Monthly Archives: July 2013

Future Story-Worlds

City at dusk

Near Futures

In his book, Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz offers writers useful advice on a number of aspects that go into writing a well-crafted novel. In this post, I want to look at one aspect of the writer’s toolkit à la Koontz—the construction of near-future worlds (as opposed to words set in the far-distant future.)

Thirty or Forty Years Hence

Writing about our world, as opposed to writing about a completely alien planet, is more difficult because not everything can be made up; our crystal gazing has to ring true, even if it is cast years hence. It has to contain enough extrapolated but recognisable elements to convince us of the verisimilitude of such a world. This requires the ability to project and predict the outcome of trends and defining issues, or, at least, the ability to sound convincing. It requires knowledge and maturity.

But what are the signposts a writer ought to identify in seeking to create such an authentic future? Koontz offers us the following:

The Future of Moral Codes

What is considered acceptable today, wasn’t mildly acceptable, even in the West, a few decades ago. One only has to look at the issue of gay rights to realise the extent of the shifts currently underway.

Domestic Politics

Will current political systems still be defined by polarities as seen in countries such as the Untied States (Democratic/Republican), Australia (Labour/Liberal)?

World Politics

Will the U.S. still exist? Will Russia or China? Or, will a new power have risen to prominence. Brazil perhaps?

Religion

Will the U.S. remain predominantly Christian, or will another religion rise to displace it? Perhaps science will eventually weaken religion to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant? Or perhaps the reverse is true: the resurgence of monolithic religion?

Personal Lives

This is, perhaps, the most important and detailed category.

How will our homes change? Our clothes, music, transportation? What types of food will we eat? Will marriage still exist as an institution? Will the number of children be limited by the sate? Will the smoking of cannabis be legalised? Will the moon and Mars harbour human colonies? Will space travel be made accessible to the common man or woman? Will cancer, madness, disease in general, be cured or will new diseases arise?

These are some of the categories, which, Koontz suggests, are useful in helping the writer to sketch in the background of a world that is both familiar and strange—a world that allows one’s characters to live and breathe in the imagination of the reader.

Summary

In thinking about possible futures, it is useful to concentrate our mental journey around key markers that define us as a society. This post explores Koontz’s ideas of what some of those markers might be.

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Inspiration

Lightbulb over head

Inspiration:

In this post I take time-out from my usual exploration of specific creative writing techniques to ruminate about a subject that I’ve been interested in since I started writing. At its core, it’s about the relationship between plotting and pantsing, the relationship between the left and right hemispheres of our brains.

I hold the view that a pre-determined plot is necessary prior to the commencement of the first draft, especially in a screenplay where there is limited space for things to fall into place. But I also maintain that magic often comes unexpectedly.

Certainly, our knowledge of structure, dialogue, pace, and the like—essentially a left brain activity, is necessary during the editing of the drafts to follow, but can this theoretical knowledge of the craft ever take the place of spontaneity, serendipity, and the efficacy of the muse—the activity stemming from the right side of our brain?

I think not. Nor should it have to. I think the purpose of theoretical knowledge is to saturate both hemispheres so that the level of practical knowledge (active skill) is seamlessly guided by the theoretical.

In writing Scarab II: Reawakening, for example, I meticulously plotted the shape of the story, using my knowledge of structure, before commencing work on the actual writing. Yet, perhaps the most interesting, and, in my opinion, gripping part of the novel, the expanded role of Dr. Kobus van Niekerk, the South African archeologist, occurred at the last moment, during the actual writing itself. This was quite unplanned for and was as much of a surprise to me as I hope it will be to the reader. This was a moment of inspiration that rode above the pre-planned plot—although it did significantly add to it.

My point is that large structural changes or additions can assail one at any time, and should be absorbed, if deemed fitting, at any stage of the writing process. They are perhaps the clearest sign of the two hemispheres working together in concert and, therefore, that plotting and pantsing are not rivals but co-conspirators in the craft of writing.

Summary

Insight often comes unexpectedly and seems, at first sight, to be at odds with our original direction. Integrating it into our creative process, however, often makes for a more original and inspired story.

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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.

Story Maps

Map

Mapping the Creative Process:

In looking at the writing process it is often helpful to have a snapshot or map of the lay of the land in mind. Below is one such map. (For a detailed definition of the listed terms, kindly consult the archived posts on this site.)

The Map

Most stories come from the generation of multiple ideas, ideas which are filtered and distilled down to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”

But an idea without a story is impotent. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, which help the writer determine the genre.

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title.

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one determines and explores the main character and supporting cast— the backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, need vs want, goal and transformational arcs, where appropriate. Simultaneously, one builds a plot inflected by structureinciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid point, climax and resolution.

Now the writer is ready to identify and create possible subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions.

That done, the writer is ready to create the treatment, followed by the step-outline, before turning to that all-important, but malleable first draft. It is here that dialogue comes to the fore, dialogue that ought to be authentic, purposeful and born out of the character’s already-defined traits.

By the end of the obligatory or climactic scene, the writer has exposed the main theme of the story—the winner of the battle carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, human instinct and heart trump artificial intelligence.

Of course, the first draft is the first of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the cold light of day.

Summary

Keeping a map of the overall creative process in mind is often helpful in supporting the writing of the first draft of a story. This post names the components of one such map.

Writing is Rewriting V & VI

Shiny shoes

Style & Polish:

In these final two revisions of your screenplay, or novel, we look at style and polish.

Some Elements of Style:

Pacing

A consistently even pace, whether fast or slow, makes for monotony. Go over your entire story and ensure that there is sufficient variation in pace. A fast scene or sequence is usually followed by a slower or quieter scene to allow readers or audiences to take it all in. Additionally, there should be the same kind of variation within some, if not all, the scenes themselves, for much the same reasons.

Tonal Consistency

Do your characters belong in the same screenplay or novel, or do some seem to spring from completely different styles or genres—romantic comedy, science-fiction, historical drama? Although contrasting characters are a good thing, they should not appear to have walked in from the pages of different stories. This tonal consistency goes for the look and feel of settings and costumes, as well as dialogue and overall imagery. Even a cross-genre film such as Cowboys and Aliens attempts stylistic consistency across these disparate genres.

Transitions

Do your scenes end and lead into each other? If not, use the device of comparison to glue them together more effectively—similar or contrasting dialogue, movement, lighting, and the like.

Emotion

What is the specific emotion you are aiming for in each scene? Have you achieved it? Remember—believable characters with believable desires in believable situations and relationships make for believable emotions. Look for the pitch of the emotion, then tighten it.

The Final Polish

You are now ready to go through your entire script, line by line. Is this or that word, gesture, or description the best you can come up with? Have all grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors been eliminated? If so, your story is ready to present to the world. Good luck!

Summary

Your fifth and sixth drafts concern the elements of style and polish, after which, your story should be ready to be released into the world to fend for itself.

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Writing is Rewriting IV

Dialogues gentlemen talking across a tableThe famous screenwriter William Goldman once said: “A good writer is not someone who knows how to write—but to rewrite.” In this forth post of our five-part series, drawn from Raymond G Frensham’s book, Screenwriting, we turn our attention to dialogue.

The Art of Dialogue

Good dialogue is never just about relaying essential information—moving the plot forward by fostering the outer journey. It’s also about the inner journey of the characters; its about revealing the reasons why characters act and say the things they do—the subtext that reveals their motivation.

In reviewing your characters’ dialogue look out for the following problems:

1. Are your scenes flat and listless? Are they governed by dialogue that lacks pace, spark? Try injecting emotion, humour—yes, even in drama, a prediction, a challenge, or replace it with silences in which we are shown rather than told things.

2. Is the dialogue in a scene interchangeable between characters? Could I take a phrase from one character and put it in the mouth of another without anyone noticing? If so, your cast and the way they speak, their viewpoint, background, and values, are not unique. Could you imagine interchanging the dialogue of Bart, Homer, or Marge Simpson? Of course not! That’s because these characters are strongly and uniquely defined. Re-examine your own character biographies and ensure that your characters are individuals driven by their own goals. Each character should have his own way of speaking that simultaneously reflects both his inner and outer journeys.

3. Are the major dialogue exchanges in your story governed by contrasting values, conflicts and innuendo? If not, they ought to be.

4. Does your dialogue ramble? Does it meander, seem unnecessarily “talky”? Cull unnecessary dialogue and pare down what remains to the bone. Good dialogue is sharp and precise and moves the plot forward while revealing the reasons for the views and actions it expresses, through subtext. (Please consult this blog for additional posts on subtext in which I provide specific techniques for creating vibrant, interesting dialogue that bristles with verisimilitude).

5. Try not to express plot and intent through direct on-the-nose dialogue. The cinema is not the place to showcase your skill as a soliloquy writer. Can you reveal plot through subtext rather than through direct statement? If you can, do so without hesitation. “I saw your girlfriend kissing a toy boy in the kitchen at your birthday party,” is better than “I’m sorry to hear that you and Marcy aren’t getting along lately.”

Summary

Writing good dialogue requires a good ear and an understanding of the medium you’re working in. Listed above are some of the pitfalls to avoid when rewriting dialogue during the forth draft of your story.

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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.