Author Advice Special – Duncan Stockwell talks about adding some spark to your third act

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I plan my books before I write them – before you gasp and recoil, let me reassure you: I’m not going to try and force the importance of planning! What I’d like to do is share a tool that I think may help to strengthen stories if you plan or not: the narrative spark.

You’ve probably heard the saying ‘plan backwards, write forwards’, with the idea being that defining the culmination of a story allows you to properly design the path towards it. I personally agree with this line of thinking but even when writing to a pre-determined plan, the third act of some stories can still come off as a little untextured.

Here’s what I think the problem is: a lot of the time, designing the plot of a story can be outlining the broad strokes of what will happen. Depending on how deep your planning goes, this often means that Act 3 is just a series of resolutions. Now that’s absolutely fine – it’s the purpose of the third act after all – I think it’s missing a trick though.

The third act of a story shouldn’t just be the culmination of main plot-threads, but of every aspect of the story up to this point. You’ve probably heard of ‘Chekhov’s Gun‘ (or some variation of it). Distilled to it’s most basic form, the idea is that whatever is established in a story must be resolved. You could actually see it the opposite way round though. Whatever is resolved must first be established. Therefore, If you want your third act to be finely embroidered, you’ll have to establish every thread earlier on in the story.

I’ve found that there’s a really easy way of visualising this. Imagine a wire: at one end is a battery, and at the other end the wire is sparking. Every spark that you want in your third act should have it’s wire and battery placed much earlier on in the story. 

I can hear you already: “Well, obviously, that’s how stories work“. And you’re right! But – how granular do you go with that thinking?

For example, if your protagonist delivers a stinging one-liner at the very end of the third-act’s action sequence, the ‘spark‘ is much brighter if it’s been established earlier on in the story. The line’s importance comes not only from its timely delivery, but how it’s an emphasis or inversion or irony of something that has previously been established. It could be used to offer a heartbreaking gut-punch or an exhilarating air-punch.

That’s a pretty easy example to make, so let’s think a little deeper.

What if, in the third act, the protagonist has to be delayed in their pursuit of their goal for some reason? They bump into someone, for example. Bumping into some random nameless passerby is a commonly-used narrative device to increase tension in a sequence, but what if you could make it a ‘spark’ as well? Perhaps the protagonist might have issues with physical contact and pushing past someone would show how she is now focused enough on her goal that she has overcome it? Perhaps the character she has bumped into was a mean-spirited person she met before but who is now issuing some encouragement? Perhaps the person is a very minor character whom the protagonist suddenly realises has actually been against her reaching her goal this whole time?

None of those examples would change the plot’s direction in any way but might have a real ‘spark’ of narrative weight that wasn’t there before and would really add texture and emotional impact to the story. Of course, for that to be the case the ‘battery’ would need to be placed much earlier in the story and perhaps referred to several times before the spark.

Think even deeper though. Imagine if every line of dialogue and every action the protagonist(s) undertook in a story’s denouement was a ‘spark’ that resolved even tiny details that had been pre-established – that would be an amazing ending to the story! To use the visual metaphor again, the end of the story would then be like a knitted-bundle of wires all sparking at carefully determined times.

Let’s reapply this to ‘plan backwards, write forwards’ (I’ll cover planning first, but if you’re a non-planner, I do have some really useful tips for you too so stick around!). 

Personally I like to map out the broad shapes of the story first. Planning the actions in the crisis and climax and applying the relevant foreshadowing. Then I think about how I can add texture with sparks to thscenes in the story’s late stages. Working backwards to fit the wires and batteries for all those sparks then adds the texture into the earlier stages of the stories. Having a defined spark gives much more narrative weight the things that characters discuss and work with/against during their journey to the story’s finale. 

This can also help if I’m stuck when planning the broad structure. I’ll experiment with adding in a random narrative device to get the action moving. As long as I then treat that narrative device as a spark and fit the battery and wire earlier on it then won’t be random in the story as it has been properly established and explored. 

As a further little tip here, it’s usually a good idea to fit those ‘batteries’ into a place in the story that has a little more breathing room; expository sections, or points of low drama. Either that, or allow them space in action sequences to stand as a point of reference, i.e. if a line is to be a ‘spark’ in Act 3, when it’s first spoken in an Act 1 action sequence allow some space to establish it as your ‘battery’ point – have the other characters react to how strange a line it is, for example.

So how might you use this as a non-planner? It’s actually very easy.

As you’re writing forward, make a note of everything that could be used as a battery for a spark later on. If you treat every incidental action or phrase or small character trait as a battery, you can make sure you wire it into the story every time it’s relevant and then make sure it has a ‘spark’ to close out that wire in Act 3. A key concern here though is to make sure you’re not starting too many batteries that you can’t spark later on.

One final tip that’s suitable for non-planners and planners alike is that you can even add in ‘sparks’ in the opening stages of the story to hint at things that have happened before anything even began – it can really help to contextualise the story. Let me use an example to explain what I mean. In The Big Lebowski a large amount of the conversations that The Dude and Walter have in the opening stages of the story actually include phrases taken from President George Bush’s speeches regarding the First Gulf War. If you didn’t know that it doesn’t matter. You still understand what’s going on in the story. If you did know that though, then those few phrasereally help to embed the story in the early 90s.

You can use this technique even if you’re writing in a completely fictional world. All characters are charged with tiny parts of their environment. If each of their lines, traits or actions are taken from or informed by music they like, things they’ve overheard or people they’ve known in the past then they’ll be alive with so many tiny little sparks.

So I hope that has given you a useful tool that you can use in the future. Hopefully it’ll help all your stories crackle with sparks!*

*Disclaimer: make sure you have any actual wiring work completed by a qualified electrician! 


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After writing since he could hold a pen, Duncan Stockwell graduated from a BA in Creative Writing and MA in Teaching Creative Writing.

He designs and publishes the TideBreakers series of stories and card games at tidebreakers.com, but is currently taking a break to work on a series of fantasy novellas. You can also find him on Twitter.

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The Prompt Pot – Hills

Welcome to the second ever Prompt Pot writing challenge here at Newshound to Novelist.

A massive thanks to everyone who took part, messaged, and generally got involved and felt inspired. You all rock! And a special shout out to our first poster, Sara at Puny Fingers for her curry-inspired tale.

This morning I pulled out a delicious pastel green strip of paper with the word ‘hills’ written inside of it.

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Feel free to interpret the prompt in anyway you like. Your words could focus on taking a walk up to the peak of Snowdon, in Wales, or it could be the metaphorical hills you still need to climb to reach a particular goal.

The rules, as always, are to pen your own micro story of 100 words or less, using this week’s prompt ‘hills’ (please note the use of plural too).

Remember to pingback to this page and include the tag ‘The Prompt Pot’ so we can find your efforts in the WordPress reader.

The best of luck to you all. I look forward to reading what you’ve all come up with.

Now, without further ado, here is my micro for this week.


 

Gone

by

Donna-Louise Bishop

Someone famous once sang about the hills being alive with the sound of music. I think they must have been drunk at the time. All the hills I’ve ever walked up are usually cold, windy, and wet.

It’s my parents fault; they loved walking. Self-confessed raucous ramblers, they used to make me scale the highest of hills with them every holiday we went on. I never once enjoyed it.

Now that they have gone though, it’s the only time I am able to feel close to them again. I sometimes wonder if I can hear their laughter on the breeze.

 

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Second Thoughts (a microstory)

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Their first hand-in-hand stroll through Hyde Park signaled the beginning of a relationship that ended with a slap to Henry’s face. The diamond ring that donned Charlotte’s finger left a bloodied scratch on his cheek.

Years later, holding the jewelry inside her palm, she wondered. Should she have forgiven him?


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That Little Bit Harder

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I walk into our house, filled with excitement because it will be clean (it’s a rare sight these days with two children under five). I asked my husband to help with only a couple of chores today but he promised me the inside of our home would be sparkling by the time I finished work.

I wait for the smell of freshly washed bed sheets and polish to greet my nostrils like an old friend but my lips do not form a smile, instead they push out a tiny “oh”.

Bemusement spreads across my face as I look at the living room and see it is pretty much untouched. I had hoped, at the very least, the hoover would have been whipped around. I wasn’t so bothered about the dusty shelves and skirting boards – who bothers with those, right? – but no one can deny that a hoovered room is a happy one. This space however, looks as tidy as a crime scene.

My husband mumbles something about ‘making a start’ but claims the boys had undone his efforts when they returned from school. Okay. That I could live with. After all, kids will be kids. If the house looks as if a bomb has gone off after playtime then it’s been a good day.

With only a few minutes left for cuddles before the boys’ bedtime, I scoop them into the crook of my arms and stealthily sniff their shampooed hair while they watch television. When the programme ends, I take the hand of my youngest and we embark on the long climb up the stairs.

Before I head into his bedroom, I sneak a peek into our own and see it; the laundry still folded on the floor. Anyone who has children, or someone they care for, knows laundry has a magical ability to breed quicker than it is washed or worn. This particular pile of ours had been on the floor for weeks. To be fair, it was the status quo these days but with a baby on the way and a bedroom which needs decorating, I was desperate to get it cleared away.

While my youngest busies himself picking out a story, I recall a phone conversation with my husband from earlier in the day:

“Do you mind sorting out the washing in our bedroom for me please?”

“I can do that.”

“Don’t worry about hanging it out. Just sort it into piles and pop your own stuff away. I can do the rest when I get home.”

“Yep. Sounds good. See you later. Love you.”

It sounds crazy to anyone who hasn’t been driven mad by the laundry monster, but I was so damn excited and relieved that this particular chore was going to be sorted. Unsure of what to do next, I trap a nervous giggle in my throat while struggling to hold back the tears.

At the beginning of this very same week, I sat in our car on the driveway, with my hands gripped to the steering wheel, unable to move. Overwhelmed. It’s the first thing which happens to me when I start to… go. I lose the ability to be physical.

In this moment, I know all he wants – needs – from me is something as simple as a hug, or at the very least a pat on the back and a peck on the cheek, but I am so angry I just can’t bring myself to do that. The demons of my past have destroyed normal physical connections. And his repeated failure to stick to his word is like a kick to the gut every time. I always take it so personally.

So where do we go from here?

A few months ago he walked away. From the house, from the children, from me. I never thought that would happen. I didn’t know he had become that ill.

I shut the door on the laundry and kneel down by my son’s bed to read him a story about diggers. I enjoy the moment and the fascination on his beautiful face, the face we made together. I kiss him goodnight, tuck his legs under the cover, and press glow worm’s belly to soothe him to slumber.

Once his door is closed, I sit at the top of the stairs and take a breath, while listening to my husband talk to our four-year-old, downstairs. They are discussing lightsabers. I try to stop feeding the grudge.

My husband has obviously had a bad day and the motivation he woke up with must have been sucked out of him soon after I left for work. His meds haven’t done what they are meant to do and today I left him on his own for too long to think in the silence he hates.

Just for a change I wish I could be the one who needed him, and not have it be him who needed me. We can’t always get what we want though, so I force it. I force a smile, a sweet sing-song voice; I bite my tongue, and arrange with myself a cry-date for another time.

Sometimes, even maybe most of the time, one of us has to love that little bit harder.


 

 

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The Prompt Pot – Curry

It is finally here! The very first Prompt Pot writing challenge.

It is week one of Newshound to Novelist’s new weekly micro fiction feature, and today I pulled from the pot a sky blue strip of paper with the word ‘curry‘ written across it.

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I’m not even going to apologise that I had this tin in my cupboard in order to take this photo – mainly because it’s my husband’s.

So go ahead and pen your own micro story of 100 words or less, using the prompt ‘curry’. You can interpret it or use it in whatever way you want.

Remember to pingback to this page and include the tag ‘The Prompt Pot’ so we can find your efforts in the WordPress reader.

The best of luck to you all.

Now, without further ado, here is my curry inspired micro…


Since You’ve Been Gone

by

Donna-Lousie Bishop

Not for the first time that week, the feeling of her guts being on fire woke her up with a jolt. Too much vindaloo and Dr Pepper she concluded, while her body gripped the toilet like a shy toddler wrapped around their mother.

The sound of next door’s dogs barking shot through the bathroom window – the norm for 5am. Usually bellows from the owner would scare them into silence until 7am. There was no one to quieten the cats though.

Before he left, she used to sleep better. She ate better too. She decided she would prepare porridge this morning.

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Introducing… The Prompt Pot!

Tucked away in a dark corner of my writing space is something I call my Prompt Pot. It doesn’t get pulled out too often but it has been an absolutely lifesaver when it has made an appearance.

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This vintage-style jar is probably meant to house some delicious Victorianesque sweets but mine is instead filled with words, sentences, and suggestions. It is also the inspiration for my latest blog feature – The Prompt Pot.

As well as some of my own contributions, friends, family, and former students have added to the insides of this jar by simply writing whatever they feel onto a square piece of pastel coloured paper. As a result, stored inside lies a whole treasure trove of ideas and inspiration. And now I’m going to share that with you.

Every Monday I will dip my hand into The Prompt Pot to see what lurks inside. I am then going to pen my own micro story of up to 100 words – based on that week’s prompt – before asking you to take part yourself.

So here’s the deal: One prompt, every Monday, write 100 words or less – and you’ll have seven days to do it.

Please remember to pingback to the challenge so that I can see what you’ve come up with.

The best of luck to you all!

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‘Write your way’ – Barbara Copperthwaite shares her tips with Author Advice

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Barbara Copperthwaite is the author of psychological thrillers Invisible and Flowers for the Dead. Both were self-published and have been Amazon best sellers.

In October Barbara signed with Bookouture (an imprint of Hachette) and her latest book, The Darkest Lies, was published on May 12.

Before turning to fiction, Barbara spent more than twenty years as a national journalist and editor, working on household titles such as Chat, Woman, and Best. She’s interviewed the real victims of crime – and also those who have carried those crimes out. Thanks to people sharing their stories with her, she believes she knows the emotional impact of violence and wrong-doing. That’s why her novels are dark, realistic and tackle not just the crime but its repercussions.

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My Top Three Tips For Writers 

1. Write your way
I appreciate the irony of my first piece of advice on writing being to take other people’s writing advice with a pinch of salt…

My first two books were written for the sheer pleasure of it, and I really enjoyed the journey I was taken on with them because I didn’t know where the plot was going. But because they both did quite well, I wanted to do even better next time and decided to take my writing more seriously. I read up on how other authors tackled their work, and suddenly felt that I wasn’t a ‘proper’ author; because, unlike other others, I wasn’t carefully plotting the entire book beforehand. I tried it with my third book, and it was a horrible experience. I only completed the novel once I threw the plan out of the window.

My point isn’t that plotting and planning is wrong, it’s that it’s wrong for me. So by all mean listen to advice, and take on tips that suit you, but don’t twist yourself in knots to try to be something you’re not. Just write, in whatever way works for you.

2. Don’t be intimidated by your first draft 
‘The book that was supposed to be your masterpiece is a horrible mess, with whole sections that are poorly-written, and a plot that doesn’t quite tie up – so what’s the point in carrying on with it? Better to just abandon it now.’

Sound familiar? I’ll let you into a secret: everyone’s first draft is the same. That’s the entire point of a first draft! It’s a rough and ready version, a set of notes almost, but from that you can rewrite sections, see exactly how you can tie up the plot, and smooth the edges of characters while breathing life into scenes. But you can only do all of that if you stop wasting time beating yourself up about your first draft being awful, and just finish it.

3. Read aloud 
Sometimes it’s easy to miss mistakes because our eyes skim over them; we’re too close to our work. Reading aloud highlights any problems with the rhythm of a sentence, or clunky dialogue.


To find out more about Barbara, go to Facebook (www.facebook.com/AuthorBarbaraCopperthwaite), Twitter (www.twitter.com/BCopperthwait), the website www.barbaracopperthwaite.com, or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/author_barbara_copperthwaite/).

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When the Music Stopped

Content warning: References Manchester bombing.


 

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I was shocked when someone bought her that album.
It’s a Christmas present, my step-daughter told me.
But she’s only eight, I gasped to my husband.
She doesn’t know what the lyrics mean, he said,
but he agreed they were a bit risqué.

A couple of months ago she stopped singing those songs.
Had her mother confiscated the CD? Secretly, Ariane Grande was my guilty pleasure,
and I felt ashamed I’d reacted so terribly to my step-daughter’s admiration of her.
It’s not for me to decide her music tastes.
Being a lover of words I should have embraced the meanings, not criticised them.

This week something horrific happened in our country.
Could she have been there?
Would she have been that eight-year-old having the night of her life before it was taken away so cruelly?
The next time she stays with us, I will hold her that little bit more tightly,
and I will let her sing her precious heart out to any song she wants to.

 

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The Little Things

I have a collection of special, yet random, artefacts placed on a shelf above my writing desk.

Here is a list of what they are:

  • A winner’s 2013 NaNoWriMo trophy
  • A handmade 30th birthday card given to me by my granddad before he passed away
  • A lump of volcanic rock given to my by a dear writing friend, with two special grooves to symbolise my two sons (before we knew there would be a third)
  • A miniature cat moneybox given to me by my parents as a joke (I’m always broke…)
  • A handwritten poem which was handed out for free in my local supermarket
  • A sticker with the number 52 on it for an audition as a scare actor
  • A Linda Belcher from Bob’s Burgers figure bought for me as a present from my husband
  • A quill, which was another present from my husband
  • A glass paperweight with my university logo printed on it
  • A brass horse ornament I’ve had since I was a teenager
  • (And finally) an R2D2 USB stick, because I thought it was cool not because I like Star Wars

For such a small room this seems like a mighty big collection of little trinkets to own. I’m not even sure why I’ve kept most of them but they seem to have become an integral part of me. They are like mini, frozen cheerleaders which encourage me with my writing every time I sit down at the computer.

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Sometimes it’s not enough to love the process or the final story. Sometimes I need more than that and I can’t expect my loved ones to be a constant source of encouragement. So it’s nice to know I have this little selection of ‘things’ to give me an unspoken boost when I need it.

I’m not sure which item does what exactly to keep me going but knowing they are they to share and witness the blood, sweat, and tears I produce while sitting here crafting and constructing is enough.


 

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Water and Wine

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The rain looked different in the city tonight and yet the only thing which had changed was us.

The last time we visited we drank our happiness by the bottle and embraced the dizziness which came with too much Merlot. Now we just sipped at water like reserved teenagers at their first school dance.

“Can we start again?” you whispered, eyes focused on the spilt grains of salt you played with on the table top.

“I think it’s too late for that.”

“That’s your answer for everything. We could try though?”

“I was trying. I never stopped trying.”

“Okay.”

Okay.

“I mean, I could try,” his eyes locked onto mine and demanded that he got his own way.

I wanted to throw my water at his face, let the ice cubes sting at his skin like miniature jellyfish, watch as the rest of the people in the restaurant pointed and chuckled behind their napkins. I wanted to scream until the glasses we drank out of cracked and smashed, shout until I had nothing left to say, and then move on from whatever we had become.

“I never stopped loving you, y’know?” he tried to reach for my hand but it was too far away.

“I never stopped loving you either,” he smiled at me. “But it didn’t make me go and fuck someone else.”

“There’s nothing I can do to fix this, is there?”

“No. There’s not.”

He thought – we both thought – that a weekend back here would resolve things. It would be an escape, a fresh start, a time to wipe the slate clean. All it did was make me hate him even more.

I didn’t stop him when he walked outside and into the rain.


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