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The Theme for January2008: “Through a window”

 

This is primarily an exercise to develop your descriptive powers, write a short story that has one of your characters looking through a window.

 

The character can either be looking outwards at a view, such as a garden, a street, possibly the view from a tower block OR they could be looking in through a window, perhaps through a shop window at something they desire but cannot afford, perhaps they are looking into a neighbours window and see something that surprises them.

 

The key point is that they must be looking through a pane of glass, you must describe the scene in some detail and it must have a significant bearing upon your story.

 

Good descriptive writing is essential for setting the environment in which your characters interact, but it has to be done in a subtle manner, if you do too little it sounds like a radio script narrative, too much and it distracts the reader from the what the characters are doing.

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The Theme for February 2008:“The subplot”

 

Subplots are subsidiary storylines that run alongside and are linked to, the main story, it’s up to you how many subplots you decide to set up but there are two main rules.

 

1. They shouldn’t be necessary to the plot – if you took them away, the storyline shouldn’t fall apart.

 

2. they should always inform and feed into your main plot, contributing meaning to it.

 

This may mean you have to write a story that’s longer than our normal ‘short story’ length; the exact length is up to you but 3 pages of A4 would probably be a good minimum target.

 

An excellent book that handles subplots in this manner is “The Green Mile” by Stephen King, which is highly recommended and it’s also a very readable book.

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The Theme for March 2008:“Writing Dialogue.”

 

Writing dialogue - realistic dialogue – is a skill that a writer must do really well, good dialogue advances the story and fleshes out the characters, used correctly, it gives the reader a break from the authors narration and speeds the story along, it can also be used for condensing ‘back story’ or adding a touch of humour.

 

However, just as realistic dialogue is one of the most powerful tools at a writer's disposal, nothing pulls the reader out of a story faster than bad dialogue, a good tip is to have someone read your work back to you. Your ears should detect the bad dialogue that your eyes missed.

 

6 simple rules

 

1. Always use quotation marks to indicate the words spoken by the characters.

 

Obvious isn’t it? It is indeed! But where are the speech marks?

 

2. Always start a new paragraph when changing speakers.

 

“Obvious isn’t it?”

 

“It is indeed, ah! The speech marks have appeared now!”

 

3. Make sure the reader always knows who is speaking.

 

“Obvious isn’t it?” said Mantaspook

 

“It is indeed, ah! The speech marks have appeared now.” Said Coyleys.

 

4. Watch the adverbial modifiers (hint: they usually end in “ly”)

 

“Obvious isn’t it?” Mantaspook said sarcastically.

 

“It is indeed, ah! The speech marks have appeared now.” Muttered Coyleys, darkly.

 

Most of the time, simply adding an adverb to the word "said" doesn't accomplish much, in fact, sometimes it has the opposite effect and can be completely pointless and ineffective.

 

It is better to write the dialogue so the reader can discern the character's tone of voice and state of mind from the spoken words themselves, and the context of the story. Using verbs other than "said," "asked" and "replied" is another possibility, but this should be done thoughtfully and sparingly, only do this where the type of speech really needs to be indicated. If the dialogue itself is written well enough to carry the emotional dynamic, this shouldn't be necessary.

 

For instance:

 

“Oh dear, I have just hit my thumb with the hammer.” he exclaimed.

 

“OUCH! Damn! Damn! Damn! I’ve just hit my blasted thumb!” ('he exclaimed') -but you didn’t need to be told that time, did you?

 

Try to avoid "questioned" "told," "stated," & "quoted" and in speech tags, these are weak verbs and there are better ones that can be used, but best of all, if you can get away without using an adverb during dialogue attribution, then don’t use them at all.

 

Stephen King explains this concept a lot better than me in his book “On Writing” (p138-142) – highly recommended reading.

 

5. Vary the placement of speech tags.

 

Don't always identify the speaker in the same place; you can do it at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the sentence.

 

Once the characters and the flow of their conversation have been established, you may discard the speech tags. The important thing is that the reader instinctively knows who is speaking, this is easy with two characters that alternate, but add a third character and you will need a speech tag, and if you do introduce a new character DO NOT put the speech tag at the end, the reader should know who is speaking before they see that first quotation mark.

 

6.Mix narrative sentences with dialogue.

 

Don’t just show the reader what the characters are saying (I believe it’s called a script.) but intersperse narrative sentences and clauses to illustrate what the characters are doing whilst the conversation is taking place.

 

This is a good technique to identify the speaker and dispense with the speech tag alltogether.

 

Mantaspook wrote his last word on the subject and put down his pen. “It’s obvious isn’t it?”

 

Placing his whisky glass on the table, Coyleys reached for a pen and paper and smiled. “It is indeed.”

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The Theme for April 2008:“The unreliable narrator.”

 

“Unreliable narrator” is the term given to a literary device where the credibility of the narrator is compromised by some other aspects within the story.

 

The most common way to approach this subject is to write a story in the first person perspective, the story is told by a person who unwittingly compromises their own credibility and in so doing reveals the reason why they are unreliable.

 

This unreliability can be due to a number of reasons, for instance, they are psychologically damaged, they are biased, they lack knowledge or they are being deliberately deceptive.

 

<Q > Can you think of any other reasons?

 

The nature of the narrator is sometimes immediately clear. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill or the story itself may have a frame which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to his unreliability.

 

A more common, and dramatic, use of the device delays the revelation until near the story's end. This twist ending forces the reader to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story.

 

In many cases the narrator's unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving the reader to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.

 

Good Unreliable narrators

 

The classic unreliable narrator is someone like Nick in “The Great Gatsby”, whose hero worship blinds him to things about Gatsby that the reader can see. An unreliable narrator has to report things that tells the reader information that the narrator fails to deduce himself.

 

The narrator must be presented to the reader as someone who is working out of the context of their own personality, and who misses things that the reader can pick up because of the narrator's naiveté, or prejudice.

 

Bad unreliable narrators

 

A bad unreliable narrator is stupid. A bad unreliable narrator figures things out a long time after the reader does, he’s the last person to see that the bloke living in the flat next door, the one who collects knives, is seen gardening after midnight and must have a job in an abattoir to have that much blood on his clothes might be the guy who’s going around killing the local women. If you exaggerate this plot slightly you might have the basis for a humorous satire about a man who wanders through life missing the blindingly obvious, but that’s not what we’re trying to achieve.

 

Therefore a bad unreliable narrator is unbelievable because the reader has difficulty believing that the narrator hasn't figured out what the reader has.

 

Characteristics of the unreliable narrator

 

Think about what characteristics you wish the unreliable narrator to display, for instance they could be embittered, paranoid, naïve, self absorbed or inexperienced.

 

<Q> Can you think of any other different characteristics they may have?

 

Some examples of books that have unreliable narrators.

 

“Fight Club” by Chuck Palanhuik is a classic example of the unreliable narrator, the protagonist informs the reader about his relationship with Tyler Durden, who turns out to be a figment of his imagination, a splinter of his own decaying personality.

 

“The adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, the narrator is unreliable because he is a child, the adult readers see things he cannot because they have life experience that a child lacks.

 

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. The stories narrator, Charley, is mentally retarded, and his descriptions of events in his life reveal a very limited understanding of events around him.

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The theme for May 2008: "Character motivation."

 

It was a quiet night in the Rovers Return, half a dozen of the regulars were sat near the window, drinking and holding earnest conversations about life in Coronation Street.

 

The barmaid was by working by herself and had been for hours, she desperately needed the loo.

 

"Ken, would you do me a favour and mind the bar for a minute?"

 

"I'd be delighted to." Said Ken.

 

As soon as she went in the back Ken looked around to make sure no-one was looking, he opened the till, took out three twenty pound notes and quickly slipped them into his pocket…

 

Whoa, wait on a moment! That doesn't sound right…

 

But why doesn't it? OK, for speed I've cheated a little and used a soap character that is moral, reliable and above all, honest, so it seems incongruous that he would commit such a crime, there must be a very good reason why he is acting so out of character.

 

Here are half a dozen suggestions; you may want to incorporate some of them into your story.

 

1. Build up your characters first - Ideally the reader has to care about what happens to your characters so try to make them human and interesting, the reader is more inclined to continue reading your story if they identify in some way with them.

 

2. Try to make the characters consistent - for instance if your hero is a mild and polite he should act that way throughout the majority of story, if he suddenly explodes into violence, you need to show a reason why.

 

3. Everything happens for a reason. - This is crucial. People very rarely act without thinking, there is always a reason for their actions and whether they are acting out of love, kindness, boredom, excitement or revenge, there is always a reason.

 

Or course, the character is highly dependant upon the situation, using my Coronation Street example we might find out later that Ken has a drug habit or he is trying to get the barmaid sacked for spurning his advances… (That still doesn't sound right, does it?)

 

Basically, if your character wants something, or better still, NEEDS something, then they're going to get it. The shorthand is: if they're starving and penniless, they're going to steal food.

 

4. Understanding. -The reader doesn't necessarily have to sympathise with the character's reasons, but they must be able to understand what motivates the character.

 

A good example of a character that has staying power is a one who has good reasons NOT to do something, but does so anyway, even when it is to his disadvantage.

 

EG: A lawyer defends a black man in court, despite the disapprobation of his prejudiced local community who think the man is guilty. ( "To kill a mocking bird" by Harper Lee)

 

Alternatively, a character that doesn't care about the consequences of his actions can be interesting for a short while, but psychologically the character is flawed, acting on random impulses doesn't reveal much about the character, other than they may be a psychopath, it's how they became a psychopath that makes the story interesting, or the writing style could carry the story. ("American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis)

 

5. SHOW don't TELL - Don't TELL the reader what your characters motivation is, SHOW them.

 

Tell = "David was jealous."

 

Show = David snorted throgh his nose like a bull when he saw her on the dancefloor with his rival, he glared, his twitching fists pressed deep down in his pockets lest they gave him away."

 

6. Working it out. - You could write the story in such a way that working out the characters motivation is the whole point of the story, this is fine, it just means the reader discovers the motivation backwards, it may be a good idea to drop a few hints during the story as to what this may be, alternatively you could leave a trail of red herrings as the other characters speculate what is really motivating your hero.

 

If you opt for this scenario You must deliver - don't leave the reader hanging at the end.

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The theme for June 2008"The opposite sex"

 

If you're a male writer, then construct a story from the perspective of a female and if you're a female writer, then construct your story from the perspective of a male. Do they really think like that?

 

How you interpret the theme is up to you but I would recommend you concentrate on a situation where the sexual mindset of the person has a unique part to play in the story, basically you are exploring their emotional intelligence.

 

Two brief examples.

 

1. Imagine how it must feel to be 8 months pregnant and your boyfriend abandons you. What emotions would you feel and what would you do next?

 

2. Imagine you're a man out on his stag night with his mates; you're getting cold feet and wondering if you should cut and run…what emotions would you feel and what do you do next?

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The theme for July 2008:"My take on the Classics"

 

Very simple this month - write your own short version of a famous story, but make it different, inject some local knowledge. How about "Fight Club" set in Sheffield or Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Kelham Island?

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The theme for August 2008:Writing suspense.

 

Alfred Hitchcock was being interviewed about his career and he commented that in one of his films he placed a bomb on a bus…then later on he did something very stupid…he set it off. "This was a big mistake." he lamented, explaining that the carefully crafted tension that he had created was dissipated for a ten second shock, he had, he said, "let his audience off the hook."

 

There are three kinds of stories that are very similar: Mystery, thriller and suspense.

 

Mystery: The reader is two steps behind the detective who is solving the case. (Story characteristics: mainly intellectual, some violence.)

 

Thriller: The reader is in the present and is on the rollercoaster with the hero.

 

Suspense: The reader is two steps in front of the hero thinking "Oh my god! - don't go into that abandoned explosives factory!" - It's important that the reader must emphasise with the hero and care what happens to him, the hero must, (initially at least) be a victim to whom bad things keep happening. He keeps trying to figure it out so that he can survive. (Story characteristics: mainly emotional, less violence.)

 

It is easier to build tight suspense using third person perspective, first person perspective is harder to pull off because the victim can't see the pitfalls ahead (unlike the reader) - It can be done, for example see Michael Crichton's book "Prey" - although I must add that, in my opinion, it's not one of his better books.

 

Suspense stories could also incorporate elements from the paranormal or horror genres, a good analogy to show the difference between the three genres is as follows:

 

There's a monster in the cellar. In a suspense story the reader knows this. The Housewife approaches the cellar, starts to open the door, suddenly the doorbell rings. She closes the cellar door and takes a parcel from the postman & exchanges banal pleasantries whilst the reader is wondering if those will be her last words…she approaches the cellar again. As her hand reaches for the doorknob, the phone rings. Suspense builds. Is she going to open the closet and get eaten, or is she not?

 

Now in a thriller the reader doesn't know the monster is in the closet, the scene is peaceful the housewife is happy, she opens the cellar door and the monster grabs her - and we all leap 6ft up in the air because we never saw it coming!

 

And of course in a mystery that's where the detective turns up to find out who put the monster in the cellar in the first place and their motive for doing so…

 

As you can see good suspense / thrillers / mysteries have a degree of overlap, the emphasis is up to you, remember we're looking largely for suspense

 

A quick checklist - choose some of the elements below to help you.

 

1. Introduce your character and get the reader to root for them.

 

2. The calm before the storm -Make use of the weather to good effect. Thunderclouds brewing overhead, often give the reader the feeling that something is about to happen (A potent of doom)

 

3. What does your character fear most? - What makes their hair stand on end? Tell the reader why then throw one at the character. (See Indiana Jones Vs Snakes) Introduce them to their worst nightmare and watch how they react.

 

4. Introduce doubt - throw in a few red herrings - the heroine in the abandoned mansion treads fearfully towards the window to investigate a noise - relief! - its only the dustbin that has been blown over by the wind - then someone attacks her!

 

5. Setting - Cobweb covered mansions, dark stairwells etc. all add to sense of foreboding, or maybe you'll opt for a more innocuous setting to contrast with the unfolding drama, choose carefully.

 

6. Keep raising the stakes - introduce a ticking clock, a zero hour to your story, crank up the tension as the fateful hour approaches…

 

7. Pace - Pacing is important to create suspense. In general, short, snappy sentences will enable the reader to race ahead so they feel their heart is beating in time with the frightened protagonist. Longer sentences tend to slow things down. You might want to speed things up for a car chase or slow it down for a love scene.

 

8. Be cruel to your characters! Make them run for their lives!

 

That's the main theme for this month, I'm also introducing a simpler, one line theme this month which is this: Write about an experience you had on holiday.

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The theme for September '08 : Deception.

 

This month's theme is to write a story about deception.

 

Ordinarily this would mean one character cheats on another one for instance, during a game, (sometimes this is 'legalised' - like in poker) -or they may be commiting a fraud to obtain money, they may deceive someone to imply an object is more valuable than it really is, or they may be cheating on their spouse.

 

But there could be more to it than cheating, maybe your main character is been deceptive but for a more altruistic reason, they may be protecting someone other than themselves, maybe even the person they are deceiving.

 

Another alternative is self-deception, your character may be totally unaware that they are deluding themselves, what would happen when their house of cards came crashing down?

 

Example 1

 

A young man is attracted to a woman who wouldn't look twice at him, he lies to impress her and he succeeds - but can he maintain the deception or will he be discovered?

 

Example 2

 

A vicar prays for a miracle, upon leaving his church he finds a large bag in the churchyard, it contains money, more than enough to fix the church roof.

 

Does he keep it or inform the police?

 

He learns that the local bookmaker have been robbed, he is an evil man who is notorious for intimidating his customers when they get into debt; the vicar finds out the identity of the desperate friend that committed the robbery, does he deceive the police to protect him? It's rapidly turning into a moral dilemma.

 

Can he find a way to keep the money and protect his friend? Who does he have to trick to accomplish this?

 

(If anyone would like to have a crack at the above stories, go ahead. :) )

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The theme for October '08: Satirical humour.

 

Oscar Wilde has been attributed with the quote "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit" but this is only a partial quotation.

 

Satirical writing is almost defined by having a strong vein of sarcasm or irony, a writer may profess to approve strongly of a situation that they wish to attack, and in effect they are creating a parody that invites the reader to take another look at a familiar scenario.

 

This is a key point, the situation must be familiar to your public, taking a few examples from television: Yes Minister, Spitting Image, Blackadder et al all contain elements that strike a chord with their public, essentially they take a normal situation and then alter it by using the following techniques.

 

Exaggeration

 

John: "I was walking along when suddenly this enormous dog came up to me. It was as big as an elephant.”

 

Jill: "Are you sure? Even a Great Dane isn't as big as an elephant, perhaps you saw something else -did it have a trunk? That's usually a dead giveaway…"

 

Another example.

 

Basil Fawlty, when Mrs Richards complains about the view of Torquay: "What did you expect to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...?"

 

Reductio ad absurdum (Latin for "reduction to the absurd")

 

John: "No! You do not NEED another handbag!"

 

Jill: "We don't actually NEED anything except food, air and water, so why don't we all go live in caves and spear large animals for food every day?"

 

Inversion of meaning.

 

John: "You're going to give me a speeding ticket? Oh good. Bloody marvelous!"

 

Answering a stupid question.

 

John: "Shall I pat the lion"?"

 

Jill: "Let me make sure your life insurance is up to date first."

 

Reference to the past

 

John: "I'm an expert with a power drill"

 

Jill: "Like you were last time when you drilled through a water pipe and electricity cable simultaneously, blacking out the entire city and causing multiple pileups when the traffic lights disappeared?"

 

Note: this reply is also known as an extended hyperbole and was used extensively in the Blackadder scripts.

 

Stating the "obvious."

 

It was a glorious, golden age where poverty was abolished, and, thanks to the governments refusal to count people with no money, everybody was rich beyond their wildest dreams.

 

When used correctly Satirical humour can be devastatingly funny, I'll finish with the full quote from Oscar Wilde :"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence."

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November's theme is Past, Present & Future.

 

Write a story that has three elements, the PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE.

 

Note that the three elements don't necessarily have to be in chronological order, the reader can visit each scene in any order, but your story must have a beginning, middle and an end.

 

You decide the time span of your story; it could be minutes, days or centuries, if the span is large your dialogue should reflect ye olde speech patterns from the past, a smattering of slang from the present and you'll have to be creative & invent some phrases, preferably that make sense, for the future.

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The theme for December is Aspects of Christmas.

 

Write a story that has some connection with Christmas in particular or the festive season in general.

 

Fact or fiction, drama or fantasy, it's your choice - although the following suggestions may help:

 

* Round Robin: those letters duplicated and sent out with the Christmas cards to tell everyone what a spectacular year you and your family have had. Try a new take on this theme with a satirical version, perhaps, or a comic twist.

 

* What if...?: What if Santa was intercepted by security services and suspected of trying to enter the country illegally? What if...

 

* Peace and goodwill: it's often anything but. Try to write a story which conveys the bustle, tensions, moods and difficulties of this season of 'goodwill to all men'.

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