Do you Write Gut or Stomach?

Book Cover

The Land Below

Most writers I talk to have at least two things in common: they want to be read and they want to write well. I’m one of them.

We dream of writing a book or screenplay that’s so accomplished, that so touches the nerve of some current or emerging issue, shedding new light on its emotional, social, and political ramifications, that it shoots up the best-seller lists.

Let’s not fool ourselves — we all seek an audience. Even those of us who pretend, in our darkest moments, not to care, or who fool ourselves into thinking that if only the gatekeepers could understand the depth and complexity of our writing, they’d smile and nod and fling open the doors to the pantheon.

Popularity, of course, is no guarantee of quality. But neither is obscurity. Shakespeare was popular in his day. So was Dickens. Hardly a pair of slouches.

In my line of work as a teacher and writer I come across wordsmiths who’s idea of quality is language and subject matter that is impenetrable and stolid. Indeed, it seems that some make it a point to choose words that are obscure over words that are familiar, as if a large and exotic vocabulary, is, in itself, a sign of creative talent.

Of course, as writers we should cherish all words. Building a large vocabulary is a necessary goal, but we should not remain blind to the sensual quality of words — the notion that words of Anglo Saxon origin, in creative writing, tend to be more explosive and tactile, than their Latin or Greek-based counterparts.

Depending on the context, for example, “I punched him in the gut,” tends to be more forceful and tactile than “I punched him in the stomach.” In my newly released book, The Land Below, I’ve used both, but each time I was governed by character and mood.

We should ensure the words we choose are not, by their texture and nuance, broken bridges to the feelings and ideas we seek to express. And that, of course, requires we understand their origin as well as their meaning.

Finding a voice that speaks to the masses, while sharing the love of language and subject matter, is a worthy life-long goal for any writer. Living in an ivory tower with the echo of our own grandiloquence for company is not.

Summary

Sharing the love of words and subject-matter through clear and accessible language is a worthy goal for any writer.

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Want to Write Great Exposition? Hide It!

Closeup of boy with tree shadows on faceExposition in story is a necessary evil. We have to know certain facts about a character or event if we are to make sense of the unfolding story. But exposition is a break in story momentum and should be handled deftly. A good way to hide it is to layer it with subtext.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA provides several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration – often a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. The scene, however, is static, filled with inertia, boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through a few quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy and mechanical diversions.

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on foot-long cigars they step into the water and proceed to discuss the sorts of things you’d expect to hear in the obligatory gangster boardroom scene. But placing the gangsters in a therapy pool and showing them as a bunch of naked fat old men, distracts us from the exposition and allows it to slip in surreptitiously.

In all three examples, context, mood, and necessary facts are relayed to the audience through exposition, preparing us for the story.

The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer.

The next two do so surreptitiously. They layer subtext in the setting and under the dialogue, keeping the audience engaged.

Summary

Load exposition with subtext to make it surreptitious and interesting.

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Omit Needless Words

Scissors on paper“Omit useless words,” William Strunk Jr. implored. Our writing will be more polished and powerful because of it.

Unnecessary words make sentences lethargic by wasting time and energy. This is even more important in screenplays than novels where a lean, tight style cuts to the chase.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers provides several examples:

A plush office. Sweeping views of the city through floor-to-floor glass windows.

“Glass” is redundant: A plush office. Sweeping views of the city through floor-to-floor windows.

Matthew falls to the floor with an expressionless face.
Better: Matthew falls to the floor, expressionless.

If something is understood in a story, don’t repeat it: He looked at the clock on the wall. Clocks are usually on walls: He looked at the clock.

Don’t repeat a point once it’s made: A hand taps Mark on the shoulder. He turns. Standing there is ALICIA SASSY, a 23 year-old Barbie doll with platinum-blond hair, a Playboy centerfold rack, and curves Beyoncé envies.

Barbie dolls are blond and stacked: A hand taps Mark on the shoulder. He turns. Standing there is ALICIA SASSY, a 23 year-old Barbie doll with curves Beyoncé envies.

Don’t repeat something already mentioned in the slugline:

INT. FERRARI – MORNING

Dun has slowed the car down to normal driving speed.

We know he’s in a car. Rather write:

INT. FERRARI – MORNING

Dun has slowed to normal driving speed.

Although this sort of cut-and-thrust brevity is less of a requirement in a novel, any story will benefit by having needless words omitted.

Summary

Ferret out needless words to make your writing leaner and more powerful.

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Scene Transitions: Repetition, Continuity, Contrast

White cups, some empty, some containing multicoloured liquidsTransitions in life, as in art, don’t get the attention they deserve.

Maybe that’s because they are transient states, in-between bits we must get through to get to the nitty-gritty.

When we think back on our lives, we tend to jump from accomplishment to accomplishment, failure to failure, or any combination of the two, leapfrogging over the small transitions that opened the gates in the first place.

Yet, stories rely on transitions. Transitions are the precursors to events. Handled badly, they make the episodes in a story appear unintentionally jagged and disconnected.

Here are three techniques, chosen from a basket of others, that may help alleviate this common problem – repetition, continuity, contrast.

1. Transition by repetition. A word, action, or response is repeated in consecutive scenes.

In Final Destination 5, a detective interrogates several suspects. To avoid lengthy and superfluous repetition, the detective asks a question in one scene which is then answered by different characters in consecutive scenes.

2. Transition by continuity. This technique can help bridge events separated by a small or large gap in time and space,

In 2001, A Space Odyssey, Kubrick famously jump-cuts from a bone being thrown up in the air, to a space station floating in space. Both bone and space station are tools indicative of man’s development, but are separated by a span of millions of years. The visual link between the two shots, reinforced by the continuity of image size and movement is so strong that it allows us to make the transition in an instant.

In a similar vain, a character could begin a sentence in one scene while someone else completes it in another.

3. Transition through contrasting words or actions. Here, the expectations created at the end of a scene are immediately reversed in the one following it.

For example, imagine a scene in which your character, sword raised high, motivates his troops by anticipating a crushing victory over the enemy, followed by a scene where the same character stands chained to a dungeon wall.

Summary

Use repetition, continuity, or contrast to create effective transitions between scenes.

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Small Acts of Kindness

Man giving man coinsOne of the most important things I learnt as a writer is that without knowing how to solicit emotion through my characters, I’d fail to draw readers into my stories and keep them there.

Emotion ties us to a story. It associates us with the characters who evoke it. It is the foundation upon which we build the whole cathedral, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the story.

Emotion does not always have to be rendered on a large canvas. Sometimes a culmination of smaller brush-strokes is just as effective as a grand gesture, especially when applied unexpectedly.

In my most recent novel The Land Below, to be released on Amazon in late February, a minor character, the bitter and unlikable Miss Baithwate prevents an old man from visiting a boy, his only friend in the world. She asks him to leave her hostel, accusing him of making the place look untidy.

But as she watches the old man limp away, she suddenly changes her mind and invites him in. She hides this random act of kindness under a gruff tone and a crusty demeanour, but the old man recognises the good in her, referring to her as his dear Miss Baithwate.

Not a major incident in the story, but one which adds to the reservoir of emotions.

I remember feeling a tinge of sympathy for the lonely spinster when I added this small twist — a tinge I would not have felt had she allowed the old man to leave without seeing the boy.

Miss Baithwate suddenly sprang to life on the page for me. She was richer, deeper, more likable after this act. And so was my story.

Summary

Small acts of kindness deepen character and enrich any story.

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Enrich your Scenes with Counterpoint

Woman playing celloIn my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading scenes with seemingly contradictory cues to increase interest through tension.

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

The bad way to write this scene it is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party winning the argument at the end.

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow.

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected.

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands, holding the higher ground, always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up, towering over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him, causing Cage to back up.

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair and is startled.

This small incident reveals the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue.

Summary

Add tension and interest to your scenes by having the action play out in counterpoint to a threat being delivered through dialogue.

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Aristotle Said It First!

Close up of Aristotle's head - statue

Aristotle:

I recently had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer and lecturer.

We were talking about the increasing tendency in new television series to present protagonists that are not only flawed, but are downright pathological. The chief difference between the protagonist and antagonists here seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dexter, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.

Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like them, in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?

Part of the answer is that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.

Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through her eyes. She is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for her dilemmas and motivation.

Dark protagonists, too, are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient.

Dexter keeps outsmarting his opponents, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business.

Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He is like a quantum particle constantly staying ahead of the observer and surprising him with its unpredictability.

But ultimately, even a dark protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dexter loves his son and sister deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had.

Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to like the main character first before we see him drag himself through the mud.

Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.

But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.

Summary

To foster empathy, introduce your dark protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.

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Brevity, Clarity, Precision.

Diamond ring

Crystal clear:

If brevity, clarity, and precision are important in specialist writing, they are crucial in a screenplay. Hollywood has a notoriously short attention span. Readers have to wade through dozens of new screenplays daily, and their tolerance for poorly worded stories is short. Of course, Hollywood is not the only place to peddle your screenplay, but if you’re looking to play the Lotto, it’s a good place to start.

Let’s look at two aspects of tight, vivid writing in screenplays—use of verbs, and scene descriptions.

Here are three examples of lame verbs:

1. Susan enters the room.

This is inadequate. How does Susan enter the room? Does she breeze, limp, march, slink, flow, or pad in?

2. Joe looks at the girl standing opposite him.

How does he look at the girl? Does he gaze, leer, glance, squint, or peer at her?

How does she stand? Is she slouching, leaning, erect?

Never miss the opportunity to have a verb convey the personality and attitude of your character. Not only do you void the need for adverbs, you make your sentences crispier and more vibrant.

Character descriptions in screenplays, too, should be brief but impactful. Because they influence how we view the character, they should be crafted with care. Consider this character description from one of my screenplays:

I started with: “BRUCE DODGE is very big, very crude, but with a surprisingly light gait that belies his enormous size.”

…but ended up with: “BRUCE DODGE is built like an army barracks shit-house but moves like a ninja.”

or…

“A casually dressed BARRY FIN, pads into the room. He is strong and graceful, with a feline quality that suggests a strength and agility that comes from years of training.” Too wordy.

“BARRY FIN pads into the room, a panther in jeans and tee-shirt.” Better.

Appropriate metaphors enliven character description and eliminate unnecessary words.

Summary

Be brief, clear, and precise in describing your subject. Where appropriate, use metaphors to capture your character’s essence.

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Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Man scratching his head while reading a book

Keeping it simple:

We’ve all read books and articles in which ideas rendered by verbose, obscure language are tied up into long sentences and knotted paragraphs.

I know I have.

When I started reading for my Ph.D on narrative structures I needed aspirin to keep the headaches away. I even considered going on antidepressants. How could I ever contribute to the field when I could not even understand the gist of what I was reading?

I understood the words of course. My problem was not a limited vocabulary. My problem was making sense of the convoluted way experts expressed themselves.

Their approach was to pack as much complexity, eccentricity, and obscurity into a sentence as possible; balance as many relative clauses on the back of the main clause and add as many qualifiers and modifiers to it as they could.

Do it consistently and you’d be allowed to join that exclusive club from which the common person is barred by default: The specialists club.

It was hard going but I stuck to the task. I remember the day of my breakthrough. I was sitting on the Ipswich train from Brisbane. The ride home was a good half-hour and I often used the time to catch up on my reading. I was wading through postmodernism and had previously failed to make much headway.

Then it happened. A particularly obscure paragraph suddenly flicked into focus. I blinked and read it again.

Yes, it definitely made sense. So did the next paragraph. And the next. Before long, I found I understood the whole chapter.

I quietly congratulated myself. I was no longer masquerading as an academic. I was an academic. I could not only understand the speak, I would soon be able to emulate it.

It was not long before my writing and speech adopted the mannerisms of a specialist. I solicited nods and smiles from fellow academics and frowns and head-shakes from everyone else.

I had arrived.

It was only years later, after niggling doubts about the usefulness of obscure forms of expression were fanned by my experience in lecturing college students, that I began to investigate the alternatives.

I poured over every style manual I could get my hands on—from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

I became convinced that language that explores difficult concepts and ideas need not in itself be difficult to understand. Clear and precise writing that illuminates rather than confounds, writing that is accessible to anyone with a mastery of English, is preferable even when discussing academic matters. This is not dumbing-down language. It is making it more democratic—surely the tacit goal of any discipline.

You may notice from this post that I have not quite managed to expel the very elements I criticise from my own writing. The road to brevity, clarity, and precision is strewn with detours, but I am trying to stay on it.

My students are always the first to tell me when I stray.

Summary

Aim for brevity, precision, and clarity in writing.

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How the Hero Sells the Plot

Girl and man spying on eachother

Plot and Character:

A hero’s transformational arc is the moral and ethical backbone of many memorable stories. Handled well, it validates the hero’s actions and helps to sell the plot. But crafting an effective transformational arc often proves difficult for new and inexperienced writers.

After all, what exactly changes in the hero? What causes the change? How does this affect the plot? These are some of the most pressing concerns writers face when working with the hero’s transformational arc.

Let’s look at each in turn.

1. What changes in the hero? Typically heroes are good people who have lost their way or have not found it yet. They have potential. They are eminently redeemable.

In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage prefers promoting the war effort behind studio cameras rather than taking the fight to the alien enemy in the field. He is smart, determined, good at his job, but he is also a coward. His transformation is from cowardliness to courage.

2. What causes the change? Change comes when external events trigger the hero’s positive character traits.

In The Matrix Neo is obsessed with a central question: What is the Matrix? He is intelligent, strong, and inquisitive, but lacks the self-belief to implement the answers he receives. But when agent Smith threatens to wipe out all resistance and enslave humanity forever, Neo allows Trinity’s kiss to bring him back from the dead and defeat the sentient program.

3. How does this affect the plot? Character growth supports the plot by motivating and explaining the hero’s actions.

The plot arises when the hero pursues a goal but is prevented by his nemesis from achieving it. It is only when he fulfills his potential that he is able to adjust his strategy, defeat his nemesis, and achieve success. The hero’s transformation from cowardliness to courage, self-doubt to self-belief, from ignorance to knowledge, therefore, affects the quality of his actions and the direction of the plot.

Answering a series of questions, such as those posed above, then, is one way of understanding the relation between your hero’s developmental arc and the plot.

Summary

A skillful interweaving of character development and plot is essential to the quality and success of any story.

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