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Friday, 17 April 2020

Making Sense of it all

When planning your stories, consider what sort of emotion you are trying to get your readers to feel. For example, in a thriller or crime story you might want to generate a foreboding mood through your writing. This might be achieved by dropping in little hints of troubles to come; or creating darker scenes through your narrative. Dialogue could include a character's worries and concerns; you might pile on the layers of difficulties to add to that overall sense of foreboding through your description, narrative and dialogue.

The same applies if you're trying to create a sense of intrigue and mystery. Let everything you write go towards that mood and atmosphere. Or perhaps you're writing about the grandeur of something, a royal palace, a sumptuous banquet, so you want to create a sense of occasion. Again, build up the atmosphere through description, using all the senses.

Maybe you're trying to write something humorous. You'll definitely be hoping your readers will have a sense of humour and will see the funny side of what your characters are saying and doing. You'll no doubt find that the characters themselves aren't deliberately trying to be funny. The humour often happens through their tragic circumstances, as things go wrong for them. 

So, think carefully about the mood and atmosphere in your scenes, know what sort of 'sense' you're trying to get across to readers. Keep that in focus as you write your stories.

Common sense

Unless you're writing about a Frank Spencer or Homer Simpson type of character, then your characters should be blessed with a bit of common sense. So that in any given situation, they would use their common sense. And this is worth remembering if you're not going to irritate your reader. For example, your character might be facing some sort of emotional or physical conflict that could be easily sorted if they just used their common sense.

Try not to let your plot become contrived – if a character's difficulties could all be overcome if they'd just used their common sense. For example, all would have been sorted if they’d spoken to Uncle George, or opened the letter, or said they were sorry etc. It’s so annoying for the reader when the character doesn’t do the obvious.

If it would ruin your plot for them not to act in the most obvious way, then be sure you have a very good reason for them not to have acted as any normal person would.  Otherwise readers and editors with be groaning with frustration. Look at your plot and make sure your characters do the obvious. It might mean you thinking a lot harder about the conflict facing them, and their situation.

Sensing when it’s right

As writers, we have to use our senses too, especially when trying to work out whether we've got a piece of writing right, or whether there's something wrong with it.  Far better to sense that it's not right and then to work on improving it, rather than thinking it's great – when it's not.

So how do you do that?  I can only say that it comes with practice and with learning. Writing is a craft that you can learn. If you don't bother learning the rules of grammar, punctuation, viewpoint, the tenses, adverbs, dialogue etc., then you won't be able to see your mistakes. Additionally, it’s so important to read. You learn by reading and seeing how other writers create their magic.

But even if you've done all that, you still need to develop a sense of knowing whether your work is finally as good as you can get it – or not. This comes with edits. You need to go over and over your work, tweaking, re-arranging, re-phrasing, reading it aloud, listening to the euphony of every sentence, listening for repetitions. Look out for bad writing habits. Know when something jars. Have a keen ear and listen to anything that doesn't sit quite right.

If you're looking to create a tear-jerking scene, it should bring tears to your eyes. If you're creating a dramatic scene, then you should feel anxious as you read it. If you're creating a humorous scene, it should at least bring a smile to your face, no matter how many times you go over it.

Be critical of your own work, but not to the extent that you're never happy with it, or you lose confidence in your abilities as a writer. Develop that sense of knowing when something isn't right, but also develop the sense to know when it's well written. Learn to trust your own senses.

Narrative in brief

  • Always aim to keep the reader reading. Don’t make it easy for them to put your book down, or to put your short story aside before finishing it.

  • Don’t let there be a let up from the action. When one trouble is over another one is just beginning.

  • When the action isn’t so dramatic or intense, consider using a transition to move the story forward. Also, feed the reader with tasty little morsels or hints of the drama to come.

  • Plot and plan your story scene-by-scene, or by chapters so action and/or emotion rises to a crescendo at the end of that scene/chapter. Stop at a point where the reader is desperate to know what’s coming next.

  • Don’t be afraid to use cliff-hangers. Let your protagonist be in some sort of predicament – emotionally, physically or both.

  • If you have more than one viewpoint character, make them as interesting as each other.

  • If a section is feeling even slightly long winded or tedious to you, shorten it, either in content or in the sentence structure. Or consider whether it’s even necessary. Make every word count.

  • When describing people and places and things, pick out the most poignant aspects. Always tell the reader something they didn’t know.  

  • Create characters that the reader will be interested in.

  • Use good dialogue to move the story forward. Let characters say how they are feeling.

  • Hint at troubles to come though the narrative and the dialogue.

  • Adjust punctuation. You can create tension through your punctuation. Add a more breathless feel to a section by deliberately shortening the sentences.

  • Occasionally highlight poignant words, phrases or thoughts in italics.

  • Always use the senses. Let the reader see, hear, feel, smell, touch and taste everything the character experiences.

  • When you want to ‘up’ the tempo of your story, let there be a deliberate switch, something happening in the story that changes everything.

  • Plan scenes to give a ‘calm before the storm’ type of feel.

  • Make good use of the weather and environment to add drama and atmosphere.

  • Show don’t tell: Don’t say a character is afraid/happy/excited etc, show it by how they behave and what they say, do and think.

  • Read aloud. You may find that adjusting the punctuation and re-phrasing may turn something mundane into something dramatic.

Exercise 1

As an exercise think of an object. Now describe it using the relevant senses i.e. what you might see when looking at it; what sounds it might make; what it tastes like; what it feels like; what it smells like. Ask a friend or relative to try and guess what you have described. Repeat the exercise until you are bored (or your friend is).

Tomorrow:  Editing your work.

Thank you Rob Tysall, Tysall's Photography for the image. This was taken at the Nuneaton & Warwickshire Wildlife Sanctuary.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Keep the reader reading


Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel the outcome is the same – you want the reader to be so captivated by your words they can’t put your story down until they’ve reached the very end. So, keeping hold of the reader’s interest is something that needs to be worked on. And there are lots of little ploys that can be woven into your fiction that help to do just that.

Firstly however, you must have a good story, believable characters, realistic dialogue, a gripping flawless plot, written without superfluous words and continually moving forward with vocabulary that’s a pleasure to read. And then you can start to be a bit crafty!

When I’ve found a good book that keeps me reading, it’s often because there’s no let up from the action, the protagonist hasn’t resolved their troubles. Before one problem is solved another is just beginning. Be sure to have things happening in your story, don’t allow it to become stale or slow.

Be guided by your own judgement. If a section you’re writing feels even slightly long winded or tedious to you, then look to shorten it, either in content or in the sentence structure. Or consider whether it’s even necessary.

Of course, you don’t want every sentence and scene to be high drama, but when the action isn’t so dramatic or intense, then feed the reader with tasty little morsels or hints of the drama to come. You can do this either through narrative or dialogue. For example, this snippet of dialogue foretells trouble: “We can’t go there, haven’t you heard the legend?”

Or a little narrative to sow the seed of more drama to come: She put the creaking of upstairs floorboards down to the house settling for the night.

The occasional repetition of a word or a poignant phrase can work well to keep the reader on board. A word or phrase they’ve heard before in the story, but then said in a different context can be effective.

In The Beast, when the strange old Scotsman tells Grant and Amanda to “Beware the Beastie” they find it hilarious. But later in the story, when they sense something stalking them, the old man’s words, “Beware the Beastie” take on a far more sinister meaning.

And look at punctuation and sentence length. Short punchy sentences can give a breathless effect to a scene. Likewise, with dialogue, you can really create drama and mood through your characters’ conversations.

Still with The Beast, the valley where Grant and Amanda are camping is reputed to be haunted and early one morning:

    “You must be able to hear it. Listen, Grant. It’s coming from the valley.”
   “What is? I can’t hear a thing.”
   Amanda swung round to face him, her frown heavy over her eyes. “Are you deaf or what? There are people coming this way…I can hear an enormous crowd of people heading right toward us. And horses, can’t you hear the hoof beats? Can’t you feel the vibrations through the ground?”
   Grant slowly shook his head. “Manda, it’s as silent as the grave out here.”
   “Shouting! They’re shouting now!” She gripped his arm. “And screaming.” Her voice rose. “Can’t you hear those screams, those horrible shrieks? Like…like people killing each other.”
   Grant put his arm around her. “We’d better go and get Mum.”
   “What’s happening, Grant? What’s happening to me?”

It might be a cliché but remembering the calm before storm can certainly work when pacing your story. When you have a tense scene about to happen, ensure that the scene before is the complete opposite. Trust/betrayal; love/hate; tranquility/chaos etc. So, when the drama happens it has more impact because of what’s just gone on.

Another little ploy when you want to ‘up’ the tempo of your story, is to create a change – perhaps in the environment your character finds themselves in; or a change in the weather; or a change in the atmosphere in some way. Have something happening which triggers that switch.


One sure way of increasing the tension and the dramatic high spot is by having cliff-hangers. Plan your scenes so that the most dramatic spot can come at a point where you can break off for a new chapter. Build each scene up to its most exciting point – then stop. Perhaps your character is left in a tricky position emotionally or physically.

A new chapter may provide fresh momentum, or you may keep your reader hanging on in suspense while you deal with another thread of your story. Maybe that too can be brought to boiling point. You could be like a juggler spinning plates, precarious yet balanced so perfectly with you in control.

Read aloud

And finally, if you want the readers to keep reading, then read your work yourself – out loud. By doing so, you’ll hear the euphony of your sentences and phrasing. You’ll get a good ear for how it should sound and how it does sound. Awkward sentences may only need a word taken out or putting in, or a slight alteration of the punctuation. Read aloud and only pause where you’ve indicated a pause with a punctuation mark. The smallest little tweak to a sentence can make all the difference.

So, go through your story and see if by re-phrasing certain sections you can add to the atmosphere or build tension. See if you can create little ploys of your own – barely noticeable things which only register in the reader’s subconscious. Occasional words in italics for example, or the repetition of a word or sentence that turns it into something poignant or sinister. Could you subtly hint that disaster is soon to befall the character? Could there be a recurring thought, word or phrase that jabs at your character when things are getting tricky? Experiment with your writing and see what works and what doesn’t.

Today’s Exercise:
Write two scenes where it's the calm before the storm, e.g. trust/betrayal, joy/misery. read aloud and try to improve your work so it has more impact.

Tomorrow: Making Sense of it all.

Opening photo is of my good friend, writer Karen King and I running a writing workshop.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

When and how to use transitions and flashbacks

In writing fiction there are a number of little ploys that you can use to move your story forwards or to explain the back story.  Sometimes you’ll need to move your story on, either from place to place, or from one time of day to a later time, or from one particular day to some time in the future. It may even be that your character needs to move emotionally forwards. If nothing important in happening in the story during these time spans, then you can use a transition.

Handling transitions

A transition might only be a few words, or it could be a number of sentences. You might need a transition to bridge a highly dramatic scene when the character needs time to think before moving on to a scene with a totally different atmosphere. Your one or two sentences can move your story on an hour, a week, a year; or from the highlands of Scotland to a beach in the Bahamas.

In time transitions, you could use simple phrases, such as:
The following morning…
That evening…
A week later…
At the end of the week…

Here are a few transitions where there is a change of scene:
Some miles away…
In the train on the way back…
Thick snow had fallen overnight…
The drive to the hospital was agonising...

A transition should be simple and swift with the objective of getting from here to there quickly and smoothly, so that you can get on with the story. And you would put that transition at the start of a new scene or a new chapter. After the transition, you get straight back into the heart of the story, writing through the protagonist or viewpoint character’s eyes and emotions.

It’s very important however that you don’t cheat the reader by using a transition to get you through a scene that might be difficult to write. And if important things are happening during that time span, then don’t use a transition and then reported speech. That’s another cop out!
If things are happening in your story, the reader needs to see and experience them. Use transitions only when nothing of importance is happening.


If it is necessary to show something that happened in the character’s past, which motivates and affects the characters actions, emotions and attitude towards something currently in your story, this is called a flashback. Note that I’ve said if it’s necessary. Avoid putting in flashbacks just for the sake of them. They are there for a purpose, be selective of where and why you write in a flashback, and make sure the scene from the past that you choose, reflects why the character is behaving the way they are today.

To handle a flashback so it does not confuse the reader or bring the present action to a grinding halt, the author needs to write it with care. It does not have to come in one big scene, it can be effective to weave fragments of flashbacks into the action and dialogue of your story, so the reader glimpses bits of a tantalising past.

If your flashback needs to be a complete scene or a number of scenes, then find a way of framing this section between the present action, both before and afterwards, so there is no doubt in the reader’s mind when they are leaving the present to go into the past, and when they are leaving the past to return to the present.

A change in the tense is important. If you’re writing in the past tense, when the viewpoint character is reminded of something that sets their thought drifting back, change the past tense to the past perfect: had been. Continue to use that ‘had’ for perhaps another sentence or two, to establish that we’re now in a flashback. Then phase the ‘hads’ out and write normally. When the flashback scene is coming to an end, you could slip a ‘had’ back in again, reminding the reader it had been a flashback, and bring the story back to the present. Or putting in the word ‘now’ can establish we’re back.

Here’s an (abridged) example of a flashback scene taken from my award-winning children’s book, The Beast.

Karbel (the beast) is a ghost and he’s suddenly remembering the day he died. Killed (he believes) by one of the main characters in the story.

   It was him!
   Karbel’s yellow eyes became slits of hatred.
   In a flash, Karbel recalled that fateful day. His final day. A day which could never be erased from his memory.
    It had been a long, bitter winter, millennia ago. Snow was up to his belly and he was hungry. In the valley there had been a human settlement which normally Karbel kept well away from, but that winter hunger forced him to venture near. It would be easy picking to snatch a human’s baby offspring.
   Hunger drove him into the settlement
(the rest of the scene is written in normal past tense up to the point of the boy saving his baby sister and killing the beast)
…the boy thrust the dagger clean into the beast’s heart. Karbel’s spirit was ejected violently from his mortal body and he witnessed his own lifeless, bleeding carcass drop into the snow.
    The face of the boy without fear was etched into his soul. And now, as Karbel looked down into the valley he saw that same face. Recognised that same fearless spirit…

And on we go with the story. The flashback scene is neatly ‘sandwiched’, and the flashback was vital as there was no other way to show that Karbel believes the boy killed him and is now back to take his soul. And that leads to the whole book’s premise of Karbel going after the boy.

So, if you need to write a flashback, be bold about it. Sandwich it neatly between the point in the story when the character is reacting to something from their past. Change the tense, use those ‘had beens’ or similar phrasing. Show what happened, and then get back to the story, neatly and confidently.

An alternative, if your flashback is a short scene, it could be revealed through dialogue. Simply have two characters talking and one telling the other about a past event.

If the flashback scene involves characters from the past in conversation, be very careful that the whole thing does not get confused.

And if you find you are writing most of your story as a flashback, then possibly you have started your story in the wrong place at the wrong time. A re-think might be necessary. In short stories however, this can work effectively, especially if you are looking for a twist in the tail ending. As when you return to the present towards the end of your story, you can reveal something surprising yet believable.

Today’s Exercises:
·         Practice writing transitions. Link them up with some impromptu ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenes. These are just ‘throwaway’ scenes to practice this exercise.

·         Practice writing a flashback. If you haven’t got anything suitable in your work, use this scenario: Your character is starting a new job, only to discover that a colleague is someone they had a massive fall out with. Begin writing by showing the character starting their job, then the shock upon seeing someone, and then the flashback showing that unhappy scene. Then back to face the present.

Tomorrow: Keep the Reader Reading.

Thank you Rob Tysall, Tysall's Photograohy, for the lead photo. This was from an article we did on the British Motor Museum at Gaydon.