This article is mainly for beginner writers, but I’m sure it would be of use for more advanced writers as well, even if only to go back to the basics. Sorry it’s so long, but I hope it’s of some use!
Note: the bold is not simply the way I express things, but for this article is meant to highlight important phrases, and sometimes to sum up what has been said. However, if this bothers readers, I'll be happy to change it.
F.O.C.U.SYou – yes, you! Did you hear me? You need to F.O.C.U.S. If you are a beginning writer, only just starting out and thinking about tackling your first short story, poem, or even novel, then this is something you need to read.
We will be focusing our attention on the word above: F.O.C.U.S! But just what does this word mean? What help is it going to give you? Well you’ll be glad to know that the advice I’m about to give you applies to all writers, and with that in mind, we’ll begin.
F – This stands for ‘First’, and can be the first of anything: first sentence, first paragraph, first character, first argument, first piece of dialogue. But why is this important to the writer? Simply, because it is vitally important to grab your reader’s attention as soon as possible (hopefully even the first line of your writing piece), and once you have it, you should never let it go.
Every part of your projects and stories should be sound and of good quality, but the beginning is crucial. It is where the reader decides whether they like your writing style, your setting, your characters, and so on. Therefore, your writing style must be tight and sharp, your setting must paint pictures in their head, and your characters must be able to leap off the page because they are so 3D. In short, make every first thing count – your first sentence should be unusual (a little more on this later), quirky, witty, or something you know would hook you if you were reading the story. The same goes for the first paragraph and chapter, but just on a slightly bigger scale. Edit away the flabby words, and keep only what is necessary; leave the long descriptions till later.
O – ‘Opposition’ is what this stands for. Yes, opposition is the crux of a book, because who wants to hear about Ned’s perfect life? It might be nice escapism from the problems of life for maybe two paragraphs, but it soon wears thin and you are left feeling jealous and angry; people relate to flawed characters with problems. Readers want obstacles, and good writers supply them.
So what exactly do we mean by ‘opposition’? Simply put, opposition can be anything. Let’s have a look at some examples.
· Bill wants to get into his car
· But Gruff, Bill’s Dog, has the car keys in his mouth
· Therefore Bill must get the keys out of Gruff’s mouth to get into the car
An extremely plain example, but hopefully you can see who or what the opposition is. It is Gruff, Bill’s dog. Bill is the protagonist here (which at its most basic level means ‘the good guy’), while Gruff is the antagonist (‘the bad guy’). The antagonist is the opposition.
Now, what if we changed the point of view – meaning, the way in which we see the story? At the moment, we see Bill as the good guy, because he needs to get his keys. But let’s have a bit of fun and make Gruff the protagonist/good guy.
· Gruff wants to play with the car keys
· Bill is angry and tries to grab the keys from Gruff’s mouth
· Therefore Gruff must run away to keep the keys
See how the perspective changes? Because we hear the dog’s side of the story, we want him to succeed. So as a side note, make sure you know which character or characters you want the readers to believe in and root for.
Opposition can be pretty much anything: a man with a sprained ankle would consider stairs as his opposition; a hunter would consider a grizzly bear to be his opposition. It can be weather, nature in general, God, gods, people, inanimate objects. Anything.
C – This means ‘Catalyst’, which really means ‘change’. This can mean a change at the beginning of the story (e.g. your character’s monotonous life changing when a grey-haired wizard comes to visit), but it can also mean a change for your character by the time your story comes to an end. Think about your favourite book. Now at the end of the book, did you find the character had changed since the beginning? That’s because a catalyst, or change, was introduced at some point in the book.
It could be a character overcoming a fear, finding true love, or even realising that the woman he is married to is not the one he loves. Whatever it is, it needs to change him. Perhaps for the worse, but usually for the better. Even your minor characters, other major characters, and antagonists can change, and these can be either for the worse or for the better, too. Because the character discovers this change, he grows. He realises that fear is not something to give into; he realises what love is; he realises what love isn’t. And through this growth comes a better response to the obstacles they face, the opposition/antagonists they face, and the characters to which they react. Think about what needs to change by the end of your book for your characters, and ask yourself why and how. Then, your characters really will begin to take shape and look more 3D.
U – A letter which stands for ‘Unexpected’. Yes, this is also important when penning a story. After all, why read something in which you can guess the events? Few readers wish to do that, and so a good writer needs to write the unexpected.
For example, perhaps you should write a story where the wife suspects the husband is cheating on her: she sees him sneaking out late at night, even walking around with an extremely sexy young woman. Eventually, when she’s gathered enough evidence, she confronts him, only to find that he wasn’t cheating on her after all! He was just planning a meal, party, and all-round fantastic night for their upcoming anniversary, and the woman he was with was just the party planner. But a few days later, she comes home early to find her husband sleeping with the same part planner she was spying on. With a lazy shrug, the husband says, “Sorry, Honey, you got me thinking about it.”
Hopefully that was unexpected, with an extra twist in the tale at the very end; normally just finding out that he wasn’t having an affair would be good enough, but now even that has become cliché, and so I decided to create another twist. Boring and contrived my example may have been, but it serves a purpose: keep the reader guessing. They’ll love it, I assure you. That’s why thrillers are popular, along with crime novels. Other genres keep you guessing too, but the former genres rely on it to gain readers’ attention and respect.
And going back to that first sentence we talked about earlier, don’t be afraid to make that unexpected, either. Perhaps you could use a famous phrase and twist it, so the reader expects a famous phrase when in fact it is not quite what they think. This can be mildly humourous, interesting, and generally will keep the reader reading, which is great. Don’t force the unexpected to happen, of course – only use it if your story demands it. But what you should do is develop a story from scratch that does keep the reader guessing, even if it’s the mystery of old Mrs Oddbottom down the road, and why she keeps closing the curtains at two o’ clock every afternoon…
S – The final letter, which stands for ‘Synthesis’. Basically, this is just to say that all elements need to be brought together and set up for the conclusion. It’s when Poirot brings all his murder suspects into one room and pieces together the mystery; it’s when Jack Reacher knows what the antagonist/bad guy is up to and how to stop him, and so sets off to do just that. All the elements are brought together, all the important things in the story are tied up to one metaphorical chair, if you like. These elements could be characters, inanimate objects, motives, fears, strengths – anything which is important to your plot. When they have been brought together, a conclusion brings it all to a close.
A conclusion should be satisfying. If you are a first time author, or someone who has never been published before, never make your ending totally dismal. There has to be some sort of hope, however small it may be. Of course if your story requires a sad ending, then go for it, but just don’t go too far and make it so unsatisfying for your reader that they won’t touch another of your books i.e. having all of your ‘good guys’ die, having all the ‘bad guys’ live, and there being no hope for the downfall of those ‘bad guys’. Having a bleak ending is breaking a ‘rule’ or writing (I put ‘rule’ in quotes because there are very few concrete rules in writing, but this particular ‘rule’ is just the accepted format), and a first time writer should never break rules. Like all professions, you should only break rules when you know what those rules are in the first place, so resist the temptation to be clever or quirky with major ‘rules’ such as these until you are a respected writer.
Finally, a conclusion should be definite. Now, it is a highly debated topic on whether unpublished authors should write a book series, and the war will never cease. However, one thing is certain, no matter which side you’re on: never write a cliff-hanger into your ending! Example: “the cyborgs were closing in on us, and any second now we would be dead. What would happen to little Lydia if we didn’t save her?” This is a terrible ending! Agents and publishers have very little idea whether or not your first book would sell well, so why would they risk planting the idea into the author’s head, along with the readers’ heads, that a sequel is in the works? Finishing endings this way screams ‘amateur’. Instead, resolve all conflicts. You canhint that an even bigger danger is looming right at the very end, but this is a call only you can make, as writers are divided as to whether this should be done or not. It’s a judgement call.
So, when you next begin your writing, remember to F.O.C.U.S. Even when you’re editing, you should remember to F.O.C.U.S: have you added each letter to your piece of work? If you remember this word and the other words it holds, then you’re well on your way to becoming a good, if not great, writer.