To Celebrate or Lament? That is the Question.

Birds flyingWe, in the so-called liberal westernised societies, are wading through murky waters.

As writers, whose job it is to record and reflect on the social fabric, we are particularly aware of the rising damp.

Of course, every epoch, at one time or another, declares that times they are a-changing. And certainly, there are enough external indicators to support the claim. The Industrial Age is characterized by the erection of new industry and its concomitant social effects; as are the Nuclear and the Information Ages.

What I find interesting is not so much the external landscape, the repositioning and repurposing of the world’s furniture, but changes to the beliefs and values that underpin our inner lives.

Now, more than before, we see a real shift happening. Our confidence in the political, social, economic and religious systems upon which much of the western world rests, is eroding. Digital media expose enough scandals, corruption, nepotism, and incompetence, on a daily basis, to undermine these institutions.

Our understanding of what constitutes the family unit — a unit comprising of a mother, father, and children, too, is changing. The words ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ no longer mean the same thing today they did in past epochs.

I recently read the bio of a fellow writer on tweeter who described himself as a ‘husband to my husband.’ ‘Married to my partner,’ now includes same-sex marriage and is no longer a clear indication of the union between a man and a woman.

The word ‘friend’ can mean chatting to someone on Facebook you never met in person, while ‘texting’ can mean communicating with someone on a mobile device while neglecting the people in the room around you. An ‘actress’ is no longer an actress. She is now an ‘actor.’ I presume a male actor is still an actor, though.

I accept that language is subject to adaptation and renewal, as is cultural practice, and so, perhaps, it should be. But these are significant changes to the strands of meaning with which we weave our lives. I say this not in judgment of these changes, but in support of my contention that we are entering a time where the social construct is openly mutating in hitherto unexplored and unpredictable ways.

What the long-term effect will be on a society that is replacing one set of fundamental norms with another, is unknown. What is certain, however, is that the change is underway and the world we knew will never be the same again.

In the meantime, we could do worse than record these changes in our writing, no matter on what side of the fence we stand.

Summary

Reflect upon the changing times in your writing.

Storytelling Through Action Points

DominoesAction points are bits of new information that spur further actions in a story — actions that cause reactions.

Linda Seger, in her book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, provides the following example: In Tootsie, Michael is told by Sandy about the availability of a female role in a soap opera. Desperate for a job, the luckless Michael masquerades as a woman (Dorothy) and takes the interview.

Sandy’s action has caused Michael’s reaction.

He gets the part (action), meets Julie and is instantly attracted to her (reaction). The mutual attraction results in Julie inviting “Dorothy” for dinner (action), which causes Dorothy/Michael to begin falling in love with her (reaction).

Each action here is strong, visual, and dramatic, and demands a response of some kind. Different actions will demand different sorts of responses, but in all cases, the scenes will be driven by actions that are strongly linked.

One of the structural weaknesses in stories is that they sometimes contract the episodic malaise — one scene related to another by chronology alone, rather than physical, emotional and psychological causality. This makes for a tenuous connection between scenes. Action points avoid the pitfall by linking the scenes together through cause and effect.

Although action points may occur in any act, they are indispensable in act two, the longest of the three, which is in most need of momentum.

Summary

Action points link scenes together through cause and effect and help to add momentum to your stories.

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Let’s Talk About the Stakes

Man playing guitar on stepsIn Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger points out that studio executives, producers and story editors are fond of asking a writer: What’s at stake for your hero?

If the risks are weak or unclear, readers and audiences have no reason to care about the characters in our story or see any connection between their experience and the experience of our fictional characters — our characters will not evoke a sense of empathy.

Abraham Maslow has devised a seven-part hierarchy to explain what drives us, and what is at stake if we fail to get it. Most good stories draw on one or more of these needs.

1. Survival: Many excellent stories are about survival. This primal instinct is basic to all animals and we are no exception. By centering our story around the hero’s (or community’s) survival, we’re ticking the first box on the list of creating empathy. The movie, Deliverance, is a fine example of this.

2. Safety and Security; Once our survival needs are met, we seek a safe and secure place to keep the dangers at bay. We lock our doors, build forts, raise armies to guard us. Voyage of the Damned and Country utilise this need in their stories.

3. Love and Belonging: But what is a safe home without love and family? We have a deep need to connect with others. We need to love and be loved in return. In Places of the Heart, Edna desperately wants to preserve her family — a family that comprises of more than just her children. It includes Will, the blind man, and Moses, a black male. This need drives the story to its inevitable conclusion.

4. Esteem and Self-Respect: People desire to be looked up to, respected. But this respect has to be earned through knowledge and hard-knocks. Luke Skywalker earns respect at the end of Star Wars after a series of lessons learnt the hard way.

5. The Need to Know and Understand. We are insatiably curious creatures. We seek to understand how things work, how they fit together. We seek to know what life is, where we came from. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is driven, in part, by such a curiosity, while films such as Back to the Future and The Time Machine show characters perpetually struggling to understand how to travel back and forth in time.

6. The Aesthetic: Once we are secure and confident, we seek to create a sense of order in our lives by connecting to something higher than ourselves. This can be a religious or aesthetic experience, but it often involves the search for epiphany. Films such as Joan of Arc, Amadeus, and Never Cry Wolf, use this more abstract need to drive their stories.

7. Self-Actualisation: Finally, we need to express ourselves — to communicate who we are, to declare our skills and talents to ourselves and the world. Artists and athletes express this need through their desire to finish a work, break a record. The need to excel is strongly displayed in films such as Chariots of Fire and The Turning point.

Used in combination these needs, instincts and desires form a solid backbone for many successful stories. They create empathy in readers and audiences, linking their own desires to the dreams, hopes and fears of fictional characters.

Summary

Use Maslow’s hierarchy to motivate and explain your fictional characters.

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How Character Relationships Drive Your Story

imageIn her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that characters hardly ever exist in isolation from each other. With the exception of such stores as Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, or Steven Spielberg’s Duel, most tales consist of characters who love, hate, like, or dislike each other.

Novelist Leonard Tourney stresses that couples have become more important in fiction and in film.

Pairing people up into relationships changes their individual chemistry; it brings out differing aspects in them: Walter White’s complex master/slave relationship with Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, is one of the many examples of this sort of complexity. Older television series such as Cheers, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, and Moonlighting, are more cases in point. This is not limited to television alone.

How successful would Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rain Man, or Lethal Weapon have been without this chemistry between the lead characters?

All of these stories have characters based on traits that cause the most bang for the buck when mixed together. The mix is characterised by:

1. Characters who have something in common that brings them and keeps them together.

2. A conflict between characters that threatens to tear them apart and is the cause of much of the humour or drama in a story.

3. Characters have contrasting traits — opposites may attract, but they often combust when brought together.

4. Characters that have the ability to transform each other, for better or worse.

Marshaling characters utilising these relational traits is a useful method for creating interesting stories.

Summary

Writing characters that are driven by strong relational dynamics is an important way of generating interest in your stories.

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Why Do We Love Characters In Conflict?

Fish eating its own tailWe’ve all heard about the importance of conflict in storytelling; that it is the fuel that drives the drama; that without it our stories lack interest.

But where do we find conflict? In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger stresses that conflict springs up between characters because of their differing motivations, backgrounds, wants and goals, values and attitudes.

Often, these conflicts are psychological. The traits that characters often find the most infuriating about each other come from their repressed sides; ironically, it is these very qualities that both attracts and repels them.

Conflict sometimes occurs because characters hide things from each other, either purposefully, or because of an inability to communicate, which, in turn, leads to misunderstandings. In Cheers Sam and Diane’s first kiss is fraught with conflict, albeit humorously rendered:

SAM: What is it you want, Diane?
DIANE: I want you to tell me what you want.
SAM: I’ll tell you what I want… I want to know what you want.
DIANE: Don’t you see, this is the problem we’ve had all along. Neither of us is able to come out and state the obvious.
SAM: You’re right. So, let’s state the obvious.
DIANE: O.K. You go first.
SAM: Why should I go first?
DIANE: We’re doing it again.
SAM: Diane, just explain one thing to me…Why aren’t you with Derek?
DIANE: Because I like you better.
SAM: Really? Well, I like you better than Derek, too.
DIANE: Sam…
SAM: All the jealousy I ever felt for my brother is nothing to what I’ve felt In the last five minutes.
DIANE: Oh, Sam. I think we’re about to start something that might be kind of great, huh?
SAM: Yeah. Yeah, You’re right. I guess we oughta like…kiss, huh?

But because nothing is ever straight forward between Diane and Sam, it takes many pages of discussion and arguing before they finally do kiss.

The point is that conflict does not have to be graphic to generate interest in the characters and drama; often, it is the more subtle, hidden conflicts that most hold the reader’s and audience’s attention.

Summary

Character conflict often occurs when characters try to hide something from each other, or are defined by differing values.

How to Cope with Bad Reviews

ImageBad reviews tend to bother new writers more than they do old hands.

When that first stinker slams through the shiny wall of good reviews, fledgling writers tend to get down in the dumps. Some reach for the bottle. Others threaten never to write again.

The truth is that hardly anyone escapes mean-spirited, opinionated and downright nasty reviews. They seem to come out of left field when least expected. What’s worse, they appear to get things wrong — to be fundamentally unfair to the work.

My advice to writers feeling this pain is to determine whether the review is pointing to something that needs fixing, or whether it is skewered and willfully misleading.

This is no easy task. One needs to take a step back and calmly and objectively analyse the review. Once you have extracted the truth, record useful comments down in a notebook under a heading such as Things That Need Improving — for example: tighter control of theme, more authentic characters, a more distinctive voice, and what not.

Throw the reviews that are intended to crush your spirit into the trashcan where they belong, but be careful not to mistake those with an overly defensive, head-in-the-sand attitude. It takes courage, determination and a steady hand to fish out the nuggets of truth that may be lurking under the sea of negative comments.

Remind yourself that even the most popular and respected authors have garnered bad reviews.

I’ve recently reread Paul Harding’s exquisite 2010 Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, and was surprised to find it had garnered a high ratio of 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, the novel is one of the most emotive evocations of old age, the act of dying, and memory I have ever read. It is the sort of writing that stays with one forever.

Writers should take strength from that: If a Pulitzer winning novel of such power and magnitude has so many detractors, who are we to moan about ours?

Summary

Salvage what is useful from a bad review and discard the rest.

How Long Should We Write Each Day?

imageWriters write. We’ve all heard this succinct advice on becoming a writer.

But how often should we write? Where should we write? Where do we start? Where do we finish?

How long should we write each day?

Answers to these questions fill countless of books, articles, blogs. Often they disagree.

Each writer brings her own approach to the art and technique of writing. We may agree on general principles, yet disagree on specific techniques.

For example, I generally won’t stop writing for the day unless I’ve finished the chapter of the book I’m working on. The chapters of my novels tend to be shorter, rather than longer, so the task isn’t that daunting.

Having thought about the forthcoming chapter the previous day — the plot points that have to be struck and the character development that needs to occur — I keep to the task until that last sentence is in place. I end my chapters with a revelation or hook that creates expectation in reader, and this guides my thinking the following day; it makes the process easier — for me.

This, however, is not necessarily the case for others.

A fellow writer, and winner of several writing awards — no slouch in the craft of writing— told me that he often stops writing before completing the scene he’s working on, whether it’s giving him problems or not. He finds that tackling the material the following day brings fresh insight to his writing. I suspect this is because he is more a pantser than a plotter, but the point is well taken. One shoe does not fit all. There are, indeed, different strokes for different folks.

It’s helpful to keep this in mind as we pour over the voluminous suggestions of experts. Some nuggets of advice are more suited to our particular personalities and circumstances than others. We need to decide which to keep and which to throw away.

After all, how long is a piece of string, anyway?

Summary

Study all the advice you can, but implement only what’s best suited to you.

You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to — what’s a writer to do?

TomatoA friend of mine recently expressed concern about a new novel he’d written – a tongue-in-cheek political satire that explores political correctness from a different angle.

Did it not run the risk of being branded as too conservative, or even racist, he wanted to know? This got me thinking about to-mah-tos and to-may-tos.

We live in a time of great cultural, spiritual, and ethnic upheaval, a time where our received wisdom is being questioned by our increasing exposure to alternative beliefs and practices, fostered by the pervasive use of multimedia and specialist studies championed by countless institutes and universities.

Religion, sexuality, ethnicity, the environment, are all hotly debated, and even divisive, topics. Language, too, is changing. Words that were applied as precise gender indicators, for example, are being dropped from the lexicon in the name of political correctness.

Championing one side often results in disdain from the other. Name-calling, or stereotyping, is the order of the day. Once branded, it is difficult to get rid of the mark, regardless whether it is justified or not. The idea of no-smoke-without-fire seems to hold sway. It would appear far safer to have no opinion at all than to risk soliciting the wrath of the opposition.

Yet, as writers, we don’t have a choice but to adopt a point of view. To choose one side of the fence and make our stand there. As writers we thrive on ideology. We have strong beliefs and opinions about the world and the people and systems that govern it. Our stories are filled with characters who stand for something, the endings we craft betray our themes and concerns. Our beliefs and preferences will emerge whether we like it or not.

So, how do we avoid the misunderstanding and prejudice that our point of view may solicit?

There are many answers to this question, supported by ample research and competing opinions, but let me give you mine — the short version: We treat opposing views with dignity and respect, or failing that, with good humour, and we demand the same in return.

Which reminds me, do you have to-mah-to or to-may-to with that cheese and ham sandwich? It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other to me.

Summary

Agree to disagree, but do so with respect.

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Image: Dr TinDC
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

Don’t Talk to the Hand!

Hand

Don’t talk to the hand:

Dialogue, in books and movies, sometimes gets a bad rap.

We often hear that we should show and not tell. That our dialogue is too on-the-nose. That we should say it with sub-text. Do it through action.

I’ve certainly leveled those criticisms at my students, and at myself, often enough.

Yet, dialogue is often the most efficient and powerful way to cut to the chase when defining character, stating intent, mapping philosophical or moral terrain.

Some of the most memorable moments in stories come from great lines of dialogue:

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Rhett Butler ~ Gone with the Wind.

“Time to die.” Roy Batty ~ Blade Runner.

“You can’t have organized crime without law and order.” Don Falcone ~ Gotham.

“I’ll be back!” Terminator ~ The Terminator.

“Here’s Johnny!” Jack Torrance ~ The Shining.

These lines, and countless others like them, instantly recall the characters and stories they came from. They encapsulate some essential aspect of the story. They act as hangers upon which we hang major parts of the tale. Without them stories would be poorer and less memorable.

In my classes on storytelling I advise new writers to seek out several iconic lines that best sum up the nitty-gritty of their stories, from the get-go. This not only encourages students to think deeply about the motivation of their characters, but about how this motivation lies at the heart of all great stories, too.

Hasta la vista, baby.

Summary

Include memorable dialogue in your stories.

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Image: David Goehring

Hide it with Emotion

Child hiding under table

Hiding it:

One of the wonderful things about story structure is that it allows us to see the tale as a series of well-placed twists that relentlessly drive our journey to its climax.

Additionally, knowing how strong to make such twists relative to those preceding or following, provides us with a way to mount the tension and intensity of our tale — to keep the rope tight.

There is, however, a proviso: the reader or audience should never see the rope. The structure should always remain invisible if we are to avoid the accusation of formulaic writing.

One of the better ways to hide structure is through emotion. If readers are reeling at some seismic revelation resulting from a traumatic action or event, they are unlikely to detect the seam in the plot.

In Moulin Rouge, a beautiful courtesan knows she has to send the poet who loves her away in order to save his life. This action occurs towards the end of the story and is a major pivotal turn. But knowing he will not leave if she tells him the truth about the threat to his life, she pretends she does not love him and has chosen to marry the duke instead.

We are dealt a double blow – we feel the courtesan’s anguish as much as we feel the poet’s pain at this seeming betrayal by the woman he loves. The overall emotion is so strong that we hardly notice the structural seam.

In my most recent novel, The Land Below, Paulie, the hero of the story, is sentenced to die because he has broken the law of Apokatokratia. But the reader is already aware the series continues. It is therefore unlikely the hero perishes.

I had to find a way to make that pivotal twist credible if I was to avoid the accusation of predictability. Having the Troubadour, Paulie’s only friend, come forward with a startling and highly emotive revelation about his and Paulie’s past, was how I chose to hide the formula.

Judging by the reviews The Land Below has received so far, it seems as if I made the right decision.

Summary

Hide the structure of your story behind layers of emotion.

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Image: Lance Nielson
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode