Monthly Archives: November 2015

Action, Description and Dialogue

Man in silhouetteBlending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well. Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too.

But too much dialogue can distance the reader from the physical environment of the scene.

Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description. Characters casually leaning, smiling, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.

Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo. The phallic nature of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story, had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour. References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text:

The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still.

Interspersing your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Blend action, description and dialogue together to vary interest and deepen your scenes.

How Do You Become A Better Writer?

Multicolored chalkA writer’s path from competence to excellence is a difficult one. It meanders, advances, turns back on itself. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that the traveler will reach her destination. Excellence will elude all but the most talented and fortunate of writers.

Great writing requires a special combination of mental skills, social circumstances, effort, passion, as well as a fair bit of luck — few of us will keep writing if we keep failing to be published or to garner some positive criticism from our readers.

Despite this, I do believe that the ability to write well can be taught, I wouldn’t be a teacher of the craft if I didn’t believe in the benefit of practice and study. I believe writing is a craft, as much as an art, like woodwork or cooking, although it requires much more than technique to cure into a great dish.

While acknowledging that there is almost as much advice on writing as there are people offering it, I believe that a writer’s development falls into three distinct categories:

1. Understanding the function of structure in stories — how structure paces and orders the reader’s response.

2. The ability to identify meaningful ideologies, ideas and trends from life and distill them into specific themes, characters and events in a way that makes the story both specific and universal.

3. The ability to develop a distinct voice — a difficult entity to pin down, but one that might be understood as the unique pattern arising out of the writer’s body of work.

I have found that thinking about my development as a writer in this way allows me to identify and group specific weaknesses into categories and work on them in a more methodical way.

Perhaps you might benefit from a similar approach?

Summary

Identify and rectify weaknesses in your writing by focusing on the broader categories.

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Do You Write From The Inside Out?

Silhouette of a man's headOne of the secrets of writing successful stories is the ability to write from the inside out. That is, to write action and plot from the emotional, moral, and spiritual perspective of characters who are deeply invested in the story.

It took me a while to figure this out. I thought, for a long time, that stories were primarily about exciting and colourful external events, spun around the mechanism of surprise. Writing from the inside out sounded like the sort of thing you’d do when attempting to write literature.

Boring, right?

Wrong.

The truth is that if you don’t care about your character’s fears, obsessions, and motivation, you won’t care about her physical actions.

A character responds to the challenges facing her in the way she does precisely because she has a backstory, a personality, a set of foibles, mores, and obsessions. It is these that give the character’s actions verisimilitude.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a physicist obsessed with solving a set of equations that will eventually allow for time travel into the past. He feels responsible for his wife’s death and has dedicated his life to rewriting the past. His obsession prevents him from realising that he is a man trapped by guilt and regret, unable to live the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him.

In Nobel prize winner William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral is a man consumed by the desire to extend his cathedral’s glory through the building of a spire at the top of the structure. He ignores the advice of the master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning the cathedral into a building site, claiming that God will provide solutions.

The novel is an intense study of how will and obsession can lead to inevitable catastrophe. The external events concerning the building of the structure are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological state, forcing the reader to experience the story through his sensibility while simultaneously foregrounding his folly.

We could do worse than emulate this kind of intensity in our own characters regardless of setting, genre, or era.

Summary

Imbue your characters with a strong will, beliefs and obsessions to enliven and motivate their behavior.

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Have You Checked Your Story?

Scales So, you’ve finished your screenplay or novel. Is it as good as you can make it? Other than gut-feel, how can you tell?

Here’s a shortened checklist, via Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, to help you decide:

Do you start in the right place? Not too soon or too late?
Is your first chapter or scene riveting and compelling?
Does each scene have structure and purpose?
Does each scene or chapter end on an intriguing note?
Are your flashbacks absolutely necessary?
Have you prepared the reader or audience for surprises through foreshadowing?
Are your characters authentic and compelling?
Does your protagonist have difficult problems to overcome, leading to the final solution?
Does your protagonist solve the ultimate problem by realising something about herself she was unaware of before?
Are your characters’ names right for them?
Do your characters have their own unique voice – idiom, speech pattern?
Do you have interesting settings?
Do you invoke the five senses in your scenes.
Is your ending surprising but inevitable?
Does it yield the theme you intended?

If you’ve answered no or maybe to any of these questions highlight them, return to your manuscript, revise and repeat. Your story will be the better for it.

Summary

Use a checklist to fine tune your story.

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

Show Me With Your Body

Girl holding sunThe adroit use of body language to enrich character meaning and intent both in screenplays and novels is a necessary skill. It forms part of the show-don’t-tell arsenal of techniques that makes our writing crisp and resonant.

Take the following snippet from my recent novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

To put you in the picture – Benjamin Vlahos, the protagonist the story, watches an apparition, a version of himself, slumbering in a deckchair in his candlelit room while a cyclone approaches.

I could have written:

I stare at the slumbering figure intently. He seems pained, buffeted by raging nightmares. I can’t help but wonder about the extent of fear and regret tormenting him.

Pretty lame, right? Instead I wrote:

I study the ashen-faced man slumbering in front of me. His lips tremble. His eyes rage behind closed eyelids. His jaw grinds down on the bones of all the years.

This is better.

Although the body language centers around small actions, such as trembling lips and a grinding jaw, and throws in a metaphor to boot, it does a better job at conveying the tormented inner life of the sleeping figure. It obeys that much vaunted bit of advice of showing the reader the clues and letting her work out the emotion for herself, rather than handing it to her in a platter.

The use of body language to convey the inner state of a character is a powerful technique that helps to keep an audience or reader engaged in your story. It should always replace a spoon-fed description of your character’s emotions.

Summary

Use body language to describe a character’s inner life.