- Issue March 18, 2018
On Fiction Writing
by Samantha Teta
My favorite forms of creative writing are poetry and fiction. I love to compose them almost as much as I love to read them. I’m eternally fascinated by the art of creating alternate realities and weaving stories that tackle human experiences. I like to suspend my disbelief and live vicariously through characters whether they are aliens on mars, criminals or lion charmers. As a reader I often don’t pick up on the techniques of story writing (fictional or otherwise). However, as an aspiring writer I have no choice but to pay attention to technique and learn how to write effectively. Good writing may save a bad idea but horrible writing can sink a great one. Over the last two years I have had the privilege to attend a variety of Writer’s festivals and creative writing lectures in Vancouver where I have learned from successful published writers. I’m still learning all the intricate steps and processes writers go through in creating and editing a diamond from the dirt. Here are a few of the writing tips I have picked up thus far.
Building a Character
An essential part of developing a character is thinking about them at length and allowing them to breathe on their own. Ask yourself: ‘What do my characters desire?’, ‘What will they have to do to achieve those desire?’, ‘Who or what hinders them?’. That desire and their choices drive the plot of your story. Readers get a good sense of characters from their actions when they are faced with obstacles to their end goal. Therefore details matter! The character’s appearance, their surroundings, tone of voice, mannerisms and so on really show the reader who the character is. It is much better to reveal a character through their actions, inner thoughts and interactions with other characters as opposed to squarely laying it out for the reader through backstory or summary. Often you can keep or lose your reader from your first paragraph. The opening sentence and paragraph should hint at some sort of tension, the story that is to follow, establish a narrative voice and raise questions. Start as close to the ending as possible with a ‘look back hook’ to give your reader a sense of familiarity and satisfaction as they put two and two together.
Creating A Scene
Tension or Conflict is an essential part of any story. Otherwise we would only ever read about unicorns, rainbows and sunshine. A scene is incorporated into a story to dramatize the conflict and advance the story line. Pack a scene with sensory detail and use it to show emotional change in the character. There must be three beats to a scene: the opening belief of a character, the conflict or challenge that they experience and finally, the way they change as a result. Imagine for a second a story where the characters have no interactions, are not grounded in a specific time or place and we are told every tiny bit of their life. Yeah that’s a terrible story. As a writer you have to trust that your readers are smart enough to read between the lines. You must strike a balance between what they include and what they leave to the reader’s imagination. Both should serve the story.
When characters talk to each other, you, the writer are also talking to the reader. So dialogue must not be without purpose. It must advance the narrative of the story and continue to reveal the intentions of the characters. For that to happen, dialogue must stay true to the way people communicate in real life. To avoid dumping info on the reader use subtext- underlying meaning or implication in the scene and dialogue. Subtext can be shown through word choice, tone, facial expressions, body language and overall mood of the character. We can often tell how a person feels through their gestures, the same is true of fictional characters. In a basic story arc there is set up of the plot, an inciting incident, a crisis for the character, the climax of the tension and the resolution the character comes to at the end. Don’t forget the golden rule ‘show, don’t tell’ Instead of writing ‘Paul was angry’, write ‘Paul clenched his jaw and slammed his hand on the table.’ As readers we get a better sense of a character by seeing them in their element and interpreting their actions. It’s not enough to say they are ‘angry.’ We must see, hear, feel and even relate to that anger.
I think that its true that avid reading makes one a better writer. But I also think its mostly subconscious learning. Next time you read, pay attention to writing style and techniques of other writers. Where they have subtext, where they leave clues and cliffhangers and so on. Invest in conscious learning. A story is often a metaphor for life. An easy assignment to get more ideas or supplement what you already have is to observe people and watch your surroundings. All those random thoughts you have, things you overhear, random scenes that create themselves in your mind and that interesting line that stays with you, don’t ignore them. Write them down. It might not make sense at the moment but it might complete a puzzle in the future.
Samantha Teta’s academic interest is Feminist theory in social/political context. She is passionate about all mediums of expression—creative writing in particular.