Monthly Archives: January 2013

How to Write Better Dialogue

Dialogue

Great dialogue sparkles. It imbues a script or novel with a sense of authenticity and character. It injects pace, interest, and relevance. Great dialogue draws the reader or audience into the story and holds them there, delivering meaning on various levels. In this post I discuss some of the techniques used by writers to create effective dialogue—primarily the cover-up as an aspect of subtext.

Subtext and the Cover-Up

Subtext is the meaning that lies beneath the obvious — it is the connotation that springs from the denotation offered by the surface layer. Cover-ups make us wonder what and why information is being withheld, which spikes our interest. Cover-ups in dialogue take many forms, one of which is deflection. Deflection, in turn, may come as a question, a change in subject, action that is incongruous with dialogue, a counter attack, a threat, a joke, silence. Here are some examples:

1. Answer a question with a question

“Have you ever taken money that didn’t belong to you?”
“Do you honestly believe I would ever do that?”

2. A change of subject

“Got the money I lent you?”
“I saw your wife at the supermarket today…talking to some young buck.”

3. Action that is incongruous with dialogue

He slapped her hard across the mouth so that the blood ran down her chin.
“I so love the taste of blood in the morning!” she responded.

4. Counter attack

“You seem nervous.”
“So do you.”

5. A threat

“I’m sorry honey. Don’t wait up for me tonight. Working late at the office again.”
“Mind if I pop in and say hi, anyway?”

6. A joke

“I’m sorry Jim. I never meant to screw your girlfriend. It just happened.”
“That makes us even, then!”

7. Silence

“Are you having an affair, Matthew?”
Matthew looked at his wife for a long while but said nothing. At last he got up and fixed himself a stiff scotch.

In each case, a question or statement is deflected or defused by an unexpected response. The response itself implies deeper layers of meaning which enrich the exchange. This is the most important aspect of subtext.

Summary

Subtext is an indispensable part of dialogue and comes in many forms. The seven examples provided above illustrate some of the ways to enliven and enrich dialogue in your stories.

How to Write Powerful Endings

Ticket showing "End of the Line"

The End

Powerful endings don’t just happen. They are the result of careful and inspired preparation implemented from the first page of your manuscript. The best endings are as surprising as they are inevitable — in hindsight. This post offers five techniques, chosen from an assortment of others, for making your story endings more memorable.

1. Enhance the Reputations of the Protagonist and Antagonist

Stories are about the antagonist and protagonist involved in a life and death struggle to achieve/prevent the story goal. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the ante and leads to a more engaging and tense ending. In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition” and later is described by The Kid as “You the same one that shot Charley Pepper up in Lake County? (…). You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train in Missouri.” Likewise, the antagonist, Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman), is described by a deputy as being fearless, having grown up in tough circumstances and survived. He is also seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.

2. Cast Doubt about the Final Confrontation

The more we doubt the ability of the protagonist to achieve his goal by defeating the antagonist, the more we root for his success, and the more we fear for his failure. When we first meet William Munny we find him slipping and falling amongst the pigs in the pen. The Kid says of him: “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin.” And later, it takes Munny four shots to get the first cowboy. Compared with Little Bill’s ruthless skills, this makes us fear for his survival against the Sheriff.

3. Shift Direction

Introducing twists which take us away from our expectations – from what is needed for the protagonist to achieve the goal – causes us to wonder and worry about the outcome. Little Bill beats up William Munny at the saloon, and Munny spends three days hovering near death. The Kid remarks that Munny is useless. Munny hardly appears as a man who will fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.

4. Further Increase Suspense Around the Final Confrontation

When Munny is told that Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) has been beaten to death by Little Bill, he knows that he has to go back and revenge his death. He knows that this might well result in his own death since he tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s own belief in the outcome of the confrontation increases the suspense and makes us fear about his survival even more.

5. The Final Confrontation Occurs in The Antagonists’s Stronghold

Facing the antagonist in his own lair, strengthens the antagonists’ and weakens the protagonists’ position. Munny faces Little Bill in the Saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies, henchmen, and supporters. This weighs heavily against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.

Summary

Planing a powerful ending involves seeding a number of elements at various points along the story that increase the tension and make the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist unlikely. Enhancing the reputation, casting doubt about the final confrontation, constantly shifting direction in expectation, further increasing suspense around the final confrontation, and having the climactic scene occur in the antagonists’s lair, are some of the most important techniques in achieving this.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Genre & Marketing

Masks

Genre

In his book, Story, Robert McKee states that “to anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master genre and its conventions.”

Genre is as much a marketing tool as it is a story creation-tool. If a film or book has been correctly promoted the audience or readers approach the story with a certain expectation. In marketing jargon this is referred to as “positioning the audience”. This alleviates the danger of readers or audiences spending the first part of the story trying to find out what it’s about.

Adroit marketing taps into genre expectation. From the title, to the fonts used in the text itself on posters and in television ads, the promoters are at pains to telegraph the sort of story the audience or readers are to expect. This means that the conventions of the genre have to be adhered to. But what are some of the most important conventions?

Music, Location, Dress Code, Gadgets, Vehicles, Lighting, and Narrative Conventions

In film, music forms one such convention. Traditional love stories, for example, use a certain type of score to elicit emotions appropriate to that type of story. The mellifluous musical score for Gone with the Wind would not be appropriate for Alien, or vice versa.

Location is another important convention. Westerns use the untamed countryside as part of the backdrop, while science fiction films include high-tech interiors such as spaceships or futuristic exteriors and interiors to convey mood and a sense of otherworldliness.

Clothes, gadgets, and vehicles, and lighting, are further clues to identifying genre. Who can forget the white high-tech armor of Star Wars‘ Storm Troopers, the Jedi Light Sabers, or the hi-flying cars and taxis in The Fifth Element and Minority Report? In terms of lighting, Film Noir, for example, utilises a stark chiaroscuro style to dramatise seedy streets, alleys, rain-coat wearing detectives, and the femme fatale.

But beyond the physical elements, narrative conventions also apply. Sad or tragic endings form part of the narrative tradition of tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, while “up endings” are traditionally associated with comedies and musicals, although exception do occur, as in Evita.

Things get interesting when genres mix, as in Blade Runner, which utilises conventions from film noir and science fiction. Indeed, the mixing of genres presents writers with the biggest opportunity for dressing up old stories in new clothes. Done well, the result is a tale that draws on tradition and novelty to produce narrative that is fresh and rooted in verisimilitude.

Summary

Genre is both a creative tool helping writers shape their stories based on what has gone before, and a marketing tool used by marketers to tell audiences what to expect in a film or novel. Understanding genre conventions allows us to use them effectively to create new and interesting combinations that are fresh and engaging.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Write Your Story’s Midpoint

A halfway line on a playing field

Halfway Line

Although much has been written about the midpoint, not least of all in this blog, it is a crucial structural element in a story that deserves revisiting.

Midpoint/Moment of Illumination/Point of No Return

The middle of a story is the point in which the Hero makes an important decision: She can choose to turn back from the path she has been following, or, choose to press on, but with renewed insight and illumination stemming from an event that causes her to reassess her situation and her inner approach to it.

Unlike the first or second turning point, the midpoint does not necessarily involve a huge climax or intense action scene. What it does do is: cause the Hero to reassess the quest, have the Hero consider giving up, lead the Hero to realize that she must continue, have her formulate a new or more specific plan of action, have her commit to this new goal in a way that she can not back out of, have her learn something new about her innermost self.

Film Examples

In Field of Dreams, the midpoint occurs at the baseball game with Terence Mann, when Ray notices the sign about Archibald ‘Doc’ Graham, then hears, once more, the voice saying ‘Go the distance’. In The Crying Game, the midpoint occurs when Fergus uncovers Dill’s physical secret. In both cases, there is a strong inner, or, psychological aspect to the midpoint.

Typically, the midpoint changes a crucial aspect in the Hero’s inner life that impacts on her outer life: if she was not in control, she seizes control, if she was uncommitted, she becomes committed, if she was a victim, she decides to hit back, if she was hunted, she becomes the hunter, if she was delusional, she starts to deal with reality, if she was defeated by the goal, she begins a new struggle to achieve it. In this sense, then, the midpoint brings the inner and outer journeys together by fusing self-illumination to a plan of action, which leads to her achieving the story goal.

Summary

The midpoint is not only the half-way point of the story in terms of length, it is also the moment in which the Hero reassesses her situation, regathers her strengthen and resources, and presses on with renewed insight and wisdom.