Tag Archives: Tin Rules

Why catch the bus?

When writing fiction there are certain expectations your readers will have, even if they are not aware of them, and you need to keep these in mind when writing. This relates to my last post where I had my character say something, purely for the comic value, but my readers decided there was going to be a side story that never eventuated. If you focus too much on one character, or one thing, your reader expects that to be significant to the story.

After all, fiction is something the author makes up, so anything that happens in a story is only there because the author has put it there. This is even more the case in film…

** Spoiler Alert if you haven’t seen ‘The 6th Sense’ in next paragraph**

In one scene the two main characters catch a bus to a funeral. The moment I saw them on the bus I knew Bruce Willis’ character was dead. At no point beforehand had we been told he didn’t have a car, or he was particularly environmentally friendly, and they were heading out to a suburb with plenty of parking. There was no reason to catch the bus UNLESS he couldn’t drive. In real life I wouldn’t have questioned it, in a movie I knew they had to get a bus, put actors on it, rig the cameras to be able to film smoothly, in other words it would have been much harder to organise than a scene in a car, so there had to be a reason to put them on a bus.

Your readers will constantly have this little radar operating, so if your character notices a dog every day they walk along a certain street, if that dog doesn’t attack them, die, turn into a robot, something, then the reader will feel cheated. You can notice the dog once, but don’t labour the point.

The only time this doesn’t apply is when you are trying to throw in a red herring. If you are suggesting someone is going to be attacked, and your character notices the dog, your reader expects the dog to be the villain. So when the tiger jumps out from behind the garbage bins the reader gets shocked by the turn of events.

The key is to not inadvertently throw in the red herrings just because you thought you could get a bit poetic about how to describe the hanky on the clothes line. Unless of course you are writing literature, then I guess anything goes.

Can fake rules be broken?

A friend of mine eagerly confessed that he had just set up a twitter account, but had not yet worked it out. He was confused about when to use #hashtags and when to use the @ sign.

The @ sign was pretty easy to explain; its role, like that in an email, is to denote an address for someone. The #hashtag I thought I had sussed, and explained it was used when you wanted to join in on a conversation or if you wanted to expose your comment to others who were watching that #hashtag. He asked me to give an example, so I gave one that I commonly use; Chapter three finally finished, so glad I #amwriting.

NOOOoooooo! Bemoaned another friend with an #eyeroll, that’s not how you use it. The #hashtag isn’t incorporated into the sentence, you append it to the end to expand on what you have just said: A whole day shopping with the girlfriend #torture #thethingswedo

I then expressed my opinion that with only 144 characters you don’t have a lot to play with, so I couldn’t see what was wrong with incorporating my #hashtag into the sentence. At which point I was informed that I was ‘doing it wrong’.

It struck me as bizarre that people would want to put rules upon one of the ultimate tools of free speech. It’s okay though, I’ve been #torturing him with #inappropriately placed #hashtags all week.

Fictional reality

One of the most important things to keep in mind when writing fiction is to keep it real. Regardless of if you are out jetting around in space, living in a fantasy world where magic is commonplace or falling in love in a world where vampires can walk around in the daylight, there will always be some boundaries which it is important not to cross.

I’ve just finished reading a book that regularly appears on the 100 * best ever * of all time novel lists, and while it was really good, it played the bad-luck card a little too often at the end for my liking, making the story seem unreal.

When you are reading a work of fiction you are generally not conscious of the fact that the story is made up, it is only when things go unerringly well, or frustratingly badly, that you can get pulled out of the flow and wonder why the author has chosen to make the story go this way. That is something you never want your reader to stop and think about.

There is a place for the everything-that-can-go-wrong-does-go-wrong story, but for me that place is in comedy, or where there is a conspiracy that the main protagonist is unaware of (which can explain the run of ill fortune). Anything else reads like it is made up.

You also have to wonder at the purpose of all the bad luck. When all the ends of the story are nearly tied up, and then out of the blue some bad turn of events takes us on another brief ride for thirty pages only to bring us back to where we were before, you have wonder if it really is contributing to the story? Or maybe the author just had a word limit they wanted to hit and this misadventure helped them to get there?!

Why you are not the every-man

I feel I need to explain something a bit further that I said last week. I mentioned that unless you had been through an extraordinary experience you were too normal to be of interest to the average reader. Then I went on to say you are also NOT the every-man (or woman). These ideas seem to be in opposition to each other, so let me explain…

The every-man is completely normal; there is nothing special that makes him stand out from the crowd. You, on the other hand, look at yourself as someone special, at least I hope you do! I’m the only me I’ve got, so that makes me special to me. As a result of this exalted position in your life, you have a greater sympathy for your motivations and are somewhat blinded to your faults. The every-man abounds with faults, that’s why we like them.

Let me give you an example:
About a decade ago I went on a drive with a group of friends. One of them had gone out on a blind date the night before with a girl called Rose and it had gone very well. He was terribly shy, and didn’t volunteer any information about the night to us, but when he was out of the room, before we took off, his flatmate filled us all in.

During that drive I loudly observed a beautiful ROSE in someone’s garden, the smell of someone’s perfume had a distinct hint of ROSE and I mentioned that I had to look a long time to find a jumper in exactly in this shade of ROSE. Every mention of ROSE brought a glowing red burst to this poor boy’s cheeks. Ten years ago I thought I was being hilariously funny, not intending any harm. Now I realise I was being a bitch, causing awful embarrassment.

If I had written about that incident back then, it would have been from the point of view of how funny I was being, because my sympathies were squarely with me. A writer, however, can (with enough skill) take the wider view and let the reader in on the impact of the lead character’s actions on others, even if you are in deep first person, without your every-man character necessarily seeing their fault for themselves.

If you are writing with yourself in mind you cannot do justice to this view, in fact you probably won’t even be able to see it. Instead you are more likely to explain why your character was not being a bitch, stressing that they never meant to be one, it was just a misunderstanding.

So as much as you may be an every-man, you cannot be your every-man. You could be the motivation for someone else’s, but until you learn to completely divorce yourself from the sympathy for your own motivation, and look more at the reality of your actions, you cannot be the one to render yourself sincerely in a story.

It’s not about you

I’m reading a Scriptwriting book which I suspect is aimed at people who have randomly thought ‘I might write a script’ because it is going into the most basic of premises, such as; you must know what your story is about. I must be naive, because I thought that would be the minimum trigger for making you want to pick up the book in the first place.

But the thing that is popping up a lot is reminders that the lead character in your movie is not you. This makes me laugh as it seems to be a universal problem with writing; nearly ever writer writes their first major story with themselves in the lead. It is almost like a rite of passage and one of the many reasons why most of us write our first novel and end up putting it in a drawer so we can get started on our first publishable novel.

My first novel starred not only me as the lead character, but all my flatmates (and I had five) as main characters, as well as a few celebrities for love interests. I would stick up the new pages of the story in the bathroom so everyone could read the next instalment (I got the bathroom because two of my other flatmates had already claimed the kitchen door and the living room wall for their stories –I was very lucky to live with very creative people).

That story was a lot of fun, and reading it now I love all the references to things that were happening at the time. I actually pushed on and finished it, convinced that others would love it as much as I did. And finally, once I had 60,000 words judiciously typed out (on a typewriter no less, computers were not as available back then and printers were dot-matrix format – gosh that makes me sound old. TVs were in colour if that helps) I realised that I had that novel that I kept reading about in all the writing books; the unpublishable first novel.

We tend to start writing what we are most familiar with, us of course being head of that list. But the truth is, unless you have lived an extraordinary or tragic life other people generally don’t want to read about you. People want to read about amazing people, or they want to read about someone like themselves; the every-man character, who is not you.

So write that book or story with you in the lead. Learn how to put the sentences together so they flow, breathe life into your story arc, press on past the doubt and hurdles and get to that magical ‘The End’ – but make sure to get straight back to the keyboard and get started on the book you were practicing to write, the one for the rest of the world.

You can always start a blog if you want to write about yourself  😉

Wankey words

I tried to slip verisimilitude into a sentence today, and as much as I do know how to use it in a sentence, and I know what it means, it just doesn’t sound right. So if I won’t use a word in my speech, should I use it in a novel (even non-speech parts of novels)?

At what point does a big word nail the meaning, perfectly portraying the feeling you were going for, compared to when it just makes you sound like you are trying to be clever by sending the rest of us off to check the dictionary? I guess this all comes back, again, to the reader.

For me, I like it when you can gather what a word means by its usage (and I will check the dictionary just to make sure I’ve understood it correctly), which also shows if the author really does know what it means. I also think that if you haven’t collected one new word from a novel, then you have been a little cheated.

So bring on the wankey words, we need to keep them alive! But please don’t let me drown in them when I’m reading your story, or else I’ll find I’ve made my way further into the Macquarie than I have into your book!

Breaking the rules

A few years ago a major book retailer ran a survey of its customers asking for their favourite book. These were then collated into their ‘Top 100 books of all time.’ Clearly the marketing department did not look far enough into the future, as every other book store, including the original one involved, went on to release a ‘top 100 books’ every year after. At least they dropped the ‘of all time’ on subsequent lists.

I have slowly been making my way though that original list ever since. The most recent book I read was “A fortunate life” by A. B. Facey. This book was originally written by Albert for his family, so his story wouldn’t be forgotten. When he sent it to be printed (20 copies for his family) the publishers asked if they could publish it as a novel, and so an Australian masterpiece was born.

I say masterpiece because I loved the book. I read it with wonder, and awe and all the things you want a book to bring to you (and some you didn’t know until you got there). The thing is the book is not ‘correctly’ written. Conversations between different people are on the same line. The same word starts every paragraph on two concurrent pages and there is a lot of exposition. But it was wonderful. If you want to know what it was like to live in Australia around the turn of last century, this is a superb and entertaining way to learn about it.

This reading experience reminded me of when I was reading Cormac McCarthey’s “The Road” –where I was at least 15 pages in before I realised there were no paragraphs. For me it didn’t matter. When someone has a great story to tell, and they know how to engage you, then clearly the rules do not apply. This takes great skill.

Breaking rules for the sake of it will, I’m sure, ruin a story. But when it comes naturally, or is committed with an educated eye, then I think it can work. Having said that, I do like paragraphs, and I like separate lines for each person talking. Often rules are there for a reason, so make sure you know why you are breaking them if you decide to go down that track. If people don’t notice when they read it, then that’s a good sign that it works with your story.


Just a little OCD

We all suffer from a little OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). My personal demon is pegs. I have come a long way from my original affliction, where I had to match peg colours to the colour of the clothes that they were holding up. Now I just need to match pegs to the colour of their mate on the one piece of clothing. I love socks; only one peg. Sometimes I manage to use different colours, but I’m yet to be able to put a plastic peg with a wooden one. One step at a time!

Now while you might be scratching your head thinking perhaps I did all that psych training to cure myself (and I have come a long way) the truth is we **all** have our little OCDs or superstitions. I lump them together because often the OCD reveals itself as a superstition. The journey of an OCD starts as something logical; if the peg colour stains, it is best to have it the same colour as the clothing it is holding onto. It then grows into something almost pathological (see paragraph 1) and the final step is to go into the realm of lore or superstition.

For me this hasn’t happened yet with pegs, but in just three months it has happened with koalas. We have 2-7 koalas on our street at any one time (well, not on the street, usually in the trees that line it, but sometimes you do see them strolling along). My OCD started as just looking out for them as I went on my daily walk. Now it is a full blown superstition, where I’m convinced it will be an unlucky day if I do not see a koala.

Why am I confessing this? Well, besides the fact that I think that if you are going to have a mental problem, this is probably a cute one to have, the truth is it is these nuances that make us the 3-dimensional characters that we are. So if you are writing perfect characters with no faults and no quirks, then you are writing a fairytale.

So don’t necessarily make your character obsessed with koalas or pegs, but do make them irrationally scared of chickens, or when they go over a bridge they lift their legs, or when they pass a cemetery they have to block their nose!

I won’t tell you which of those I used to suffer from…


PS Share my koala affliction, can you see the koalas in this photo?

Koalas hidden in trees

Koalas revealed

As you know, Bob…

While we are talking about the tin rules I thought I should also touch on the ‘information dump’ which is often a stumbling block for fiction writers. This is where the author feeds a bunch of information directly to the reader so they can understand what is happing in the story. It should be said that it is best avoided at all costs, but sometime you can’t, especially in the world of speculative fiction where you encounter non-human life forms or unusual worlds that need to be explained.

So what constitutes a good vs bad info sharing?

  • “As you know, Bob, the Lexees feed off our laughter, so it is important to keep a straight face.” –BAD info dump
  • “Is it true, Bob, that the Lexees feed off laughter?” “Yes, Bertha, so it is important not to crack so much as a smile when we are near them.” – Slightly better info dump
  • ‘Bertha and Bob faced the Lexees. The twisted arms of the creatures madly spun in the air, making fart-like noises. Bertha couldn’t help herself, a small giggle slipped from her lips and instantly the Lexees fed on the sound; visibly getting larger. Bob shot Bertha a withering look and her smile faded.’ – Better (we are talking technique here, not necessarily the prose) no info dump.   

This comes back to the old ‘show don’t tell’ rule, which many writers swear by. The problem is you can see it takes a lot more words to show something rather than simply stating it. Sometimes it might take pages to ‘show’ the information, and that can really slow the pace of your story.

So I won’t say don’t do the dump, but try to be clever in how you do it; have your character look at a map and describe where the action is taking place, find an old book that details lore or magic rules, have a plausibly ignorant person ask a question. Make sure you have an excuse to state the information, that way it is more believable and might not even stand out as an information dump to your reader.

Happy Writing,


The tin rule of ing-ism

Previously I’ve written about some of the ‘golden’ rules of writing. These are the ones that you should never break. There are also some ‘silver’ rules of writing, which can be broken, but best not to. Then we get to the ‘tin’ rules –those that can be broken, but only when you know when the rule should be applied, and then make the choice not to. Don’t underestimate tin, it has value, there is a reason why they recycle it and it is not just to avoid landfill!

Ing-ism is a tin rule.

Many new writers (me included) have a habit of using an excess of ing words, particularly in descriptive prose. As children it was encouraged, but as adults we need to exorcise ourselves of it (to an extent). Take these examples;

 “… an old shutter dangling at a precarious angle…”
“Reaching in, Lee flicked out…”
Or the double-barrelled “…crouching in the doorway, he started smiling.”

In and of themselves they are not so bad, but if they are stacked one on top of the other they can read terribly! Let’s look at their ing-free versions:

 “.. an old shutter dangled at a precarious angle…”
“Lee reached in and flicked out…”
“…crouched in the doorway, he smiled.”

You can see that the ing-free sentences are much tighter and easier to read. This is particularly useful if you are trying to write fast-paced prose or build tension. Ing words soften the writing and will subtly undermine your pacing and sometimes the tone.

Obviously ing is not a sin, some ing words will need to stay (I have a couple in the paragraph above), but I can almost guarantee you that not all the ing words in your most recent ‘first draft’ need to be there. Go back and see how many you can swap for their ing-free versions.

 As I said, it is a ‘tin’ rule, you can ignore it, but make sure that you are consciously ignoring it and not just being lazy with your editing. Give it a try next time you edit, you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make to your work.

Happy writing,