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07 July 2016

Story, character and truth: Louise Wener’s writing tips

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by Louise Wener Writing Tips

When I teach a new novel-writing class, the first thing I do is ask students to tell me their endings. This may sound counter-intuitive but if you know where your novel ends, there’s a good chance you know how to get there. With an end point there’s a journey. With journey comes story. And story is everything.

We aim to sharpen your dialogue on this course. We aim to light up your powers of description. To take a scythe to your adverbs, make you tight and precise, help you edit and structure, and find voice. But story is king. If we can turn out storytellers by the end of six months, I feel as though we’re getting it right.

Before you set out on your novel, see if you can summarise your plot in a sentence. Keep in mind that good stories need conflict. Very often there is something at stake for your central character. Ask yourself three questions. What does my character want? What are the obstacles in his/her way? What are the consequences for my character if he/she doesn’t succeed? If you have good answers to these questions, the chances are you’re on your way to a story that people will want to read.

To plot we’ll ask you to add character. To character I want you to add truth. A common problem for new writers is creating believable characters. How do we make them live and breathe? How do we make them sing from the page? First attempts can be generic. Characters read like something out of central casting. The bland wife. The ordinary husband. The identikit detective who drinks too much.

Consider this. Think about the moment you first became close to someone. The moment they crossed over from acquaintance to friend. Chances are it happened when the other person told you something. They opened up. They let you see the ‘real’ them. That’s what you need to do with characters. Fast-forward the acquaintance stage; in fact skip it altogether. Take us straight to the heart of who they are. What they feel. What their secrets might be.

In the office, on the school run, people you see every day can merge into archetypes. And then you talk. You speak to them at a moment of crisis or hope; fear or elation and you see who they really are. They surprise you. They tell you stories about their lives you never imagined. They expose insecurities that make you connect with them because you’ve felt that way too.

Human beings are complex. If you want your characters to live, let us see them. In all their vivid imperfection.

Story. Character. Truth. The three pillars that will make you a better writer. And while you’re at it, cut 50 per cent of your adverbs. It will generally, probably, help.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.


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