Best Vampire or werewolf Acting?

The results are in! I wonder if you will agree or disagree with the people’s choice! Please comment with your opinion or tweet me @Lazlo_F or facebook.com/lazloferran

In first place we have Tom Cruise as Lestat de Lioncourt in Interview with the Vampire.

In second place, we have Salma Hayak as Santanico Pandamonium in From Dusk till Dawn.

Tying for third place, we have Jack Nicholson as Will Randall in Wolf and Christopher Lee as Count Dracula in various Hammer movies.

Did you know?

Interview with the Vampire:

Tom Cruise and all the other vampire actors were required to hang upside down for up to thirty minutes at a time during the make-up application.

Johnny Depp was offered the role of Lestat.

There’s a scene towards the end of the movie where Louis is watching Superman (1978) in a cinema. This scene doesn’t appear in the novel because the book was written in 1976, two years before the film was made.

From Dusk till Dawn:

Salma Hayek did not have a choreographer for her dance. Director Robert Rodriguez just told her to feel the music and dance to it. Rodriguez would later use the same tactic with Jessica Alba in Sin City (2005).

If you look closely, when Cheech Marin is playing the Customs Agent, his name badge says, “Oscar Marin” which is Cheech’s real-life father’s name. His father was an LAPD officer.

Wolf:

Although the film is about a werewolf, that particular word is never mentioned.

Dracula movies of Hammer:

Christopher Lee’s last film for Hammer as Dracula, The Satanic Rights of Dracula was the final Hammer film in which both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appear.

Watch out for another poll soon, this time on scifi movies!

Vote: Best Vampire or Werewolf Acting?

Klause Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre

Klause Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre

The vote is open: Best Vampire or Werewolf Acting?

Please vote for your favourite 3 performances. You have 3 votes. Poll closes 5pm, 25 May.

S’il vous plaît voter pour vos favoris 3 performances. Vous disposez de 3 votes. Sondage ferme 17 heures, le 25 Mai.

Bitte stimmen Sie für Ihren Lieblings-3 Performances. Sie haben 3 Stimmen. Poll schließt 5.00, den 25. Mai.

آپ کے پسندیدہ 3 پرفارمنس کے لئے ووٹ ڈالنے کے لئے براہ مہربانی. آپ کو 3 ووٹ پڑے. سروے کے نتائج سے 5pm کے، 25 مئی کو بند کر دیتا.

Por favor, votar por sus favoritos 3 actuaciones. Usted tiene 3 votos. Encuesta cierra 17:00, 25 de Mayo.

अपने पसंदीदा 3 अभिनय के लिए वोट करें। आप 3 वोट दिया है। पोल 17:00, 25 मई बंद कर देता है।

あなたのお気に入りの3公演に投票してください。あなたは3票を持っています。投票は午後5時、5月25日に終了します。

请投票选出您最喜爱的演出3场。你有3张选票。投票结束下午5点,5月25日。