Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 37: Rules Of The Game

Welcome to week 37 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here

Goal setting
  1. Continue writing the scenes or chapters of your novel.
Breaking it down

Rude teddy bears and white-collar boxing
‘The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule about fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club.”

In Chuck Palahniuk’s hypnotic thriller, Fight Club, the secret underground world of white-collar boxing is the invention of the disturbed Tyler Durden. There are other rules: only two men per fight, only one fight at a time, and so forth.

When your story or your plot operates outside of the conventional or the ‘real world’, you have to establish the ‘rules of the game’ and you have to let the reader or audience know what these are.

In the movie Ted, for example, Jon Bennett’s childhood teddy bear magically comes alive on Christmas morning – and turns into a minor celebrity and, eventually, a foul-mouthed slacker.

Here the rules of a ‘living’ teddy are given to the viewer early on. Ted can do pretty much everything we can do – talk, drive a car, Tweet, smoke drugs, have sex with his girlfriend. Every character in the story can interact with Ted.  He is a reliable character in the story. There’s no way we ever believe he is the product of Jon’s imagination. Without setting out the rules of the game, the audience may have been suspicious of this character.

In the 1950s film, Harvey, for example, the main character’s best friend is a mischievous six-foot tall rabbit called Harvey – and Harvey is invisible.

Since Elwood, an eccentric and alcoholic, is the only one who can see Harvey, his friends and family wonder if the rabbit is a product of too much drinking or even mental illness.  This creates a completely different dynamic in the film. 

If you’re writing in the genres of fantasy or a paranormal, sometimes even speculative/futuristic and horror, you need to explain or show the rules of the game. For example, your vampire can come out in daylight and sparkle – Twilight.  Or ‘don’t get them wet, don’t feed them after midnight’ – for the comedy horror Gremlins.  Can you think of other examples?

The rules for three
Recently, I’ve been spending a few lunch hours writing with a colleague, who is also a writer. She was struggling to understand how the threesome in my novel came about. What was the motivation behind Jenna and Matt’s encounter? ‘If they were bored in their relationship, why didn’t they just go hiking?’

After we had a chuckle about this, I realised that the dynamic of a threesome or ménage à trois was something crying out for ‘the rules of the game’. 

I was faced with some tricky questions this week. Does my couple have an open relationship? Do they hook up with people separately or do they, as the saying goes, only play together? How is the instigator in this behaviour? Is it something they both want?

There has to be a code when it comes to this kind of behaviour. This is exciting for me as a writer, as it delves into sexual politics and behaviour. Thinking of Fight Club, they could have firm rules: no past hook-ups, no friends, no repeats, no drug addicts, and so forth. 

There could even be subtle code words or gestures that Jenna and Matt could use to communicate during the encounter.  While it’s important for me, as a writer, to understand the underlying psychology of their relationship, I also need the ‘device’ the rules of the games to give the story some structure and clarity.
internal logic
While facilitating Writers Write 2  – which is all about plotting – I was discussing the importance of stories having their own ‘internal logic’ and this dovetails with the idea of the rules of the game.

When creating a fictional universe, it’s important to set the ground rules of for the worlds in which your story plays out. It doesn’t matter how bizarre of far-fetched, your story will be reliable if it follows its own internal logic and is self-consistent. This logic – if the reader trusts it and believes it – will allow for suspension of disbelief. You make things up, but they have to be believable.  

In that, you must recognise the reality in the fantasy. There must be a truth we can respond to in even the most incredible story. In my story, the idea is not to show how people get their rocks off – otherwise it would be the plot of a porno or bad French movie – but to show how jealousy in a relationship is sublimated and expressed. Jealousy is a truth we can all recognise.
Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Spend a half hour or hour a day writing your scenes or chapters.

5 Quick Hacks
  1. What rules didn’t you like when you were at school? Imagine one of your characters rebelling against those rules.
  2. Take a board game like Monopoly or Risk. Look at how the rules govern the game. How could you add a plot and characters to a game like that?
  3. What would happen if there were no traffic/road rules? Write a scene where your character is caught up in the chaos.
  4. List all the organisations that have rules – the office, the church – and list the rules. Could you use any in your novel?
  5. Write about a character who lives according to his or her own rules or moral code. How do these cause conflict with society?
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘I’m influenced by the internal logic of the story, the page leaps and dream leaps I can make while writing.’ — Lincoln Michel

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, read:
  1. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 36: 3 Must-Have Scenes That Reveal Plot
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 35: 3 Must-Have Scenes That Reveal Character
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 34: Spring Cleaning

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

World-Building For Every Genre: The Ultimate Setting Checklist

Last week I discussed the importance of setting and what we can learn from sci-fi and fantasy writers about world-building. By following their guidelines, we can strengthen our setting and make our worlds more complete. 

Here is a checklist to get you started. Below the checklist are questions you might consider for each category. I tried to use examples that are not considered fantasy or sci-fi.

  1. Genealogy: How important is lineage in your story? If your heroine is a princess, her family tree will be well-mapped. If she is a street urchin no will know where she comes from? How does this affect her?  
  2. Work life: What do they do for a living? Are they assigned jobs in a socialist state, do they work in tall buildings for hours on end or do they sell flowers on the steps of the train station? Are they a cubicle-ninja or plough pusher on a farm? Everyone has to earn their keep. 
  3. Clothing: We know we’re not supposed to judge, but we do. What is your character wearing? Are they dressing the part or dressing above their means? Do they wear a uniform, like a soldier or a nun or do they twirl about a pole butt naked? Clothing, or the lack thereof, will tell us a lot about who your character is.  
  4. Food: If you set your story in space freeze dried, powdery nibbles will be the norm. If you set your story in Italy or France a juicy, sun-ripened tomato will feature somewhere. If your story is set during a drought or a food shortage, how does it affect the characters? And where do they shop? Grocery store, an organic food shop or do they harvest the carrots in their veggie patch? 
  5. Hygiene: How important is cleanliness in your story? Is it a super sterile environment or are you writing about a London with no sewage system and an abundance of rats. How do the surgeons operate? Do they have luxurious bathrooms or open plan showers in the school locker room? 
  6. Rituals and holidays: How we celebrate holidays and rituals shows a lot about a society and a person. Do they hate their birthday? Do they adore weddings, but shy away from baby showers? Think about how they feel about certain events. Mothers want their children close for holidays, but children don’t always want to hang out with drunken Uncle Arnold. 
  7. Technology: This is tricky, technology changes quickly. Facebook is almost second nature to us today, but five or 10 years ago it wasn’t. The same goes for cell phones. In the Eighties we memorised telephone numbers, if you take our phones away today we are lost, because can’t remember any numbers. 
  8. History: When you create a world you have to consider what happened before. The same goes for your story. What happened in the country before your story takes place? Is it set in post-World War Two Germany or during the great depression or just after these devastating events? 
  9. Religion: Are your characters religious or not? Is your story set in Orthodox Jewish environment or at a meditation retreat? A religious person would have different moral conflicts to someone who is not religious. 
  10. Language: Is your story set in your protagonist’s home country? Then language wouldn’t be a problem. They’d be a native, but if it’s set in a different country would multiple languages be a challenge? What kind of conflict would be caused by translation errors? 
  11. Gender roles: Does your story take place in a traditional gender setting or not? A female had only marriage prospects to consider a few years ago. Today they have many more options. This differs from country to country and culture to culture. 
  12. Family life and structure: Is your protagonist single, married or divorced? Do three generations live under one roof or have they not spoken to their parents in five years. 
  13. Procreation: How do they procreate? Out of love or duty? Back in the day they had sheets with holes in strategic places. Do they get to choose their own partners? 
  14. Politics: What is the political situation in the country you have set your story in? Is the political climate unstable and violent? 
  15. Education: How highly is education valued in your setting? Is literacy a right or a privilege reserved for the chosen few? Are books and reading an everyday thing? Is it in the Dark Ages where knowledge was controlled by the Church? 
  16. Geography: How does the terrain influence the story? Is it set on a tiny island or in a desert or in Antarctica? The rainfall, the amount of sunshine and duration of the seasons will influence transport and clothing. 
  17. Water and resources: A lack of resources can be enough to drive your whole plot. Is there enough water or too much? Is the food running out? What happens when a country runs out of space? What laws exist to ration food and supplies? 
I have left a few blank squares for you to add your own ideas. This will vary from story to story, but I hope it will help you shape your story to create a complete world.

Happy Writing! 

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. Please email news@writerswrite.co.za for more details.

 by Mia Botha

If you enjoyed this post, you will love:

  1. What Fantasy Writers Can Teach Us About Setting
  2. How To Convey Setting In Dialogue - Without Sounding Like A B&B Brochure
  3. 7 Simple Things To Remember About Setting


    Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

    What Fantasy Writers Can Teach Us About Setting

    World building is a word or term used mostly in the genres of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, but if you think about it, it is pretty apt for any story. You have a character who lives in a world. 

    If this world is real and on planet earth, it is easier, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend less time on your setting. You, as the writer, should still be able to transport me to a place I have never been.

    This image below is called I am building a world for you. The artist is Sam Brown, and you should check out his blog, ExplodingDog.Com. I love all his stuff. It is the closest I have ever come to describing the process of writing to anyone. Needless to say it is one of my favourite images of all time and it suits a blog post about setting and world building perfectly.

    We can learn a lot from the world creators about setting. We tend to skip the details, because everyone knows what Johannesburg or New York or London is like, right? Maybe we do, but we want to know what is radiant or unique about that setting for your character. Regardless of whether we’ve been there or not. 

    If you write historical or dystopian fiction you are playing with time. If you are writing about a place you have never been you are dabbling with geography. Historical facts and geographical settings can be researched, where sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian writers have to make them up. 

    How do they stay on track? 

    We all run the risk of falling in love with our research and creating something that reads more like a history textbook or a travel guide than a fiction novel. We don’t want that.

    Fantasy writers have to consider every part of their world to make it believable and we should do the same. They use different approaches, but the basics are similar. You can use a ‘top-to-bottom or bottom-up’ approach or an ‘outside-in or inside-out’ approach.

    Basically you start small and go big or you start big and go small.

    Start small:
    To start small, you start with character. Spend the day with your character, following them around. Do they press a button and have their breakfast printed by a 3D laser printer with added vitamins and emotional tracker pods? Do they have to milk the cow first or do they shake the cereal box and hear a few lost crumbs rolling around the bottom of the box. The time frame and setting of your novel will help you narrow down the options. How do they get to work? How do they interact with their colleagues? Who is the ruling political party? These little details will help to build a world. It serves as a starting point. Can you see how it starts small and goes bigger the further from their home they travel?
    Start big: 
    If you want to start big, think about the world first, and then figure out how your story fits in. In fantasy and Sci-Fi we often say the setting forces the plot. For example, the lack of oxygen in outer space, or the presence of magic or aliens, all influence your story and come from the setting. Now ask yourself, why have you chosen to set your story in Johannesburg or in New York? Think of Nicholas Sparks, he sets most of his stories in the American South. The characters he uses are typical of that area, the conflicts they experience are typical and unique (mostly) to that setting. You start big and go small, until you have character.

    Settings that fascinate me are often found in animation. The Tinkerbelle series is amazing. A complete world for tiny people. In The Legend of the NeverBeast the fairies were armed with porcupine quills. How cool?  Not to mention the flower petal dresses and acorn hats. (Source for image.) 

    Is your story set in a time of war? What are their weapons? Guns and cannons or lasers or porcupine quills? 

    I love Toy Story, for all the attention they paid to the bottom half of the room. The walls are scuffed, the tiny little finger prints everywhere. They thought of everything. If you are writing about kids, sit or go down to their level. What happens if you can’t see what is on top of the counter?  

    What part of the setting forces your plot?

    In the Sandra Bullock movie, The Proposal, a threatened change of setting (her American work permit is about to expire and she’ll be forced to go back to Canada) up-ends her life and she finds herself in Anchorage, Alaska. She and her Louis Vuitton suitcases must confront their fear of boats, a typical mode of transportation for that town. The waiter is also the stripper, which also apparently happens in small towns. The multiple employment scenario, not necessarily that all the waiters are strippers.

    There is a lot I did not enjoy about Stieg Larsson's trilogy, but one of the things I loved was the refreshing change of setting. I loved reading about the fjords and Strasse instead of another New York or London crime setting. There is nothing wrong with a London or New York setting, it was just cool to learn something new. I remember walking in Times Squares and Piccadilly Circus for the first time and it felt completely familiar, because I had been there before in books and movies.

    As a writer you can also use a familiar place to your advantage. Imagine walking in Times Square and it is completely deserted, the Blindspot series started with exactly that scenario. Or at the end of Planet of the Apes (2001), the Abraham Lincoln Statue. (source)

    Watch out for next week's checklist for setting that sci-fi writers use, which you will be able to use for any story you write regardless of genre. 

    If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. Please email news@writerswrite.co.za for more details.

     by Mia Botha

    If you enjoyed this post, you will love:

    1. How To Convey Setting In Dialogue - Without Sounding Like A B&B Brochure
    2. 7 Simple Things To Remember About Setting
    3. 7 Other Characters To Consider When You Write A Book


      Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

      7 Simple Things To Remember About Setting

      You have these awesome characters, a thrilling plot with an epic story goal, but where are they? You have to create a complete picture. If you don’t, you run the risk of alienating your reader. We will not believe you, because we need the backdrop. Think of watching a movie that takes place on a black screen. Not so much fun. 

      Basic elements of setting include: 
      1. Town, country or kingdom: Where does the story take place? This space can be as big or as small as you want to make it. In Room by Emma Donoghue, it starts off literally in one room. In the movie, Phone Booth, the character is stuck in a phone booth, in Locke the character is confined to his car. Other stories take place on continents or even in universes.
      2. Present, past or future: When does your story take place? If it takes place hundreds of years ago there were no phones or cars. The abovementioned movies would not be possible. How does technology, or the lack thereof, influence your story? Today in crime stories the cops use facial recognition software, a few years ago witnesses had to go through pages and pages of possible photos in big fat files.
      3. Ball gowns or bellbottoms: What era are they in? What were they wearing? A girl in a ball gown will find it harder to climb out the restroom window than a girl in a pair of bellbottoms. Consider their clothes. 
      4. The minutes, the hours, the days: This is the timeframe. What happened during that period of history? You can’t set your story in Europe in 1943 and ignore the war. The continent was almost crippled by death and destruction. Give it a Google and see what happened in your story's timeframe.
      5. Weather: Sandstorms, rain or even snow can be a blessing or a curse. For lovers being trapped in a cottage in the snow is heaven, for a mother stuck in a cabin with four kids during a snow storm, it is hellish.
      6. Walk like an Egyptian: What kind of culture are you dealing with? Super conservative or super liberal? What is frowned upon in this society? What is celebrated? What would make them go to war? How do they treat their woman, their elderly, their children, their pets?
      7. Geography: Africa, Asia or Antarctica? Does your protagonist need sunscreen, chopsticks or snow goggles? Are they dodging volcanoes or swimming in the sea? 

      Examples: Let’s use the example of marriage or a wedding. How do different settings influence a wedding?
      1. Town, country or kingdom: Does it take place in a grand, old church or in office down at the courthouse? As a rule, princesses don’t get married in courthouses and couples who get married on the spur of the moment don’t get married in big churches.  And then it depends on which country you choose to set your story in. What laws govern the marriage? Does the couple need to slaughter a lamb before the ceremony? Do they need to pay for a license? Do they need to have blood tests done? Do they have to ask their parents for permission? And then, whose opinion is more important, the mother or the father? Can they get divorced? 
      2. Present, past or future: Attitudes have changed; at least we like to think they have. In 1852 being unmarried at 25 was almost a sin, today it’s considered the average age for a bride. Marriage was the norm 50 years ago and divorce not as common. Today, it’s different. King Henry got divorced, got syphilis as a bonus and ruined his kingdom. King Edward VIII abdicated to marry the divorced Wallace Simpson. Prince Charles got divorced to marry Camilla Parker Bowles, but still has a shot at the throne. Our attitudes about marriage and divorce have changed. ‘When’ you set your story should reflect the attitudes of the times.
      3. Ball gowns or bellbottoms: What will the bride and groom be wearing? Do they attend the ceremony naked to express the purity of their love? Do the brides wear overpriced gowns to symbolise their virginity? Do they wear red dresses, or Jackie O suits? Is she wearing the dress the groom’s grandmother wore to her own wedding? 
      4. The minutes, the hours, the days: When does the wedding take place? In the morning when the groom is still hung over? Or at night, when it is dark and the groom is tricked into marrying the wrong girl because he can’t see her through her veil.  Is your story told before, after or during the ceremony? Is it a weekend wedding that has been planned for months or a quick ‘I do’ at the courthouse?
      5. Weather: Rain is supposed to bring good luck to the couple, but who looks good with wet, frizzy hair? Who loves a hot suit on a summer’s day? No one. That’s who. Does a hurricane postpone the wedding, allowing the true love to arrive in time to stop the ceremony? Is it so hot the flowers wilt and the cake melts before the guests reach the reception? Does the bride consider it a sign and back out?  
      6. Walk like an Egyptian: Cultures vary. Their thoughts on marriage even more so. Is it a matriarchal society? Does the man marry into the wife’s family to become her possession? Is it an arranged marriage? Is it a mail-order bride?
      7. Geography: What mountains lie between the lovers? What is keeping them apart? Is it distance like in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’? Are the lovers from warring kingdoms or are they strangers married two strengthen trade between two countries? 
      Consider each one of these aspects when you write. Creating setting is an art. Work hard to hone your skills. 

      Happy writing.

      If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. Please email news@writerswrite.co.za for more details.

       by Mia Botha

      If you enjoyed this post, you will love:

      1. 7 Other Characters To Consider When You Write A Book
      2. The Role Of The Love Interest In Fiction
      3. All My Friends Are Fictional


        Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

        Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 12: Time And Place

        Welcome to week 12 of Anthony Ehlers's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here.

        Goal setting
        1. Continue planning your scenes or chapters.
        2. Create a timeline for your story.
        Breaking it down

        Lining up time
        This week, as we start to wrap up the planning of our scenes, let us think about the role of time and place in our novels.

        Over what period of time does your story take place? Some sagas or historical novels can take place over decades or even centuries. Edward Rutherford’s novel, London, charts a story from 54 B.C.E to 1997. On the other end of the spectrum, a novel’s events can take place in a single day, like Saturday by Ian McEwan. Other novels, however, play with time and braid together the past and the present. In Patrick Gale’s Rough Music, the narrative tells of childhood and adulthood in alternating chapters.

        However, most novels will follow linear or chronological time. It’s a good idea to draw a timeline for your novel. Take a blank piece of paper and turn it landscape. On the far left end, write the date, season, or year your story starts — on the far right end, write when it finishes. In between, you can create ‘markers’ for the major events that happen during the course of the story.

        In my novel, I wanted a constrained period of time. In a thriller, you want things to happen quickly — and be over quickly too. I felt it should take place over just a few weeks, no more than a month and a half.

        Places in the now, places in the past
        ‘It’s no use going back to yesterday, I was a different person then,’ goes the famous quote from Alice in Wonderland.

        Just as people change, so do places. Just recently, I drove down a street I hadn’t been down in years and was surprised by how much had changed. But even if the places stay more or less the same, our relationship to, and feelings for, these places almost always changes.  Places are more than bricks and mortar: they’re about smells, tastes, sounds, emotion.

        In my novel, the beach house is just such a place for Jenna. It used to be her mother’s house and so she has all these nostalgic childhood memories of sea, family, love. It’s also the place where she and Matt, her boyfriend, go on weekends to escape the city. They’ve made their own memories of late morning breakfasts, surfing, walking on the beach, and laughing. When there is a break-in at the beach house, she feels her memories have been violated. Her place of refuge suddenly feels unsafe.

        Give some thought to the history of places in your book. Places are containers of memories, a place for memories to be made — there’s always a personal attachment to them, even if it’s hate or indifference.
        Reflecting an era
        I recently read a novel written, and set, in the early 70s. The descriptions of hippie culture in San Francisco and the magazine industry in New York added great colour to the story.

        What struck me is how naturally the characters were reflective of the time they lived in. The sexual revolution was in full swing — with just enough promiscuity and ‘free love’ to add some titillation. No one worried about AIDS, in fact they had a cavalier attitude to sex in general. Pregnant women drank champagne and smoked. (In fact, everyone smoked — even on aeroplanes.)

        The story was of a time and a place and, most important, of a type of character that could only exist in that time and that place. 

        This insight had me re-thinking of my own storyline with a mild sense of panic. Was having a threesome or an open relationship really something daring or edgy in the mid-2000s? Or was it already passé — something Cosmo covered ten years ago?

        To be honest, I’m not sure of the answer to that one. What I do know, or sense at least, is that relationships are being defined and even redefined in the world around us today — and perhaps that was something my book could reflect.

        Timelock — 2 to 4 hours

        2-3 hours for the planning of your scenes, sequences, or chapters.
        30 minutes / 1 hour for creating your timeline. 

        5 Quick Hacks
        1. Create a timeline for your character for what happens before the story starts: perhaps one that highlights their career milestones, or the birth order of their children, their criminal activities
        2. Describe a place or setting in your novel as if it’s a character. Perhaps the old apartment block is a ‘sour dowager forgotten after World War 2’, or the pub is a ‘rowdy and boisterous uncle always glad to see you.’
        3. Write about a secret place your character visits that no one else knows about.
        4. If you had to write an article about the culture of period in which your book is set, what would you include as the top 5 or 10 influences?
        5. What would your characters be wearing in the time your story is set? Are they in style? Or do they avoid current fads? Do they yearn for a different decade?
        Pin it, quote it, believe it:

        ‘It’s that commitment to place on the part of the writer that elevates what might be an ordinary scene in an ordinary place and makes it unforgettable.’ — Elizabeth George

        Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

         by Anthony Ehlers

        If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

        If you enjoyed this post, read:


        Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

        Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 10: Your Next Move

        Welcome to week 10 of Anthony Ehlers's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here.

        Goal setting
        1. Take a moment to decide what your next step is.
        2. Continue planning the scenes, sequences, or chapters of your novel.
        3. Find the ‘telling’ details in a scene or sequence. 
        Breaking it down

        One goal after another
        The goal is to finish our novel in a year. It’s what keeps us going. But, as I’ve found, a novel is sometimes like Alice dropping down the rabbit hole: it’s easy to get lost. Confused.

        Just to be writing, putting one word after another, isn’t enough. We must see the next step. We must have something to look forward to. The idea of the novel — the story, the idea of finishing it — must be exciting, and create a sense of anticipation. And while, as writers, we must have the next step in mind, so must our characters. They must also be moving forward: achieving one goal, setting a new goal, battling the obstacles.

        This week wasn’t a great one for me: battling a bad chest infection, moving house - it just seemed like one blur. I couldn’t see the next step clearly in my life, my career and, to be honest, I didn’t even think about my novel. I wasn’t paying attention. My life was reduced to unpacked boxes, mild panic, and antibiotics.

        Then, this morning, driving to work before the sun came up, I saw the city lit up in the distance, the headlights of the cars on the highway. And I realised that everyone had ‘somewhere to be’ — they were going places. 

        Where are you going as a writer? Where are your characters going? Take a few minutes today — right now, in fact — to decide what the next step is your story. Write it down. Be clear about what you need to do today.
        Planning a sequence
        I just finished Nora Roberts’s entertaining romantic suspense novel, The Collector.  Her books are always page-turners and, while reflecting on it, I realised that she creates a great ‘flow’ in her novels — you never see the seams, she carries the reader from scene to scene.

        Last week we spoke about summarising each scene or chapter in your novel. We will continue with these summaries this week. But if you’re struggling to do this, or if it seems a bit ‘choppy’ or staccato, try to think of a sequence.

        A sequence is a grouping of scenes between your bigger plot points. You can plan a sequence according to a setting, period of time, character, or theme.  Often a sequence has to answer a plot question.

        For example, in The Collector, Lila, the main character, witnesses a shocking murder in the first chapter. It’s a great hook. Soon after, Lila meets Ashton, the victim’s brother, and decides to help him discover why his brother was murdered. This question — Why was his brother killed? — makes up one of her earlier sequences. The sequence ends when she and Ashton find a safety deposit box containing the first major clue to a possible motive for the killing.

        And just as each scene has a beginning, middle, and end — so does a sequence.  In The Collector, the beginning is when Ash convinces Lila that his brother died because of a bad business deal. The middle is when Ash discovers a letter his brother sent him. The end is when Ash reveals to Lila the contents of the safety deposit box.
        Jacqueline Kennedy

        Persistent vision
        Persistent vision is an image that stays imprinted on your mind for a while after it’s no longer there. Have you ever read a book or seen a movie and an image or two stays in your mind long after you’ve finished it? What made that image or those moments stand out for you? How can you recreate the same for your own novel?

        I’m reading Just Jackie, Edward Stein’s biography on Jackie Kennedy Onassis. To show the grief and devastation of her family, Stein creates some vivid scenes that rouse emotions without mawkish sentimentalism. A few days after the funeral of JFK, Jackie comes down to breakfast at their beach home. The table is set for three rather than four. She looks out the window and sees her young daughter sitting alone on a sand dune, looking out at the colourless horizon of the bleak cold day. She remembers the innocent game her husband used to play with her daughter — about a shark that used to eat socks.

        These moments had more emotional resonance than if the author had merely told us that Jackie was sad and her children bereft. Stein, even in non-fiction, is showing not telling.

        In my novel, I realised that I could use the weather, to reflect mood and emotion. I wanted to establish Monty, the young man who becomes involved with Jenna and Matt, as young, vulnerable, innocent: so I created a small scene: he is naked, drinking milk in their moon-blanched kitchen.

        In another scene, Jenna, my main character, looks out at a mist-shrouded Table Mountain the morning after their encounter with Monty — which could highlight her sense of confusion. Sometimes when you find those ‘visual moments’ — you get to understand your characters, and your story, better.
        Timelock — 2.5 to 4 hours

        2-3 hours on planning your scenes, sequences, or chapters
        30 minutes – 1 hour on creating visual images or ‘telling moments’ 

        5 Quick Hacks
        1. Create a small diary or journal where you can write down your emotions as you write – the small triumphs, the bad moments, etc.
        2. What are the questions do you think you readers want answered in the story? What questions do you want answered?
        3. Look through magazines or Pinterest for images that could stimulate you. Do you have a favourite photographer? Who is it? Why do you love them?
        4. What were your characters’ favourite childhood games?
        5. Take some time off to talk to a friend or a fellow writer if you feel the pressure set in.
        Pin it, quote it, believe it:

        ‘It’s always your next step.’ — Napoleon Hill

        Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

         by Anthony Ehlers

        If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

        If you enjoyed this post, read:


        Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

        Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 2: Finding Your Red, Yellow, And Blue

        Welcome to week 2 of Anthony Ehlers's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read the first instalment of the series here,

        Goal setting
        1. Write a working synopsis
        2. Create character thumbnails
        3. Explore setting
        Breaking it down

        What’s your Gatsby moment?
        On the weekend, I watched Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby again. After watching it, I decided I had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel from start to finish in one setting. What struck me was that there are only a dozen or so key scenes in the book. From the awkward dinner in East Egg and the first fabulous party at Gatsby’s place, right through to the rainy cemetery scene in the last few pages, the author doesn’t create a single extraneous scene.

        Yes, it’s a short novel, but it’s an unassailably complete novel, with complex characters and a deceptively simple plot. Now I don’t know if Fitzgerald worked from a synopsis or if the story sprung fully formed from his genius, but it proves that a strong plot, however simple, is the spine of a novel. It took a lot of the fear out of plotting for me. (Of course, I understand I’ll never write a book as perfect as The Great Gatsby — but this year is all about letting go of perfection, isn’t it?)

        In the past, I’ve made two mistakes when it comes to writing a synopsis. The first is to write the synopsis after the novel was complete and finding, with crushing humiliation, every gaping plot hole. And the second was writing the synopsis first. Writing it so rigidly and so perfectly up front, that there was absolutely no room for plot or characters to breathe. This time round, I’ve decided to create a working synopsis. Not a pointillist portrait but a rudimentary pencil sketch. This synopsis, I should point out, is not the same as the synopsis you’ll write for an editor when you’re ready to submit your novel — it’s for your eyes only.  What do you want to tell yourself about your story? Take a deep breath. Write it down.

        When I wrote my working synopsis, at white-hot speed, I was surprised at how much I got down. I already knew the inciting moment from Week 1 — and I went with my gut about what could happen after that. Yes, the middle is still a bit vague and messy, but at least the story is no longer nebulous. It has momentum. The best part is that I have some great options for how the story could end.  What does your synopsis look like?
        Who’s your boy on the beach?
        I’ve mentioned the mistakes I made when it comes to writing a synopsis. Another mistake I’ve made is around developing characters. Often I’d spend days — or weeks! — developing detailed character portraits only to find they don’t serve the plot.

        There’s a lot of debate around what comes first: plot or characters? There’s an argument that you can’t always separate the two and, to a degree, this is true.  Before you start fleshing out characters, it’s important to keep in mind that they have to play a part in the story and this is their primary function. At this early stage of the process, you really just need thumbnail descriptions for a handful of characters.

        I just concentrated on the main cast of characters — and these characters were suggested to me by the synopsis. In a rudimentary way, I’m just using them to drive the story forward as much as possible.  What I’ve done is create a paragraph or two on five characters — just jotting down whatever comes to mind about them. Yes, there are a few gaps in the characterisation but that’s fine too; a lot will change before I start writing in earnest.

        Another favourite book I’m re-reading this week is The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. She got the idea for her famous anti-hero, Tom Ripley, while watching a lonely young man walking on a beach in Italy.

        The antagonist in my story came to me in a similar vague and insidious way. A few months back, I was at a party and I noticed a young man with grey eyes, wearing a soft leather jacket, hanging back from the rest of the group. He didn’t say much and seemed isolated from the crowd. It was his mystery — real or imagined — that intrigued me. He’d been lurking in the corners of my imagination and, as soon as I started working on this book, he seemed the perfect choice of character to upset my main characters’ lives.  Who sparked the idea for a main character in your book?
        Where will it all happen?
        If plot and setting are the two fundamentals to your novel, then setting is definitely a third. Think of these three elements — plot, character, setting — as the primary colours on your palette. They’re all you really need to ‘paint’ your novel.

        This week we need to think a little bit about setting. I know my novel will take place in Cape Town. It’s one of my favourite places to visit and, because I know the city reasonably well, it was easy to imagine it in my mind. I just jotted down some ideas for locations I could use in the story and, again, the synopsis suggested them. No story happens in a vacuum. Where would my characters live? Work? Play?  

        What you could do, if you wanted, is collect pictures from magazines or start a new board on Pinterest. You could also think back on familiar places or interesting cities you’ve visited if you’re struggling to find an ideal setting. How important do you think setting is in a novel?
        Timelock — 3-4 hours

        This week, I spent the following time on the novel, but you can adjust depending on the type of novel you’re writing or its length:
        • Two hours for the synopsis
        • One hour for the character thumbnails
        • 30 minutes - one hour for setting
        5 Quick Hacks
        1. Re-read a favourite novel and try to break down the plot into key scenes only
        2. Use placeholder names for your characters if you haven’t decided on a name or simply identify them by their function — so maybe Scary Mother-in-Law, Gorgeous Businessman, and so on.
        3. For characters, focus on basic physical descriptions, a few lines on their occupation and background, and what drives them.
        4. A good idea is to ask: What secrets is this character keeping?
        5. Make a list of the places your character would hang out if he or she had a day off.
        Pin it, quote it, believe it:

        ‘You are much more likely to depict a character who is a recognisable human being, with his own individuality, if you have a living model. The imagination can create nothing out of the void.’  ~Somerset Maugham.

        Look out for the third instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year next week. 

        Writing prompts are an excellent way to exercise the writing muscle. If you want to receive a free daily prompt from us, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za with the word DAILY PROMPT in the subject line. We will add you to our mailing list. 

         by Anthony Ehlers

        If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.

        If you enjoyed this post, read:


        Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

        Wherever I Lay My Hat - How Setting Affects Your Characters

        We may all be unique snowflakes, with our own little DNA stamps, shining our brilliance on the world. But that’s only part of it. We are also shaped by when we are born, where we are born, our socio-economic status, and the people who do or do not love us. 

        I recently wrote about how you can use setting to advance your plot. In this post, I want to talk about how settings have shaped and continue to shape our characters. 

        Five Ways Setting Affects Your Characters 
        1. Certain characters will always be found in certain settings. It is true that people tend to group with others who are most like them. For example, wealthy, snobbish, status-conscious people will populate the tables of a new five-star restaurant. People who need to make money will serve them. 
        2. Settings shape your character. Where people come from shows us how they will act in these settings. For example, if your rich customers in the restaurant were born in a stylish home in the city, they will probably feel at home. If the customers were born in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood and made their money winning the lottery, they will probably feel out of place. As William Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead. It's not even past.’
        3. Settings can change your character. Being forced out of comfort zones into new places for extended periods of time will probably change your characters. Humans resist change. If you shift the boundaries, your character has to act, react and adapt. Petronella Oortman is completely out of her depth in The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. It is 1686 and the country girl arrives to become mistress of a luxurious home in bustling Amsterdam. She has to change to survive.
        4. Settings can set your character apart. Characters who come from an unusual place will always be perceived as different, whether they are different or not. A person who grew up on an island without access to the Internet will be different when he or she sets foot in the city. A city slicker will be viewed as odd by the island inhabitants. Dr Joel Fleischman, a New Yorker is the outsider when he arrives in Cicely, Alaska in the TV series Northern Exposure.
        5. Setting as a character. Sometimes a city or a house or a room can be so integral to a story that it becomes as real as any of the characters. Ian Rankin uses Edinburgh to menace, to hinder and to help the characters in his Rebus series. Emma Donoghue uses the room in Room as the place that both protects and imprisons Jack and his mother. 
        Never underestimate the way in which you can define your characters by the places they have been and where they end up. 

        If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

         by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

        © Amanda Patterson 

        If you enjoyed this post, read:


        Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

        5 Ways To Use Setting To Advance A Plot

        Setting is defined as the physical location and time of a story. It acts as a story’s backbone. Nobody exists in a vacuum. We all do things somewhere. Setting includes the basic surroundings, the era, or the moment the story occupies, and it often has its own personality.

        Once we identify our setting, we must flesh it out with sensory detail. The senses allow us to set moods, evoke feelings and trigger memories. 

        Setting details include:
        1. Place. Where does the story take place? This could be a planet, a country, a city, a building, a forest, a ship, a spaceship, an island, or one room in a house. 
        2. Culture. How do laws, taboos, social mores, politics, sport, religious practices, education, wars, and technology set the scene?
        3. Era. When does your story happen? During the violence of the anti-apartheid riots of the ‘70s and ‘80s? When the first white settlers arrived in the Cape of Good Hope in the 1650s?
        4. Geography. Mountains, desserts, volcanoes, farmland, vegetation, animals, oceans, lakes and seas all colour the background.
        5. Things. These include pets, possessions, items in shops, landmarks, road signs – anything your character is able to touch, see, hear, smell or taste.
        6. Time. This could be an hour, a day, a season, a year, or a lifetime. 
        7. Weather. Rain, drought, fog, snow, sunshine, high or low temperatures, storms – all of these affect your story.
        While it is obvious that setting adds layers to our story, provides the framework for the story, and affects our characters, we often overlook the role setting can have in moving a plot forward. Writers do this by using the ‘change factor’. Human beings don’t like change. Change takes us out of our comfort zones and our primary comfort zone is our environment.

        Five ways to use setting to shift the plot
        1. Reveal something that was previously hidden. The beautiful mountains behind a town might not be as stable as everyone thinks. An unspoilt park becomes a nightmare when the family walking their dog find a dislodged sign that says ‘Keep Out. Venomous Snakes.’
        2. Create an outside threat to the environment. You can do this with weather. A bad storm could prevent a character from achieving a goal. You can do this with religion. A cult may have set up its headquarters in the area, forever changing the town. You can do this with technology. A technical error could shut down the electricity supply to hotel.
        3. Remove possessions or pets. If a character loses something or has something stolen, it will affect the environment. The loss of an animal changes the setting completely. 
        4. Changes in society. A change in attitudes, laws, or politics could alter a setting. The location of a business that depends on a law being passed may be destroyed when it isn’t. 
        5. Move your character into an alien environment. You could move the character out of her family home into a studio apartment or she could simply take the wrong train home.
        Changes in setting do not have to be pivotal to the plot, but they can help an author who wants to advance a story without using direct confrontations with other characters to do so.

        If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

         by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

        © Amanda Patterson

        If you enjoyed this post, read:


        Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

        Setting - Are we there yet?

        So often setting is overlooked by writers, when in fact it’s a wonderful colour to add to your storytelling palette. 

        Environment shapes character, informs plot and adds mood to your story. From the moral and religious background of your characters, to changing morals and weather, all of these form a crucible to forge out your narrative.

        1. Plot

        A blinding snow storm can hamper a search for a missing child. A long-held belief could prevent a woman from signing a medical release that could save her husband’s life. An impoverished country’s lack of infrastructure could help the spread of a deadly virus. You just have to scan the news to see how the world we live in changes radically every day—these changes could spark a topical new story.

        Try this: Put your characters in a car going to a wedding. List at least 10 obstacles that could stop the car from reaching its destination.

        2. Character

        Imagine a spoiled socialite forced to look after three young children. The domestic setting will be alien to her and she’ll have to learn all sorts of new rules—no pushing a stroller in stilettos for her. Or a corporate jet plunges into the Amazon and the businessmen have to learn how to survive a different jungle.

        Try this: List all the rituals, like going to the corner shop or church that shaped your childhood in your hometown. How can you use this in a story?

        3. Mood

        If you wanted to create a sense of duality or contrast in your story, you could artfully use the setting to illustrate this. Say the hero’s girlfriend has just broken up with him. Why not put him in his darkened home while New Year’s fireworks explode and paint every window?

        Try this: Take a scene from your book.  Imagine you are a painter and need to colour this scene. Is it bluesy, smoke-filled sad? Or is it sun-filled, bright and hopeful?

        When teaching Writers Write, delegates are encouraged to think of setting as a watermark that hovers in the background of every page. It adds something to your story—don’t ignore it.

        If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

             by Anthony Ehlers

            If you enjoyed this post, read:
            1. Five Ways to Make Description Work in Your Novel
            2. Five Lifelines for Writers with Deadlines
            3. The Plot Maker - Create a rom com storyline in five easy steps
            4. Dire Consequences - How to get your characters into trouble
            Anthony Ehlers is an author, a ghost writer, a screenwriter and a brilliant writing teacher. He also has more than 10 years’ experience in copywriting, magazine journalism, public relations and strategic communications. Visit Anthony’s LinkedIn Profile . Follow Anthony on Twitter and Facebook


            Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

            Writers Write - Write to communicate