Monthly Archives: June 2016

Evocative Language and Mood

Evocative ScenesGreat writing is evocative. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margaret Geraghty emphasises that evocative language builds expectation, tension, and establishes mood.

Here is an example of mood building from Robert Ludlum’s The Parsifal Mosaic:

Evocative Writing.

‘The man in the dark overcoat and the dark-brimmed hat that shadowed his face climbed out of the two-toned coupe; with difficulty he avoid stepping into a wide puddle by the driver’s door. The sounds of the night rain were everywhere, pinging off the hood and splattering against the glass of the windshield, thumping the vinyl roof and erupting in the myriad pools that had formed throughout the deserted parking area on the banks of the Potomac river.’

This may at first appear to be a rather unexciting, scene-setting passage. Do we really care about the sound of rain? But upon closer examination the choice of words is informative.

The rain is ‘pinging’, ‘spattering’, ‘thumping’, ‘erupting’. These are explosive, evocative words. Rain is a symbol of the turmoil to come – it brings to mind the sound of bullets, the thudding of bodies. As readers we feel this subliminally and it raises our interest and expectation.

Evocative language is versatile. It helps create deeper levels of meaning and emotion that underpin the story. The writer sets up mood and expectation then expands it through action and plot.

In my novel Scarab, I try to create a sense of mystery and intrigue through words that evoke an otherworldly time and place beyond the confines of the underground chamber where the encounter between an archeologist and the mythical Sphinx occurs:

“The form broke free from the bright haze that enveloped it, as if encouraged by his request. It approached slowly, deliberately, feline-like, swaying a little from side to side, but drowsily, as if in a dream. Drake heard the sound of nail or claw, he knew not which, clicking along hard stone, growing louder and more distinct.

He could almost make it out now, but it was more of an intuition than a clear vision, like a shape glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye by cells more sensitive to movement than to light—a shape which the mind had more to do in the making, than the eye in seeing.

It was indeed feline in movement and in appearance, like a giant cat, only larger and more graceful. Drake’s heart was bursting at the wonder of it. It seemed so close now, though distance was hard to judge. He reached out his hand, beckoning it forward. It hesitated a little, as if cautious of approaching the pleading man.”

In the above passage, words and phrases such as “drowsily”, “dream”, “shape”, “form” “broke free from the bright haze”, and “the sound of nail or claw”, help create just the right mood of mystery and anticipation the scene demands.

Summary

Use evocative language to create the appropriate mood for your scenes.

What is Storytelling?

StorytellingStorytelling, as Robert McKee succinctly tells us, is the creative demonstration of truth.

A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s event structure is the means by which you first express, then probe your idea … without explanation.

The Moral Theme in Storytelling

This idea, I would further argue, must contain a moral premise – a guiding moral principle that traces the consequences of character actions in the story. We can also think of this as the theme of the story.

Think about the crime genre. What idea, or moral premise lies at its core? How about: Crime does not pay?

But how does the writer embed this theme? Hopefully not through trite and on-the-nose dialogue. Do not write:

“You see, Frank? I told you. Crime does not pay!”

Terrible.

Rather, show a character committing a crime, or crimes, then expose the consequences.

The television series, Breaking Bad is an example of powerful storytelling that exposes how crime, in this instance, manufacturing meth, draws in those directly involved to lie, betray and murder.

Additionally, great storytelling explores the theme or moral idea from several angles. The protagonist represents one angle. The antagonist another. The supporting cast of characters still more. The author’s judgment, arguably the defining angle, is revealed only at the end of the story when the theme is proved – when the protagonist, representing a specific moral idea, wins or loses the conflict to the antagonist.

In my novel, The Land Below, for example, the correctness or incorrectness of Paulie’s decision to leave his apparently safe existence in a converted underground mine, a decision which will result in his being banished from the community, can only be established at the end of the novel.

If things go well for Paulie and his followers, then the theme of the story might be: Courage, imagination and steadfastness lead to freedom. If things go badly, then the theme might be: daydreams and stubbornness lead to defeat.

As with all stories, the outcome can only be established at the end. It is only then that the reader can definitely say what the story has really been about.

Summary

Storytelling is the process of narrating events that prove a moral theme.

Understanding Scene Sequences

Scene SequenceA scene does not exist in isolation from other scenes. It is organically connected to the overall network of scenes that makes up a story.

Scene Sequencing

In Making a Good Script Great Linda Seger reminds us it is more useful to think of a scene as being a member of a scene sequence – scenes that are so tightly connected to one another that they create causal narrative blocks within the story.

These sequences might be chase scenes in a city that get progressively shorter until they end in a car crash or getaway; they may build up to the final explosion in The Guns of Navarone; they might culminate in two lovers reuniting as in When Harry met Sally.

In The fugitive the first sequence of scenes might be called murder and the sentencing. They form a tight causal unit and last eleven minutes in the film. The next sequence could be called the escape, leading to the train wreck. The sequence following that could be labeled after him and include the scenes of Deputy Sam Gerard starting the chase, culminating in Kimble arriving in Chicago.

And so on.

The point is that all these scenes are grouped together by cause and effect, or, at least, action and consequence, leaving little room for irrelevant, off-the-point action.

In my novel, The Level, for example, the protagonist, in the beginning of the story, finds himself bound to a sturdy chair in a pitch black room. To make matters worse he is suffering from amnesia and has no clue why he is in this situation.

Later, a mysterious woman in a burka appears to him from the darkness and unties him. She leaves him a series of clues he needs to follow in order to escape.

The story becomes a connect-the-dots mystery, driven by dangerous traps that threaten the protagonist’s every step. It may be argued that the entire story is driven by causally connected scene sequences, each of which reveals a part of the puzzle, leaving little room for boredom.

Summary

Organise your scenes into scene sequences in order to drive the action and maintain the pace in your stories.

Emotions Bind Us to Stories

EmotionsROBERT Frost, highlighting the importance of emotions, famously wrote: “No tears in the writer no tears in the reader.”

Although he was referencing a specific emotion, it applies to a range of emotions solicited by great writing – compassion, awe, elation, fear, anxiety, jealousy, and the like.

The Importance of Emotions

Stories that evoke a range of emotions – emotions that are tested against the writer’s own experience – bind the reader to the characters of a story by soliciting identification, sympathy, and empathy in the reader.

Accomplished writers understand that such novels and screenplays are difficult to put down. The reader is compelled to keep turning the pages in order to discover how those emotions play out.

Emotions cross the boundaries of age, gender, race, and even species. Consider the following passage, taken from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, in which a character, Violet, tries to come to terms with the death of her beloved dog, Carey. Instead of the writer describing Violet’s feelings of sadness directly, she lets us experience these emotions vicariously through the technique of show-don’t-tell:

“When the vet had gone, Violet knelt down on the worn rug beside Carey’s basket. His was still, his mouth slightly open, one ear bent over like a rose petal, revealing the pink skin inside. He smelt a little. Nothing bad, just the way you’d expect an old dog to smell. […]

In the end, she […] went to run a bath. Cleanliness was next to Godliness. She’d always believed that. When the bath was full, she went back to Carey, gathered him in her arms, and gently, carefully lowered the stiff little body into the warm water. It was, she reflected, the first time that he hadn’t struggled.”

That last line in particular is a genuine tear-jerker, compacting all the years of love for her dog in one distinguishing moment.

Significantly, there is no abstract description of Violet’s sadness, her sense of loss. What we have instead is a concrete and specific scene that conveys immediacy by granting us access to Violet’s direct experience. Our hearts and minds jump back to a time when we, perhaps, had lost a beloved pet, helping to make Violet’s loss our loss.

This technique lies at the heart of creating deep and genuine emotion in the reader and is one of the secrets in welding the reader to the characters in our stories.

Summary

Use emotions to bind readers to the characters in your stories.