Lights Out For The Reef

Great Barrier Reef 3Last night thousands of Australians, including me, took part in Earth Hour, an event that kicked off a year-round campaign against climate change. It is a worldwide movement for the planet organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and it began right here in Australia as a lights off hour in 2007. Earth Hour engages a massive mainstream community on a broad range of environmental issues.  Households and businesses turn off their non-essential lights for one hour as a symbol of their commitment to the planet. The event has now been embraced by 7001 cities and 152 nations across the globe. And in 2014, Earth Hour will focus attention on one of the world’s most iconic and threatened places: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Barrier Reef 1This topic holds particular significance to me, as the new novel I’m writing is set on the Queensland coast at the southern tip of the reef. It is about a zoologist with a passion for marine mammals. As the largest living structure on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for over two thousand, three hundred kilometres, and is so large it can be seen from space. It contains three thousand individual reefs and nine hundred islands. Incredibly rich and diverse, it extends over fourteen degrees of latitude, from shallow estuarine areas to deep oceanic waters.

Great Barrier Reef 2Channel ten screened a special television event last night just prior to Earth Hour. It revealed the true story of what’s happening to the reef due to climate change, dredging, pollution and over-fishing. The program was grim viewing. The Great Barrier Reef has shrunk by fifty percent in the last twenty-seven years. Let’s hope 2014 can mark a rally to action, and we can convince politicians to protect this unique wonder of the natural world.

And now to the winners of the prize draw. Congratulations to Karen Stalker, Mary Preston and Jenna O. You have each won a book. I’ll be emailing you all shortly. 

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Structuring A Story

Structuring a story 1I’m at the start of a new book, about ten thousand or so words in. Needless to say, I’m giving a lot of thought to the invisible framework upon which the story will hang. My Penguin editors talk a lot about structure. In fact, the first and most crucial round of editing, the structural edit, is devoted entirely to the architecture of the narrative. Yet oddly enough, many writing workshops rarely seem to discuss this subject. (Apologies to Sydney Smith the story whisperer, for stealing that architecture of the narrative line. It’s from the title of her forthcoming how-to book. Sydney could never be accused of ignoring the importance of structure!)

Save the CatOther aspects of story such as characterisation, plot and pace for example are talked about all the time. But fixing up your characters or adjusting the pace of your plot won’t save a story if it’s structurally flawed. I roughly follow the three-act structure, much beloved of modern screen writers and ancient storytellers. Knowing how to structure a novel won’t stop it evolving organically, but it will save a lot of time later on. There are plenty of books outlining this method. I’ve previously blogged about my two favourites. Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and Alexandra Sokoloff’s fabulous Screenwriting Tips For Authors. However sometimes I forget, and breaking into a writing session to consult a text can really halt your momentum. So even though I’m a pantster at heart, I always keep a few basic elements of story-telling structure in my mind as I write.

1. The first turning point or inciting incident.
This needs to happen quickly, ideally in the first few pages. It’s the event that sets the plot in motion, a departure from our main character’s normal life. But in order for it to have maximum impact, you have to establish what normal actually is i.e. what is the character expecting to happen. If our hero is a teacher, she expects to find a classroom full of students when she goes to work. If our hero is a prisoner, she expects to be locked up. What if the teacher’s class is missing, or the prisoner’s cell is open? A choice is then forced on the protagonist. Beginning writers often open with fast-paced scenes that don’t mean much. Readers can only appreciate the unusual if they understand the normal.

Turning point2. Lots more turning points.
With a rough, three act structure there are generally three big turning points and lots of little ones, to ensure the story gets increasingly complicated. They happen when a character solves one problem, only to find they are faced with another, thus ratcheting up the tension. The big ones come at the end of each act and the final one brings resolution.

3. Character arcs.
Our hero must learn and change, and overcome inner and outer conflict. This is true of other main characters as well. The simplest way to make this happen is to establish their character flaw early on, and ensure they overcome it by the end. In my new novel Turtle Reef, my protagonist’s flaw is naivety – a willingness to trust too much, too soon. This often blinds her to the truth. Once you can name your character’s main flaw, it’s easier to write scenes that exploit it. Characters can learn things about themselves in all sorts of ways. There is the dramatic epiphany, the series of small insights, the recognition of themselves in someone else (not too early on of course!) Stories will resonate more with readers when characters grow and change.

4. Resolve things
Establish a new normal at the end. Or it could be returning to the old normal, but in any case, the mess you’ve created should be cleaned up somehow. Readers will be dissatisfied with a story that isn’t resolved well

So these are the simple guidelines I always keep in mind while writing. Every single scene is interrogated in reference to them, and if it doesn’t further the plot or a character arc, the scene is out, no matter how pretty the prose. It’s a lot easier to keep the elements of structure in mind while writing, than to be confronted with a whopping big structural report from your editor at the end, pointing out all the flaws in your story!

Don’t forget there’s still time to enter the book giveaway. Just leave a comment telling me who is your favourite fictional bad guy! Winners announced 30th March.

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What Makes A Good Antagonist? – Plus Book Giveaway!

BB14Welcome to our cross-blog, which offers tips on writing. Every month writing mentor Sydney Smith ‘interviews’ author Kathryn Ledson and me on some aspect of the writing craft. We welcome your questions and comments. To celebrate my nomination for the Australian Writer’s Centre Best Australian Blogs 2014 (and also for reaching 30,000 views on my website!) I’m giving away a signed copy each of Wasp Season, Brumby’s Run and Currawong Creek. To go in the draw, leave a comment telling us who is your favourite fictional bad guy! (Aust & NZ residents only)

This month’s question is: What makes a good antagonist?

cross blogAccording to Wikipedia, “An antagonist is a person or group of people who oppose the main character.” But the antagonist can also be non-human. It can be a dragon, a Martian, a volcano, a disease like Parkinson’s; anything that opposes the protagonist.

Sydney:
An antagonist is a broader and more complex idea than a villain. A villain acts for purely selfish reasons and does destructive things with no consideration for the effect they will have on others. A villain is wicked. A villain is unable to change and grow.

An antagonist, on the other hand, is a character who pursues a certain goal in the story. This goal opposes that of the protagonist. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy is Elizabeth’s main antagonist until after the first proposal scene. But it is Mr Wickham who is the villain, and he doesn’t emerge in that light until after Mr Darcy sets Elizabeth straight about what really happened between him and Wickham.

Villains have a role in fiction. Crime novels use villains. A serial killer is a villain. Any character who feels entitled to murder to get what they want is a villain. But then we get into a tricky area, because some crime fiction heroes, like Lucas Davenport in John Sandford’s Prey series, feel entitled to shoot dead the killer he has been pursuing.

Jennifer:
Great antagonists make great stories, don’t they? Thwarting our hero at every turn, keeping the reader turning those pages. A compelling antagonist needs to be built with the same care as any other character. Unfortunately, I often read books where the bad guy is underdeveloped, a cardboard cut-out who is simply evil for evil’s sake. For me, an antagonist needs strong motivation and has to have something at stake, ie: needs to be trying to avoid something or gain something. They must be intelligent and adaptable – worthy adversaries. A compelling antagonist must also be flawed in some way, perhaps having a weakness that readers can relate to and even causes readers to be a little torn at times as to where their sympathies lie. I also love them to have secrets. But of course the most important thing is for the antagonist to stand fairly and squarely in the path of our hero.

the-perfect-storm 2I’m fascinated by the concept of non-human things being antagonists. I’ve just read The Perfect Storm, a creative non-fiction book by Sebastian Junger, where the weather is a spectacular villain. Literary fiction and commercial women’s fiction often don’t have a clear wrong-doer, but even so they must have someone or something opposed to the hero, or else the narrative drive just falls away. You suggested to me, Sydney, that in my book Currawong Creek the troubled four-year-old boy Jack was the antagonist, because his presence and behaviour constantly gets in the way of my hero’s plans. Whatever or whoever your antagonist may be, it’s worth investing plenty of time on them.

Sydney:
I think part of the problem is that writers think antagonists have to be bad people. This is surely connected to the common fallacy that conflict is negative. A good antagonist, like conflict, feeds the narrative. As you say, Jenny, without a strong antagonist, the story falls away. That’s because there isn’t enough for the hero to do! But an antagonist must do more than give the hero something to do. They have to be focused on what they want. They have to be prepared to do ANYTHING to get it. Stories ramp up the tension and suspense as soon as the main players are prepared to do anything to get what they’re after.

Kathryn:
Like Jennifer, I’m especially fascinated by non-human antagonists because for me their elusive non-humanness makes them even more frightening than your average axe-wielding psycho. The scraping sound in the attic. The jungle and its slithering, crawling, scuttling inhabitants. The house whose walls bleed. Christine. But human or not, one thing that gives an antagonist depth of character is his/her/its own goal, and motivation for it. I’ve learned (thank you, Sydney) that it’s vital for the author to keep this in mind and, as Jen says, just as important as the goal and motivation of the protagonist. Your antagonist’s goal and motivation should be so strong that if the story were written from his point of view, we would be barracking for him!

Jaws 2Let’s look at JAWS as a timely example, where the obvious villain has an apparent goal to eat everyone in that peaceful seaside town, selfishly snatching away and ripping apart whoever dares stick a toe in that water. However, if the story of the terrifying monster shark – let’s call him Bruce – were written from Bruce’s point of view, we’d discover his motivation for that goal. It might be to avenge all the horrible atrocities committed against his family by humans. When he was a tiny sharkling, perhaps he watched his mother being definned and tossed, alive, back into the sea where she spent hours lying on the ocean floor with baby Brucie pleading as she drowned, “Please swim, Mummy!” And she in turn warning him off, “Save yourself, my son!” Perhaps even the Horrible Human that the now fully grown and vengeful Bruce seems hell-bent on devouring is the one who murdered his mother. (Actually, I’m trying to remember the story and something like this might in fact be the case.) Anyway, if Bruce’s story were written well, we’d be standing in the aisles cheering him on! We might even go swimming that summer, knowing Bruce’s friends would be satisfied with their hero’s fine work; that the shark population was now safe from the evil doings of That Terrifying Human.

So you can see that, as a writer, knowing your antagonist’s goal and motivation can really help build its character, even if it’s never openly stated in the writing. But it will surely emerge, and the reader will sense it but possibly not understand why your antagonist is a truly terrifying one.

Sydney:
I totally get where Bruce is coming from. I feel like cheering him on – except that I’m not sure I agree with someone using violence to resolve their conflicts!

Kath has made a good point, though. Whether the non-human antagonist is a shark or a tsunami, anthropomorphising it will allow the reader to identify with it. Whatever the reader may think of this practice, it is effective. Perhaps it also shows the limits of the human imagination that we find it so hard to imagine a being whose psychology is different to our own. Even when we get back to basics – what does this creature need to survive? what does it fear? – we tend to make them human-like in their responses to these needs and dreads. I recall watching District 8, a movie out of South Africa, which uses a colony of aliens to discuss issues of refugees and asylum-seekers (and any marginalised group, really). The film-maker, who also wrote the script, was unable to imagine what it was like to be one of the aliens. His human hero was terrific, but the film fell short when it came to making the alien a riveting and complex character. Which means that the issues the film discussed were let down and undermined by this shortcoming in the movie.

In fact, now I think of it, any one of us can have trouble imagining what it is like to be someone else, human or animal or alien or force of nature, when what is really required of us is to step into the shoes of another being. Surely this is one of the great services fiction offers us all, whether it’s literary or genre: the chance to feel what it’s like to be someone else.

I love anthropomorphising! And Kathryn, you almost made me cry with your image of baby Bruce urging his poor dying, mutilated mother to swim … Readers, don’t forget to tell us your favourite bad guy for your chance to win books! Winners announced 30th March.

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

Unaccustomed As I Am To Public Speaking …

Introvert 1Are you a shy person? I am. I don’t like small talk, or parties or crowds, or my mobile phone. I do like time alone in the bush, working with horses and dogs, writing, reading … it doesn’t really matter. When I’m alone I’m at peace. One simple way to diagnose yourself is to take a free Myer Briggs personality test. I’m an INFJ which is apparently common among writers.

Public Speaking BCIntroversion generally suits a writer’s life except in one respect – public speaking. These days part of an author’s platform includes giving talks: at launches, libraries, book stores, etc. I’m even a member of a terrific group called The New Romantics, four authors (including Kathryn Ledson, Kate Belle and Margareta Osborn) who present panel discussions on different aspects of writing and reading at writer’s festivals. This sort of thing does not come naturally to a shy person, or so I thought until I read Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives and other Introverts by Joanna Penn.

Joanna Penn Speaking

Joanna Penn Speaking

What a marvellous book! Joanna is an author, international speaker and entrepreneur based in London, England. She was voted as one of The Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013. She is also an introvert. The premise of her book is that public speaking is not an act of extroversion – shy people can excel at it too. When Joanna first started speaking, she developed a stage persona, a kind of ‘extroverted shell.’ But putting on an appearance cost her in energy, authenticity and even health. It was only when she embraced her introversion that she found her true voice as a speaker. Her handbook covers psychological aspects, as well as practical things like preparing and giving a speech, all from the perspective of an inherently shy person. She also gives a disarming personal account of how she increased her own confidence and learned to cope with nerves. I wish I’d had this book years ago! Her website The Creative Penn has lots of resources for writers as well.

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