Thursday, 25 September 2014

Workshop a novel in a Day (FOW14)

One of the mini-workshops on offer at the Festival of Writing was 'How to Workshop a novel in a day', with the author Allie Spencer.

Why pick this session? Well, I tend to be a pantser rather than a planner...that is, I get an idea for a story and happily set to writing it - without any real planning of its structure. I have a start point, I have an end in mind; I just need to get my main character from A to B: job done.

Ahem. Not so. This session reinforced the fact that actually, I do need to plan more - especially with respect to the characters.

It was a small group, only half a dozen ladies, but that meant there was plenty of opportunity to input to the discussions and ideas. Allie's method should 'be used as a support, not a cage', and aims to build a nicely proportioned and structured novel. Well, by the end of the session, we'd certainly mapped out a complete new story...whether any of us goes on to write it is another matter!

Let me take you through the technique. At each point, we were encouraged to input our own ideas, then the group as a whole picked the characteristics etc that we wanted to use in this new, emerging storyline.

Step 1: Define your leading character.

Memorable characters have strong, definable personality traits. They are complex and open to change - even if they choose not to. They have strong goals or perceived goals. They have a strong physical presence, though it's often not described. The reader reacts strongly to them and the situations the character faces challenge the reader with events beyond their normal experience. The character is conflicted. They are human enough for the reader to connect with them, and they dictate plot elements because of their characteristics.

Armed with that list, we each wrote a description of a leading character. Mine was based on Lord Baraat, who appears in the flash fiction prequel to Thread, (which you can read on the Random Writers site.) We shared our descriptions and amalgamated them into one character.

Now at this point, my brain started to turn to spaghetti. I never - NEVER - plan my characters out in this level of detail. Before long, our new character had his own backstory, a career, a family history, favourite food, goals, flaws... Mine usually just get 'a look' - I trawl the internet for a person who looks like my character. There may be an idea of where they fit into the story and how I want things to work out for them, but a whole history? Nah. Which brought me to Important Realisation No 1: Squidge concentrates on story, not character.

Step 2 : Define your secondary character(s).

The protagonist - your lead - needs someone to spar with and talk to. The secondary character is as much about revealing the protagonist as they are about revealing themselves. They can be good or bad, there may be more than one, and they often create a synthesis in the story; if the protagonist provides the themes and tone of the book, the secondary character provides light and shade...

So again, we devised a secondary character - but specifically for Zack, our 40 year old suspended cop who was fighting to get his son back after accusations of child abuse. Again, we amalgamated the results and came up with two: Miranda, a female lawyer who can't do emotions, and Quince, Zack's coloured partner on the force.

Each of them got their own back story. Important Realisation No 2 : Each character needs their own story!

Now - apart from the fact that I don't normally 'do' the real world in my writing so I had no real idea of how to approach a scenario that included child abuse and drug use, I don't 'do' backstory for supporting cast either. But when the goals and flaws of these secondary characters started to be described by others in the group, the potential for the storyline began to unfold in front of my eyes - because we moved onto conflict.

Step 3: Give each of your main characters conflict.

There's internal and external conflict; internal could be claustrophobia, external could be that your character has to escape through a tunnel. It's best to have the two linked so that the external works on the internal.

So we worked out the conflicts for our three characters. Which opened up a whole can of worms...

You could take Miranda's secret drug habit - which meant she needed her job but taking on Zack's case is a last ditch attempt to save her career - and tie it in with a drug-addled one night stand with Quince that becomes the guilty secret of a happily married man...which is how Zack sees his partner and feels he can never measure up to with child abuse allegations hanging over his head.

Trying to keep track of all the possibilities was like trying to hold a handful of those wriggling brain felt like it was about to explode. There was almost too much information to deal with. But I could see that by developing the characters in this way to start with, the storyline sort of developed itself BECAUSE of the way the characters were interacting.

Important Realisation No 3: You can't just slot characters into the story - they have to BE the story.

I started to wonder whether THIS was the problem in my writing? The 'something special' to make it sparkle? Particularly when we got onto character arc...

Step 4: Character arc.

A character arc serves to plot the change the hero goes through. It can be positive, leading to a happy ending, or negative, which leads to tragedy. (Interestingly, some characters are already 'good' - like James Bond.) The dark element nowadays is often supplied by the secondary character, but we often see the main character moving from a position of weakness to strength or immaturity to maturity. One way to plot this change is to use the following stages:

Starting point - conflict - goal - catalyst for change - resolution.

So Zack, our cop, is starting at the point where he's been suspended from his job and has lost his son.
His conflict is that he's exhausted the legal route to get his son back and he's angry, which was the cause of the child abuse allegations.
His goal is to get his son back.
The catalyst for change could be that he sees how Quince handled the one night stand and stayed with his family for the sake of his kids - the realisation that he has to put his son first.
The resolution could be that Zack finds his son but realises he's better off where he is, ie puts his son's needs before his own selfish desire.

Repeat for each character in turn...

Aha! Important Realisation No 4: I have totally missed out character arcs from everything I've ever written. 

In StarMark, I don't show how Irvana changes by what she's been through. I haven't given her a goal - she just gets carried along on a wave of events which happen to her and she is almost a passenger until she reaches the end. I haven't given her a flaw - unless it's being too nice. And the same problem occurs with Rurik too - I haven't shown much of a change in him, either. How much of that is down to the fact I don't think about it and plan it  beforehand, I wonder?

So now, I have a choice to make. Continue to work on what I know are essentially flawed stories, or try my hand at something new, forcing myself to plan it out first when I'm dying to just get writing.

Hmm. I'll think on that a bit longer...but Allie certainly gave me a lot of food for thought and a method that might just work if I try it.


  1. Very good blog. The first 3 steps are very important, and something I must take on board every time I start a new story. However, character arc can be nebulous, nothing much happens to plenty of M/cs in plenty of crime fiction stories that I've read. I think if the story demands it, then so be it - otherwise keep it in mind but don't fall over backwards to include changes for the sake of change. But for the future, it is a useful planning tool.

    I suggest you read 'Of things gone astray' by Janina Matthewson for a whole different take on how to write a story. It's unique.

    1. I just hope I can apply it, Stephen - as a pantser rather than a planner, I'm wondering whether it'll be too alien a concept for me! I'll look up Janina Williams - thanks for that.

  2. I love the idea of planning out characters as it helped me to develop my story. I read about it in Harry Bingham's book on writing and on the main WW site. I have seen it on other sites and in other books, so thought I'd give it a go.

    I wrote out 100 questions, some stupid but some real corkers. It was great fun finding out each characters darkest secrets, biggest fears, things that make them laugh or cry, things that make them angry or scared. What I ended up with was four sub-plots that are entwined with my main characters story.

    Great blog

    Allan -pinkbelt75