Genre

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Genre is an interesting topic to discuss because genre fiction is sometimes deemed lesser than literary fiction. Although, funnily enough, literary fiction is a genre in itself. Genre has set conventions the story should follow, or not if you’re creating a parody/spoof, creating a hybrid of multiple genres or you want to create something original by breaking some of the conventions.

Genre convention is the most important element when it comes to genre fiction because they act as a set of guidelines for leading the story and usually the audience can identify what genre the story is by the genre conventions used. The author might then be associated with a set genre. But the book will certainly be marketed towards a specific genre and the reader will then be able to find what they’re searching for on websites or in bookshops.

Genres can then be broken down into sub genres. This is especially prevalent in films and TV shows. Comedy is the broader genre, but it can be broken down into different types of comedy, such as slapstick or dark humour. However, in writing, the books will typically be marketed towards the wider genre rather than the niche genre, unless you market yourself or you write fanfiction (which, technically, is a genre in itself too).

Before you write a story, you’ve probably already given the genre some thought. It’s usually the first thought most writers have. Or one of the first anyway. You’ve probably already read plenty in that genre, or just taken a liking to it, and you probably know what the genre conventions are, whether consciously or not. Writing can become quite easy from there because it gives you a helpful framework to work from while you come up with a plot.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to follow all the genre conventions. It’s a good start, but perhaps you disagree with some of the conventions or you want to put a spin on the genre conventions. By all means, go ahead. It might make your story more interesting.

This is such a vague blog post, but I want to do separate blog posts for each genre and break down what genre conventions you’ll find in each genre.

Which genre is your favourite? Which genre would you like me to write about?

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Writing Elements: Themes

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While writing about different writing elements, I realise I never mentioned themes. Perhaps because the theme is so imbedded in the planning stage that I never really thought of it as a separate stage. However, I should still mention it because writers might not think about it and it’s good to do so.

A theme is an underlying moral or message you want your reader to get from the story. There can be multiple themes, which can have equal significance or have one prominent theme with a few less prominent themes. It depends on the story.

For example, Harry Potter has a few themes. Good vs. evil, death and the power of love and friendship are all vital to the story and are used consistently throughout. The reader leaves the series with these values ingrained in them. Research has even been done on the lasting influence the Harry Potter books have had on people and studies have found they’re more empathetic and stand up against ‘evil’ in reality (i.e. bullying, racism, powerful political leaders).

Thinking what themes you want to include can be fairly easy since they’ll probably be based on your own morals and values. But incorporating the themes into the story in an organic way can be quite difficult, depending what genre you’re writing for. If you’re writing a children’s story, you want the moral to be obvious for them to pick up on, especially when they’re older and more able to acknowledge morals than when they’re younger. But beyond that, you have to show it subtly, otherwise people feel like you’re preaching to them or imposing viewpoints on them.

My advice would be to read your favourite stories again (or take a look in other formats that tell a story – TV shows, films, games, etc.) and try to pick out the main themes they use, then see how they incorporate them in. Does a character mention the theme? Is it used as a line in the story that sums up exactly what the theme is? Or, more than likely, is it hidden in the background yet you somehow pick up on it anyway?

How do you incorporate your themes into your story? Or if you haven’t yet, how will you in the future?

Writing Elements: Three Act Structure

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I previously wrote a blog post about narrative structure, but that only provided the basics. The three act structure is a more in depth structure used by Shakespeare himself, but it varies by medium. TV and film use the Three Act Structure in a specific way, so without further ado…

Disclaimer: the key parts are in quotation marks, in case you were wondering what each stage is called.

Before we begin, the very first thing you have to do is identify the protagonist. Where there is an ensemble of characters, there is still only the one protagonist. A protagonist is the lead character, the one we focus on first, and the one the show have decided has slightly more story than the others. The protagonist has to be active, be capable of change, and we must feel sympathetic towards them. True, there are definitely characters we don’t feel sympathetic towards them, but they are still at least active and capable of change, even if that change is undone in a few episodes time.

Act I

Within the first few minutes, the episode/film establishes key elements about the character/s. We see what kind of person they are, and what their setting is. Typically establishing shots are used here. Establishing shots show us the setting of a place, like when films show us the Hollywood sign, or high skyscrapers. Similarly, they might use extreme close ups to show us the mise-en-scene (anything in front of the camera that tells us about the character). Regardless, this is all established within the first few minutes of any TV show/film.

Like any story, there needs to be an ‘inciting incident’. I.e. the reason the character’s life has to radically change, whether for the better or not. The protagonist could succeed or fail, but either way, it has to set off a chain of events that’ll force the character to take action. They can’t stay the way they were.

Following this, there needs to be an ‘on the hook’ moment, or moments. In this stage, we see what’s at stake for the character. We see the impact of the inciting incident, and what this will mean. Values will undoubtedly be challenged, either internally or externally.

Act I ends with a ‘point of no return’. The point of no return is like the words suggest: the protagonist has decided, willingly or not, to go ahead with whatever they were required to do by the inciting incident. We, as an audience, await the consequences with the protagonist as the story continues to unfold.

Act II

For a brief time, ‘things go well’. Everything is going well, and the protagonist thinks perhaps this inciting incident wasn’t so bad after all. It’s changed their life, and for the better. Yay.

However, there is the ‘midpoint reversal’. A crisis happens, reversing whatever good fortune they’d previously had. They thought they were managing this, but turns out, no they are not.

Following this, the opposite of the above happens: ‘things get worse’. At this stage, the protagonist is (mentally) asking how things could possibly worse. Trust me, they always do. The odds are increasingly against them, and whatever they thought they were managing is drastically slipping away.

Then comes along the ‘lowest point’. I.e. when the protagonist is utterly broken. Their goal may now seem unobtainable, and they tend to reveal their emotions about everything. This is the most emotional part of the entire story.

I will add here that the lowest point can be at the end of Act II, but it can also be at the start of Act III.

Act III

Act III is usually what is known as ‘taking stock’. I.e. the darkest hour before the dawn. Either alone, or with some help, the protagonist manages to regain their energy after receiving new information or figuring out a solution they hadn’t thought of before to defeat the antagonist, whoever or whatever that might be.

Every story has a ‘climax’. It’s generally the part everyone has (subconsciously) geared themselves up for. This is where the battle reaches its peak. The antagonist is revealed (or, in the instance of a TV show, it could be a minor antagonist, and in the season finale we’ll see the major antagonist). The battle is just as much physical as it is emotional, and the stakes are all or nothing. We want the protagonist to win.

Finally, the ‘resolution’. We determine the protagonist’s fate. What have they lost? What have they won? The resolution isn’t necessarily a happy ending per say either. In some TV shows, they use the last minute to tease a new threat, or else throw in a plot twist, to make the viewer tune in next time. Either way, the resolution acts as the ending for that particular episode.

The above structure can be applied to both an individual TV episode and a story arc for the TV show, or conversely applied to a film/Shakespearian play. But every linear story follows this structure.

Why not check out how many of these elements you spot the next time you watch a TV show/film?

Writing Elements: Editing

Editing

Disclaimer: I’m not the best at editing my writing because I’m a perfectionist that never finishes anything. However, as part of my creative writing degree, I had to edit the work I did, so these are a few tips I’ve done whilst completing my degree, or I’ve heard and would like to pass on.

By some miracle, you’ve reached the end of your first* draft and you’re ready to start editing it. Congratulations! You’ve managed to get further than a lot of people, myself included.

*Or whatever number draft you’re on.

Firstly, take a break. Editing immediately after you’ve finished writing is a terrible idea, because the story is still fresh in your mind, as are the characters, so you might not edit it as thoroughly as when you take a break. Don’t touch it for at least a month, longer if you can.

Secondly, choose whether to print it out, write notes in a notebook, change how the document looks like or another method. It will help give a fresh perspective to your story since you’re either changing it in someway or you’re making notes as you go along.

Thirdly, try and get feedback. Choose a beta reader, a trusted friend, or even workshop it in a writing group. Receiving feedback can help you figure out what’s working and what’s not and you’ll improve the story/characters as a result.

However, as was a very helpful tip I received, any feedback you do receive is subjective, meaning you don’t have to listen to it or take it on board. Go into the criticism with an open mind, then choose honestly which pieces apply to your story.

Lastly, and most importantly, the best way to edit a story is to redraft it. Because while you’re retyping what you’ve already done, you’ll see areas that need improvement or removing. It’s like retelling a story to a friend, but as you’re telling it, you remember details you forgot to include last time, or some details have changed.

Even though it’s one of the last steps, it requires as much dedication as the rest of the writing process. It’d be like running a marathon but deciding to give up when you can see the finish line. When you’re so close to finishing, you might as well finish it properly. That might mean asking for assistance, which might require a fee, but surely it’s worth finishing the race when you’ve come this far?

Editing is a crucial part to writing. Don’t neglect it.

What is your editing method?

Writing Elements: Narrative Structure

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Narrative structure is essentially the plot, and is tied as one of the most important writing elements. Without the narrative, you don’t have a story. As a good analogy, it’d be like creating Sims but not actually playing them (which is perfectly valid too).

There are five stages to a general plot:

Exposition

This is where we learn about who the protagonist is. From the relationships they have, or don’t have, to the routine they do on a daily basis, this is all important for setting up where we are and whose perspective we’re in.

Inciting Incident

This is where the protagonist’s normal routine is disrupted by an incident that changes it in some life altering way. Whether it’s a new colleague or an attack happens at school, the inciting incident has to incite a change in the character so they want to do something about what’s happened. Perhaps they want to discover what this new colleague is really up to, or perhaps they want to prevent further attacks from happening to their school.

Mid Point

This is where the action has been building towards, but it’s not quite the main battle yet. There have been many obstacles in the way that have led to the protagonist nearly giving up a few times, but something happens to keep them going. It has to lead to a point where they do either nearly give up or do actually give up, then something ignites in them to carry on.

Climax

This is the all or nothing scenario. The whole story has been leading to this moment between the protagonist and the antagonist. The moment where the two opposing forces clash and they’ve changed from how they started the story. Whether the protagonist has foiled the antagonist or the antagonist has defeated the protagonist in some way, this is revealed in this moment.

Resolution

Depending how you end your story, the resolution will usually wrap up what’s happened. It’ll usually give us the consequences of the protagonist and antagonist’s actions. We might see what or who they lost or gained.

However, these five elements are shown in a linear narrative, i.e. a narrative that is told chronologically from start to finish. But, depending what type of story you tell, you might prefer to tell your story in a non linear way.

Perhaps you’d prefer to tell us the resolution at the beginning and we’re left to wonder what’s to come next. Memoirs tend to be good at a non linear narrative, since each chapter might lead to different sections of their life. It isn’t necessarily told in a chronological order because sometimes life is easier to tell in a seemingly jumbled mess but you realise when you finish that it makes sense in the end. Or perhaps you want to tell the whole story backwards.

Whichever way you choose, make sure at least all five elements are in the fictional story. For non fiction works, it’s harder to know which you need. But they will help guide your story and you’ll see how the reader interacts with each section.

How do you use narrative structure?

Writing Elements: Writing Characters

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Disclaimer: there is so much I could say about characters, so expect a (potential) series about characters.

Writing characters is very much like getting to know a human being: no matter how well you think you know someone, they’ll always surprise you. Characters are the same. No matter how well you think you’ve written your character, they will always surprise you, which is why some writers don’t like to create characters beforehand. They much prefer to let the story shape what type of character they will be. However, other writers like to at least know the basics about their characters beforehand, while others like to know a lot of details about their characters. It really varies depending what type of writer you are.

However, there is one writing no-no that every writer tries to avoid: the dreaded Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is an unfulfilling character that either is a self insert of the author, an idealised version of the author or wish fulfilment. To an extent, all characters will have aspects of the writer in them. But if your character resembles Bella Swann from Twilight, you might have an issue. To see if your character is a Mary Sue, or in danger of becoming one, fill out this quiz and see what your result is.

How do you create complex characters?

For starters, take a look at your favourite characters and figure out why they’re your favourite characters. Usually, your favourite characters are representative of either who you are as a person or the type of person you’re drawn to. Whether it’s the humble librarian, the overconfident lawyer, the loud theatre performer, each have their own personality that perhaps resembles someone you know or perhaps reminds you of you or perhaps you’ve secretly wanted to be. Regardless, figure out what drew you to them in the first place (even if it took half a season to convince you – again, figure out why you didn’t like them initially).

Don’t be concerned if you’re drawn to villains though. I’m drawn to villains in a fictional sense, but would immediately leave if that type of person manifested in my life. Characters are fictional and typically exaggerated to fit the story. For example, a villain is typically the polar opposite to the hero as a way to throw the hero off. However, the hero and villain usually have something in common so their paths cross in the first place.

Secondly, look at the people around you. From your family to your classmates/colleagues, figure out what you like or dislike about them. You might not get to choose who is in your school or workplace, nor who you’re related to, but you can at least figure out why you feel the way you do about them. Perhaps you don’t have an opinion on them, but you’ve noticed little things about them. Jot it down. Characters with little quirks are always better than flawless characters. Additionally, with family, see how you’re alike or different to them. Is there a family trait you share? Is there a genetic trait you share?

To add to this, look at why you chose your friends, regardless of whether they’re only online, your adorable pet(s) or imaginary (we’ve all been there). Why did you choose them to be your friends? What was it about them that drew you to them? Then look at maybe a trait or two you might not like, and maybe consider adding it to a character or two. As I mentioned above, a flawless character isn’t realistic, so add flaws in.

Thirdly, look at the people around you in a more general sense. Sit down with a notebook (or the note section on your phone) and observe the people you see. Sure, you won’t get an in depth analysis like you do with your loved ones, or even a brief overview like those at school/work, but you can see things that might say a lot about them. For example, if you see someone disrespect a waitress, you can probably gauge a little about them. Or use stereotypes and consider why they’re stereotypes, or perhaps why they don’t fit this stereotype. I promise, you’ll learn more about a person when you see why they don’t fit a certain stereotype/label than how they do.

Lastly, if all else fails, fill out some character questionnaires or interviews. Even better, grab a friend and get them to ask you questions about your character and you answer as if you are your character (also known as hot seating). It’s a good way of figuring out how well you know your character and how to develop them further. Plus, it’s a good way to see what types of questions the interviewer asks you, because you might not have ever thought about it and they might bring up an interesting point.

Basically, the main key to writing a good character is to see if they’re complex or not. If you could tell me tons of detail about your loved one but next to nothing about your character, you might want to flesh out your character a bit more (depending what type of writer you are).

What’s your best advice for writing characters?

Is there anything you want me to cover about characters? Let me know!

Writing Elements: Setting

Setting

Where and when you set your story helps determine whether the audience will relate and how much world building and/or research you’ll need to do.

For starters, you need to determine what types of settings you’ll need. Make a list of all the settings your character is likely to visit, including the most mundane places. A home is as important, if not more so, than the location where the crucial plot unfolds. Or perhaps the most important location is the place your character visits the most and isn’t their actual home but feels more like a home (if that makes sense).

Now, the next step greatly depends on what type of story you’re writing. For example, if you’ve decided to set your story in a futuristic sci-fi world or a fantasy land, the audience will need plenty of descriptions for these places. Although, the audience will probably have associations for those two genres, so unless they’re wildly different from the audience’s perceptions, you could get away with a limited amount of description.

However, if you’re setting the story on Earth in a real location, or even a made up name for a generic city or town or whatever else, the audience can conjure up certain associations with those types of places. For example, a city might conjure up skyscrapers and branded shops/coffee shops and launderettes, whereas a village might conjure up local shops with one or two big brands and plenty of churches and pubs.

Historical fiction will definitely require research to know and understand what specific places were like and how they functioned. I’d definitely recommend visiting historical sites if you can, or visiting libraries/museums that could show you what the place used to look like. It also depends what time period you’re setting your story in, and where in the world. For example, if you set your story in Pompeii, I would highly recommend a visit to the place, if you can. If not, watch a documentary or search the internet for photos of what it might’ve looked like. Or perhaps you’ve decided to set your story in the 1920s in Australia. Again, if you can’t visit the actual place, look on the internet for resources.

But why is setting important?

Like I mentioned above, audiences have associations with certain places. But it also can say a lot about a character. For example, if a character spent more time at a cafe than at home, you might question what’s wrong with their home or home life. Equally, a home says a lot about a person, such as a messy environment might belong to a messy person. Or, to make your story interesting, your character might be an incredibly organised person at work but have the messiest home.

Additionally, setting can say a lot about status and class. For example, a poor person is hardly likely to live in a mansion and a rich person is hardly likely to live on the streets, unless some odd situation happens to flip their status/class. What they own and what’s important to them in their home is very telling of a character. A childhood teddy bear sitting on a bed or an old rocking chair passed down through the generations tell you something about the character.

A good example is to watch any TV show or movie you want and to see how they design rooms in their homes. Every object serves a purpose: to tell you something about the character. The same should apply when describing your setting. We don’t necessarily need to know about the lake if it’s not important, but please do tell us about that jacket that belonged to that special person a few years back. Or another brilliant example: Harry Potter. The way J.K. Rowling describes Diagon Alley, Hogwarts or The Burrow are very telling of the characters that inhibit this world and lets us in on this magical world we’ve recently discovered with Harry Potter.

Equally, where in the world they live or come from says a lot about them too. The nature vs. nurture argument is still widely debated today. For example, someone born in America will have a different upbringing and different values from someone who was born in India. Additionally, if someone is from an Italian family and were born there but moved when they were young to Spain, they would have a different upbringing from their family. They would learn a lot about their country’s history, but perhaps not more than that. Or they might be taught certain values at school but their family might teach them different values.

Setting is sometimes overlooked for more important elements in the writing process, but setting is just as important as the other writing elements… if done right. If done wrong, it can feel like info dumping and the audience will get bored. But if done right, even if there are long paragraphs describing the setting, the audience won’t mind so long as it has importance to the plot or the character is doing something in relation to the setting.

Finding the right balance is crucial.

It might be a struggle at first, but once you find that balance, you’ll realise how important setting is to your character and plot.

What are your favourite settings?