Think About Your Reader’s Experience – A Ramble

Although this is an article about writing fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games. Although I don’t know if I’ll review it or not, I recently started playing a slightly low-budget role-playing game from 2009 called “Venetica” and, compared to the classic 1990s first-person shooter games that I’ve been playing recently, I noticed how one crucial difference between these two genres completely changes their emotional tone.

Although both genres of game include exploration, puzzles and combat, the role-playing genre is much more of a “feel good” genre because there are also “side-quests” where you can help other characters with problems that they are having. These “side-quests” are totally optional and yet you’ll usually want to do them for the feeling of solving a problem or helping someone out, rather than for the coins, points or items that you are given afterwards.

But, what does any of this have to do with writing fiction?

Well, it is all to do with thinking about your reader’s experience of reading your story. Like how playing two different genres of game can evoke very different emotions in the player through something as simple as adding “side-quests”, being conscious of things like the writing style, characters, story structure etc… in your novel can have a huge impact on what your readers experience emotionally.

For example, shorter chapters (especially if they have cliffhanger endings), shorter sentences, descriptions of actions and/or a more “matter of fact” writing style all push the reader to read more quickly. This is perfect if you want to write an action-packed thriller story. If you try to write a similar story with more formal narration then, even though the story might be the same, the reader’s experience of it won’t be quite as good. They will still know that the story is supposed to be a fast-paced thriller, but the experience of reading a slower-paced story than they expected won’t evoke the feeling of reading a thrilling story.

To give another example, romance novels will almost always include some kind of conflict (eg: emotional turmoil, a love triangle, another character forbidding the relationship etc…) that gets between the story’s main couple. Although this conflict might seem counter-intuitive in a genre that is meant to give the reader the enjoyable vicarious experience of falling in love, it is there for a good reason.

For starters, it makes the inevitable happy ending feel even happier in comparison to the rest of the story. It can add a frisson of “forbidden romance” to the story too. It also adds enough “realism” to highly-stylised romance stories to keep the reader gripped and to allow them to fantasise about something like this actually happening to them.

Focusing on your reader’s experience of reading your novel can also help you to add a bit more originality to your story too. For example, the novel I’m reading at the moment is one called “Gun Machine” by Warren Ellis. This is a hardboiled detective novel, yet it feels very different to other works in the genre thanks to things like an eccentric cast of characters, a surreal transgressive sense of humour and a number of slightly quirky plot details.

By focusing on the reader’s experience – the journey as well as the destination – Ellis is able to write a hardboiled mystery that feels slightly different to most novels in the genre, despite having a lot of elements in common with them (eg: a cynical world-weary detective, a large city etc…). Again, this is all because he focuses as much on the “journey” (eg: descriptions, writing style, characters, humour etc…) as he does on the “destination” (eg: the plot).

So, what is the best way to learn how your reader will experience your story?

Well, the obvious way is to show your story to a few test readers and see what they think of it. But, this is something you can really only do after you’ve already finished your story. If you want to be conscious of your reader’s experience when you’re actually writing your story, then the only real way to do this is to regularly read lots of different books by lots of different authors.

Not only will regular reading give you all sorts of practical lessons about writing, but it also gives you something even more important – direct, recent experience of being a reader. If you pay attention to how you react to every novel that you read, then you’ll get a sense of the types of novels that you enjoy reading (and why). If you think about how the authors evoked these reactions in you, then it will give you more tools for doing the same thing for your own readers.

So, read regularly and pay attention to what emotions your readers will experience when they are reading your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Sneaky Hacks For Writing A Novel If You’re A Short Story Writer

After another traditional-style novel project I was trying to write a couple of weeks before preparing this article failed, I came to the realisation that I was a much stronger writer when it came to short stories than novel-length stories. And, I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has ever found themselves in this situation.

However, novel-length stories are the most popular and widely-read type of fiction out there (seriously, compare the numbers of novels and short story collections on the shelves of an average bookshop). So, there are a lot of reasons to try writing one. But, if you’re at your absolute best when writing snappy, distilled fiction or you absolutely thrive when you can tell a story that takes place on a slightly smaller scale, then how can you write anything novel-length?

Here are a few sneaky hacks that might come in handy.

1) Episodic plots: This is a technique where a seemingly single and linear plot (featuring the same cast of characters) is actually built up from several smaller sub-plots. In other words, a short story collection in disguise. The best way to think about this is like a TV show – whilst each “episode” of the series may contain a different sub-story, there is also a main story arc running in the background.

Of course, you will need to think of a premise that will “work” with several short story-like sub-plots (stories about travelling or about a single location are fairly good) and come up with an interesting group of characters that you won’t mind spending several stories with. The trick to knowing when you have found one of these is when you keep getting lots of sudden ideas for possible “episodes”, to the point where you actually have to decide which ones you want to leave out of your “novel”.

Another advantage of using this technique is that, when done well, it will make your disguised story collection seem a lot more vivid, rich and eventful than a traditional novel since it will have multiple “beginning, middle and end” segments in it when compared to the one that you would find in a traditionally-structured novel.

This approach is kind of like a hybrid of a novel and a short story collection and the best way to understand how to write it is to either watch a few scripted TV series from the 1990s/early-mid 2000s (since this sort of structure was fairly common back then, before streaming and box-sets became ultra-popular) or to read some novels that use a version of this technique. For example, some elements of this structure can be found in Jodi Taylor’s “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” and in Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet“.

2) Fix-ups: Although Wikipedia points out that “fix-up” short story collections – involving a framing story linking several unrelated short stories- became popular in the 1950s, the basic idea goes back a lot further than this. In fact, you can even see elements of this structure in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales“, a medieval text about a group of travellers, each of whom tells a tale. It’s a very old way of presenting a short story collection in a novel-like package.

But, although this basic idea can be used in a lot of ways (and is great if you’re better at writing first-person narration too), you still need to pay attention to your framing story. Not only does it have to be interesting and inventive enough to grab the reader’s attention, but it should also make them curious about the short stories (which should, in turn, tell the reader more about the framing story).

A good example of this sort of thing is a novel “World War Z” by Max Brooks. Although it isn’t technically a “fix-up”, it uses the techniques of one in a really cool way. Set after humanity had successfully survived a zombie apocalypse – an intriguingly rare situation in this genre – the framing story follows a UN officer who is interviewing people in order to record the history of the zombie apocalypse (so, each story gives the reader some extra intriguing backstory). The combination of these two things means that, even if you aren’t a fan of short story collections and/or multiple first-person narrators, it is still a really intriguing novel.

3) Side-stories: This tends to work best in the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres, but it can work in any genre if handled well. If you’re planning to write more of a traditional novel, but want to either take a break by writing some short fiction and/or need the enthusiasm that comes from writing a story that can be finished in a relatively short amount of time, then adding a small side-story can be a good way of doing this.

These tend to work best in stories that use third-person narration (and your side-story has to be relevant to your main plot in some way), but cutting away to a totally new character for a fairly self-contained single chapter story can be a great way to add a bit of short storytelling to a novel.

These types of side-stories tend to work best in novels that are set in an intriguing fictional world (hence why they might turn up in a sci-fi or fantasy novel, since they add depth) or for adding an extra sense of scale or menace to a series of frightening events (which is why you’ll find examples of this technique in many zombie novels and/or classic 1970s/80s horror novels like James Herbert’s “The Rats).

Yes, your short side-story needs to be relevant to the main plot and you shouldn’t include too many of them (to avoid confusing the reader), but they can be a great way of sneaking a bit of short story writing into a traditional-style novel.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Here’s Another Thing Computer And Video Games Can Teach Writers And Artists

Although I hadn’t planned to write another article about how playing computer and video games can be useful for writers and artists, I played a game that made me think about this topic again.

Although I’ll post a full review of it tomorrow, I ended up buying an old computer game from 2001 called “X-COM: Enforcer” the day before I wrote this article. Since I’d planned to do other stuff, I thought that I’d just quickly test it out for ten minutes after it had finished downloading. I ended up playing it for three hours.

This is a screenshot from “X-COM: Enforcer” (2001).

The interesting thing is that it isn’t really a very imaginative game, but it’s still incredibly compellingly fun because of the clever way that it has been designed. Although it is the literal dictionary definition of a mindless shoot-em-up game, the game’s design ensures that the player keeps playing it.

The game’s levels are short, which encourages you to play “just one more level”. When one of the game’s monsters is defeated, they drop a bonus item that must be picked up within about ten seconds – which encourages a thrillingly fast-paced playing style. The player also often fights large numbers of relatively weak monsters, which adds suspense whilst also making the player feel more powerful at the same time.

The game’s aiming and weapon selection system is heavily simplified- which encourages the player to play quickly, spontaneously and impulsively. The game’s slightly cartoonish and unrealistic visual style prevents the constant combat from being grim or disturbing. The game frequently includes encouraging voice-overs that are designed to make the player feel like they are an expert. The game’s soundtrack is fast-paced and repetitive, which encourages fast-paced play.

I could go on for a while, but the cumulative effect of all of these “small” design decisions is to make the game a thrillingly fun experience that makes the player want to play more, even though it’s a silly shoot-em-up game that could otherwise be described as “generic” or “mindless”.

But, what does this have to do with art or writing?

Well, a lot actually. The subtle ways you “design” your story or artwork will determine how your audience experiences it.

Remember how I mentioned that a game’s short levels can encourage the player to play “one more level”?

Well, a similar principle is often used in modern thriller novels. Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is the most famous example of this, but there’s a reason why many thriller novels often include very short chapters. This principle is also why traditional webcomics can be binge-read easily, but a proper graphic novel might be read more slowly.

Remember how I mentioned that simplifying elements of a game can make it more quick and impulsive?

Well, the style of writing that you use in a story can affect how quickly the audience reads it. Likewise, the level of detail in a piece of art can determine where the audience’s attention is focused (eg: if one part of a painting is more detailed than another, then the audience’s attention will be drawn to that area).

Remember how I mentioned that a more cartoonish style can change the emotional tone of a game?

Well, things like colour choices (eg: different colour schemes can evoke different moods) and different drawing styles can also have a similar effect on how your audience feels when they look at one of your paintings or drawings.

I could probably go on for quite a while, but “small” and subtle decisions like these have a huge impact on how your audience feels, experiences and responds to the things you create. So, yes, the small things matter – and games often contain lots of great examples of this type of thing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Don’t More Writers Use This Awesome Story Structure?

Yay! Vikings :)

Yay! Vikings 🙂

I was looking through some old books of mine a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across a copy of Terry Jones’ “The Saga Of Erik The Viking“. Since I had vague memories of reading it when I was a lot younger, I thought that I’d take another look at it as an adult (who makes art and thinks that vikings are really cool).

And I was amazed!

Not only did I rediscover a brilliantly timeless (and ageless) story with far more unearthly horrors and fearsome monsters in it than I remembered, I also had a much greater appreciation for Michael Foreman’s excellent watercolour illustrations and lineart than I did back before I became an artist.

But, most importantly of all, eight words in the blurb on the inside cover really jumped out at me.

Those words were “Each chapter forms a complete story in itself“.

And, yes, they do. You can read the whole book cover to cover or (like I did when I was re-reading it) you can just skip to interesting-looking chapters. As long as you read the beginning before you read the ending, you can read the rest of the book in any literally order that you want to.

The whole story is technically a linear story (like most stories) but each chapter usually just begins with a very brief description of the main characters moving on from the events of the previous chapter (eg: “After they had celebrated their safe arrival on shore…“) and then the rest of the chapter is basically just a self-contained short story which ends with Erik and the vikings either staying somewhere or getting back on their longship and travelling somewhere else.

Apart from possibly Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics (where most volumes of the comic are completely self-contained parts of a larger story), I’ve never seen any other stories which use this kind of structure. And, the strange thing is, it really works. In fact, it may well be the best story structure ever created.

Why? Well, because it puts the reader in control of both the path of the story and the story’s length too. If you don’t really feel like reading a whole book, then you can just read a couple of chapters and still come away feeling satisfied. Likewise, if you want to read the interesting-looking chapters first and then read the other chapters later, you can do this too. It’s totally up to you.

Best of all, this structure is perfectly suited to one of my favourite genres of fiction – I am, of course, talking about “exploratory storytelling“. In case you’ve never heard of this genre before, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect it to be – exploratory stories are basically just open-ended stories about exploring strange and interesting places.

Because you can read the chapters of ” Erik The Viking” in any order that you want to, it goes from being an ordinary linear story to being an interesting collection of tales which – best of all – can be explored rather than just simply read. It might sound like I’m exaggerating here, but this structure really changed how I saw the entire book.

This structure could also be fairly good for writers who, like me, are absolutely terrible at writing longer stories (or was when I was writing fiction regularly). This is because it’s like the perfect middle ground between writing a novel and writing a short story collection. You can write a series of short stories

Since short story collections are nowhere near as popular or attractive to publishers as they used to be, this could be the perfect way of disguising your short story collection as a novel (with all of the gravitas and popularity that comes with this).

Seriously, I don’t know why more writers don’t use this structure for their books – it’s absolutely amazing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂