STIRRING THE PLOT – How to Build Tension in Your Stories

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As writers our primary aim is to keep our readers turning pages, engaged with our stories. Yes, we’re really quite wicked. We like to keep our readers up all night. We also like to make them cry. And laugh too if we can. We want our readers to feel something, to be moved by our stories. And maybe, just maybe, to be changed a little, for the better.

But in order to do that, first we have to get them to finish our story. So we need to have narrative drive, suspense. Forward motion.

We do this in a number of ways.

SET UP QUESTIONS

We set up questions at the start of our story – that’s our hook. Depending on whether you’re writing a novel or a story those questions will be big – Will Tracy survive the volcanic explosion? Or small – Will Bill make peace with his father? Actually, maybe all story questions need to be big – Ben making peace with his father is enough for a novel – probably more than Tracy and her volcano. And of course, if we put the two together…?

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CREATE A CRUCIBLE SITUATION

That’s the true secret of creating tension in your writing. It’s what Sol Stein calls “The Crucible Situation”. A crucible, apart from being a great play about witches, is an old fashioned term for a cooking pot. In modern terms we’d call it a pressure cooker.

What it means is that you put your story and characters under pressure. Put them in a situation they cannot easily escape from.

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Enemies are trapped in a lift together. Ex-lovers are forced to work together on an important work project with the boss watching on. Estranged siblings are forced to organise a 90th birthday for their mother together. Or a couple break up then are stuck together quarantined on a cruise ship. A bomb has been put under the building where warring families have come together to hear a will being read.

THROW IN A TICKING BOMB

The ticking time bomb works a treat. Not only can you throw in a crucible situation but also a time limit. Like Cinderella only having until midnight before she loses all her finery. Like that volcano about to explode. Like that tsunami wave dragging far, far out just before it crashes in. Like a lover about to leave forever on a plane (hence all the rom coms that have one party running through an airport at the end)

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Let’s just say your story idea is about Ben whose father was a mean and violent alcoholic in Ben’s childhood but has now reformed and is trying to make amends. Yes, lots of story material there.

We’ve got our hook question – Will Bill make peace with his father?

Let’s add a crucible situation – Let’s say Bill has a sister and it’s her wedding. She’s forgiven their father and has asked Ben to play nice for her wedding. Ben is stuck with his old man for a whole day and night. They can’t escape each other. Plus, there’s alcohol.

And a time bomb – Ben’s dad has cancer, a bad one. He’s been told he only has a few months to live. Now the pressure on Ben to make peace is urgent.

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That should keep your reader turning pages.

Hope those ideas help. Use them on a story you’ve already got that may be lacking oomph. Add a crucible situation and a time bomb and watch them blossom.

Let me know how you go.

Write up a storm!

Lots of love,

Edwina xx

 

WRITING PROMPTS FOR QUARANTINE!

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Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, in these crazy days of limited movement and social interaction, we still have a great power that no one can take away from us – our imaginations!

Yes! Through our imaginations we can still wander, all over the world if we like. We can create miracles, climb mountains, swim to the bottom of the deepest oceans and all without expensive equipment.

All we need is a little time and the ability to daydream. Never has dreaming and imagining been so important. We need to envision a new peaceful and positive way forward for our world, so that all this grief and loss brings good and long-lasting healing to our beautiful planet and all her people and animals.

So here are a few prompts to help get you started on using your imagination and letting it take you to places you may never have been before.

Your Favourite Place in Nature

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We may not be able to get out much these days but in our minds, we can still travel to our favourite places.

Close your eyes, focus on your breathing and take yourself to your special place, your favourite swimming hole or beach or forest or dessert or field of poppies.

Use your five senses.

What colours and shapes can you see? What is the quality of the light? When you look up what do you see? Look down. Look all the way around, stretch the working of your mind’s eye.

What can you hear? Is there the trickle of water, or the wash of waves against the shore? Are leaves rustling in the breeze? Can you hear birds singing, animals foraging in the undergrowth? Maybe you hear voices? You can have companions on these mind journeys too.

What can you smell? Is the air salty, or sweet and musty from the lush undergrowth of the forest? Maybe you smell pine trees, or the fresh sweetness of mountain water.

What do you feel? Is the sun warm on your back? The breeze soft on your face? The earth deep and yielding under your feet? Sand gritty between your toes? Water fresh and tingling on your skin.

What can you taste? How does the air taste in your mouth? Take a mouthful of that mountain stream, taste the sweetness of the water.

And how does it all feel in your heart? How does being in this special place make you feel emotionally?

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Once you have envisioned it all and dwelt there awhile in your imagination then get writing and fill in all those specific sensory details to bring your special place to life so that anyone reading your piece will feel as if they have been there with you.

All the Good that Will Come from This

 This is a wonderful exercise to do whenever you feel yourself stuck in a difficult situation, as we all are right now. Use your imagination to see a positive and powerful new future for us all. Even in the midst of all the tragedy now unfolding in many places, there is still good. There is still hope.0f8acd5ce0202400b9c03a0dc86b808f

Close your eyes again and envision all the potential for healing and the creation of new and better ways of being which can come from this enforced pause of human activity.

For me the ozone layer healing is a great and wonderful positive that I hope we’ll find a way to maintain. Plus we’re all getting a chance to slow down and pull back from some of the many hectic activities that usually fill our days. This situation has certainly brought into focus what’s most important to us. What we value most. And for many of us, it’s our people, our family and friends. Spending more time with family is also, in most cases a lovely plus to come from all of this. On my daily walks I’m seeing more and more people out enjoying nature now the gyms have closed. Another positive. People are pursuing more creative arts, learning new skills, learning to meditate or do yoga, playing musical instruments that have been collecting dust for years. Gardening. All these small things as well as big things like ceasefires, and fresh air and blue skies over cities that haven’t seen a blue sky in decades. All these and so many more.

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Write a list of at least 10 good things that can come from this. If you’d like to you could develop this into a short story about a utopian future, a future where we create a new world where resources are shared, greed is no more, and all the world lives in peace and harmony with each other and with nature.

 

Write Yourself Friends

 For many people this is a very lonely time. Especially for those who live alone. It’s at times like this we really need our friends and hugs.images

You can write a letter to a real-life friend, telling them all the things you value about them and remembering some good times that you shared. Post it the old-fashioned way and give them a treat in the mailbox.

 

Or you can imagine a whole new friend for yourself, a best friend, a lover even.

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What do they look like? What kind of clothes do they wear? Why do you like them? What do they do for work? What makes them so special to you? Flesh them out like you would a character, fill in all those little details, star sign, sense of humour. Create the perfect online profile of someone you’d just love to meet.

Then imagine meeting them, hanging out and doing something fun.

Write the story of that first meeting, that buzz of electricity when you meet someone you click with. Whether it’s platonic or romantic, there’s still a rare thrill that comes from meeting a kindred spirit.

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So write away. Get them to tell you what they like about you too.

And remember, you can write yourself as many hugs as you need!

What have you been writing during this strange time? Have you been able to write?

Your imagination is a powerful tool. As writers we know how to use it – now wield your power for good.

Write up a storm and keep smiling. Let me know how you go with the writing prompts!

Lots of love

Edwina xx

THE IMPORTANCE OF GROUNDING YOUR READER

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What does it mean to ground your reader?

It means you should give your reader enough clues at the start of a story or scene so that they can imagine the setting and protagonist.

Many of my students start straight into the action of their stories, leaving such things as the name, sex and age of the protagonist and where the action is taking place, a mystery. They say they like to reveal these things as the story goes on.

However, while this may work in film when the audience can see a character and setting in action, readers of prose are left scrambling in a dark void, trying to find something, anything, to base their experience of the story upon.

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The writer has a clear image of the scene in her mind. The writer knows where and when and who, but the reader can’t find a way into the story unless the writer shares some of this knowledge.

You can still keep many aspects of your story mysterious, but please, let the reader in on the essentials.

Where are we? When?

Who are we with? Name them.

What’s going on?

Why – you can let that unfold more slowly.

For instance, instead of

She rolled over.

“Get up!” a strange voice said.

She got up and ran as fast as she could in the other direction.

By just filling in a few important details you could have:

Rosemary rolled over in a pile of leaves, deep in the forest. She had no idea how she’d got there, but she recognised the forest as the place her grandmother took her to collect mushrooms in Autumn.

“Get up!” a strange man’s voice said from behind her.

Rosemary bolted upright and leapt to her feet, running as fast as she could away from the voice, along the secret paths her grandmother had shown her.

The mystery of how and why Rosemary has found herself in the forest, and who the stranger is, are still intact. But in the second example the reader can envisage the scene. Not only that, we have an idea how old she is, younger rather than older, and we are more likely to care about her because she has a relationship with her grandmother.

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Because all readings are subjective, with the reader imposing her own world view on the story world the author created, the forest may not be exactly the same as the writer envisaged, but the reader has somewhere to place the action, a protagonist to relate to, and is much more likely to keep on reading.

It only takes a line or two to fill in those important specific details to give the reader enough clues to enter your story world at the beginning of your story.

You’ll need to do the same work of grounding when you start a new scene as well. This can be as simple as, Three long years later… Or … Back at the busy cafe Fred stood in the line for coffee.
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It only takes a few telling details to set up your story world and protagonist in time and place so your reader isn’t left flailing in the dark, struggling to find a way in.

 

Yes it’s a writers job to keep secrets from the reader and reveal them slowly to keep the reader hooked, but some things, like who the protagonist is and where the story is set, are essential to establish right at the start so that the reader can even begin to enter your story world.

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Hope that helps!

Take care and keep smiling. Remember writers need never be bored stuck at home, there’s always more stories to write.

Now get writing 🙂

Lots of love

Edwina xx

 

 

 

PATHWAYS TO BECOMING A WRITER

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All roads may lead to Evans Head but there are lots of different paths to becoming a writer.

This is an old photo of my dear writing friend Helena Pastorand I at one of our first ever writing retreats at Evans Head. The sign doesn’t even exist any more! How young and enthusiastic we were then, only a few years into our writing journey.

Now, more than 14 years later, we’ve both had books published but we’re still not much closer to our dreams of international best selling success. Oh well.

Writing isn’t a career to embark on if you’re being sensible. It’s a calling – much like being a nun or a doctor or a missionary.  A wise writer once told me, “Writing may not make you rich but it will enrich your life immeasurably.”

Yes, there are days I’m bitter about all the unpublished manuscripts piling up on my computer still looking for the right publisher. But most to the time I’m extremely grateful for all the joys and adventures this writing life has brought me.af31a1047c84b539f45120607c9d6048--feminist-quotes-vintage-photography

It’s been a wild ride that’s for sure. With the highs of finally launching Thrill Seekers, a very long four years after signing a contract with my UK publishers, Ransom, and then the miraculous short listing for the NSW Premier’s Award. I had to pinch myself.

But then came all the years with equally valuable manuscripts being unable to find a good home. Not for want of trying. The rejections that still come even after almost two decades of writing and honing my craft.

Still, those years have been invaluable – I’ve learnt so much about writing and the business of publishing that I would never have known had my path been smoother.

Who knows where I would have ended up?

I may never have edited Bjelke Blues and met all the wonderful contributors, or developed my special workshops and retreats.

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Recently on CHOP CHAT COOK I spoke with my friend Joanne Tindale about all the ups and downs of my writing life and how you too can build your career as a writer.

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Check out the video and let me know what you think.

How is your writing career going?

Are you building a writing CV and still making ends meet?

This enforced period of isolation is a wonderful time to get stuck into your writing projects. So dust them off and write like a fury! Then SUBMIT!

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Lots of love,

Edwina xx

CHOP CHAT COOK – Videos with writing advice and chia pudding recipes!

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As the world spins ever deeper into COVID 19 madness (have you got enough toilet paper?) and lockdowns, grab a cup of tea and some chia seeds and have a look at these videos.

Recently my friend, screenwriter and producer Joanne Tindale, invited me to be on her fab cooking and chat show – CHOP CHAT COOK

What fun!! We made chocolate chia pudding and a coconut blueberry chia pudding, as well as talking about lots of different aspects of the writing life. We had a great time making (and eating) the puddings and we cover lots of different hints and tips for people pursuing a career as a writer.

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Income Streams in the Gig Economy or Many Fingers Many Pies : )

As every creative artist trying to make a living knows – you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. In this episode I talk about all the different ways I generate an income from writing and writing related activities.

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The Healing Power of Story

Over the past few months I’ve been travelling to regional centres across my home state of Queensland running creative writing workshops for Forgotten Australians – people who suffered abuse in institutions and out of home care in their childhoods. I talk with Joanne about why and how this came about and my firm belief in the transformative power of getting your stories out of your head and onto the page – and changing them!

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Career Paths to Writing – or how to build your career as a writer.

In this episode we talk about how to build your writing CV and begin to establish yourself as a professional author. Including my 10 POINT PLAN for publishing success.

And just to put a smile on your face- while I’m on a Youtube binge – here’s KC and the Sunshine Band. Get Down Tonight! 

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Come on, get up and dance – shake away the COVID 19 blues!

Stay healthy and strong and write your way through lockdown : )

Lots of love,

Edwina xxx

ANECDOTE vs. STORY What’s the Difference?

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When I first started writing I got a few rejections saying my pieces were anecdotes and not stories. After I’d dried my tears, I began to wonder what the difference was?

What is it that makes a story a story, and an anecdote something you tell your friends but don’t get published?

MEANING.

An ANECDOTE is an incident from our lives that we tell our mates down at the pub or over a cup of tea. This tale may have many of the elements of a story – setting, characters and action – but usually that’s it.

For example –

When people notice the scar running from my forehead down along my left temple beside my eye, I tell them an anecdote about how, when I was fourteen, I was searching for organisms out on the rocks at Deadman’s Beach (true!) during my school biology camp on Stradbroke Island.

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A huge wave came hurtling towards us and I braced myself by facing into the barnacle covered rocks, gripping on for dear life. The wave crashed over me and my classmates, and smashed my face into the rocks, dragging me as it fled back out to sea, grating my face against the barnacles. Adrenaline pumping, I scrambled to my feet and leapt  over the rocks, racing to shore where my poor teacher was greeted with a bloody mess like Sissy Spacek at the end of Carrie.

I was almost helicoptered back to Brisbane, but the local island doctor was used to shark bites and stitched my face back together again – sixty stitches in all. I wasn’t a pretty sight. Once I got back home my friend took some photos and we entered me in a Dolly Magazine Covergirl Competition. We thought we were pretty funny. Needless to say, I didn’t win 🙂

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As you can see, this anecdote has plenty of action and drama and even a happy ending. But it’s not a story. WHY?

Because it only tells what happened. An anecdote doesn’t reflect on the events and dig deeper to find meaning.

STORIES on the other hand are how humans make sense of the world and what happens to us. They delve deep into the emotional heart of what that incident meant to us and how we were changed as a result. A story creates MEANING from the meaningless.

For example –

What if I told you this accident happened only a couple of months after the death of my young father? What if I told you that when the wave hit something inside me hoped that it would tear me away and take me to where my father was. What if I wrote about how, as the doctor stitched my face back together again, he sang the Death March. What if I wrote about how my best friend tenderly helped me wash the blood out of my hair that night as I sat in a cold bath. What if I told you that I lay awake for hours in my bunk, trying to convince myself that my father’s death had been a bad dream I’d had while knocked out, that he would be waiting for me on the other side of the ferry?

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Then we’d have a story.  A story I haven’t written yet, but just might.

“Dig deeper,” I tell the memoirists I edit and teach. Don’t be afraid. Go deeper and find the true heart of your story. Turn that anecdote into something that touches people.

Have you got an anecdote or two you could dig deeper into to create meaning? Search hard enough and everything that happens has another layer of story reflecting human experience.

That’s what we writers do, we write to make sense of the world.

Want to learn more? Come along to my next retreat in the mountains with a special focus on memoir writing. Great for beginners too, and anyone needing to reboot their writing mojo!

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Let me know how you go!

Lots of love

Edwina

Thing 1 and Thing 2 Short Story Method

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Got a great story but it’s just not selling? Or you’ve got a great idea but the story just isn’t working somehow? Need a way to think about short stories so you can generate ideas quickly? Well, here’s my THING 1 and THING 2 STORY METHOD.

You can use this for larger pieces of writing too but it works best for short things.

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Thing 1

THING 1

Think of an incident or a turning point in your own life, or the life of someone else you know, or someone you just made up 🙂 This could be anything from a traffic accident to the birth of a child to discovering you have cancer. ANYTHING! Remember it only has to be a thing.

In my story “Mrs Sunshine” I thought of a family breaking down, a young mother on the verge of leaving her partner and children – that was my incident.

For my story “Last Days on the 15th Floor” in Bjelke Blues – it was the last few days of ex-Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s rule when it is rumoured that he locked himself in his office and refused to leave.

In “Something No One Else Can See” my Thing 1 was the climbing number of suicides among farmers here in Australia.

Thought of something you could try? Good!

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THING 2

Thing 2 is important. Thing 2 is what gives your story another layer of meaning and depth. Thing 2 can be anything, any – thing at all 🙂 Somehow whatever you choose your brain will find a way to link it to the themes in your story. Thing 2 will help to amplify the hidden truths in your story without you even having to try that hard.

For “Mrs Sunshine” – Thing 2 was a Sunshine Family set of dolls I was given for Christmas as a child and came to mean a whole lot more than just toys. Mrs Sunshine became a symbol for the impossibly perfect ideal of motherhood.

In “Last Days on the 15th Floor” – Thing 2 was Joh’s Vietnamese cleaner whose father had been governor of her hometown. Her perspective gave the story a whole new understanding.

In “Something No One Else Can See” – two sisters coping with the loss of their mother, building fairy houses and believing in magic, helped to bring lightness to what could have been a very dark tale.

So, what is your Thing 2? Nothing immediately coming to mind? Look around you and pick an object. Any object. Put that into your story and see if the magic of imagination doesn’t somehow build that simple object into a meaningful part of your narrative.

Flick open a book and stab at a word. That could just be the key to adding another layer to your story. Have a close look at some short stories – can you find the Thing 1 and Thing 2?

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But why stop there just because Dr Seuss did? Chuck in a Thing 3 if you feel like it!

THING 3 – an abstract noun  like LOVE or HATE or REVENGE or FAITH or REGRET or FORGIVENESS.

Put your incident, your character or object and the noun together and what have you got?

A STORY – that’s what!

This post is making me go all Dr Seuss so I’d better stop now 🙂

I hope you get lots of great stories from Thing1 and Thing 2 (and 3).

Let me know how you go, and if you discover any THINGS in stories you read.

GOOD LUCK!

Oh, and only a few places still left in my next retreat – RELAX AND WRITE IN THE MOUNTAINS – March 27 – 29 2020 in Highfields near Toowoomba. See here for all the details.

Places are strictly limited to 15 so don’t miss out!

HAPPY WRITING!

Lots of love

Edwina xx