Monthly Archives: April 2013

How Paradoxes Deepen Character

Spatial paradox

Paradox:

Complexity is an indispensable ingredient of life, and so it ought to be with the characters we create in our stories.

Why Paradoxes are Good

Linda Seger, in her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, wrote:

“Paradoxes do not negate the consistencies, they simply add to them. Characters are more interesting if they are made up of mixed stuff, if they have warring elements. To create warring elements, you begin by establishing one and asking ‘Given this element, what other elements might there be in the same person that would date conflict?'”

In the film Erin Brockovich, for example, Erin’s paradoxes include her desire to succeed professionally, juxtaposed against her need to take care of her children.

Her trailer-trash sexuality versus her ability and commitment to fight a huge corporation.

Her foul language and aggression juxtaposed against her desire to assist people find their way through the complex legal system.

In The Matrix, Neo is a hacker and merchant who is wanted by the law, yet, he is the one chosen to save humanity.

If we think hard enough about the people we know we will find some fine examples of paradoxes drawn from real life. It’s part of the fabric of character—the bible-puncher who is involved with a prostitute, the club bouncer who is putty in his girlfriend’s hands, or the sweet old man with a foul mouth when it comes to dealing with the payment of bills.

Introducing paradoxes, or warring elements, into your characters will inject verisimilitude and interest in the stories you tell.

Summary

Character paradoxes are an important part of creating vibrant, interesting, and authentic characters and ought to be used at every opportunity.

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How to Create the Final Story-Moment

Exclamation Mark

Exclamation Mark

A truly memorable final moment, image, or line is the cherry on top of your story. It acts like a handle with which to pick up the tale and helps the reader or audience recall the story through the sheer brilliance of its visual or descriptive presence.

The Final Image or Moment

What makes for a great final image? The simple answer is: one that captures the essence of what your story is really about. It is the exclamation mark that occurs at the end of all great narratives.

In constructing this last image ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does it solve, or support the previous solving of the main story puzzle?

In The Planet of the Apes, the chief story puzzle is to find out which planet astronaut Leo Davidson’s (Mark Wahlberg) space capsule has landed on if he is ever to try and return home. The last image of the sunken Statue of Liberty, however, strikingly reveals that he’s been on earth all along.

2. Does it answer, or support a previous answer to the central dramatic question of the story?

In the same movie, this image also answers the chief dramatic question:
What allowed apes to gain evolutionary ascendency over man?
Answer: Time.

3. Does it reveal the protagonist’s hidden hope, ambition, or fear?

Davidson’s hopes of ever returning home come to naught. He is already home—in earth’s bleak future.

The power of the film’s final image is truly memorable—it causes a major change in the protagonist’s and the audiences’ understanding of the story.

Summary

The final moment, line, or image of your story ought to act as the final exclamation point of your tale, revealing or encapsulating the essence of your story. In doing so, it will assist in making your story more memorable.

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How to Increase Tension in your Story

Girl biting nils

Tension

Tension in stories primarily concerns the barely contained hostility or strained relations between individuals or groups. This differs from conflict which is more about disharmony and opposition between people who hold different ideas, goals, and beliefs. Both conflict and tension are invaluable in making stories more powerful and dramatic. In this post we look at seven ways to add tension to your scenes.

7 Ways to Increase Tension

1. Place your characters in a place they shouldn’t be in.

2. Have your characters make decisions that have severe consequences.

3. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that worsens conflict.

4. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that increases the danger to themselves.

5. Have your characters participate in socially, politically, and morally unacceptable actions.

6. Place your characters in a situation where they have to choose between two evils.

7. Have your characters overstep their natural boundaries.

Mario Salem said:

“Every chance I get, I put my characters in spots that make me uncomfortable. If I’m comfortable with where they are, it’s a boring script. I say ‘what’s the worst thing thing that could happen to this guy’ and then I write that in. My characters hate me and that’s what makes my scripts better.”

We would do well to heed this advice.

Summary

Tension is a necessary part of keeping the reader or audience hooked into your story. Use one or more of the 7 techniques mentioned in this post to help you achieve this goal.

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How to Write Backstory

Whispering

Backstory

In this follow-up post we look at a very important aspect of effective storytelling—backstory. The following question immediately comes to mind:

Q: When is it useful to include backstory in your screenplay or novel?

A: When information from the past is needed in order to make sense of the present and future.

Three Principles

1. In writing backstory consider the following: Is it absolutely needed?
2. Is it economically executed?
3. Does it blend in seamlessly with the rest of the text?

Necessary Information

Include only information that is absolutely necessary to your story.

In a chilling early scene in Inglorious Basterds, for example, we learn that the SS’s Colonel Hans Landa’s mission is to find missing Jews in the French countryside whom he suspects are being protected from by French Farmers.

Economically Executed

Always try to deliver backstory in the most economical way.

In the same film, some of the backstory is revealed through Landa’s sinister, if well-mannered, speculation, interlaced with subtle threats to the dairy farmer’s family, that he suspects Perrier LaPadite of hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his farm house. The dialogue, therefore, does double duty: 1. It reveals the reason Landa is interrogating LaPadite—he is aware of the French dairy farmer’s sympathies for his one-time Jewish neighbours. 2. It increases our suspense because the backstory becomes an indispensable part of the interrogation with an immediate threat to the farmer and his family.

Seamless Blending

Backstory blends seamlessly into the tale when it surreptitiously manages to drive the plot forward—as in the above example—rather than halting it In order to reveal background information. Because it becomes part of the forward thrust, there is no interruption to the story’s relentless march towards the climax. Interest and tension is actively maintained.

Summary

Backstory works best when it helps, rather than impedes, the forward-thrust of the plot. The three principles mentioned above provide a useful checklist in this regard.

How to Manage Your Story’s Characters

Card with writing

Remembering Traits

Much has been written about how to craft successful characters for your stories, including advice offered by this blog.

In writing one’s story, however, one may wrongly allow the plot to force a character’s actions, making it appear trite or contrived.

Here’s something I do to help me keep my story’s characters on track.

Constant Reminders

1. I keep each character’s essential characteristics foremost in mind by listing them on separate post-it cards or paper. I keep these in front of me throughout the writing process.

2. Here’s what I note down: 4 or 5 positive traits and 1 negative or contrasting trait for a “good” character, and 4 or 5 negative traits and 1 positive or contrasting trait for a “bad” character.

Now, when a character acts, or speaks, I can peruse the list and see if any of these traits are overtly, or covertly expressed through subtext.

3. The character’s want versus his or her need.

Here, I look for opportunities to illustrate the differences between these two crucial drivers of character.

4. The character’s changing moral values (if any) at each major junction point—the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the resolution.

This allows me to hold the character’s developmental arc firmly in hand.

And that’s about it. Of course, there is much more to crafting authentic and engaging characters, but this list ensures that we, at least, get the basics right.

As to the rest, well, I’m a firm believer in the muse.

Summary

Keeping a list of essential character traits on hand at all times is a good way of ensuring that your characters never lose their path as they follow their way though your story’s plot.

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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.