The Power of Storytelling Part Three: The 7 Steps of Character Development

“If conflict drives drama, then what drives the character is inner conflict.” – Adam Lebor

In the first session of Adam Lebor’s storytelling course, we covered the the basic framework of a story, and how conflict is a key element to narrative drive.

Conflict, however, does not exist in isolation; it has an effect on and is affected by your characters. By understanding what drives your characters, you can bring the conflict — and therefore your story as a whole — to life.

In the second class we examined character development and the seven steps to creating a strong protagonist or antagonist. By exploring our characters’ backstories, we can understand their motivations and goals, and therefore make their actions more believable.

THE SEVEN STEPS OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

  1. Biography
    What’s in a name, you ask? Only cultural associations, and indications of a person’s background, education and ethnicity. Where and when were they born, what was their family like? All of these details will influence your character.

    I’ll be honest: I regret picking Lilith as a name for the protagonist of Above Ground. But it seemed fitting at the time since it conveyed a demonic aspect of herself related to leading men astray.

  2. Key events
    Certain moments in our lives shape the person we become. Maybe it was getting that lucky break and being forever grateful, or missing by a hair and becoming bitter and twisted. What moments define your character?

    Silver, the male protagonist of Above Ground, was abandoned by his parents as a child and brought up by a monastic wolf pack. The one time he let his guard down to love someone, she left too. Needless to say, he has serious trust issues.

  3. Inner conflict
    How have the key events in their life created inner conflict? Perhaps your character gets that lucky break, but thinks someone else deserved it more. They don’t want to give up what they have, but are insecure of being revealed as a fraud.

    Because of Silver’s childhood, he struggles to trust people. However, his bond with Lilith forces him to feel something towards her, and the dependency frightens him.

  4. Motivation
    What does the character want or need, and why? Character motivation is central to any story, and it is a good idea to ensure that your characters have a personal stake in what will unfold.

    Lilith’s main motivation is survival, which is a strong, personal want. But Silver’s motivations run deeper: he is driven by the need to help his ailing alpha, because if she dies, the entire werewolf pack will fall apart. Family ties are excellent tools to up the stakes for your character.

  5. Expert or everyman
    How does the character fit into the story? Are they an expert at their job, like Sherlock Holmes, and therefore driving the story? Or are they an everyman like Frodo, reacting to what is happening?

    I’d never seen this distinction spelled out before, but it offers food for thought. Lilith is an every(wo)man, Silver an expert. The type of character you choose will affect how they behave in the story.

  6. Plan of action
    How does the character plan to achieve his goals? Your character needs to make plans and take action to drive the story forward.

    A problem I had with the first draft of Above Ground was that Lilith was little more than a pawn being tossed around. When revising, I made her make decisions and find her own path — even if it often led her astray.

  7. Obstacles
    What is blocking the character from getting what they want, and how will they (try) to overcome them?

    While Lilith is battling werewolves and demons to stay alive, she also must overcome an second, inner obstacle: herself, and the realisation of who she really is. These external and internal obstacles make her life hell, but make the story that much more thrilling.

As someone who generally operates under the “make-it-up-as-I-go-along” technique, I found inventing character backstories surprisingly inspiring — particularly when exploring the key events and how they fuelled inner conflict.

Some authors write diaries for their characters, or letters between characters, to help further build their backstory. I found jotting down notes against each of the seven steps enough to get the ideas flowing.

What about you? What tricks do you use to get into your character’s head?

The Power of Storytelling Part Two: The Basic Framework of a Story

As mentioned, I’m attending a three-evening course on storytelling taught by Adam Lebor, a published author and journalist.

The first session examined creativity – and in particular, the key elements of a good story.

The session kicked off with us reading excerpts from our favourite books to get a feeling for different writing styles, as well as what draws us to particular tales. These excerpts were then used as a launching pad to discuss story structure.

THE BASIC FRAMEWORK OF A STORY

Adam Lebor has a tidy, memorable formula: COCR.

You may think I (almost) typed a rude word — in which case, go to the corner of your room and have a quiet giggle.

Immaturity aside, it stands for Conflict, Obstacle, Climax, Resolution.

These four elements are the key to narrative drive; they make your story compelling, addictive, and just generally awesome. If you are struggling with your WIP and the story seems flat, it could be missing one of these elements.

Let’s start with conflict.

In order to have conflict, you need a protagonist and an antagonist.

In my novel Above Ground, the protagonist is clearly Lilith. The antagonist, however, is not a particular individual but society at large: the hatred and separation between humans and those living above ground is the source of tension in the story.

So what’s Lilith’s obstacle?

What does Lilith want or need — and what’s stopping her from getting it?

Lilith wants to get home alive, and the dangers she faces are the obstacles preventing her from returning safely. As she surpasses each obstacle, a bigger one shows up, driving the story forward.

Here comes the climax!

At the climax, all the events in the story come to a head. It’s the turning point in the story, and often a key moment in the character arc. (More about character arcs next time.)

If you’re anything like me, the climax is one of your favourite bits to write.

In Above Ground, the climax is when Lilith is offered the chance to go home whilst having to confront who she really is. The self-realisation puts her main objective of getting home into question — and she has to decide where her priorities lie.

On to the resolution

How does the story end? How does the protagonist overcome the obstacles and where does he/she go next?

In Above Ground, Lilith reaches her new home. It is not the home she was aiming for at the beginning of the novel, but it’s a home that suits the person she has become.

Conflict. Obstacle. Climax. Resolution.

A simple yet effective framework to get the creative juices flowing.

NEXT TIME

The next session of Adam Lebor’s storytelling course will look at clarity, focusing on character development of both protagonists and antagonists. I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, what’s the COCR in your story?

The Power of Storytelling: Part One

Human beings are hard-wired to tell stories. From the first caveman recounting his adventures through grunts and signs to his fellows sitting around the campfire, to the literary pyrotechnics of a David Mitchell novel, storytelling touches something deep inside all of us.

These are the opening words to Adam Lebor‘s crash course on storytelling — a course I will be attending next week.

All my previous invitations to similar courses have come from aspiring writers who can only write when drinking coffee, facing east on a rainy Thursday afternoon. The thought of being stuck in a room of similarly impractical artistes fills me with dread.

Needless to say, I have never accepted an invitation.

This time is different: my company has organised this course as a form of “personal development”.

Across three sessions, Lebor will cover the narrative arc, key elements of a good story, narrative building techniques, and how to use storytelling in everyday and business life. Participants also have to write a short story to present to the rest of the class.

The first session — next Monday — will kick off the course by looking at creativity and narrative drive. I’ll report back with my findings.

Have you ever been to a writing course, and would you recommend it?

Adam Lebor is an author, journalist and teacher of creative writing. He has written eleven critically acclaimed books – three novels and eight non-fiction works – including The Geneva Option, Tower of Basel and City of Oranges. Two have been shortlisted for literary prizes, and his books have been published in fourteen languages, including Chinese and Hebrew.

UPDATE:
Part Two: The Basic Framework of a Story
Part Three: Character Development
Part Four (coming soon)

Signs You’re Procrastinating

Procrastination affects the best of us — but how can you tell if you’re under its dreaded curse?

This post is for any writers seeking a diagnosis on their procrastination levels. If this sounds like you, please call a doctor immediately.

Are you procrastinating?

You sit at your desk to write, and then…

  1. You find yourself reading nail polish ingredients.
  2. You examine everything else on your desk except for your laptop and/or notebook.
  3. You realise the messiness of your desk is a distraction and tidy everything away.
  4. Making tea or coffee is all of a sudden essential.
  5. You may as well do the dishes while the kettle boils.
  6. You decide that now is the best time to clean your keyboard. With a toothpick.
  7. You finish your tea and make a sandwich.
  8. You look up the origin of sandwiches on Wikipedia.
  9. Twitter is somehow open despite a personal promise not to use social media.
  10. You spend several minutes reading a blog about procrastination.
  11. You write this post.

Oops… guilty as charged.

(Psst! I shall be without internet for a couple weeks, so if I don’t reply don’t get offended!)

Putting Pen To Paper

I come today with a statistic:

You will write a novel 50% faster using a computer, but will be 85% more likely to finish if you write longhand.

Here’s another one:

42% of statistics are invented.

Regardless of the evidence behind a statistic, their real beauty is in making us think. Do I actually write faster with a computer? Should I be considering writing longhand?

It turns out that I am far from the first to have these questions. I found a case study examining how people’s writing environment affects the way they write (via Livia Blackburne).

Participants were asked to write two reports, one on the computer, and one with pen and paper. They were given the same amount of time and preparation for each; all that changed was their writing implements.

The study observed that those writing on a computer took half the time and wrote 20% more. However, their writing style was more fragmented, with frequent pauses mid-sentence. Those writing with pen and paper would only pause between sentences or paragraphs, however their pauses were longer.

More interestingly (for me), revision methods differed between typers and writers: those using a computer made 80% of their revisions in the first draft, whereas the pen-pushers only made 50%.

If you write with pen and paper, you’ll spend less time fussing over the first draft and just get on with it.

Yes, you’ll have to do more revision later on. But coming from someone who’s struggling to get a first draft finished, the old tools of the trade are starting to look oh-so-appealing.

Who knew that the infernal inner editor I’ve mentioned before could be put off so easily? You can’t easily move paragraphs around on a piece of paper, and the inner editor is far too lazy to get involved.

What are you waiting for? Let’s put pen to paper.

How To Start Writing Again

I’ve been thinking about how to rediscover the joy of writing.

How do I recapture that feeling, that nervous excitment as the words flow, that sense of urgency?

The answer escaped me until I sat down to write this post. Because right now, I’ve recaptured that feeling. I’m enjoying writing this post in a way I haven’t enjoyed writing my novel.

So the real question isn’t how to rediscover the joy of writing, but how to rediscover the joy of writing my novel.

What is it about this blog post that makes it so fun to write?

What is it about my novel that makes it so hard?

The other night I had a cathartic rant about my recent burn out, and Steve Green replied with the following:

“[When] you are writing for yourself, for the sheer love of writing, then the payback will be all positive.”

I think back to the days when my productivity was highest and realise it’s when I wrote Above Ground, when each week I posted a chapter online with no further expectations.

Yes, the first draft was appalling. Yes, I rewrote it twice before “properly” publishing it. But a first draft isn’t meant to be perfect; it’s meant to capture the joy of writing that particular story.

This blog post is so fun to write because I don’t expect it to go anywhere other than my website. Because it doesn’t matter whether people love or hate it. Because I am writing just for myself.

Rediscovering the joy of writing only takes one step.

Kill your infernal inner editor — the one heaping expectations on your WIP — and write for yourself. For the sheer love of writing.

Someone get me a gun.

Burn Out

Sometimes it’s hard to admit that the best of us burn out.
- Adama, Battlestar Galactica

It’s only in the last few days that I’ve started writing again.

Sometime over the last few months I burned out. Whether because of day job stress or something else, I’m not sure. But it’s only now, after sobbing my eyes out over a particularly dramatic BSG episode, that I’ve started thinking about it.

The truth is I’m afraid to fail.

I start writing and immediately my mind thinks: let’s set targets, goals, deadlines. Let’s measure our progress.

I write two consecutive #fridayflash? My mind decides I should write one EVERY week. I try to rationalise: how about every other week? How about twice a month overall?

You can cheat the system for a little while, but soon the lack of progress wears thin.

For my current WIP, I decided I’d write 60k in six months. I set up a fancy excel to track my progress and expected completion date. I told my friends, who also began to check in on me.

When the words failed, I started copy pasting large chunks from my scribbled notes into the main document, just to make up the numbers. To trick myself into thinking I was being productive.

I want to be a successful author. So many people know of my ambitions that the pressure of their expectations weighs on me. My friends tell me: “So just write. You can do it.”

Yet I’m not writing.

I look at what I’ve produced over the last few years and think: that’s it? One novel. Some short stories. A series of abandoned ideas and a lack of commitment to anything else.

Eventually I tell the emo voice in my head to get lost and set more goals. It only works for so long.

But maybe now I’m at a turning point.

I haven’t failed if I don’t finish the novel by September. I haven’t failed if I don’t apply to agents by end of next year. I haven’t failed if the next book isn’t as well-written as I want it to be. I haven’t failed if I’m not selling short stories to magazines.

I haven’t failed if I never become a famous author.

What matters is that I love writing. What matters is that I’m writing for me.

Even the best of us burn out.

I’m not afraid anymore.

How To Find The Time To Write

What can you write in ten minutes?

Let’s say you write on average twenty to thirty words per minute. Heck, I’m writing this on my phone on a crowded train and battling with autocorrect, so let’s say I can only write 10 words per minute. In this worst case scenario, ten minutes means at least one hundred words.

One hundred words are not to be sneezed at. Each block of one hundred is one (tiny) step towards the ultimate goal of finishing your novel. And if your ten minutes are not spent crushed on a train typing on a phone that refuses to spell properly, your blocks could be even bigger than mine.

“But I don’t have ten minutes,” you wail in despair.

Yes. You. Do.

Ten Ways To Find Ten Minutes To Write

1. On the train
Ignore that commuter trying to read over your shoulder. Stop playing Candy Crush and/or Temple Run. WRITE.

2. In the morning
If you’re an early bird, set your alarm ten minutes earlier. Have a notepad and pen by your bed so you don’t have to trek far, and WRITE.

3. In the evening
If you’re more like me, go to bed ten minutes later. While everyone else is drifting off to sleep, take those extra few minutes to WRITE.

4. Whilst cooking
While your pizza is cooking or your fish finger grilling… Take your laptop and/or notepad into the kitchen, keep one eye on the nosh and WRITE.

5. At work
Slow day? Pretend to write an important email and jot down story ideas instead. Working through lunch? Who does that! That time is yours. Boring meeting? Flip open your notepad and WRITE.

6. In any queue
The post office, the bank, the bus stop, the doctor’s, the supermarket, a traffic jam… whenever you’re stuck waiting, WRITE.

7. In a restaurant or bar
Out with your other half and/or friend? If they get up to go to the bathroom, whip out your phone and WRITE.

8. Whilst watching TV
If you simply cannot give up ten minutes of TV time, then wait for each ad break and WRITE. The time pressure is a great motivator, too.

9. In the bathroom
Okay, I may be clutching at straws, but some people do read in the bathroom…

10. MAKE the time to write
If you simply cannot find those spare ten minutes to write, then make them. Decide what you’re willing to sacrifice. Those dirty dishes can wait a little while. Block off your calendar, lock the door, and take the time to write.

I wrote half of this post on a crowded train, in danger of being impaled by the doors. Who said writers don’t live on the edge?

Share your ways to find ten minutes to write in the comments!

Writing Transitions In Fiction

Without transitions, your story will not flow smoothly.

Transitions are words and phrases that serve as bridges from one idea to the next, one sentence to the next, or one paragraph to the next. Three minutes later… After five hours… The next day… These phrases keep the reader from having to find his or her own way and possibly getting lost in the reading.

Transitions are the glue that holds your ideas together. They are very important, but too many transitions can cause as much confusion as too few.

You don’t necessarily need a transition between every idea or every sentence, but it is a good idea to use a transition between each paragraph. Transitions usually come near the beginning of a paragraph, however you should use a transition wherever it works best.

The eHow article on How to Write Transitions In Fiction offers some useful advice.

How do you deal with the passing of time in your stories?

(I found this post sitting unloved in my drafts. I can’t remember if I wrote it all, or quoted it from somewhere else. Oops!)

Finding Inspiration Again

The words have gone.

It’s every writer’s secret nightmare: to sit down, brimming with ideas, only to have the words shrivel into dust. The few that end up on the page lie in awkward sentences like jigsaw pieces that don’t quite fit.

They’re dead; there’s no emotion left.

For the last few months I’ve struggled to write — and what’s most frustrating is that I don’t know why.

I’ve tried focusing on one project. I’ve tried flitting between them. I’ve tried outlining and freewriting, skipping ahead and writing in order. Music and silence. Bedroom and living room. Evening and daytime.

Nothing seems to work.

Staying inspired and motivated is no easy matter. With every unproductive writing session I’ve felt gradually more defeated, and it would be so easy to let everything slide, to stop trying so hard, if only to avoid that creeping sense of depression.

Because without words, what am I?

And then I wonder: where can I find inspiration again?

But there is no magic cure, no secret shop of wonders.

The truth is that inspiration is inside of us. We won’t find it anywhere else. And if we lose it, the only thing we can do is to continue to sit down in front of that dreaded empty page — to continue despite every defeat — and WRITE.

Yes, even if all the words are clumsy, mismatched jigsaw pieces.