#Writing an Engaging #Story: #Character, #Plot & #Conflict

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I am in the middle of writing a new book, as well as reshaping this blog site to a good standard like the one I had before, hence I’m updating some of my previously published blogs. Today’s post is to remind me and fellow writers what makes a story engaging. For me, the key elements of good story-telling include: unforgettable characters, conflicts between them (good vs bad, but not necessarily exclusively so, as often good people fight each other too!), and gripping plot lines.

Building Characters – Strong and Unique Protagonist/Antagonist

A great book usually introduce the main character(s) early on, and they will form the artery of the book. Good characters have believable motives, actions and relationships, and whatever they do or say should be credible. Well-rounded characters are more likely to engage readers, hooking them to what is happening in the book, absorbing their attention from beginning to the end.

Great characters live on, like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Tess from Thomas Hardy, Anna Karenina of Tolstoy and Salander by Stieg Larsson. There are many examples of memorable characters – I believe that is one of the reasons why these books are widely read and become literary classics.

Allow me a moment of self praise and boasting ;-). I think the protagonist of my trilogy “Journey to the West”, Pearl Zhang, is a great character. Some of my readers agree. Donna Carrick, a Canadian writer, reviewed my debut The Same Moon: “I found this to be a wonderfully-rendered character study. I gave this book 5 stars for honesty, the development of a compelling character, the depth of cultural understanding the author brings to bear and the compassion and generosity evident in each step of Pearl’s long journey toward self-actualisation.”

How do we create and build characters that are strong and unique? In every day life, we meet people of different kinds, some come and go, without leaving a dent in our memory, while others make an imprint, forever remembered. What are the characteristics that make them unforgettable? The way they look, walk, talk, or act? Something about them, perhaps their persona, their personality, or a simple gesture? It could be something in their past, or an endearing/disgusting habit of sorts, the kind of impressions that either attract or repel us.

Another element of building characters are through the relationships. Strong emotions like love, or hatred, must be clearly demonstrated in a book. It is often through the interactions between characters that make them come alive through the pages.

Plot & Conflicts

Apart from building characters, writers need to have a credible plot, or several plot lines. Decisions have to be made as to what is important in the story and why.

When I began my first book The Same Moon, I did not intentionally “construct” a plot – I have had the idea of re-telling the story of a woman’s life, her journey from a country in the East to a country in the West. In a sense, it was an easy plot for me. All I needed to do was to decide which parts of her life were significant to be included, and which parts were best left out. Numerous decisions had to be made, from conception to conclusion. For instance, where do I begin? which are the highlights? what kind of conflicts between the characters need to be told, or better still shown?

Writers are faced with questions all the time. We ask ourselves: are our characters believable? Are their actions credible? Do I care about them? Will my readers care about them?

Books do not need too large a number of characters, and in fact, too many characters will distract from the theme and interrupt the flow of the story. So a good start of plotting is to condense the actions of minor players whenever possible. Again, focus on creating strong, unique main characters and focus on their actions and situations involving them.

Be it a film, or a book of fiction, it is essential to have conflict or conflicts. All successful films have a ‘crisis of confidence’ somewhere in the story, even a cosy romantic story. Conflicts should be introduced at a proper time and move the story along. Without conflicts, stories will be bland at best, and most likely unworthy of being told.

Great writers create tension and maintain it throughout the book. Tensions/conflicts built in the plot are what engage readers and make the story-telling compelling.

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Writing, not unlike a human body which has different blood lines for us to function, consists of a number of themes, the main plot plus various side plots. A story can have several themes or story lines running side by side, but it is important to have a vital artery running through it all. Too many extraneous incidents can weaken a reader’s interest in the main story.

I included several story lines in Land of Hope. A reviewer from GoodReads commented: “The characters are well drawn with good dynamics between the main characters. The story is tightly plotted and keeps your attention throughout. Every piece of the story is there for a reason.”

What is your view on an engaging story?

 

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The Soul of #Sicilia (2): A Story of #History, #NaturalBeauty & #Romance

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Many years ago in the heart of China, as a school girl, I heard a beautifully touching story from the radio, one of the few means of reaching out beyond the Great Wall of China at the time. That story was translated into Chinese from Italian: Lemons of Sicily. It tells an emotionally charged story of failed romance between a couple of young Sicilian lovers, him a poor flute player who did everything to help his lover to reach career heights as a famous singer and who finally abandons him. The story starts with him visiting her in her luxury home in Naples, bringing her a basket of Sicily lemons.

 

Actually I remembered little else except the title of the short story which has stayed with me all these years. Sicily became a symbol of romance for me from that point on. I never expected that one day I would be visiting this far far away place in the West. Even though I have been living in the UK for many years since then, it did not occur to me to visit until now. One of the reasons, of course, was the other dominant legends, Mafia (see previous blog post).

So before my feet touched the Sicilian soil, I knew roughly three things about this Island: Romance and Lemons, Mafia, and location for a TV series I faithfully followed on BBC 4 and absolutely adored: The Young Montalbano – guess apart from solving murder mysteries, he is the romantic lead of a typical dark and handsome heart-throb who set millions of viewers’ pulses racing  😉

 

So Agrigento, where the author Luigi Pirandello came from inevitably became the destination of our day trip, as you can see the picture of me next to the bronze bust of the man who created that story which imprinted itself on my impressionable young mind (picture above). Apart from him, Agrigento is home to the famous Valle dei Templi, which the Greeks built three millennia ago, then fell into the hands of the Romans.

A slow walk into ancient history in the steaming heat of 41C was well worth it, despite the heat stroke I suffered by the end of that sweating saunter into the past.

 

En route, we also paid a visit to Villa Romana del Casale where we saw some of the best preserved and the most extensive set of Roman mosaics in the world. The lavish Roman hunting villa took over 50 years to construct beginning towards the end of 3rd century AD, and the remains we were able to see were absolutely amazing.

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Another place with a wow factor was the Greek theatre carved out of the hillside in Taormina, a popular and obligatory tourist town, as it was one of the stops of the Grand Tour. The amphitheatre overlooked the deep blue of the Mediterranean with Mount Etna in the distance. It has amazing acoustics and spectacular views.

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Other wonderful sights we managed to see included some of the most stunning and impressive churches we had ever set foot in. The churches in the capital Palermo, and the Cathedral in Monreale (My King) were simply out of this world and beyond what words can describe.

Then, of course, there was the vast landscape and supreme beaches and sunsets. The natural beauty in Sicily alone is worth a visit.

 

Our week-long holiday to Sicily was too short to explore it thoroughly and to my heart’s content, but that may not be a bad thing. It leaves something for us to go back to. Next time, we’ll be sure to follow Young Montalbano’s footsteps to discover some of the hidden gems, and if I was lucky, I may even dip into the waters where he did his morning and evening swims. Time will tell.

Finally, a few more holiday snaps to tempt you, including a selection of delicious culinary and sweet treats we indulged in.

 

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#Sicilia (1): The M Family, The Godfather and #Corleone

What comes to your mind when you hear me say Sicily, the Mediterranean island at the toe of Italy?

Could it possibly be the notorious Mafia?

That was exactly what a friend said to me when I broadcasted that I was going to Sicily for a holiday. Why do you want to go to the Lair of the Mafia?

To humour him and to satisfy my curiosity, John and I drove to the village of Corleone one day in the 40 C July heat. You see, one of the first Hollywood films I ever saw in the late 1970s whilst still in China, was the Godfather. I still remember vividly the setting of Michael Corleone’s wedding in the stunning countryside of Sicily. Now that we were there, I wanted to check it out. Our resort was about an hour’s drive away.

The summer sun was beating down relentlessly, and en route we saw the rolling hills, mostly golden following the harvest of wheat, also due to heat. Sicily has one of the driest climates and July is especially arid. There were some green trees punctuating the fields but all around, were the magnificent golden views greeting our shaded eyes. I asked John to stop. For me it was never enough just to enjoy the views myself – I wanted to record some of the natural beauties I encountered and share them with my friends and followers on Social Media. A joy shared is doubled, I firmly believe that.

It was lunch time when we arrived, so first things first. We fouIMG_6027nd a place and ordered pizza in one of the small piazzas in town. There was an advert for the local wine with Corleone on it. I sat down, and somehow I imagined Al Pacino sitting there sipping a beer and eating his pizza, some decades ago. In Italy, it does not matter where, don’t you feel that you are going back in time? I do.

As we wait for our guided tour at the C.I.D.M.D (International Documentary Centre of Mafia and the No Mafia Movement), we walked up to a monastery atop a rocky outcrop at the edge of the village and enjoyed a panoramic view of this famous location. What surrounds Corleone was breathtaking, and it was also apparent why this place could operate so successfully for so many years, not just for the Mafia within Sicily and Italy, but as far as New York in America. The roads to the village are winding and difficult. Its isolation was useful.

Yes, I am familiar with the story of the Godfather, not just because I have seen the trilogy starring the likes of mega stars Marlon Brando and aforementioned Al Pacino, I had read the book by Mario Puzo. Yet the visit to CIDMA was an eye opener. There was no romanticised take on what the M families did, only horrifying facts and figures. How did it begin?

For centuries, Sicily was ruled by a long line of foreign invaders, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, French and Spanish. The residents of this island formed groups to protect themselves from the often-hostile occupying forces, as well as from other regional groups of Sicilians. These groups, which later became known as clans or families, developed their own system for justice and retribution, carrying out their actions in secret. By the 19th century, small private armies known as “mafie” took advantage of the frequently violent, chaotic conditions in Sicily and extorted protection money from landowners. From this history, the Sicilian Mafia emerged as a collection of criminal clans or families.
http://www.history.com/topics/origins-of-the-mafia

In the 1950s and afterwards, the Mafia flourished and its ever expanding criminal empire became a major player of international drug trafficking. Bribery and intimidation of officials, murdering those who dared to defy them and even innocent bystanders. There was a time when nobody could speak about them, and people in Corleone lived in fear for their lives.

Our guide led us into a room with a massive bookcase of court files, which recorded one of the biggest trials of mafia bosses in the late 1980s, the room also housed two busts of the judges who were subsequently assassinated by the Mafiosi, and a picture of a brave woman who first spoke openly about them in church, breaking the silence code which had sealed the mouths of residents, both within the M Families and outside.

Another room was filled with pictures taken by a courageous female journalist, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letizia_Battaglia, documenting the ferocious internal war of the Mafia, and its assault on civil society. Each picture in that room told a story, some heartbreaking (a Mother’s face after losing her son), and others bloody and harrowing (a lone body and a coffin next to him). The M families not only had a code of “honor”, but they sent messages to heighten the fear and terror.

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Time has moved on, as you can see from the establishment of the Centre, right in the heart of the Dragon’s Lair and the anti-Mafia movement. According to our guide, although the government crackdown of the M families was determined and successfully weakened them, they are still everywhere. The Mayor of Corleone was recently found to have M connections hence the seat of Mayor is currently empty. Although the village of Corleone is no longer that hotbed for breeding Godfathers and Professors (apparently all the M bosses had nicknames to suit their demeanours), some 80 % of Palermo shop owners still have to pay protection money, even in 2017.

Finally our guide said to us: we want the world to know that Corleone is not just a notorious place for Mafia, we have come a long way and the villagers now lead a normal life. Please spread the word.

Here I am, spreading the word. Visit Sicily and Corleone. Truly stunning island with an amazingly rich history, wonderful landscape and much more. I’ll share some of these beautiful experiences in my next blog, so do pop back in.

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Warm Welcome to My Writing Website, Again!

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I am back!

Six years of constantly creating contents, posting and reaching out is a hard habit to break. Since I shut down my author blog a few months ago, I’ve missed sharing my weekly musings and reflections upon life, and most of all, I’ve missed that connection with my worldwide readers. I’ve also come to a point when I need to add words, sentences,  paragraphs and pages to the book I had promised myself and a small number of fans, who seem very keen to follow my literary journey.

I have a confession to make:  I’m writing again, not just working on my W.I.P, but also in the course of reviving this site, which I abandoned in 2011 for a more advanced and personalised website. Over 400 blog posts with pictures and music videos were shared for your enjoyment and mine. Some of them, I hope, have stayed in your heart and mind. They have certainly given me great pleasure in the creative process.

Thank you for visiting and do pop in from time to time for regular updates on my various adventures and journey as an Indie author.

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Traveling the World, My Dream, My Passion


If you are my friends, if you are my colleagues, if you have read my books, or if you happen to come across my Facebook page or bump into me in a souvenir shop in Tenerife or Gran Canaria, you’d know that I have an itchy feet and enjoy visiting exotic and fabulous new places. It has always been my dream to see the world – I don’t know when that dream began but I know that it will never end.

When I was growing up, I could not venture very far, due the many practical constraints I faced. Then I got a lucky break. My life in the past three decades has taken me far and wide. Based in the UK, at the corner of Europe, my grand dream of seeing the world is no longer a young girl’s wishful thinking, it has become reality!

Naturally, I have left footprints in every part of Great Britain. There won’t be a tourist place I have not visited on this island, be it Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or England, from the top of Scottish highlands, to the English Channel. It’s quite possible that I have beat a great majority of native English people in a travel competition as to the number of places I’ve visited, and I’m very proud of this fact.

My desire to explore has taken me to best parts of Europe. Of the 50 European countries I can count about half of that in my sojourn, although some of these countries I have been to more than once. A country like Italy has so many beautiful cities and areas that one single visit just would not do justice. There was beautiful countryside studded with wonderful gems like Siena and Florence in Tuscany, historical Rome, film-settings like Venice, the Lakes in the north of Italy, not to mention the leaning Tower of Pisa and the sunny island of Sardinia floating in an azure sea between Italy and France.

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There were numerous adventures to Greek islands, and top of my list are Santorini, Zante, Kefalonia and many more. Ranking high on my list of top destinations  are also the Spanish Canaries off the Africa coast, and the garden paradise of Madeira in the Atlantic. Then if sandy beaches are too hot to handle, there are very cool places, like the Swiss and Austrian Alps for skiing, or Paris and Prague for immersion in art and culture. The Europeans are spoilt for choice and quite a lot of them don’t even know it or appreciate it.

In Asia, my exploits remain limited, but I have been to many wonderful locations in China, and I love Malaysia and Singapore, for different reasons. There are quite a few countries in my bucket list.

Despite the tedium and testing of long haul, I visited Australia and totally fell in love with it, the climate, the people, the food, the wild life, just to name a few attractions. New Zealand is one of the dreams yet to be realised.

I have to say that USA has some of my favourite places on earth. Yosemite is right there, as well as San Francisco, Oregon, Chicago, Indiana and Seattle. It’s such a massive country and I wish I was young enough to take a ‘gap’ year so I could play Columbus and ‘discover’ America all over again!

Two Continents remain virgin territory to me, which are South America and Africa. So I think there is a need for me to try harder and travel further. My diary is filling up nicely as I write this.

Finally, this is just a short introduction to a series of my travel logs. I would love to share with my readers of all the beautiful places I’ve been to and the happy memories of each and every place. There will be pictures, videos from many of these travels, and I am going to take you with me. Come, fly with me, and enjoy these virtual tours with JunyingKirk Airlines :-).

Thanks for being my travel companion and please leave a comment if you have enjoyed the trip. If you like, share your travel experience and list your very own top attractions here as well.

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